Resonance & Resilience: Dresden Mark Steinbach plays the last and largest Gottfriend Silbermann organ, finished in 1755 with 47 stops on 3m & Pedal in the Hofkirche, now the Catholic Cathedral. The organ, city, and church survive through wars and disaster.Bach: Fantasia & Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542
Buxtehude: Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, BuxWV 211
Anton Heiller: Nun komm der Heiden Heiland
Bach: Das alte Jahr vergangen ist, BWV 614
Bach: O Mensch bewein dein’ Sünde gross, BWV 622
Bach: Meine Seele erhebet den Herren, BWV 648
Bach: Ich ruf zu Dir Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639
Bach: Fantasia in G, Piece d’orgue, BWV 572
Messiaen: Le Banquet Céleste
Eric Nathan: Immeasurable
Wang Lu: Missing Absence
Resonance and Resilience: Dresden
The 1755 Silbermann Organ
by Mark Steinbach
Time, memory, loss, and resilience connect this album’s music with the instrument and the city where it was recorded. Gottfried Silbermann’s magnum opus pipe organ of 1755 in Dresden’s Roman Catholic Cathedral (formerly the Hofkirche or ”court church“) miraculously survived the city’s catastrophic bombing nearly two centuries later, in 1945. The resonance of this organ is thrilling and compelling, but so is the story of the instrument and its city—a story of resilience and survival.
As an organist, I am particularly interested in how historic instruments inform our interpretation of music of their time. I am also eager to discover how these instruments can shape and inspire the music of our own time. After performing a recital of Johann Sebastian Bach’s works and new compositions at Dresden’s Cathedral, I knew I had found the place to record both Bach and recent compositions. Gottfried Silbermann’s instrument combined with the rich acoustic of Dresden’s Cathedral seemed the ideal choice.
Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753) holds wide respect today as an organbuilder of the Baroque era and was highly regarded by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Bach had a close relationship to Dresden, having been appointed “Composer to the Electoral Saxon and Royal Polish Court” there in 1736, while he was living and working in nearby Leipzig. He did not play this particular instrument, as it was completed five years after his death. Silbermann signed the contract to build the organ only one day after Bach’s death on July 28, 1750! Bach did, however, play Dresden’s two earlier Silbermann organs, which he greatly admired. Both of those instruments, unfortunately, were destroyed during the Allied bombing of Dresden during World War II.
The Cathedral organ’s windchests and 3,500 pipes escaped destruction because they had been stored safely outside the city in December 1944, before the bombing in February 1945. Now restored, this instrument is an outstanding example of a Baroque organ of significant proportions (three manuals, pedal, 47 stops) in a stunningly live acoustic. It navigates music of its contemporaries such as Bach beautifully, but also reveals new dimensions to music of our time.
Music on This Album
The complicated and traumatic history of the city of Dresden, combined with the organ’s dramatic survival story, made this recording process a poignant experience.
The album begins with the full resources of the 1755 Sibermann organ. Bach’s Fantasia in G Minor jolts and surprises with its sudden harmonic and textural changes, characteristic of the stylus fantasticus, the highly theatrical manner of improvising and composing popular in North Germany in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Johannes Mattheson writes in 1720, “For this style is the most free and unrestrained manner of composing, singing and playing that one can imagine; one hits first upon this idea and then upon that one, so that the singer or player can display his skill. …In this manner of composing… whoever can bring forth the most artful decorations and the most unusual occurrences succeeds best.” The four-voice Fugue which follows the Fantasia works in a cumulative way, weaving its contrapuntal wonder throughout the various manual and pedal voices.
