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J.S. Bach and Gottfried Silbermann: two giants in the world of organ music

Johann Sebastian Bach worked for more than 25 years in Leipzig, one of the most significant cities for trade and commerce in Germany during his time. Gottfried Silbermann, who is without a doubt the most well-known organ maker of Bach’s days, was born only a couple of years earlier than Bach. 

Silbermann spent more than 40 years of his life in the old mining town of Freiberg, 30km south-west of Dresden, the royal capital of Saxony.  Freiberg’s earlier fame, which was based on the discovery of silver in 1168 and the tremendous wealth that followed, had faded by Silbermann’s time. 

Bach and Silbermann met only once during their lives, which is surprising considering these were two undoubted masters of their crafts, both with careers centred on man’s largest musical instrument: the organ. Born in 1683 not far from Freiberg, Gottfried Silbermann learnt his craft in Strasbourg from his brother, Andreas Silbermann, who is still recognised today as another accomplished organ maker.

He returned to Saxony in 1710, where he was given the opportunity to build his first big organ for the Freiberg Cathedral thanks to a recommendation from Bach’s predecessor, Johann Kuhnau. Inaugurated in 1714, the organ with 44 stops and 3 manuals was to become his greatest masterpiece and marked the beginning of an unprecedented career in organ making.

Prior to his death in 1753, Silbermann built 46 organs in his workshop in Freiberg, including those he built for the Hofkirche and the Frauenkirche in Dresden. Of the 32 organs still remaining today, most are located in small villages within the Erzgebirge region in Saxony, surrounded by gently sloping hills, green meadows and dark pine forests. And so today, the fine craft of organ building and culture of classical music still find themselves at home in this unique natural environment. Due to its mines, Freiberg’s supply of raw materials such as tin, lead and wood created ideal conditions for Silbermann’s organ building. His craftsmanship and precision as well as his mastery of pipe tuning are still recognised and modelled today. 

Silbermann was famous and wealthy during his lifetime. Augustus II the Strong, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, appointed him as the honorary Saxon Court and State organ builder. This meant he could even afford to decline requests from Copenhagen, Prague and the Russian tsar in St. Petersburg. Gottfried Silbermann was also a gifted maker of other musical instruments, including harpsichords and clavi-chords. In addition, he developed the so-called ‘Cembal d’Amour’, a clavichord with fuller sonority, which was played by striking the double-length strings in the middle. He borrowed the technique of piano making from Bartolomeo Cristofori of Florence, developed it further and built the first pianoforte north of the Alps. 

Frederick II had a collection of pianos at the royal court in Potsdam, where he played Bach the theme of the ‘Musical Offering’ in 1747. Bach and Silbermann didn’t meet face-to-face until 1746 at the inspection of Zacharias Hildebrandt’s organ in Naumburg, Saxony-Anhalt.  Although Silbermann’s method of construction would have aligned with Bach’s requirements for “really big and really attractive” organs, Bach never really acquired a taste for Silbermann’s instruments. For tuning, Silbermann frequently used the conservative mean-tone temperament; however, Bach found the well-tempered tuning system much easier on his ears. 

Today, the Silbermann brand is a significant cultural icon in Germany. Tens of thousands of people attend concerts performed on Silbermann’s organs each year. With four organs from between 1714 and 1735 still in their original condition, Freiberg remains the focal point of Silbermann’s legacy. Two of these organs are located in St. Mary’s Cathedral, an impressive late Gothic building from 1484 with origins dating back to around 1190.  The larger of Silbermann’s organs is con-sidered one of the most significant and best-maintained Baroque organs in the world. During a visit in 1841, Robert Schumann described it as the “superb Silbermann organ”.  Weekly concerts take place between May and October and the organ is also played during church services as well as during many guided tours of the cathedral. With its headquarters located in Silbermann’s old home and workshop, the Gottfried Silbermann Society was founded in 1991.  

The society offers musical projects for children and adolescents, organises concerts and organ study visits, publishes the ‘Freiberg Studies of Organs’, organises the renowned Gottfried Silbermann organ competition and is the centre of knowledge and contact point for organ enthusiasts from all over the world.  First established in 1978, the society also organises a high-class music festival every second year called ‘the Gottfried Silbermann Days’.  In September 2013, stars such as Andreas Staier, Michael Radulescu, Hans Fagius, Jan Vogler, Celine Frisch and Amsterdam’s ‘Gesualdo Consort’ will travel to Freiberg and the Erzgebirge region in Saxony in order to perform concerts in the region’s small churches. The festival ends on 15 September in the Freiberg Cathedral where the St. Thomas Choir of Leipzig will make a guest appearance and allow Bach and Silbermann to come together once again.

By Albrecht Koch, Cathedral Organist and President of the Gottfried Silbermann Society
Translated by Corrinne McKenzie

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