The Art of the North German Organ - Part 5

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The Art of the North German Organ - Part 5


The technical design of the North German organ required, among other things, the minimum distance between the main case and Rückpositiv, determined by the dimensions of the manual and Pedal keys projecting from the main case. The stop handles for the Rückpositiv were often behind the organist. An extreme example of impracticality was the organ in St. Nicolai, Flensburg, before it was rebuilt by Arp Schnitger in
1707-9. The magnificent Renaissance case, which survives to this day, had two Rückpositivs, one each for the C and the C# sides, so that there were two sets of stops to be pulled put and pushed in. Schnitger seems to have put an end to this arrangement, since Vincent Lübeck, in his official report on the organ dated 8th March 1709, records that "to make changes, the organist has the stops at hand" (64). This means that having stop handles within comfortable reach was an important technical requirement for organs of this period. Nevertheless, it was customary in North Germany in the 17th and 18th century to have the assistance of registrants, as is recorded by various witnesses. Thus, Johann Kortkamp, writes that when Matthias Weckmann played at St. Jacobi, Hamburg, "he stood behind him" and "pulled stops, as demanded" (65). Johann Mattheson writes of Hans Heinrich Lüders applying for an organist's post and having an assistant who "helped him in the selection and drawing of stops" (66).

The works of the last generation of North German organist composers, where modulations go beyond the possibilities of mean-tone temperament, become problematical when performed on original instruments restored to mean-tone tuning. Such works include, among others, Buxtehude's Preludes in D (BuxWV 139), in E (BuxWV 141), in e (BuxWV 142 & 143), in f# (BuxWV 146), in A (BuxWV 151); his chorale setting "Mensch, willst du leben seliglich" (BuxWV 206); also two Preludes in e by Nicolaus Bruhns as well as the Praeambula in c and in E and the chorale fantasia "Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ" by Vincent Lübeck.

Harald Vogel addressed this problem in his reconstruction of mean-tone versions of Vincent Lübeck's works for the Hueß/Schnitger organ at St. Cosmae, Stade, (now tuned in modified mean-tone temperament), by transposing the pieces in question. In doing so he put forward the thesis that the later works of the North German repertoire were also composed with mean-tone temperament in mind. His main argument is that the surviving non-autograph sources are of Central German origin and that the copysts of the works mentioned above would have taken it upon themselves to transpose them in order to make such pieces, originally intended for North German organs tuned in mean-tone and in high Chorton pitch, playable on their own well-tempered and generally
lower-pitched instruments. Klaus Beckmann, editor of the North German repertoire, rejects this theory. Without wishing to act as reference in this discussion, here are four plausible arguments againts Harald Vogel's standpoint (67).

1. If we assume that these pieces have been passed down in their original key, then organists would not have been able to play them on their own instruments, if these had been tuned in meane-tone. in Buxtehude's case, there are various pieces of evidence that the organ at St. Marien, Lübeck, was re-tuned during his period of office. As far as his works above and those of Vincent Lübeck are concerned, we may observe that they all lie within the compass of organs originally tuned in mean-tone temperaments (Manuals CDEFGA-c3, Pedal CDE-d1). The only exception of this rule is the "big" Prelude in e by Bruhns where a C# appears in bars 92 and 94.

2. Arp Schnitger not only followed but also applied Andreas Werkmeister's theories on systems of temperament (68). The full-compass bottom octaves (Manual CD-c3, Pedal C-d1) at St. Nicolai, Hamburg, only make sense in terms of a non-mean-toned tuning system. Vincent Lübeck, who was organist there from 1702, wrote a letter to the church council at St. Michael, Zwolle, on 11th October 1708 (69), recommending Schnitger as builder of the planned new organ and making special mention of the compasses.

3. Schmahl's Orgeltabulaturen (70), in which, of the works listed above, Buxtehude's Prelude in D (BuxWV 139) and in A (BuxWV 151), Bruhns's "little" Prelude in e and Lübeck's Praeambula in c and E appear, originate not from Central Germany but from Hamburg itself, in fact from the pessessions of Johann Christian Westphal (1773-1829), one of Lübeck's successors as organist of St. Nicolai.

