Pipe organ stops
Periods and aesthetics  

Alsacian organ builders

Organs in Alsace


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The famous fight between Rupp and Gessner

Emile Rupp

Emile RUPP (1872-1948) was organist in Strasbourg :

  • in St-Paul, the Protestant church of the garrison, from 1897 to 1939 on the Walcker organ, 1897
  • then at the synagogue on the organ that he did himself design, and which has been destroyed.

He gave more than 2000 organ concerts, among which 1400 Sunday concerts, in St-Paul. He was thus a major actor of these day's musical life in Strasbourg.

Adolphe GESSNER (1864-1919) was an organ and church music teacher in the "Conservatoire" (music school) in Strasbourg (since 1886). He was Rupp's "natural competitor", because he had in charge of the organ in :

  • St Maurice the catholic church of the garrison (built in 1897) (Weigle, 1899).
The situation between 1865 and 1905

The "experts" (organ assessors)

In the late 19 th century, there was clearly a feeling of "modernity" in the organ building (as well as in everywhere else). In fact, less in organ building than in the requests of the decision-makers, and the way the public expense was controlled :

  • Until 1865 the mayor or the parish priest made a commitment with the organ builder. They did agree on the price, resulting from a quotation, done by the organ builder, for the instrument which was proper to fulfill the needs. Then, the organ builder promised to build such an instrument, using proper techniques (which were his own choice). Once the organ completed, there was an acceptance, done by local organists, who acted as assessors (cf. Antoine GINCK). The assessors checked that the organ was actually fulfilling the needs and did match the quotation (keyboards compass, number and quality of the stops...) They looked at the technical solutions mainly by curiosity and to evaluate the overall quality of the instrument. If the organ was good, they wrote some congratulations and recommendations.
  • After 1865, these assessors ("experts") took a disproportionate importance. Often poorly qualified (there were organists, not organ builders), but had a large audience. They used this influence to promote their own ideas, and this lead them to produce themselves the specifications of the instrument :
    • puting a large focus on the console and its disposition.
      As organists, it was the only part they knew, and which they took into account. They required all the accessories (couplers, combinations, pre-sets, various tabs and toe studs, lights and dials...)
    • restricting the sound design to a stops list, using "up to date" stops.
      As a result, after the "restorations", the mutations stops, and the mixtures (above all tierces and cymbals) were sent to the foundry to be replaced by "symphonic" stops (8' soloist stops for easy effects)

However, the assessors were well aided by some parish priests (like MEYER in Ergersheim, who insisted on the alteration of the Silbermann organ in Altorf).

New organ builders

At the same time, the organ builder had changed, too. The industrial age brought some new techniques, above all for wind-chests (everything had to be pneumatic), but also concerning the tonal design (for example, Cavaillé-Coll's technique to differentiate wind pressures was diverted to enable very high pressures)
New practices were used in business, above all subcontracting, which became attractive with the outbreak of machine tools. Some companies began to specialize in making keyboards, or pipes, others only did the assembling, and the result did not have any personality.

After 1870 (and until 1918), Alsace became part of Germany. Thus, German companies, mastering new technologies, had access to the organs :

  • WEIGLE (from Stuttgart-Echterdingen) "the greatest organ builder in the world", according to German experts of these days
  • VOIT (from Durlach-Karlsruhe)
  • E. F. WALCKER & Cie (from Ludwigsbourg) (nearly 6000 opus built today by this company...)
  • the LINK brothers (48 organs in Alsace)
  • H. KOULEN settled in Strasbourg in 1897. He was a famous inventor of sophisticated but delicate "systems".

Now, during these days in Germany, organ building was no more really craft work. Huge instruments could be built, and companies were adapted to mass production : the famous "Fabrikorgeln", assembled and pre-voiced in the factory.

In France, maybe because there was less money, things were still different. The century had been marked by Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899) ("the greatest organ builder in the world", this time according to the French experts), and also Joseph Merklin (1819-1905), who proved to make quality organs. By patriotism, organs were ordered to Cavaillé-Coll and Merklin (Mulhouse, St-Etienne, Strasbourg, Temple-neuf, Dambach-la-ville, Obernai, ...) but at very high prices, compared to the quotation of the local organ builder to build quality organs.

