Kuhn Organ Builders Ltd, 2020
Benediktinerkloster, Klosterkirche St. Martin
Kuhn Organ Builders Ltd, 2020
Disentis Monastery is believed to be the oldest community north of the Alps, and in the year 2014 it was able to mark ist about 1400 year long existence with a major celebration. The history of the organs in the monastery is, of course, not yet that old and started in the late 16th century. The baroque rebuild of the monastery, conflagrations and other twists and turns of fortune in the history of the monastery entailed the coming and going of various organs.
In 1925, in connection with a restoration of the nave, the monastery planned for the first time putting a large organ at the previously empty rear wall of the south gallery. The first and also most important stage of construction was carried out in 1933/34 by the now defunct firm of Gattringer, of Rohrschach. In 1955 the organ was expanded by nine stops supplied by Goll organ builders, and in 1960 the Mathis company was instructed to work on the Rückpositiv which until then had had dummy pipes. In March 1961 the organ was dedicated in the condition that it has preserved to the present day (see the specification for details).
A witness of the Alsatian organ reform
On one hand, the first stage of construction of the large monastery organ pre-pared the technical groundwork on which further developments were based. On the other hand, aesthetically it constituted what was then a new approach. The organ is indebted to the so-called "Alsatian organ reform", which was mainly propagated by Albert Schweitzer and Émile Rupp and reached Switzerland in the 1920s. This throws some light on the concept of the specification, which in relation to organ building at the turn of the century is directed to more harmonics and to more transparency. For example, the "pyramide" of diapasons was rediscovered up to the mixture, and experiments were made with mutations and with reed stops with short resonators. At the same time, a certain inheritance from the 19th century was acknowledged, e.g. by building generously sized swell boxes and reed stops in the style of Cavaillé-Coll. The reformers defined the modern organ as an instrument on which both older and more recent literature can be played appropriately.
These endeavours were from the start supported particularly on the technical side by the organ builder Franz Gattringer (1887-1944), who was born in Linz and from 1921 had his workshop in Rorschach. In the mid-1920s he committed himself more or less enthusiastically in the Leipzig newspaper Zeitschrift für Instrumentenbau to the slider windchest and, as Schweitzer and other organ reformers did too, accepted the principle of key channels as leading to a decided improvement in sound. Subsequently, in a report about the Disentis organ published in "Der Chorwächter" a newspaper on Catholic church music, Father Beat Winterhalter proudly announced that "the organ does not have the usual membrane chests or cone chests, but slider windchests in the Gattringer system, which in a special way facilitate the delicate singing quality of the pipes", Vol. 59, 1934, p. 34f.). Gattringer had already built a smaller instrument with slider windchests in Gonten in 1928. Incidentally, Kuhn was not lacking in willpower to make progress in this field: in 1930 the dedication of the new Münster organ in Bern had taken place, like the Disentis monastery organ one of the early large reform organs with slider windchests.
The additions from the years 1955 and 1960 basically reflect the further development of the organ aesthetic in the German-speaking area, which turned increasingly to bright, neo-baroque sounds with a richness of harmonics. The Goll extension consists correspondingly in particular of mutations and mixtures, the Mathis Rückpositiv stands out with a bold specification.
We must also draw attention to the design of the front for which the Fathers Notker Curti and Leopold Beul and the stucco plasterer Josef Malin were responsible and which was integrated into the baroque church architecture in a fascinatingly "genuine" manner. Bearing in mind the Psallier choir, which in Disentis is also located on the south gallery, as well as the middle window, it was decided to have a split organ system.
The impressive technical layout, large parts of which are original, and the organ sound of the 1930s seldom experienced so authentically nowadays, allowed no doubts on a restoration project. The question of the purpose of restoration, too, was also clarified comparatively quickly: the condition of the organ as it had evolved over time was as far as possible to be retained.
Neither pipework nor windchests displayed serious damage and including Gattringer's sliders both are of high quality. Apart from subsequent tuning and re-voicing, thorough cleaning and security of operation were required here. The pneumatic system, too, proved to be reliable; all that was required was the re-placement of worn membranes and drawstop bellows to the key and stop action.
The organ's actual achilles heel was the electric control system, which whilst extremely modern in the 1930s, had become badly interference prone over the years. Its restoration would have incurred a huge expense, inter alia due to the new safety regulations for weak current systems. Therefore it was decided to replace it, including a console planned and designed by Kuhn Organ Builders. However, it was possible to retain the original, robust Reisner magnets that trigger the pneumatic pulse.
The new console now comprises four manuals, and enables the Rückpositiv, that was installed in 1960, to be played independently. Moreover, it is fitted with the new Vario combination system that is operated via touch screen and has an almost unlimited number of possibilities in memory, as well as practical sort and search functions. In addition, it offers free couplers, a transposing keyboard, a MIDI interface and a recording function that can be controlled via iPad.
Supplements to the sound that are still acceptable in relation to the historical substance, round the project off. It has been possible to expand the lowest octave of Principal 16' of the great organ previously lacking on a new windchest on the west side of the gallery. There, the Subbass 16' found a new home and was extended by twelve tones to an Untersatz 32'. A new pedal stop Violon 8' was achieved at the previous location of the Subbass 16'.
"The whole organ has a majestic, humane and warm sound. You can hear it for a long time, it doesn't get used up quickly", writes P. Urban Affentranger in his history of the monastery organs (Mustér 1979, p. 26). Following ist restoration the organ can once more be heard in all ist splendour, and will surely delight innumerable listeners in the future.
Michael Meyer, 04/2020, Translation RS
Urban Affentranger: Die Disentiser Klosterorgeln. Mustér 1979.
Michael Meyer: Zwischen Historismus und Postmoderne. Die Geschichte der Orgelbau Kuhn AG. In: Die Orgelbauer. Das Buch zur Geschichte von Orgelbau Kuhn 1864-2014. Hrsg. Von Dieter Utz. Männedorf 2014, S. 313-408, bes. S. 315-318.