4. The tonality of the chorale and associated chorale settings can be established from contemporary chorale books. The transmission of Vincent Lübeck's "Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ" in E minor is thus correct (71).

Unfortunately Lübeck's many reports on new organs by Arp Schnitger contain only general observations on the tuning of the instruments concerned and throw virtuaööy no light on the problem. On the other hand, the use of mean-tone tuning as late as 1750 is substantiated by various surviving instruments and by references in organ contracts of the period. If there is to be any artistic gain in performing the works mentioned above on original baroque instruments tuned in mean-tone, then transposition is certainly justified.


Preambula and preludes were generaööy registered "In Organo pleno", deriving from their liturgical function in opening or closing the service. From the older North German works of this type up to those of Franz Tunder, any change of manual or of registration makes no musical sense and may be ruled out on technical performance grounds. It is only when we reach the five- or more part Preludes of Dietrich Buxtehude that the variety of the various sections makes registrations conceiable.

The three-fold toccata-like framework of these Preludes are intended to be played "In Organo pleno", whereas the fugues continue the tradition of consort-registration from an earlier period of North German organ composition. The following registration example, based on experience of original instruments, may serve as models for the realisation of such pieces.

The toccata sections "In Organo pleno":-

Hauptwerk - Principal 16´, Quintadena 16´, Octave 8´, Octave 4´, Octave 2´, Mixtur.
Pedal - Principal or Posaune 16´, Octave 4´, Mixtur, Trompete 8´, Cornet 2´.

Hauptwerk - Trompete 16´, Octave 8´, Octave 4´, Octave 2´, Mixtur, possibly with manual coupler to -
Brustwerk - (or Oberwerk) Gedackt or Hohlflöte 8´, Octave or Flöte 4´, Octave 2´, Scharff.
Pedal - Octave 4´, Rauschpfeife, Mixtur, Posaune 16´, Trompete 8´, Cornet 2´.

Rückpositiv - Principal 8´, Octave 4´, Sesquialtera, Scharff, Dulcian 16´.
Pedal - Principal or Dulcian 16´, Octave 4´, Rauschpfeife or Mixtur, Trompete 8´, Cornet 2´.

And the fugue in "Tempus imperfectum" (4/4) with consort registration:-

Rückpositiv - Principal, Rohrflöte or Quintadena 8´, Octeve 4´,
Waldflöte 2´.
Pedal - Octave or Trompete 8´, Octave 4´.

Rückpositiv - Quintadena 8´, Octave 4´, Regal or Krummhorn 8´, if neccessary Waldflöte 2´.
Pedal - Octave 8´, Octave 4´.

Then the second fugue, usually in "Tempus perfectum" (3/4 or 3/2), with consort registration:-

Oberwerk - Octave 4´, Nasat 3´, Flöte 2´, Trompete 8´, Trompete or Schalmey 4´.
Pedal - Octave 4´, Rauschpfeife, Trompete 8´, Cornet 2´.

Or, especially in "gigue" fugues in 6/8 or 12/8:-

Rückpositiv - Principal 8´, Octave 4´, Sesquialtera, Scharff, Dulcian 16´.
Pedal - Subbass 16´, Pctave 4´, Rauschpfeife or Mixtur, Prompete 8´, Cornet 2´.

In many of Buxtehude's Preludes and in most of Lübeck's Praeambula or Preludes there is no final toccata section, so that the second fugue forms the end of the piece. A possible registration would then be;-

Hauptwerk - Octave 8´, Octave 4´, Nasat 3´, Trompete 16´, coupled to -
Oberwerk - Flöte 3´, Octave 4´, Scharff, Trompete 8´, Trompete or Schalmey 4´.
Pedal - Octave 4´, Rauschpfeife, Mixtur, Posaune 16´, Trompete 8´, Cornet 2´.

"In Organo pleno" as usual.

An interesting feature of these suggested registrations is that the Trompete
8´ in the Pedal is clearly more important than the Octave 8´. This explains the pedal specification in small organs such as at Steinkirchen and Lamstedt (of Part 3). In the first case the only flue stop, apart from Principal 16´ and Octave 4´, is a Gedackt 8´; in the second the Trompete 8´ is the only 8-foot stop and is also the lowest pitched reed in the Pedal. Another feature to be appreciated, though only on original instruments, is that Schnitger's Rauschpfeife sounds well against polyphonic passages played with reeds on the manuals. It also fills the gap in the Pedal between Trompete 8´ and Cornet 2´, for which the Trompete 4´, seemingly against all logic, is less suited.

