Organbuilding and Human Values

James Louder

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Organ Building and Human Values


James Louder


This is the text of a lecture delivered on January 29, 1988, during the installation at Stetson Chapel, Kalamazoo College of Hellmuth Wolff & Associés' Opus 31. A non-denominational service is held every Friday at the chapel and it was for one of these services that this talk was composed. The allusions to Prince Wen Hui's cook refer to a text of the Taoist master, Chuang Tsu, which was read on the same occasion. 



Like the burlesk comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.

If a poet is anybody, he is somebody to whom things made matter very little-somebody who is obsessed by Making. Like all obsessions, the making obsession has its disadvantages; for instance, my only interest in making money would be to make it.  Fortunately, however, I should prefer to make almost anything else, including locomotives and roses ...

Ineluctable preoccupation with The Verb gives a poet one priceless advantage: whereas nonmakers must content themselves with the merely undeniable fact that two plus two equals four, he rejoices in a purely irresistible truth ...


So said E.E. Cummings. Caught between this great poet and Prince Wen Hui's cook, I must begin with a disclaimer: what I am about to say merely glosses the essential. I am a bit out of my place at a podium.  An organbuilder ought to be, above all, a listener. If any is to speak for him, it should be his instrument.  I very much fear that my presence here before you is against Nature - a species of vanity, for my instrument is here at my side, listening.

And you may be sure the organ is indeed listening, because it is a living thing. Living? Yes, living, for it is invested with an enormous amount of human spirit that will continue to animate it long after we organbuilders have quit the scene. It is about the animation of a material thing - the flesh made word, so to speak - that I want to talk to you today.


In Hilrød, Denmark, stands Frederiksborg Castle, whose sumptuous chapel houses an old organ in a bold Renaissance case. It is an organ of particular richness.  Its manuals are of ivory and its pedals as well.  More of this precious material adorns the façade pipes and its drawknobs are of solid silver. However, the physical beauty of the instrument is eclipsed by its sound, which is entirely unique in its delicacy and humour.  The organ is entirely the work of one man, Esaias Compenius, who devoted the last five years of his life to building this masterpiece, which he finished in the year 1610

Compenius' organ was not originally intended as a church instrument. It had been commissioned by Duke Heinrich Julius of Brunswick-Wolffenbuttel, who used it as a recreational instrument for the accompaniment of dancing, and for other secular pursuits.  Seven years later Duke Heinrich Julius went to his grave and bequeathed the organ to King Christian of Denmark, in one of those courtesies of royal succession, which our impoverished modern sense of etiquette barely permits us to grasp. We think of such things as a natural part of a fairy-tale past: princes patronized wise old craftsmen who made them fabulous toys of silver, ivory, and precious wood - the ermine robe and the leather apron wound about the same fantasy. Then kings and dukes willing their exquisite playthings to each other ...


Meanwhile, things in Europe were going from bad to worse. Not long after they put old Esaias Compenius into the ground the Mayflower set sail from Holland, bearing away a company of particularly severe puritans, who, as they boarded, shook from their feet the dust of an irredeemably sinful Old World. Chief in their minds as an idea of sin was the vainglory and indulgence of kings. For those people, Compenius' organ was an abomination.

At once it becomes clear that even at a time in the past when we suppose that organs and the building of them would have been a most natural part of the culture, there existed a system of values from which such vanities were rigorously excluded. Moreover, this value system was on the rise. At that very hour, all over Europe, the flint and steel of religious ideologies were striking sparks into the tinder of princely ambition (about which the Pilgrim Fathers had, of course, been largely right). Those fires were soon to be fanned into the Thirty Years' War, whose unparalleled savagery it has taken our own wretched century to surpass.

Everywhere, organs perished in the cataclysm - in England torn down and trashed as the Church was purified of vanities. Elsewhere the instruments burned in the churches of looted towns, their pipes melted down for shot. But Compenius's organ survived those terrible times without being requisitioned by the king's gunners. The crafty old fellow had, in the glory of his art, undertaken what a sensible organbuilder would think a fool's errand. Behind the organ's ivory façade, he built every single one of its 1,001 pipes of wood.


A moment ago we heard the story of Prince Wen Hui's cook. The tale of Compenius is another sort of parable, which throws our own work into the relief of historical circumstance. What we do appears preposterous, yet it is work which makes life worth living. It is work, moreover, which connects us to the process of history, through an ancient and still evolving musical literature. An organbuilder mediates that past to this present and in so doing creates the possibility of transmitting something of our present to the unknown future.

Compenius' organ still exists, still plays, as do many others of equally old vintage.

This organ of ours is made to last as long - and I hope I do not tempt Fate by saying so out loud.  There is a bid for immortality bound up in this instrument, which brings us to the first - and for this organbuilder, the most fundamental of human aspirations: the longing for permanence.

