The Art of the North German Organ - Part I

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The Art of the North German Organ

History - Organists - Music - Instruments - Performance Practice - Registrations. (1)


In the world of organ music, North German Baroque is the most important of European regional styles in the 17th and 18th centuries. It embodies the unique synthesis of a highly imaginative fanciful compositional style, a virtuoso technique - especially in pedal playing - and monumental achievements in organbuilding. The North German organ style was founded by pupils of the Amsterdam organist Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, an had an influence on the organ and harpsichord music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The homeland of North German organ culture was the geographical region bounded by Stockholm, Danzig, Hannover, an Norden (in East Friesland) at the four points of the compass - an area closely matching the spread of the Hanseatic League, which grew out of the trading union between the major maritime cities.

This musical culture was supported by the middle classes, grown rich through trade, who identified themselves closely with the main city churches, the Lutheran "Hauptkirchen", and made manifest their interest through large gifts, of money towards important organbuilding projects. Cathedrals, in this respect, stood in competition with the city churches and found their influence declining in the course of the developments. Within this region it was the FREE IMPERIAL cities of Hamburg and Lübeck, who, by offering high salaries and prestigious instruments, were able to attract the most celebrated and able organists of the day and thus became centres of North German organ culture, widely sought out by hundreds of young organists eager to further their studies.


The musical history of the North German Hanseatic cities is primarily the history of local church music, the regulation of which was the responsibility of the town council. Secular music in the 17th and 18th century played a clearly subordinate role. It was performed by town musicians, municipal employees, who played on official occasions, as well as at oratorio performances in church, and played chorale melodies from the church towers at the appointed hours (Turmbläser). They could also supplement their meagre earnings by playing at wedding receptions and were, in the main, string and wind players. The only court centres of musical activity were in the towns where the Danish and Swedish governors had their residences. There was nothing of this kind, however, in the free cities of the German "Reich", although the Hamburg Opera, founded in 1678, led a noteworthy, if contrversial life of its town. At the head of musical life in the city stood the "Kantor", usually a man with a wide-ranging education in music, literature and philologie. He was a teacher at the city "Gymnasium", or grammar school, where he gave lessons in Latin and Music. He also directed the "Figuralchor" made up of Latin students from the school. (This was a special choir which sang the "Figuralmusik", that is the more complicated, usually accompanied settings, such as cantatas). He was responsible for the musical content of services in all city churches, in particular for the composing (or procurement) and performance of motets and cantatas. The organist was answerable to the "Kantor", and could not arrange any large-scale musical performance in church without the knowledge and consent of his superior. If a cantata was required for some important service, it was usually the "Kantor" who supplied the text and the organist who set it in music. This was the case, for example, in the collaboration between "Kantor" Eobaldus Laurentii and the famous organist Vincent Lübeck in Stade during the years 1693 to 1702 (2).

Die "Kirchenordnungen", church ordinances or rules, which also regulated the conduct of the services, set out, in their current formation, the basic duties of "Kantor" and organist. There were a few differences between the "Kirchenordnungen" of the various North German cities and we can therefore take the Hamburg statutes as an example, also because these happen to be particulary well documentated.