The next two compositions, by Buxtehude and Heiller, are based on the introspective Advent chorale, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. Although separated by more than two centuries, they both convey the Affekt of longing and anticipation, present in the chorale’s text. Dieterich Buxtehude (ca. 1637-1707), organist of the Marienkirche in Lübeck, was renowned as a musician: organist, conductor, composer, mentor and entrepreneur. At age 20, Bach thought it was worth travelling 275 miles by foot from landlocked Arnstadt, in Central Germany, to Lübeck on the Baltic Sea to “comprehend one thing and another about (Buxtehude’s) art.” Bach had requested a four-week leave of absence from his position in Arnstadt, but ended up staying four months instead—much to the dismay of his employer. As stated in Bach’s obituary, his studies with Buxtehude were “not without profit.” Buxtehude lived only two more years after Bach’s extended visit. Buxtehude’s Marienkirche was nearly destroyed by World War II bombing. In Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, Buxtehude’s setting reveals the subtle beauty of his art of harmonizing and embellishing a chorale melody.
Viennese composer Anton Heiller (1923-1979) was a virtuoso organist, improviser, prolific recording artist, an accomplished conductor, and in high demand as a teacher. His Variations on Nun komm’, der Heiden Heiland were originally conceived as “improvisations” for a concert at the Cathedral in Udine, Italy in 1972. Heiller and his student Monika Henking shared the concert, performing music either together or in alternation on the two organs in the Cathedral. During the concert, Heiller improvised on several chorales, and Henking performed Heiller’s Nun komm’… Variations, which “he had written down for that purpose about two weeks earlier.” Although Heiller liked having the Variations performed in recital, he did not want them published. After Heiller’s tragic and untimely death at age 55, Henking decided to have the work published anyway, believing the Variations would be a good addition to the existing Heiller repertoire. The Variations serve as a model for improvisation and also reveal a more tonal style than many of Heiller’s other works.
The Variations begin with a straightforward canon at the octave with a syncopated alto countermelody. Movement two, a quasi-Frescobaldi “elevation toccata,” is very much at home on the Silbermann organ in Dresden. For the registration, I chose the Prinzipal 8' along with the Unda Maris 8', which is tuned slightly flat. This combination, which creates a vibrato effect, is characteristic of 17th-century Italian music, except that in Italy the Voce humana stop is tuned slightly sharp against the Principal stop. There are numerous examples of the Unda Maris on Central German organs built during Bach’s lifetime. Heiller’s other variations display his mastery of counterpoint and his playful harmonic and motivic adventure.
The four Bach chorale preludes featured on this album comprise the highly ornamented Das alte Jahr vergangen ist and O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross from the Orgel-Büchlein; Meine Seele erhebt den Herren, Bach’s organ transcription from his vocal/instrumental cantata, BWV 10; and the trio Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ, also from the Orgel-Büchlein. The texts of these chorales reflect the poignancy of the passage of time and a sense of longing. Each of Bach’s intimate settings gives the performer opportunity to highlight the many colorful solo and combination stops available on this instrument, including the Cornet, the strings, and also the distinctive reed stops such as the Chalumeaux and the Vox Humana.
The two recent compositions on this album — Missing Absence and Immeasurable — were both written in commemoration of the victims of the terrorist attacks on the Bataclan Hall in Paris, France, in 2015. Both pieces were specifically composed for the organ at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris where I performed the premieres in 2016, before the tragic fire vastly damaged the cathedral—but not its organ—in 2019. As of this writing, the Cathedral is being rebuilt, the organ being cleaned and a rededication being planned.
Immeasurable for organ is part of a series of compositions by Eric Nathan that engages with old places and how they matter to us today. This work embraces the organ, the large physical spaces it inhabits, and how the instrument’s own architecture affects a sense of space and distance. Nathan places extreme demands on the performer by using the three manuals of the organ as if they were one keyboard, jumping rapidly from one keyboard to the other, creating a tour de force fraught with velocity and angst. The sustaining properties of the organ provide intermittent moments of repose. Immeasurable commences with birdlike fluttering in the extreme high register of the organ, on the highest pitches available: using the 2' flutes, marked “bird-like, fidgety, flittering, chirping, conversational,” soon to be joined by the lowest register of the pedal on the 16'. Nathan bookends the piece with these registral extremes, which lends a sense of time’s continuity, stretching before and after.
