The 'Bach Organ' at Arnstadt
"the most productive and helpful coming together of historical study and live playing happens when what one is studying is not books or even scores but an historic instrument"
26 July 2021
The young J S Bach was appointed organist at what is now known as the Bachkirche in Arnstadt in 1703, leading to today's familiarity coexisting with persistent misunderstandings about the instrument. For more than three centuries writers have revealed uncertainties over such basic matters as its stop list, leading some to propose dispositions which could not
even have fitted on the jambs of the still-extant console. Thus more subtle matters such as how music might have been registered on it have not been well addressed. At one extreme it can be argued that the tonal design of the instrument defies logic compared with contemporary
Werkprinzip organs to the north, and to counter this it is necessary to examine the rapid changes in musical taste and registrational styles taking place post-1700.
Wender's 'Bach Organ' at Arnstadt (1703) as
recreated by Hoffmann (1999)
Most organists and others with an interest in J S Bach are aware of the so-called 'Bach Organ' at Arnstadt in Thuringia, and even tourists leave the area with some recognition of its significance. Yet this familiarity is partly a façade concealing an historical patchwork full of holes held together at least as much by anecdote, myth and legend as by reality. Too much of the associated literature is vague and peppered with misunderstandings and errors, not a little of which has been amplified by the inconsequential internet ephemera of recent times. When pursuing more serious research further difficulties are faced by those who do not read German or who lack ready access to information not in the public domain. Against this background, the present article therefore tries to rescue the organ and the church (their stories are inextricably linked) from a rather untidy situation. In doing this it is fortunate that we have a detailed account of the reconstruction of the building and its organ which took place between 1997 and 2000 , incorporating a history of both going back to their earliest days. Although recommended reading, it is in German and as far as I know it has not been published widely, thus providing additional justification for this article.
So let us begin with J S Bach's appointment as organist at Arnstadt in his late teens in 1703, the year that J F Wender's entirely new organ had been inspected and approved by the youngster himself. The instrument had been partly financed by a bequest from the wealthy Arnstadt trader Johann Magen [14, 15]. The church was then called the Neuekirche because its predecessor, Bonifaciuskirche or St Boniface, had been destroyed by fire in 1581. Today it is called the Bachkirche for obvious reasons, having taken this name in 1935. In Bach's time the church was as lofty as it is now, thus it would have enjoyed much the same impressive acoustic. In such a large building it might therefore seem odd that Wender's organ was so small and banished to a position high on the top gallery, crammed into a barely adequate space under the vaulting such that insufficient height was available for some stops (see the picture above). The longest pipes of the 16 foot pedal Posaunen Bass and 8 foot Trompet on the Oberwerk both had fractional length resonators for this reason . Furthermore, because a manual 16 foot flue was similarly out of the question, a curious sub-quint principal at 5 1/3 foot pitch was presumably included on the Oberwerk so that a fake suboctave effect might be obtained in conjunction with the unison stops. But this begs the question as to why Wender did not simply provide a stopped 8 foot rank to generate real 16 foot tone instead if that is what he wanted?
Figure 1. The actual console of the original Wender organ of 1703
But we are getting ahead of ourselves in discussing the sounds of the instrument before we have even had a peek at the stop list. Establishing the original disposition of any organ is often difficult and sometimes impossible, but in this case the original contract drawn up with Wender in 1699 still exists. However some modifications were apparently made during its construction or shortly afterwards (e.g. the Nachthorn on the Brustwerk was added later). Nevertheless, the precious original console (Figure 1) with its drawstops and some labels has resided in the Haus Zum Palmbaum (Palm Tree House) museum close to the church since 1864 and consequently Hoffmann was able to reconstruct the instrument in 1999 with some confidence to the disposition shown in Table 1.
Table 1. Neuekirche, Arnstadt (Wender, 1703; reconstructed by Hoffmann, 1999)
It is worth pointing out that some other sources contain errors. Williams and Owen
 gave both manuals a 2 foot stop, they gave the pedal a non-existent Violon but omitted the Cornet, they were unclear about the couplers, they wondered whether an 8 foot Höhl Flute appeared on the Brustwerk and whether the Quintadena was at 16 foot pitch. Sumner
 and Schweitzer , possibly following Bach's 19th century biographer Spitta
 (who also alleges contemporary dissatisfaction with the
instrument and its builder ), both put a 4 foot flute on the pedal. Wills
 refers to 'the Pedal of five stops' (sic) without listing them, perhaps
based on the flawed assumptions of Schweitzer and Sumner. Some authors have even included more stops than could have been accommodated on the jambs, a lapse that cannot be overlooked easily because the oft-pictured original console still exists and has therefore always been available for study, the Cold War years notwithstanding (the photograph in Figure 1 appeared widely in Western publications in the 1960s, for example).
Table 2. Johannisklosters, Hamburg, now at Cappel (Arp Schnitger, 1680)
The differences between the two organs could scarcely be more striking. Schnitger's had completely developed chorus work on all three divisions whereas Wender's did not; Schnitger's limited range of unison tonalities was subservient to this whereas Wender explored diversity of timbre to a far greater degree; possibilities for synthetic tone building using mutation stops were almost negligible on Wender's organ compared with the riches on Schnitger's; Schnitger included real 16 foot tone on both manual divisions while Wender provided none; unlike Wender, Schnitger provided no pedal coupler because he did not need to with so complete a pedal organ; and Schnitger included a 'toy' stop but Wender went further and installed two.