The money

Besides all that during these days, there was (unfortunately) a lot of money to spend...

Some consequences

In 1893-97, it was decided to wreck the Silbermann organ in the Cathedral of Strasbourg just to give some business to Heinrich Koulen.
Charles Wetzel (in 1860, 1886) removed the mutations stops and the mixtures thus all the personality of the Silbermann organ in Strasbourg, St-Thomas.

From 1899 to 1919

In year 1899 Weigle built an organ in Strasbourg, St-Maurice, the catholic garrison church. At the same time, the Silbermann organs in Marmoutier and Ebersmunster were re-discovered. They had been kept authentic because there was not enough money there to alter them.
For Rupp, it was a revelation. He began to preach for Silbermann, but the organ he had in mind was more a Cavaillé-Coll with "classical" stops (i.e. nice plein-jeu and cornets).
Gessner, who, as a natural competitor, took the opposing view, choose as ideal Johann Friedrich Alffermann, from Landau, who was, according to Gessner "better an organ builder than Silbermann". The roughly worked case in Schleithal enable everyone to make his own opinion.

The organ in St-Maurice as "Weigle system" wind-chests, but (and it was more straightforward) also high pressure ("Hochdruck") stops. In the "Fabrikorgeln" (phenomenon which did not, hopefully, concern Alsace), this "cheap" trick was already used to build "small but strong" instruments. Obviously, the result is loud but not fine.
From an average of 70 mm Hg wind pressure for a classical organ, the value has been multiplied, sometimes up to 5 times, and once up to 500 mm Hg.

The Weigle organ in St-Maurice had 42 stops, on 4 divisions (3 keyboards). Three high-pressure stops were present in the great organ : a "Stentorphon 8'", a "Tuba mirabilis 8'" and a "Grosgedeckt 8'". A "Solo Gamba" completed them from the positif organ.

In 1942, these very loud stops were removed by Roethinger and replaced by a zinc reed choir. Fortunately, the high-pressure stops built by Roethinger in Erstein are still there, and this organ is being restored. These are now the only high-pressure stops in Alsace.

Rupp wrote many papers, with the slogan "Ad fontes". The first of them, called Hochdruck, was an indictment of high pressure. It was published in "Zeitchrift für Instrumentenbau", Paul DE WIT's journal (Leiptzig, 1899). This paper was directly justified by the WEIGLE organ in Strasbourg, St-Mattihieu and the decibels it was able to produce.

At the other hand, only the "modern" German organ building was valuable for Gessner. (i.e. the often huge instruments designed to play the German Romantic composers.) In year 1901, Gessner commended that the reed stops shall be substituted for "Labialstimmen", which he had more or less invented, and which were hopefully more or less forgotten. It must be said in his defense that in 1901, everybody had to invent something. In year 1901, Rupp published, again in "Zeitchrift für Instrumentenbau", a paper called "Cavaillé-Coll und des deutsche Orgelbau" (Cavaillé-Coll and German organ building).
And this was to be studied : Karl Friedrich BUCHHOLZ (1821-1885), Friedrich FRIESE (1827-1896) Barnim GRÜNEBERG (1828-1907), Heinrich NIEMANN, have been working with Cavaillé-Coll.
F.W. SONRECK (1822-19100) often met Cavaillé-Coll, and used double pallet box windchests and the Barker action in 1856.

In year 1906, began the publication of "Die Orgel der Zukunft" (the organ of the future).

After 1905, Albert SCHWEITZER (1875-1965) more of less subscribed to Rupp's ideas. In fact, Rupp did first have an opposite view from Schweitzer's, as pointed out in many papers of the "Die Orgel der Zukunft" set, because Rupp first wanted an organ to be the synthesis of... a lot of things. Then, after 1908, Rupp and Schweitzer shared the same point of view. Meanwhile, they got to know each other : in 1908, Albert Schweitzer chaired the committee for the design of the organ in the "Palais des Fêtes" (a concert hall) in Strasbourg. Rupp was a member of this committee (Together with Marie-Joseph ERB, the expert who compelled Martin and Joseph RINCKENBACH to build pneumatic action organs - and, even worse, to alter mechanical action organs -.)