Wang Lu’s Missing Absence begins with a disembodied motive from the medieval hymn Ave Maris Stella. It then explores harmonic, timbral and textural interplay on the solo organ. The piece unfolds gradually and soberly, exploiting the resonance and color of the organ. Polyrhythms and complex rhythmic gestures abound, making some passages sound improvisatory. The ancient hymn which inspired the composition predates the 13th-century Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, for which it was written. Wang Lu’s contemporary setting places it in a timeless continuum.
Recording Olivier Messiaen’s Le Banquet Céleste (1928) on a German baroque organ may seem to be a stretch to purists, but the many strings, the Unda Maris, and other 8' foundation stops on this instrument, combined with the live acoustic of the Dresden Cathedral, deliver Messiaen’s lush aesthetic. Messiaen (1908-1992) was ever interested in adapting his music to various instruments; for example, he transcribed the second movement of his Diptyque (for organ) to piano and violin to become the last movement of his Quartet for the End of Time. Like that movement, the very slow tempo of Le Banquet Céleste contributes to the sense of timeless eternity, frequently described as Messiaen’s “ecstatic style.”
Bach’s Gallicized aural triptych Pièce d’orgue is perfectly suited to the French-influenced Gottfried Silbermann organ: Gottfried had apprenticed with his brother Andreas in Alsace. The first movement, marked très vitement, a whirlwind for manuals alone, segues abruptly into the dense, five-part counterpoint of the “central panel” of this triptych, indicated to be played Grave. The many expressive suspensions, evaded cadences, and pedal points evoke the world of the Plein Jeu preludes which begin most French classic organ suites. Although marked Lentement, the final movement’s perpetual sextuplets stream rapidly and mesmerize with wave-like undulations.
Gottfried Silbermann’s Magnum Opus
Gottfried Silbermann’s magnum opus in Dresden’s Kathedrale St.Trinitatis (Hofkirche) has a dramatic history of collaboration, destruction and survival. In 1750, Silbermann, considered then and now as a great organbuilder in Central Germany, was commissioned by Friedrich August II, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, to build an organ of three manuals and 47 stops for the new Hofkirche. It is the largest and last instrument Gottfried Silbermann built. Two weeks after signing the contract, Silbermann, who was already ill, signed an agreement granting Zacharias Hildebrandt, his gifted student and former apprentice, the authority to complete the organ upon Silbermann’s passing. Hildebrandt worked alongside Silbermann and his assistants until Silbermann’s death in August 1753. In 1754, Hildebrandt contracted with the Dreikönigskirche in Dresden-Neustadt to build a new organ and was no longer available to oversee the Hofkirche organ project. At this point, Silbermann’s nephew and sole heir, Johann Daniel Silbermann (son of Gottfried’s older brother, Andreas Silbermann [1678-1734], who built organs in Alsace), took over management of the project, which was completed primarily by Silbermann’s longtime assistants Johann Georg Schön, Adam Gottfried Oehme, Nicolaus Wilhelm Manner and others.
The Hofkirche organ was dedicated February 2, 1755. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited Dresden in 1789 and played the Silbermann instrument, which he described in a letter to his wife Constanze. In the following years, various alterations were made to the organ. From June through November 1944, the organ’s pipes, windchests, trackers, and console were dismantled and stored safely outside the city in the St. Marienstern cloister. The remaining façade, bellows and Unda Maris pipes were destroyed during the Allied bombing on February 13, 1945, which annihilated most of Dresden. Beginning in 1963, the Jehmlich organ company of Dresden began reconstruction of the instrument. It was rededicated on May 30, 1971. A thorough historic restoration, closely adhering to the original specifications of Gottfried Silbermann, was made in 2001 through 2002 by the firms of Jehmlich and Kristian Wegscheider.
