Pipe organ stops
Periods and aesthetics  

Alsacian organ builders

Organs in Alsace


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 The Cavaillé-Coll in Mulhouse
 Westhouse, Mockers'end
 The Positif de Dos in Uhlwiller
 Tagsdorf, 180 inhabitants, 25 stops...

Alsace, organs, history and stories

For those who prefer reading long
introductions... at the end :

The most captivating music instruments are not always the most renowned or prestigious.

Most French books (or sites) related to pipe organ focus on the finest organs built by the celebrated organ builders like Cavaillé-Coll, Dom Bedos de Celles, Clicquot.
However, the great majority of organs, in our towns or countrysides, have been designed with less ambition. Far from being dedicated to concerts, they are works by craftsmen who had to struggle with economical limitations. These works have been paid, designed, and built to fulfill a precise purpose : to accompaign the song and the liturgy in general.

In the great majority of cases, organs are not "prestige" instruments. For centuries, those who have played the organ were not organ virtuoso, but often the teacher of the village. And they were not necessarily bad.
Moreover, among the craftsmen who had in charge the design, the building and the maintenance of these instruments, some did really distinguish themselves. By the quality of their work, of the material used, by their fidelity to some traditions.

Dom Bedos obviously was among these exceptional craftsmen. By his works, by this book "L'Art du Facteur d'Orgues", that is still a reference.
Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, too. Everybody agrees on the fact he was a man of genius. But it has to be pointed out that he was given the means (money and human resources) to achieve the building of exceptional instruments. This was not the case for all the craftsmen who, at the beginning of the 20th century were compelled to destroy historical organs, only in order to survive. Some others did not accept the unacceptable... and did not survive.

The study and the history of these instruments are really captivating. All human behaviors can be found there. Each organ, even the most unpretentious, has its part of the message, of the will of its builders, its sponsors and of the people that used it. Each organ is the result of many struggles first for its funding, then for its safeguard or "evolution".

The reasons for the choice of a region

  • One has to begin somewhere...
  • In order than others will feel like doing something alike elsewhere
  • Because it is better to restrain to a given area, and to follow the organ builders (in fact their schooling), their evolution of their deeds, and the way these deeds came up to us.

Why Alsace ?

  • Because in this small area (190 km N-S, 50 E-W, 8280 km2), can be found not less than 1200 pipe organs (740 in Bas-Rhin, 440 in Haut-Rhin, not taking into account private instruments)
    It is very likely that nowhere in the world, the pipe organ density is so high.
    Some 70 (in 1985) have been inscribed to the "Inventaire des Monuments Historiques" - French Heritage List - and are a renown part of the musical and historical heritage. And this only takes into account the inscription of the whole organ (a lot of chests are, besides, inscribed).
    20% of the French organ builders are located in Alsace
    There is practically and organ in each church, even in the smallest village -even with less than 200 inhabitants. This reveals an obvious attachment of Alsacians to pipe organs. A bit like the local dialect. And, like a dialect, the organs have local specificity, their own aesthetics.
    Nowadays, the maintenance and restoration of this exceptional inheritance produces enough business to be recognized as an economic reality.
  • Because an historian, Pie Meyer-Siat, has done a tremendous work on Alsacian organs. He has written most of the books and articles on this subjects, and done a analysis work that goes beyond imagination. His work corrected a lot of "commonly admitted mistakes", and enlightens a lot of captivating stories. It also enlightens many unknown point and some mysteries who really match to an instruments that plays, far away from then end of long naves, without moving.

The means of the discovery

In the middle of the 80's, there was an instruction by the French Ministry of Culture, asking for an assessment of all the French pipe organs. Parts of this assessment were :

  • the stoplists, disposition (keyboards compass, accessories...)
  • the history (origin, maintenance, modifications...), thus an estimation of their authenticity
  • their working (technical data, working order)
...all that in the purpose to know the condition and the value of the whole in order to target the maintenance efforts.