Church life in Hamburg after the Reformation in the four parishes of the so-called "Hauptkirchen" (St. Catharinen, St. Jacobi, St. Nicolai and St. Petri) was organised by Johannes Bugenhagen in 1529. Then, in 1685, a fifth church, St. Michaelis, appeared on the scene with its own parish. Subordinate to these main churches were a number of smaller churches or chapels. The cathedral was run by an independent chapter and was, up until the expulsion of the Swedes from the dukedoms Bremen and Verden, first the Swedish, then the Danish and the the Hannoveran state church. Bugenhagen's first Lutheran "Kirchenordnung" from 1539 was proposed by Johannes Aepinius on behalf of the Hamburg Senate, but did not actually come into effect until 1556. (3) An important event in church music was the publication by Franz Eler in 1588 of a hymn-book in two volumes. The first, entitled "Cantica Sacra", contained Latin hymns for use in the Lutheran liturgy, collected and recorded by Hieronymus Praetorius. The second, called "Psalmi D. Martini LVtheri & aliorum ejus secuti Psalmitarum", offered German hymns. Then, in 1604, there appeared in Hamburg the "Melodeyen=Gesangbuch",
"wherein are contained Dr. Luther's and other popular Christian hymns with their accustomed melodies collected by Hieronymus Praetorius, Joachim Decker, Jacob Praetorius, David Scheidemann, 'musicos' and organists appointed to the four parish churches of Hamburg: in four part setting."
This book and Eler's, of which it was doubtless intended as a continuation, set a new direction which served to increase the status of German hymnody.

On the second Sunday in Advent 1699 a new "Kirchenordnung" came into forche (4), which regulated the use of church music an independent role alongside the choral music directed by the "Kantor". According to the new rules, the organist was to play before the service ("praeludiren"), then further pieces after the Gospel, before the Kyrie, after the Gloria, after the Epistle and the masin hymn which followed, as well as during the Communion and before the Te Deum ("Herr Gott, dich loben wir"). Organ music was also prescribed at the beginning of the evening service and after the first and second hymns.

From the first half or the 17th century "Figuralmusik", reffered to in the "Kirchenordnung" symply as "music", moved rount the main churches on a four-weekly cycle at the Saturday evening and the principal Sunday morning services (5). The main organ was not used to accompany the singing, since the organ galleries usually had unsufficient room to accommodate a choir and, because of its tuning in "Chorton" (ie 3/4 tone above A440), the organ was unsuitable for accompanying motets and cantatas. The place for the "Figuralmusik" was, as a rule, the pulpitum, on which there stood a poitive organ for accompanimental purposes. The organist was not expected to accompany the "Figuralmusik", this job being left to a "positive-thumber" who received a salary of his own. These posts were mostly filled by junior organists as an extra way of supporting themselves. The choir was recruited among the Latin students of the "Johanneum", where the "Kantor" taught, from the grammar scholl and from the main church choir (6).

The Hamburg town musicians were brought in to provide the instrumental accompaniment. Contracts between the Council and the churches dating from 1613 and 1638 stipulate that the town musicians were to be at the disposal of the "Kantor" and organist for church music purposes (7). The band was relatively large, with eight musicians plus two "extras" or "probationers", who could exspect to fill in vacancies as they occured. In 1711 the number was reduced to six (8). In addition, there were fifteen registered freelance musicians, the so-called "Roll-Brüder", or "enrolled brothers", who also provided the "Turmbläser" for the main city churches (9).

Apart from service pöaying and accompanying a singer or violinist during the Communion, as laid down in the "Kirchenordnung" of 1699, organists had an opportunity, once a year and on submitting their annual account, of performing a large-scale piece of church music on their own initiative in their own church (10).

A Hamburg organist's duties included evening service on Saturday, the main Sunday morning and evening services, the midday service being without organ. He was also required to attend weekday services on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, and to provide suitable music before and after (11).