1755 Gottfried Silbermann Organ
restored 2001 by Jehmlich Orgelbau & Orgelbauwerkstatt Kristian Wegscheider
Kathedrale Sanctissimae Trinitatis (Hofkirche), Dresden, Germany
Hauptwerk Man. II
8 Viola di Gamba
V Cornett (c1)
Oberwerk Man. III
8 Unda Maris (g0)
V Echocornett (c1)
8 Vox Humana
Brustwerk Man. I
8 Chalumeaux (g0)
BW - HW
OW - HW
HW - PW
Manual compass: C, D-d3
Pedal compass: C, D-d1
Pitch: 415 Hz
Eric Nathan is Associate Professor of Music at Brown University and Composer-in-Residence of the New England Philharmonic. He received his doctorate from Cornell. A 2013 Rome Prize Fellow and 2014 Guggenheim Fellow, Nathan has received multiple commissions from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation at the Library of Congress, the New York Philharmonic, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Barlow Endowment, Fromm Music Foundation, Tanglewood Music Center, and Aspen Music Festival, and has been honored with a Goddard Lieberson Fellowship and Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He completed residencies at Yellow Barn, Copland House, and the American Academy in Rome, and is a Civitella Ranieri Foundation fellow.
Eric Nathan’s music appears on recordings by various ensembles and on several labels, including four entire albums devoted to his works including Missing Words on New Focus Records, The Space of a Door on the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s label, Dancing with J. S. Bach on Chelsea Music Festival Records, and Multitude Solitude on Albany Records.
Wang Lu is Associate Professor of Music at Brown University. She writes music that reflects a natural identification with influences from urban environmental sounds, linguistic intonation and contours, traditional Chinese music, and freely improvised traditions. Wang Lu’s works are performed by such groups as the Ensemble Modern, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Chicago Symphony Orchestra MusicNOW, and Minnesota Orchestra, including a commission from the New York Philharmonic. She is recipient of the Berlin Prize in Music Composition and the Wladimir and Rhoda Lakond Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among others. She was a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow. Her full-length chamber opera, The Beekeeper, was presented by the Chicago Opera Theatre. Her digital albums Urban Inventory (2018) and An Atlas of Time (2020) appear on the New Focus Recordings label.
Mark Steinbach concertizes and teaches frequently throughout the United States and Europe. He is a passionate advocate of both new and historic music. His recordings have been featured on American Public Media’s Pipedreams and the International Online Organ Festival. He is University Organist, Curator of Instruments, and Distinguished Senior Lecturer in Music at Brown University, where he performs on the historic Hutchings-Votey pipe organ (1903) and teaches organ, music theory, and seminars on topics such as Olivier Messiaen.
Steinbach’s critically acclaimed album, Glass-Bach Dresden, released in 2021 by Orange Mountain Music, was also recorded on the 1755 Silbermann organ in the Dresden Cathedral. The Loft label released his well-received album Organ Works of Anton Heiller.
Steinbach has been featured at national conventions of the American Guild of Organists and the Organ Historical Society; The Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative Festival, and the International Music Symposium in Xi’an China, the International Organ Festival at the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam; the Courmayeur, Bolzano, Aosta, and Picena international organ festivals in Italy; international organ festivals in Berlin, Halle, Lüneburg, Freiberg, Rötha, Dresden, Halle, Görlitz, and Weimar, Germany; the Audite Organum festival in Prague; and at Holy Cross Cathedral in Orléans, France. On National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, he has performed on the 1640s English cabinet organ in Wickford, Rhode Island, the oldest church organ in use in the United States. He has adjudicated several organ competitions, including the American Guild of Organists National Young Artists Competition.
Steinbach has premiered several new works for the organ, including the compositions of Eric Nathan and Wang Lu recorded on this CD (premiered at Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, and Berlin’s Nikolai-Kirche), the North American premiere of Nico Muhly’s O-Antiphon Preludes at Brown University, and the world premiere of Daniel Pinkham’s Odes. In 2018 he was in residence at Xi’an Conservatory of Music in China to teach and perform.
Steinbach earned the Bachelor of Music in music performance from the University of Kansas with honors. As a Fulbright scholar he studied at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst in Vienna. He earned the Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees from The Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester.