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Thread: Gottfried Silbermann

  1. #1
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    Gottfried Silbermann

    Few organ builders can have been so fortunate as Gottfried Silbermann. There being rather limited money circulating through most of the instruments’ history, most of his have been preserved unaltered in later generations. Maybe it also helped that their value was perhaps not always fully appreciated, and so they were left alone.

    The area of the former East Germany is rich in his instruments. One village alone (Freiberg) possesses four! There are 43 extant organs by Silbermann. Like Bach, he did not travel far, and was unwilling to send any instruments abroad, despite requests. (Schnitger’s organs, on the other hand, reached as far away as Brazil!)

    Silbermann, indeed, appears to have been an extraordinarily enclosed sort of man. There seem to be no records of a wife, friends, or anything apart from his work. Aside from his training with his brother Andreas in Alsace, and a couple of remains of cigars found in a wind chest, nothing personal is known of him. His work habits were similarly narrow. Every organ is built the same way. He had discovered a foolproof method of construction and stuck to it all his life. The voicing varied from building to building, but the basic principles did not. You will find no trace of experimentation. This is true of other famous firms, of course, such as most of the major piano manufacturers today.

    This singleness of purpose led to extraordinary consistency in the results. Every single instrument is a masterpiece, whether it is his smallest single-manual type, or a small two-manual, a large two-manual, or a four-manual. Like Bach, who never wrote a dud piece of music, Silbermann never built a second-rate instrument.

    Mention of Bach leads us straight to the complex question of whether Silbermann’s organs are the best for Bach’s music. It is amusing that Silbermann always did his best to avoid having Bach as one of the inspectors when the invariable test came up. He knew what Bach would say! First there was the builder’s refusal to include low C-sharp on either pedals or manuals. (Has anyone been through the repertoire to see how many times this note occurs? Silbermann, I suspect, was not being completely wrong-headed.) More significantly, Silbermann insisted on using an old temperament, and would not even experiment with this new-fangled well-tempered fashion.

    It is interesting that Bach gave so much greater support (apparently) to builders like Gottfried Heinrich Trost (Castle Church, Altenburg) and Silbermann’s pupil Hildebrandt. Yet when you play the wonderful organ in Altenburg after playing several by Silbermann, you can’t help but feel a very slight lowering of quality, and that we are on ever such a slight downhill slope.

    Best wishes to you all,

    Roger.

  2. #2
    Captain of Water Music
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    Interesting and informative post Roger. Thank you!

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