The change in many people's minds produced by Rupp and Schweitzer was later called "Réforme alsacienne de l'Orgue" (the Alsacian organ reform). For new organs, this first consisted in designing "synthesis" organs, supposed to be able to play "anything" (but nothing correctly). For historical organs, it was even worse, because they had to be "improved", and most of them were completely altered or destroyed on this pretext.
(In Strasbourg, St-Thomas, the worst had been avoided thanks to Albert Schweitzer, but in St-Hippolyte, in Colmar, St-Matthieu and in Wissembourg, St-Jean, the irreparable was committed.

Emile Rupp wrote in year 1910 the paper "Die elsaëssich-neudeutsche Orgelreform", in "Die Orgel", giving its official name to the movement.

In year 1912, Gessner wrote "Zur elsëssisch-neudeutschen Ordelreform. Ein Wort der Kritik und Abwehr" ("About the Alsacian/German organ building reform. A word of criticism and defense"). The criticism is against the Dalstein-Haerpfer organ in Strasbourg, "Palais des Fêtes", the instrument designed by Albert Schweitzer and his committee (with Emile Rupp), which had "pipe scales copied from the Silbermann organ in St-Thomas". (1). The work (also done by Dalstein-Haerpfer) on this historical organ was also criticized.

Gessner often replied to Rupp and his sympathizers (Fidelis BOESER) in "Vaterland", a newspaper published in Lucerne, Switzerland. After many written sparring matches, the newspaper invited the fight to be continued in the professional press. The so called fight thus went on in "Zeitchrift für Instrumentenbau", were it turned even worse :
"I must, too, pray M. Rupp, in case he would keep debating in this way, to find a Punch to argue with him. But M. Rupp can be sure that our regarded journal will not be eager to relate a polemic which is lead this way."

After 1919

But the movement was launched, or accompanied (leading ideas often spring up simultaneously in more than one place, just because "it's time") :

  • In Germany, it was called the "Orgelbewegung"
    In year1925, German organists and organ builder re-discovered the Baroque style, and especially Arp SCHNITGER (exactly has did the councilors in Colmar when re-building the organ in the Collégiale St-Martin... in 1979 : the organ is nice, but what has it to do in a case designed by Silbermann?)
  • In France, it was Félix RAUGEL's (1881-1975) work (1925 : "Recherches sur les maîtres de l'ancienne facture d'orgues, les Lépine, J.-P. Cavaillé, Dom Bédos de Celles"), then Norbert DUFOURCQ's thesis (1935) which moved organ-building.

In year 1925 Rupp designed his ideal organ, built by ROETHINGER (III/Ped, 62 stops, electropneumatic action) in Strasbourg, synagogue (the organ was dismantled in 1940 and pieces were broken up).

In year 1929, Rupp published "Entwicklungsgeschichte der Orgelbaukunst" (where he more or less sums up "Die Orgel des Zukunft").

Maybe that Gessner had the feeling that Rupp was not really sincere in his idea of "going back" to Silbermann. Rupp, and even more Marie-Joseph ERB went on ordering the "pneumatizing" the finest organs. Moreover, they did not help those among the organ builder who insisted on building mechanical action and choir organs (STIEHR or WETZEL). Faithful to these techniques, or resenting to destroy historical organs, then were compelled to stop their business.

For this reason, the benefits of all that was not immediate, but appeared around 1950. When, in 1948, Ernest MUHLEISEN and Alfred KERN began their work in Strasbourg, St Pierre-le-jeune.

(1) This shows how, only moved by good intentions, a commitee can produce a total nonsense :
So, for the Palais de Fêtes organ, the pipe scales were copied on the St-Thomas work by Jean-André Silbermann. Even the salicional in the swell was copied. Thus, there was a stop called "Salicional Silbermann" in the new organ in the Palais des Fêtes.
However, this salicional stop was by Wetzel (1836) : J.A. Silbermann did never build any salicional, but the "experts" did not know that. This is the more surprising that the handwritten disposition of St-Thomas, by Silbermann, still exists, and obviously does not include any salicional.