Restored Tannenberg at Old Salem

by Jonathan Ambrosino

Although a few were active before him, David Tannenberg is generally considered America’s first organbuilder. Born in Saxony in 1728, Tannenberg and his family were Moravians, formally known as the Unity of the Brethren. Tannenberg’s training was in carpentry, and he assisted in erecting buildings. He moved to Holland in 1748, and the following year set sail for a Moravian community in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, about 70 miles northeast of Philadelphia. In 1757 organbuilder Johann Gottfried Klemm, himself a Moravian expatriate, arrived in Pennsylvania and took Tannenberg as an assistant. After building five organs with his new helper, Klemm died in 1762.

In 1765, Tannenberg moved to nearby Lititz, and there built another forty or so organs. Tannenberg’s life in Lititz was cultured, highly disciplined, and utterly insulated from outside influence, particularly the English manners of Boston, New York and Philadelphian. The Moravians believed in pursuing a ‘good life’, one in which governance, care and worship were all bound up in a tightly-knit community of work, faith and prolific music-making. Tannenberg figured prominently in his town, as string player, cantor, and instrument maker. In addition, the town had a collegium musicum and an orchestra, whose library included chamber works of approximately fifty European composers, including Handel, Mozart, Haydn and Boccherini. (If you’ve seen the recent film The Village, imagine it taking place when it seems to, overlook the scary red beasts sauntering about the forest, and replace the lurking dread with a lot of cheery singing.)

Tannenberg’s customers were primarily in Pennsylvania, but he built organs for North Carolina, New York, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia. His instruments ranged in size from four to thirty-four stops. Smaller organs were built entirely in his workshop; larger ones had casework and sizable elements built on site. Tannenberg seems to have worked in two principal tonal styles: chorus-oriented schemes for Lutheran congregations (usually with a mixture on the Hauptwerk) or consort-type organs for the Moravians (never with mixture, often with abundant ‘lieblich’ color stops). Rarely has an American builder worked so prolifically with such a narrow filter of influence: Tannenberg’s sole point of reference was Klemm’s connection to early 18th-century Saxon organbuilding. Tannenberg might have seen organs as a youth in Holland or in the American cities to which he delivered his own instruments, but they seem not to have affected the thread of his own work. While the major east coast centers were busy importing English organs, some churches wringing their Puritanical hands over worrisomely Pagan objects of great beauty, Tannenberg was promulgating an entirely different style, and circulating it among numerous cities and sects.

Tannenberg is believed to be the first organbuilder to employ equal temperament systematically, perhaps the result of Moravian musical practices. General services were supplemented with those for individual groups (single men, single women, families, children), making for numerous weekly gatherings and a great deal of singing. Paul Larson, in An American Musical Dynasty, writes that the Moravian organist was expected to ‘be able to play the Hymn-tunes in most, if not all, of the different keys extempore; because, upon many occasions, the verses sung by the minister, according to his own choice, are taken from a variety of hymns, and it would be next to impossible to turn continually to the Tune-book, without detriment to the singing; especially as such single verses are often given out, or sung, without previous notice, he may assist the weak singer…if left to his choice, or in the key the singer himself pitches upon.’

The organ in question was among Tannenberg’s final works, a two-manual 13-stop organ built in 1800 for Home Moravian Church in Salem, North Carolina. It was altered slightly in 1845, and again in 1870. Finally in 1910, it was removed to make way for a new instrument, but the church couldn’t seem to bear simple disposal. The organ was instead stored, ultimately in several different locations. In the 1960s, large portions of it were turned over to Old Salem, Inc., a local preservation institution, for safekeeping. In its present restored state, the organ remains on loan from Home Moravian (which now houses an Aeolian-Skinner).

With the restoration of the Salem organ — Tannenberg’s largest surviving instrument— we witness a tradition uniquely illuminated: one thread of mid-18th century German organbuilding in a quasi-orchestral ensemble of mild yet intensely colorful voices. Such an approach resembles nothing French, English or Spanish; its nearest links might be Italian, but even that is reaching for a connection that doesn’t really exist. With the American ‘historical’ organ movement moving away from the North German stronghold and now exploring the central German styles of Bach’s time (Silbermann, Hildebrandt, Trost, etc.), the Tannenberg’s awakening from a century-long slumber is beautifully timed. It offers an inkling of a tradition possibly quite active in Germany during the time of Tannenberg’s youth, but overwhelmed by later builders and only faintly evident in German history — much as Tannenberg himself, though widely active, would be eclipsed by English imports and their influence on practically all 19th-century American organbuilding.