The following registration rules apply in particular to the more monumental North German organs:-

1. The Pedal is most definitely not a bass division, since manual and pedal share the same fundamental pitch;

2a. The "Organo pleno" is based on 16-foot pitch;

2b. A Pedal 32 foot may be included in the "Organo pleno";

3. Fugues in "Tempus imperfectum" are registered at 8-foot pitch, those in "Tempus perfectum" at 8- or 16-foot pitch.

According to rike 1 and 2a it is possible, for example, to play the closing ciacona of the Prelude in g (BuxWV 148) on a 16-foot reed basis, without giving rise to false harmonies when the manual and Pedal bass lines cross as happens when the Pedal sounds an octave lower than the manual. The same rules apply to pieces "In Organo pleno" with double pedal, fpr example the opening section of Vincent Lübeck's Prelude in g. Rule 3 applies to fugues with double pedal, as found in the Prelude in G by Bruhns or the Prelude in g by Lübeck.

This unity of compositional form and tonal architecture applies to most of Buxtehude's Preludes with the exception on the "pedaliter" Toccatas (BuxWV 155-7) when the five-part structure extends over a series of episodes. Buxtehude's pupils also made use of the possibilities this offered. Thus the opening sections of both Preludes in e and that in G by Bruhns are made up of several episodes. However, it is not advisable to vray the sound of the "Organo pleno" with stop changes as the episodes themselves are too short for this purpose. A similar caution seems appropriate for the opening of the Prelude in G as the presence and absence of the Pedal provide sufficient tonal variety. A different treatment is possible for the "little" Bruhns Prelude in e and the Prelude in E flat by Georg Dietrich Leyding, since the echo passages owe more to the composition technique of chorale fantasias.

Buxtehude's younger colleagues, as explained in Part 2 and 3, took the development of the North German Praeludium forward to the type represented above all by J. S. Bach - to be played "In Organo pleno". Vincent Lübeck wrote most of the openings of his Praeambula and Preludes in several sections, so one can think in terms of two "Organo pleno" sounds, ie. Hauptwerk and Rückpositiv. Consider for example the Praeambulum in c - pologue, bars 1-18,1 = Rückpositiv; main section, bars 18,3-28 = Hauptwerk. Also the Praeambulum in G - prologue I, bars 1-10 = Hauptwerk; prologue II, bars 10-20,2 = Rückpositiv; main section, bars 20,2-32 = Hauptwerk. Also Buxtehude's "little" Toccata in F (BuxWV 157) - prologue, bars 1-12 = Rückpositiv, perhaps with Zimbelstern; main section, bars 13-37 = Hauptwerk.

Vincent Lübeck's Praeambulum in E contains two movements each in two parts, which in turn can be differentiated by manual changes - bars 1-10,2 = Rüclpositiv; Adagio/Grave bars 10,3-17.1 = Hauptwerk; Vivace bars 17,2-27,3 = Rüclpositiv; Adagio bars 27,4-30 = Hauptwerk. Morever, this piece also contains the only original registration marking of any free organ piece of the North German baroque, viz. "Rückpositiv scharff" against the second manualiter fugue (bars 75-87,1). The same instruction can not only be applied to the corresponding "manualiter" fugue in Lübeck's Praeludium in C (bars 61-76,1) but may also serve as a model registration for interludes in "Stylus phantasticus", eg. Buxtehude's Preludes in C, BuxWV 137 (bars 12-22,3), in D, BuxWV 139 (70-86), in E, BuxWV 141 (bars 60-72 and 75,2-86), in f#, BuxWV 146 (bars 78,4-90), in g, BuxWV 149 (bars 55-78,2), in g, BuxWV 150 (bars 74.3-90,1) as well as Bruhns's "big" Prelude in e (bars 95-111,1).

Smaller independent "character pieces" such as fugues, canzonas and canzonettas are to be played on consort registrations. Where the works are in several sections, the sound may naturally be varied. The registration of Buxtehude's Passacaglia and the two ciaconas with obligato pedal has been dealt with in Part 3.


