Tracking down Gottfried Silbermann | Music | DW | 18.09.2013
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Tracking down Gottfried Silbermann

Silbermann: the melodic name entices Baroque music lovers to Saxony. But who exactly was Gottfried Silbermann? Find out the history behind the famous organ builder.

Organists, organ builders and music lovers from around the world can enjoy the beautiful landscapes surrounding Dresden, Freiberg and in the Erz Mountain region when they go on a pilgrimage to discover the true Silbermann sound. Albrecht Koch, organist and president of the Gottfried Silbermann Society, described this sound to DW: "We call it the 'silver' sound. The higher tones are forceful, but never shrill. They're never painful. Underneath, there's this fundament that is emphatic and can be felt physically - a strongly stressed bass. And there's something else: each register possesses an unbelievable beauty and depth."

Born in the village of Kleinbobritzsch in Saxony on January 14, 1683, famous keyboard instrument builder Gottfried Silbermann left nothing in the way of portraits and little writings behind when he died 70 years later. He is known, however, to have been a rather quarrelsome person. But just what did he have to quarrel about? About the art of organ-building, of course, and the man just wasn't willing to compromise when it came to that.

A 1742 Silbermann organ in Zöblitz Copyright: Gottfried-Silbermann-Gesellschaft

A 1742 Silbermann organ in Zöblitz

Learning from his brother

In 1701, at 18 years of age, Silbermann moved to Alsace to learn the art of building organs from his famous brother, Andreas Silbermann. He returned to Saxony in 1710, receiving a commission soon after to build an organ for the Freiberg Cathedral. The instrument - the most famous to originate in Silbermann's workshop - was completed in 1714.

There were also plenty of materials in the region for buildings his instruments. Freiberg, for instance, was a mining town, so ore was available for the organ pipes. High-quality lumber was rafted down from the ridges of the Erz Mountains in the springtime.

A Silbermann organ being restored

A Silbermann organ being restored

Cultural and economic conditions were also good in Saxony, with the region having long recovered from the Thirty Year War. Cities, municipalities and nobility thus had the income and means to build luxurious castles, and stately churches and organs. The court of Saxony also aimed to generate more tax revenue by tethering artists and craftsmen.

Possessing a keen business sense, organ builder Silbermann reduced the range of his commissions to save on transportation and logistics costs. He created 46 organs between 1710 and 1753. The fact that around 30 of his instruments still exist today attests to the quality of the materials and their processing. Silbermann likewise produced harpsichords, clavichords and fortepianos in his Freiberg workshop.

The uncompromising craftsman

Anxious to make himself famous, Silbermann worked at earning a title from the Court of Saxony. He received one, too: "Kurfürstlich Sächsischer Königlich Polnischer Hof- und Landorgelbauer" or "Saxony's Electoral Royal Polish Court and County Organ Builder." It was considered a kind of royal title for his craft. He was confident and self-assured when it came to dealing with his contractual partners, disregarding their social status. He was also highly respected among musicians. "Silbermann is one-of-a-kind in his profound mathematical and mechanical understanding of the art of building organs," said composer and cantor at Leipzig's Thomaskirche Johann Kühnau, during Silbermann's time.

Johann Sebastian Bach, German composer and organist Copyright: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Bach could not even convince Silbermann to change his ways

Johann Sebastian Bach, Kühnau's successor as Thomaskantor, met Silbermann in 1746. Bach was supposed to survey an instrument built by Silbermann's pupil Zacharias Hildebrandt for Naumburg's St. Wenzel's Church. The encounter revealed some of the little information available about Silbermann's character traits. Bach, who enjoyed composing in keys that were unusual at the time, wanted Silbermann to tune his instruments differently.

But Silbermann stuck to his guns and to his mean tone tuning.

His legacy

Organist Albrecht Koch Copyright: Albrecht Koch

Organist Albrecht Koch

Silbermann died a wealthy man in 1753 - unusual in the guild at the time. One can safely call him the "Stradivari of the organ," but there is one significant difference, Albrecht Koch pointed out. "Most of Stradivari's instruments that are now played on the world's major concert stages have been altered in some way. They have new strings, which significantly change the pitch range and color," he noted. "On the other hand, Silbermann organs, if they were not kept in their original form, have been restored as such in the last 20 to 30 years. So I believe the organ is the truely authentic Baroque instrument."

The sound and construction principles of Silbermann organs have had a lasting influence in Saxony and beyond. Many copies of his instruments exist today. "After the major industrialization that began at the end of the 19th century, we have now returned to the mechanical organ," Koch said, "because it has proved to be the best and most reliable system."

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