It is an idea with which our age has little to do.  Ours is a culture of consumption, which employs the most advanced technology and phenomenal skill to produce goods that will be deliberately thrown away in a very short time.  It is commonplace to deplore this, but the important point here is the usually focus our disapproval on the material waste.  Little enough gets said about the human waste: of genius trivialized, of labour devalued, of skill despised - worst of all, of work done without love.

One cannot build a good organ without being in militant opposition to all that.  Such work defies the pessimism that says the present is worthless because there is no future. Through it we are privileged to affirm that, though the times be evil, the present is sacred because it is now that we have our lives - the only lives we will ever have - to live.


Thus the sanctity of work stands out as the second of human values that the organ calls us to affirm.  We are called upon to exercise all the skill we can muster; and then we find that this is not enough.  For however skilled, however clever we become, the organ is always demanding more, until we find ourselves doing without knowing how it is that we Do. At this point the obsession of the Maker has taken hold. We enter into a dialogue with the instrument - and we begin to transfer to the organ some of our own humanity and the organ begins to come alive.

I must insist that I am not talking about a nominal, metaphysical process, but about something that is as real as the North Wind and as physical as blood. I have been trying for years to understand it. I do not understand it and if (as is unlikely) I ever come to be as wise as Prince Wen Hui's cook, I may learn to rejoice in the fact that I cannot understand. What remains, with or without my understanding, is a creature made of wood and tin - and creature that sings!


This process of animating the material is common to all art.  It is the thing that permits us to distinguish art from mere production. What is distinctive about organ building - compared, say, to making violins or painting pictures - is that normally an organ is the work of many people. The tale of Compenius and his thousand-and-one pipes of wood is the more remarkable in that he did it all himself.  Fourteen people have worked on this organ and all have transferred something precious of themselves to it and helped to give it life.

Yet this is only natural, for the organ, more than any other instrument, is a medium of public rejoicing, rather than private contemplation. The organ exists to express the great body of sacred music, a literature created in the first place, for the people.


This brings us naturally to the question of social implication; and it is here that I must turn apologist for my craft. It can be urged, with apparent reason, that the sacred music of the past may have been created for the people, but that it is popular no longer.  Only a minority of us attend church even irregularly, and of the faithful, the most vehement often attach themselves to sects whose musical apparatus is that of Nashville. Does this not mean, therefore, that we are pursuing an elitist occupation, building for a minority of connoisseurs; and all at an horrendous expense?

The answers to this objection are two and they are simple: elitism does not consist in making works of art that only a minority happen to appreciate. Elitism consists of excluding the majority from their chance to appreciate such art.  Indeed, the organ is, in a very real sense, the populist instrument par excellence. It almost always belongs to a community, not to an individual. If the instrument is a good one, it is bound to serve many musicians. It stands in a public place and its voice is there to speak to us all, as equals.

As for the expense, let me here confess publicly, that in my now distant, sinful youth, I once made my living selling electric guitars, pianos, amplifiers, and drums. I know how much that stuff costs and how long it lasts; and I refuse to be lectured on frugality by people who get their music out of an electric socket. Nor will I accept the contention that, with millions starving in the world, it is an unpardonable excess to spend money on organs. Children do not starve in the Sahel or in Bangladesh because Kalamazoo College spends money on an organ. They starve because everywhere men make money selling food.


So here we have the organ - and a fine vehicle of moral perfection it seems to make. But is this not just a little too good to be true?  Does there not lurk in this Eden of artistic development some serpent capable of turning all our fine pretences to dust and ashes?

Indeed there does, and it is the same snake that was there in the first Garden and has never gone away: Pride.  If we undertake our work in vainglory, like Ozymandias we will be mocked by a ruin.  When you hear a failed organ - and there are plenty such, God help us - know that you are hearing the work of someone who didn't listen to the instrument, but rather sought to impose his own ambition on something bigger than himself.  The organ hates being forced, it will slap you down every time.  Yet there is an enormous temptation to say, "I know it all and this time your are going to do my will."  And so the builder prepares for a crushing misery, before a stillborn instrument.


With each breath of ourselves that goes to animate an organ, we get back, let us hope, a little more humility.  Indeed, the whole exercise is worthless if does not teach us that at least.  These are our rewards: submission to the work and the awe that overwhelms us when we hear the organ do what we never knew how to force her to do - when she lifts the voices of her three thousand pipes and proclaims to all the world,



Listen to the 1610 Esaias Compenius organ at Frederiksborg Castle. 

Praetorius - Variations on "Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g'mein" Jean-Charles Ablitzer, organist

Michael Praetorius (1572-1621), whose music we hear, actually served as the consultant for the organ's construction!
There are a number of other recordings of this instrument to be found on YouTube.