In Alsace, the Assessment report consists in 4 (!) volumes : "Orgues en Alsace". One of these is the Historical Inventory, by P. Meyer-Siat. This work has been published in 1986 by the ARDAM ("Association Régionale pour le Développement de l'Action Musicale") who was owner of the assessment.

There is a lot of other documentation, but very often published in periodicals, often consisting in 1 to ca. 40 pages papers.

Some are nevertheless to be quoted :

  • Médard BARTH "Elsass, das Land der Orgeln" ("Alsace, land of organs"),
    "Société d'Histoire de l'Eglise d'Alsace, Haguenau, 1966"
  • Pie MEYER-SIAT "Les Callinet"
    Istra, 1965
  • Pie MEYER-SIAT "Stiehr-Mockers",
    in "Archives de l'Eglise d'Alsace", 1972-73
  • Emile RUPP "Die Entwicklungsgeschichte der Orgelbaukunst" (The intricate story of Organ building art") ?)
    This paper is the result of Rupp's flying into a rage after hearing the organ in Strasbourg, St-Maurice, and its "German Romantism"-typed high pressure stops. In Alsace, both the organ and Rupp's paper point to the end of a time period.

Then, the real mean to discover organs, is obviously to go to the spot in order to play the organs which have been designed for that. Obviously with all the care and consideration involved. Because it is useless to be aware of the presence of a unique heritage if it stays still and silent.
For a long time, the person entitled to play the organs were above all the fierce doorkeeper of the organ gallery. Some of them, even today, would risk damnation to prevent any stranger to move near their precious console.
That's obviously forgetting the public money used for maintenance, the dozens of donors or associations, and the audience of the concerts given for the profit of the organ maintenance.
Today, the majority of the organs are open to the true organists.

The actors of the discovery

While surfing on organ builder and instruments pages, some characters are often encountered. Some of them can't be ignored, neither in Alsace nor in any part of the world :

  • the organ builder, his apprentice, his sons, his foreman
  • the priest, the clergyman
  • the fabric, struggling for money
  • the organist, arguing for a pedal flute 4'
  • the mayor and his council, convinced or doubting the necessity to buy an organ or repair the old one
  • the prefect, granting the mayor to spend the public money
  • the famous "experts" (often above all experts in bad faith), their advice, their delivery dinners
  • and, last but not least, the anonymous people who paid for the music, just because they found it essential.

Credits and acknowledgments

Alsace, organs, history and stories

Many thanks to :

  • all those helped me to gather the documents, or sent images
  • to the re-readers, and above all Emmanuel EYER, for his constant and wise comments, and Philippe WOESSNER. Please visit : http://zamok.crans.ens-cachan.fr/~woessner/index.htm.
  • to those who share hypertext links with this site
  • to those who sent encouraging e-mails

Basic sources :

  • Alsacian organs assessment : "Orgues en Alsace".
    Vol.2 : "Inventaire technique des orgues du Haut-Rhin" (Technical assessment of pipe organs in Bas-Rhin)
    Vol.3 : "Inventaire technique des orgues du Bas-Rhin.1"
    Vol.4 : "Inventaire technique des orgues du Bas-Rhin.2"
    Published by the ARDAM, ("Association Régionale pour le Développement de l'Action Musicale") in 1986.
    The ARDAM has now been dissolved.
  • Historical Inventory of Alsacian organs : "Orgues en Alsace".
    Vol.1 : Inventaire historique, P.MEYER-SIAT
    Published by the ARDAM.
    These two references are general, and apply to almost all description pages on this site.
  • Caecilia : the review of liturgical music of Alsacian church choirs.
    Published by Union Sainte Cécile (USC), 16 rue brûlée, 67081 Strasbourg Cedex
  • Archives de l'Eglise d'Alsace (AEA) : (Alsacian Church records) Mouthpiece of the historical society of the Alsacian Church.
    Published by Editions de la Société, Haguenau. Some volumes with the participation of the CNRS.