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The Façades (Prospects)
of Schnitger Organs

Prospectus – This is the visual impression, the face of the organ. If the organ’s works were regarded as the most artistic technical feat of the time, even as God’s second work of creation through the hands of artistically gifted people, then the prospect, or façade, was seen as the face of this creation. The “faces” Arp Schnitger designed for his masterpieces were suitably grand.

The encasement was called “Struktur” in Schnitger’s time. In the language of the time, this meant the organised erection of a building by people of several different trades. And indeed, the large organs of the coastal regions and towns are indoor architectural installations, extending over several levels. Good carpenters and joiners were needed to construct the basic structure, as well as the panelling, and the little doors and shutters in the fill structure with their beautiful iron mountings. A good cabinetmaker was required to make the delicately embellished console, made out of different kinds of wood and and ivory, and if the case was also decorated with carvings, someone was usually subcontracted by the organ builder to do this work. Then everything was settled through Schnitger’s accounts, so the name of the sculptor can neither be found in the inscriptions on the façades nor in the archival records.

Cooperation with Wood Carvers

The collaboration with the workshop of the famous Hamburg sculptor Christian Precht (ca 1635-1694/5) is not documented likewise. Schnitger’s friendship with Precht began around 1677 in Stade. Their first collaboration was building the organ for the Johannis-Klosterkirche in Hamburg, which can be dated with certainty to 1679/80. The organ was moved to Cappel in 1816, and can still be found there with very few changes. It is even likely that it was Precht who arranged his friend Schnitger’s first commission in Hamburg. Schnitger’s organ with Precht’s exceptionally artfully carved organ case was the reference object for the music-loving hanseatic town. Further verifiable collaborations followed, such as the organ in the Ludgerikirche in Norden (1688/92), also decorated with a range of sculptures, or in Schnitger’s own place of residence, Hamburg-Neuenfelde, where he created the pulpit altar and the organ together with Precht; in Hamburg too, the organ of St. Jacobi in 1693, and in all probability he also created the Gesamtkunstwerk in Clausthal-Zellerfeld in 1702 together with Precht’s son.

Apart from drawing up the disposition plans, Schnitger also made the façade drawings, showing the basic layout of the decoration, in order to give his journeymen an idea of what the finished work would look like. After all, the exterior, that which can be seen, was as it were the visualisation of the heavenly music, and therefore of fundamental importance to worshippers.

Schnitger made the façades in his workshop out of planed, knot-free, seasoned oak. Schnitger’s organs can already be recognised by this high-quality workmanship alone. Stroking their surface with one’s hand is a tactile experience. Schnitger finished the wood with a thin red-brown varnish, in which every pore is visible. Carved ornaments such as pipe shades, garlands, tower caps and carved figures, as well as round parts of the moldings are donned with light ochre, often with delicate gilded highlights. The result is a superb, precious, elegantly restrained work of art, its gold shining from the church ceiling.

The Works and the Beautiful Face of an Organ Belong Together like Body and Soul.

Many of his organ façades are no longer in their original state; they were repainted several times over the centuries. They did not just suffer aesthetically from this treatment, they also suffered acoustically. However, some façades have been restored in an exemplary fashion in recent years. In the Ludgerikirche in Norden, the 1688/92 façade has been revarnished in red-brown and regilded, its figures repainted in the original alabaster white with partially gilded angels’ wings. In Hollern too the coloured varnish on the façade has been reconstructed beautifully. The 1700/01 panel painting by Johann Christoph Walzel at the organ loft in Golzwarden gives us a beautiful impression of the original colour scheme of the depicted façade. We can see how the translucent colour treatment of the case (“Struktur”) reflects the light. The ornamental leafwork, which for financial reasons was sawn out of wooden boards rather than carved (as is often seen in village churches, including Hollern, Dedesdorf and Steinkirchen), comes across as highly valuable, thanks to the gently illusory paintwork with gold highlights. Compared to this, the current colour scheme of the organ in Golzwarden from 1964 looks like a coarse disfigurement of the original case.

The works and the beautiful face of an organ belong together like body and soul. God perfected man’s body in the image of his own face. For this reason, panel paintings representing the creation of Adam and Eve can be found in the iconography on organ lofts such as those in Hamburg-Neuenfelde or Golzwarden.

Text: Dr. Dietrich Diederichs-Gottschalk

Read the entire essay of Dietrich Diederichs-Gottschalk