Crucial to the understanding of North German organ music is the fact that, in the 17th and 18th century, congregational singing was not accompanied by the organ but led by the "Kantor" or other singer - despite repeated statements to the contrary in older musicological writings. Paul Rubardt, writing in the 1920s, takes the view that the organ accompaniment was customary at that time but not universal practice, being restricted to the main Sunday service. He cites the following instruction, contained in a book of chorales published in 1832 by Friedrich Schwenke, Organist of st. Nicolai, as a legacy of 17th and 18th century practice - (12)
"the first line of the first verse of the chorale itself is normally sung with organ accompaniment."
Lieselotte Krüger, on the other hand, is less circumspect and maintains that organ accompaniment of congregational singing had been general practice since the introduction of the "Melodeyen=Gesangbuch" of 1604. However, the "Gesangbuch" clearly states that, hitherto, the organ was only heard during the liturgy in solo music or when accompanying "Figuralmusik", but that recently, "it plays with the singing ... as is now custom in this town (13). This quotation and another cited by Karl Röhlk - "the organ is played on Sundays during all hymns ..." (14) - could be seen as an indication of organ accompaniment, if taken in isolation and if one is seeking proof that what happens today was already happening earlier. Taken in the context, however, of established custom before the introduction of the "Melodeyen=Gesangbuch" of 1604 and before the new rules on organ playing of 1699, these statements give rise to considerable doubts over the function of the organ as an accompaniment instrument to congregational singing. The quotation above from the "Melodeyen=Gesangbuch" is intended to show what was new about this hymnbook, namely the promotion of congregational singing, and expressly to encourage its users, as well as professional musicians who took part in the services - "as the fourth wheel to help to drive forward the musical carriage of worship and praise the Divine Name" (15).

The "Melodeyen=Gesangbuch", with its four-part harmionisations, was quite unusuitable for organ accompaniment as it was printed in separate voice parts. It would also have been an insult to a famous and highly-paid Hamburg organist to play from a given harmosiation, as if were incapable of extemporizing one for himself. Instead, the purpose of the "Gesangbuch" was to give the musical layman ready-made four part harmonisations for use in the church service or at home. A printed account of the dedication of the chapel of St. Gertrud on 16th April 1607, a festal service of great musical richness, records that accompanied congregational singing made an effective climax at the end of the service, whereas other chorales were sung unaccompanied (16) - a practice very much in line with that of festal services at the Swedish State Churches in Hamburg (cathedral) and in Stade. Here the distinction was made between congregational chorales sung "choraliter", ie unaccompanied, and those "at the end ... with supporting instruments", that is accompanied by the instrumentalists brought in specially occasions, and by the organ (17).

In the former "Kirchenordnung" of Johannes Aepinius of 1556 the organ was seldom heard in the main Sunday service and was only supposed to play after the Gloria, after the Allelujah sequenece and following the hymn after the sermon. At the evening service only the psalm before the canticle was interrupted by organ music (18). By contrast, the passage in the new "Kirchenordnung" of 1699 about the quantity of organ playing and not to its future role in accompanying congregational singing. If congregational accompaniment had been the great novelty of the 1556 "Kirchenordnung" and of the 1664 "Melodeyen=Gesangbuch", it would have been illogical to restrict it to the main service on Sunday.

In auditions for organists' posts candidates were not required to accompany a chorale but to "treat it" (tractiren) in the most artistic fashion, as we learn from Kortkamp's account of Matthias Weckmann's candidature for the post of organist at St. Jacobi, Hamburg in 1655:
"Then he improvised on the hymn given to him, 'An Wasserflüssen Babylon', on two manuals with pedal ... First he played over the chorale in a poor simple fashion, such that the common man, as usually found in church, would understand. After that he treated it in a fugal fashion, taking it through all manner of transpositions, semitones even, so that one marvelled at his skill in finding his way back to the home key." (19)
Kortkamp's accounts of jacob Praetorius's and Matthias Weckmann's organ playing make quite clear that chorale playing was concerned not with accompaniment but with improvisation or "working out". Of Praetorius he wrote:
"Just as the preacher awakes and stirs up reverence in the hearts of congregation, so did he in his organ playing, for example when he played a penitential hymn such as 'Erbarm Dich mein, o Herre Gott' his playing was so full of reverence and devotion, as if he knew the exact voice and character of every stop, so that one was forced to admire not only his playing but also the organ itself."
And of Weckmann:
"... he improvised on the chorale, at Vesper the Magnificat, on Sunday a Psalm, so that I listened happily and with tears of joy, after he explained to me his thoughts and inspiration." (20)

