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Mold attacks church organs

Ronny Arnold / ewNovember 17, 2013

Churches throughout Germany have an expensive problem: mold in the pipes of their organs. Experts are trying to work out why the classic instruments seem to be particularly hard hit in eastern Germany.

A church organ made of metal and wood painted black.
Image: imago/imagebroker

Created by renowned 19th-century organ builder Friedrich Ladegast, the old organ in the Merseburg Cathedral in the state of Saxony-Anhalt lets loose an impressive blast of sound. Michael Schönheit is seated in front of it, his fingers flying over the keys. He sometimes grasps the controls on the side of the console, toggling the 5,700 or so pipes off and on.

Schönheit, in his early 50s, knows the 19th-century organ inside out. The enormous instrument has been played by various prominent composers, and despite some modifications during the East German era, it is still largely in its original form. Hungarian composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt played it as well.

"That worn-down timber you walk on, to get to the organ? Franz Liszt's feet stood on it once," said Schönheit with a hint of pride. "Something this authentic is hard to find these days, not even in churches. Here you can still feel history."

Traces of time

But for a few years now, this "piece of history" has been suspected of substandard cleanliness. Mold has been growing on the inside of the pipes, and no one is sure when, exactly, that started happening.

Since a lot of air is pushed out of the organ when it is played, experts are warning that spores can be distributed throughout the church. At the Merseburg Cathedral, the problem was originally identified nearly 20 years ago, when restoration work on the instrument began.

Schönheit has yet to begin wearing a protective mask and gloves when playing the instrument. He also wonders what could have caused the mold to grow and how it could be removed. He is not the only one. In the neighboring state of Saxony, Protestant Church authorities estimate that around one-third of its 1,500 organs are affected. Meanwhile, church representatives from other states have also increasingly complained of mold building up in their local organs.

Orange morning sunlight illuminates a cathedral across a small, dark body of water.
The organ in the Merseburg Cathedral is of great historic valueImage: Fotolia/twoandonebuilding

Organ builder Christoph Rühle is very familiar with the problem. He has seen a lot of organs opened up over the years. "If they weren't properly looked after over the decades, you usually find mold in there," he said.

Many organs are lined with natural materials such as wood, leather and felt. These are particularly attractive to spores. And while mold infestation in organs is not a new phenomenon, it seems to happen a lot more today than in the past, according to Rühle. He suspects the fall in church attendance in eastern Germany to be one of the causes.

"Many churches only hold a mass once every four weeks and do not air the interior during the period of inactivity, which creates a bad microclimate," Rühle told DW.

Another factor at play was the restoration work done in eastern German churches after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It included sealing windows, renovating doors and installing heating systems - all of which a "greatly aids mold growth," Rühle said.

To clean or not to clean?

Once an organ has become infested with mold, removing it can be expensive. Even for a small village church organ, cleaning costs can total 25,000 euros ($34,000). For larger organs, the figure can reach 60,000 euros. Many communities and churches cannot afford it.

The more quickly the mold is treated, though, Rühle says, the less it will affect the sound of the organ. In the worst case scenario, mold can clog up the core section of the instrument, stopping the pipes from producing sound. At the same time, there's the problem of spore distribution, which can impact the health of the whole congregation.

But Olf Herbarth, a professor of environmental medicine at Leipzig University, doubts that mold spores in churches pose a risk to those inside.´"Churches are usually large buildings in which mold is distributed over a large area," he told DW. And while he admitted that some people can experience reactions such as a sore throat and coughing, this "doesn't classify them as sick." The problem is greater for the organ player due to their proximity to the instrument, he pointed out.

An man playing an organ (Photo: Christian Ignatzi)
Inhaling spores can be unhealthy for organ playersImage: DW/C. Ignatzi

According to Gesa Graumann of the organ-building company Johannes Kleis in Bonn, the problem is not limited to Germany.

"We recently inspected an organ in England and found a lot of mold," Graumann told DW. She believes the main culprits are moisture and increased insulation in churches. "The problem has gotten worse in the last 15 years," she added.

The only remedy, according to Graumann, is washing the affected area with concentrated alcohol. Her colleagues wear protective clothing and face masks while doing so.

Accurate assessments are expensive, but the organ in the Merseburg Cathedral, at the very least, has been inspected. The mold inside turned out to be a harmless variety - good news for organ player Schönheit.

"We just need to deal with the problem carefully and keep the mold at bay," he said