Orgelbau Th. Kuhn AG, 1999
Orgelbau Th. Kuhn AG, 1999
The new organ of Berne Minster as part of the Swiss organ scene
Minster and cathedral organs have, as in other countries, always had a special significance in Switzerland. Historically there have been times when they have signalled a new era. The decision made by the Berne town council on 5th June 1726 to have an organ built in the Minster meant the return of organ music to the protestant church service, after a ban of nearly two hundred years since 1530. This move paved the way for the growth of a relatively early organ culture in the region of Berne which quickly spread to the surrounding rural areas. In Zurich the progression was the opposite way round: first came the surrounding area and lastly the building of a new organ in the Great Minster in Zurich in 1876 signalled the end of the organ ban instigated by Zwingli.
Minster organs have also often proved to set milestones in terms of technical and musical development in organ building history. An example of this was the renewal of the Bern Minster organ in 1930, the first large project in Switzerland to be influenced by the then upcoming «Orgelbewegung» in which the rediscovery of the baroque ideals of organ building was a prevalent force.
What significance does today's new Bern Minster organ hold for Switzerland's organ scene? In answer to this question, there are, in my opinion, as in the historical review, two different aspects to consider: a cultural/historical and a technical aspect.
Firstly, the renewal of this organ requires acknowledgement of the instrument itself. It is very easy to brand the building of a new organ as showing an irresponsible disregard for the previous instrument. Such an argument was raised as early as 1597 amongst the clergy of Schaffhausen, then successfully as it was decided against a restoration of the organs in both the Minster in Schaffhausen and the church of St. Johann: «He who wishes to rebuild the organs without just cause will bring large and unnecessary costs upon the church which could be otherwise given to the needy or other necessary worthy causes».
Saying yes to a new organ also means the recognition of a responsibility to cultural heritage on the part of the church. Of course this is not the primary task of the church, but the part it can play in preserving our culture cannot be ignored. Cheap electronic alternatives do not suffice to fulfil this responsibility.
However, the new Berne Minster organ should, in keeping with tradition, also stand to represent the art of organ building at its current state today. After 70 years since the last alterations and an equally long development of the «Orgelbewegung» a wealth of further knowledge and also an awareness of some of the dangers and drawbacks of the movement's influences have been gleaned, concerns which all need to be taken into account. The tonal and technical advantages of the slider windchest system enabled this system to become widespread throughout the world, its effectiveness being undisputed. In a perfected version this windchest system was once again brought into use. A similar success story can be told of the mechanical action. Whilst it was necessary to resort to an electro-pneumatic action in 1930, today it is possible to fit even the large Minster organs with a fully mechanical key action.
The Rückpositiv was, for a long time, a trademark of the «Orgelbewegung». Albert Schweizer, one of the advisors in 1930, was of the opinion that a new organ without a Rückpositiv did not make sense. In the meantime, however, it was found that a Rückpositiv should not be placed too far from the main instrument. Being positioned too far in front can have the effect of it being situated in a different acoustic. If this were to happen then the tonal unity of the instrument would be at risk. For this reason it was decided not to include a Rückpositiv in the Minster. On top of this were other historical and aesthetic arguments.
From a tonal point of view, the «Orgelbewegung» led to such a dominance of the Baroque style that a defamation of all Romantic organ music resulted. In the last twenty years, however, this music was restored to consciousness. Within reason, this development also needed to be taken into account. The plenum sound of the organ is therefore no longer achieved through overly shrill mixtures, but through reinforcing the foundation stops. The long ostracized «romantic» stops (string stops and harmonic flue pipes) should also be given their place once again.
Modern products without electronics are almost unthinkable today. A large organ is also no exception. In this case, however, the employment of electronics is limited to the storing and recall of stop combinations programmed in advance. The instrument can also be registered purely mechanically if wished.
On the basis of all of these considerations and judgements we hope to have built an instrument that is representative of our times and is worthy of meeting the manifold musical tasks demanded of it during the new century.
Translation: Sally Jo Rüedi