An important contemporary witness of congregational singing practice in the first half of the 18th century is Georg Bronner. In the preface to his "Musicalisch=Choral-Buch" he describes quite clearly how the organ played over the chorales and a precentor led the singing of the congregation. He also declares the purpose of his book to be to provide young organists with study material for improvising on chorale melodies and music lovers with harmonisations for singers or instrumentalists.
"If the organ gives the note, one is not concerned whether the precentor loses pitch with the congregation, or gives up alltogether, or strts off half a tone lower, as is often miserably the case.
For the art and science of a competent organist lies in improvising on and playing in a hymn tune in such a way that one can recognise and follow its true virtue and spirit: and also in taking due account of the movement of the tune and keeping in time with the precentor, and in the play-over as well ...
Theredore, I have resolved, in God's name, to collect everey melody in its untained form and to provide it with a chorale bass, which may either be sung with it or may usefully servr the organist's noble art in playing over a hymn tune accurately on the organ ..." (21)

On the other hand , the way the audition requirements for the posts of organists at St. Jacobi in 1720 and St. Nicolai in 1755 are formulated does not provide conclusive proof that the candidates were required to demonstrate their ability to accompany congregational singing on the organ (22). Whilst accompaniment seems gradually to have become century onwards, in the village churches of North Germany unaccompanied congregational singing was customary until the end of the 19th century.

Will be continued ...

(1) First published in Organists' Review, 1998, p. 14-18, 100-104, 196-199, 328-330.
(2) Niedersächsisches Staatsarchiv, Stade, Rep.5a, Fach 76a, Nr. 150; Rep. 5a, Fach 108, Nr. 34; Rep. 5a, Fach 109, Nr. 35a.
(3) Lieselotte Krüger, Die Hamburgische Musikorganisation im XVII. Jahrhundert, Leipzig 1933, p 17.
(4) Karl Röhlk, Geschichte des Hauptgottesdienstes in der eveng.-luth. Kirche Hamburgs, Göttingen 1899, p 24.
(5) L. Krüger, Musikorganisation, p 120.
(6) L. Krüger, Johann Kortkamps Organistenchronik, eine Quelle zur hamburgischen Musikgeschichte des 17. Jahrhunderts, in: Zeitschrift des Vereins für Hamburgische Geschichte XXXIII (1933), p 209.
(7) L. Krüger, Musikorganisation, p 122.
(8) L. Krüger, Musikorganisation, p 245.
(9) Gisela Jaacks, Engelgleiche Musik, Elbschwäne und Salomons Tempel. Hamburg als Zentrum geistiger und musikalischer Kultur im Barock, in: 300 Jahre Oper in Hamburg, 1678/1978, Hamburg 1977, p 40.
(10) L. Krüger, Musikorganisation, p 130.
(11) Paul Rubardt, Vincent Lübeck. Sein Leben und Werk, nebst Nachrichten über seine Familie und Beiträgen zur Geschichte der Kirchenmusik in Stade und Hamburg im 17. und 18. Jahrhundert. Diss. (Mss.) Leipzig 1920, p 79-80.
(12) P. Rubardt, ibid. p 79.
(13) Quoted from L. Krüger, Musikorganisation, p 115.
(14) See note 3.
(15) See note 12.
(16) Quoted from L. Krüger, Musikorganisation, p 264.
(17) Niedersächsisches Staatsarchiv, Stade, Rep.5a, Fach 76a, Nr. 150.
(18) Quoted from L. Krüger, Musikorganisation, p 19-20.
(19) Quoted from L. Krüger, Johann Kortkamp Organistenchronik, p 205-206.
(20) Quoted from L. Krüger, ibid., pp 109 & 208.
(21) Georg Bronner, Vollkomenes Musicalisch=Choral-Buch, Hamburg o. J. [1715, 2. Auflage 1721]. Vorwort (ohne Seitennummerierung)
(22) P. Rubardt, Vincent Lübeck, pp 172 & 180.

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