Many of Bach's organ and harpsichord works came into being as a result of his various encounters with the North German organ world. Apart from a general leaning of certain toccatas, preludes and fugues in their formal structure towards earlier North German models, the tonal concept of the "Dorian" Toccata BWV 538 seems to be particulary inspired by the sound of the North German organ.

Bach's early chorale settings also show his interest in North German organ music, not so much the chorale partitas, which owe much to Georg Böhm's chorale variations, but his four chorale fantasias "auff 2 Clavier" - BWV 718, 720, 739 and 747. For one of these, "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott", we know of a registration which comes close to the North German tradition. It relates to the organ at the church of Dive Blasii, Mülhausen, rebuilt under Bach's supervision during his short time as organist there. The most significant changes made by Bach were the addition of a Brustwerk, and the substitution of a Fagott 16´ for the Trompete 8´ on the Hauptwerk. We lnow also that the organ had a Rohrflöte 1´ and a Cornet 2´ in the Pedal. If we take a critical look at the registration for "Ein feste Burg", as recorded by Philipp Spitta, in the light of North German practice, then considerable doubts arise as to its authenticity. The instructions "Fagotto" and "Sesquialtera" may be quite correct, yet the attribution of bars 29,2-24,1 and 35,2-39,3 to the Rückpositiv, and of the treble line in bars 1-20,1 to the Sesquialtera, are illogical as this stop was only avaiable on the Rückpositiv.

I venture to suggest the following reconstruction of the registration of "Ein feste Burg" BWV 720; -

Bars 1-20,1
Right hand = Rückpositiv, with Gedackt 8´, Principal 4´, Spitzflöte 2´ (?), Sesquialtera; left hand = Hauptwerk, with Principal or Viola da gamba
8´, Octave 4´, Fagott 16´.

Bars 20,2-24,1
Both hands = Brustwerk, with Gedackt 8´, Flauto dolce 4´, Principal 2´; Pedal, with Subbass 16´, Octave 8´, Octave 4´.

Bars 24,2-35,1
Manuals as bars 1-20; Pedal, with Octave 8´, Octave 4´, Cornet 2´, Rohrflöte 1´ (?).

Bars 35,2-39,3
Manuals and Pedal as bars 20,2-24,1.

Bars 39,4-57
Manuals as bars 1-20, possibly adding the Scharff to the Rückpositiv; Pedal with Subbass 16´, Octave 8´, Octave 4´.


This neccessarily short survey of the art of the North German organ has meant that the material has had to be presented in systemicised fashion. In particular, the examples of suggested registrations can only be taken as models for the performance of the North German repertory on non-original instruments. It is up to the organist's powers of empathy and imagination to adapt these ideas to present-day practice.

(63) First published in Organists' Review, 1998, p. 14-18, 100-104, 196-199, 328-330.
(64) Johann Wolgast, Zwei Orgelakten der St. Nicolaikirche zu Flensburg, in Musik und Kirche (1930), p. 136-8.
(65) Hamburg, Staatsarchiv, 512-6, St. Gertrudenkapelle IV hh.
(66) Johann Mattheson, Grundlage einer Ehrenpforte, Hamburg 1740, p. 173.
(67) See also on this question Wolfram Syré, Vincent Lübeck. Leben und Werk, Frankfurt am Main 2000 (= Europäische Hochschulschriften, Reihe XXXVI: Musikwissenschaft Bd. 205).
(68) See the Votiv-Gedicht Arp Schnitger's as printed in the introduction to Andreas Werkmeister's Erweiterte und verbesserte Orgel-Probe, Quedlinburg 1698.
(69) Zwolle, Saatsarchiv, GA Zwolle, AAZ01-05870.
(70) Formerly in the Deutsche Staatsbibliothek, Berlin, Musikabteilung, Signatur Mus. ms. 40295; this manuscript was lost after 1945 before reappearing in the 1980s in the Jagiellonska University Library, Cracow.
(71) See Georg Bronner, Das von E. Hoch-Edlen Rath der Stadt Hamburg priviligiert - vollkommenes Musicalisch-Choral-Buch, Hamburg 1715 and 1721.