The restored organ rests on a platform in a specially-designed auditorium at the handsome new Old Salem visitors center. The room’s lively acoustics were inspired by the original conditions at Home Moravian, and can be further improved by raising motorized curtains along the walls. The bellows are in a room off to the side, and the organ can be hand pumped (elbow-pumped, really) or blown mechanically. Three large wedge bellows exist very much as they once did in the attic of Home Moravian.

An unusual feature in the languid and mouth construction leaves the open metal pipes with narrow voicing parameters. Throughout, the voicing tends to slowness: the flutes ooze into speech while the strings glide into tone with a distinctly rising ‘whang’. That last quality is also characteristic of the principals. The more keys are depressed and wind is used, the more one hears a little crescendo behind the settling-in of every chord. The straight-line scaling of the principals (in which any pipe of any given length — tenor C of the Octav versus middle C of the Principal, for example — is scaled and voiced essentially alike) links us further to the central German idea. In certain ranges, the Twelfth is even more potent than the Fifteenth, but entirely appropriate to the sheer output of the combined 8-4-2 and lack of mixture. There is a blaze of color in this little chorus, hardly a Gottfried Silbermannesque deluge of stars but with determination and intensity all the same. The range of color, and limits on the power of each stop, invite an egalitarian mixing: everything has a lot of life, and it all seems to go together.

The only true misnomer is the Pedal Violonbaß, an open flute whose effect is perhaps akin to that of a pizzicato bass. The two manual unison flutes are fairly delicate. The Groß Gedackt refers to plumpness and not volume, remaining a calm, placid thing to the top note. The languid Flauto Amabile moos away like a cow-in-training, all with tremendous charm and personality. Each 4-foot flute is the larger specimen and seemingly a bit more prompt, quickening the respective unisons. So potent is the Quintadena that it turns the Gedackt into a giant crisp, while giving the Principal a jolly case of asthma. This sort of tone leads logically to the string stops, whose speech is right on the cusp, hovering between the alarmingly slow (please hold the line, the tone will be right there) and the crudely quick (overblowing as a temporary 4-foot harmonic flute). Such tetchy voicing demands a gentle touch — a good degree of ‘leaning in’ and treating the keys as if they were made of porridge. Handled with care, these strings can be amazingly suggestive of Baroque viol tone; if masked by other instruments (as these Moravian organs often were), the imitative quality would be remarkable indeed.

This sociability of registers, spectrum of color and lively wind supply suggests an orchestral element: the speech and timbre of the open flutes, the quintadena that transforms even the Principal into a sort of string, the gentle nature of both 8-foot flutes as opposed to the bigness of the corresponding 4-foots. The fact that there are three bellows for but 13 stops allows the five unison flues to combine with surprising plausibility — as do the four 4-foots played down an octave. All kinds of registrations succeed, such as the Quintadena with 4-foot Flute, or the Viola and 4-foot Flute, not to mention the contrast between Viola and Flauto Amabile against the Principal.

Restoration in America has had a checkered history. Since the sentiment is more fashionable than the practice, ‘restoration’ has labeled an astonishing array of projects, too few of which have stayed true to the word. Some conscientious work has been done in the past three decades, spread thinly between the tracker- and electric-action fields. The Tannenberg’s rarity, age and quality bring about a context uncommon in America, one more usually the case in Europe or England. I can think of no other American organ that has required the degree of research, reconstruction, conjecture and repair as the Tannenberg, in its strewn-about state, demanded. In that context, Taylor & Boody’s work sets a breathtaking benchmark, a combination of the dramatic repairs required, the extent and meticulousness of research and documentation, and the excellence of the work and the results. The organ sounds, feels and looks splendid, giving the impression that it had been very conservatively overhauled, when it has in fact been revived from the faintest of pulses. All restoration defibrillators should be so skillful.

Reproduced with permission from the January/February 2005 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2005