Table 3. Dorfkirche, Fraureuth (Gottfried Silbermann, 1742)
One only has to listen to today's reconstructed Arnstadt instrument for a while before the remarks above, mainly concerning the under-developed chorus work, confront one forcefully. The performer can either use the wide range of individual timbres, or a few combinations such as 8 foot plus 4 foot, or add the mixtures. In other words, the organ is either quiet, mezzo-forte, or it becomes suddenly loud. There are not many dynamic options lying between the quietness and the loudness. It is a most curious situation, indeed I find its limited combinational palette rather tiresome in terms of aural experience, and it makes one long for clues as to how Bach would have treated the instrument. Looking to the usual authorities to provide the clues seems pretty fruitless in view of their widespread uncertainties over such basic details as to what the original stop list might have been, as noted earlier. Of course, we cannot know for sure what the original Arnstadt organ sounded like nor how it might have been played, but recordings are widely available of Hoffmann's carefully reconstructed instrument (e.g. ). Some YouTube demonstrations of the organ are also worth listening to (e.g. ).
So we have set the scene for Bach's musical workspace at Arnstadt. He would probably have had the whole organ gallery to himself - who else beyond his singers, his instrumentalists and the organ blowers would have wanted to traipse up and down all those stairs without good reason? However it would have been a rather dark and forbidding place, since the dormer windows visible in the modern picture above were not inserted until the 1730s, and by then Bach had long since departed. The murkiness would have implied the need for much candlepower close to a lot of music paper and woodwork, not only expensive but perhaps causing some anxiety given that the previous church had burnt down.
Subsequent to the new windows, further redecoration and reordering of the church took place in the 1770s, a date which is significant since the building was taken backwards to this time when the Hoffmann instrument was installed in 1999. Although its casework is said to have been painted in 1709  and that Wender undertook repairs in 1710  and 1713 , his organ seems to have survived pretty much intact for over 150 years. At this time major modifications were documented in church records in the 1860s , though there must surely have been other interventions over such a long period just to keep it playable especially in view of the allegedly dubious quality of Wender's work as noted previously. The 1860s work was instigated by the then-organist Heinrich Stade and executed by Julius Hesse, though it was apparently not an overwhelming success, partly because the instrument was enlarged to 59 stops across three manuals and it emerged with an unpleasantly heavy touch . Nevertheless the newly conflated instrument attracted visits from Liszt on more than one occasion. One wonders rhetorically why the heavily attenuated connection to Bach in the mutilated organ apparently remained so magnetic to him.
Any remaining Bach connection became even more tenuous when Steinmeyer was called in to build a new organ in 1913. This essentially romantic instrument had tubular pneumatic action with three manuals and 55 stops, and at first it was installed on the second gallery below that where Wender's organ had stood. In fact the third gallery was demolished to make room for the imposing case of the new instrument. However six old stops were retained, labelled as 'Bach Registers', together with parts of the old casework. This organ was subsequently lowered still further to a position on the first gallery in 1938 by Wiegand Helfenbein , when the second was removed in its turn to make way for it. Not to put too fine a point on it, not only had Wender's organ been destroyed but the church was disfigured as well.
In 1997 Orgelbau Hoffmann  began a comprehensive reconstruction, though perhaps
recreation is a better word, of the original Wender instrument. About 25% of the original pipes, 320 in total, were recovered from the Steinmeyer organ. This allowed four stops (Viola di Gamba 8, Grob gedackt 8, Octava 4 and Still gedackt 8) to regain almost all of their earlier pipework, together with three others (Gemshorn 8, Nachthorn 4 and Quinta dena 8) which also incorporate substantial amounts of old material. In contrast, four stops (Principal 8, Principal 4, Quinta 6 and Mixtur III) each only retain a single old pipe. No original pipes from the pedal organ were available.
It has been said that "Bach played German organs of every type from late renaissance vintage with 'spring chests', to the mature works of Gottfried Silbermann in which the seeds of romanticism were already sown"
. If this was true of Silbermann's organs then it was writ larger in Wender's instrument of 1703 at Arnstadt, even though it predated Silbermann's later work by some forty years. Its design also supports Wills who argued that, in contrast to the seventeenth century
Werkprinzip instrument of northern Germany, organists were combining principals, flutes and strings for bold effects rather than building vertical choruses in the old manner based on the natural harmonic series of pipe sounds
. At Arnstadt and in similar instruments around that time, mixtures were being retained more to boost loudness when necessary, rather than being integrated seamlessly into an holistic whole as previously. Players were also thickening solo lines with flutes and reeds at pitches no higher than 4 foot. The Arnstadt organ would certainly have encouraged and enabled them to do those things.
1. "Are we any closer to understanding J S Bach, the organist and organ-composer?", Peter Williams, The IAO Millennium Book, Incorporated Association of Organists, July 2000.
"Demo of the 1703 Wender organ in Arnstadt by Balint Karosi"
2. "The BACH-Organ in Arnstadt - Wender 1703 - Organ Demonstration Video - Paul Fey"
14. The local benefactor Johann Magen (d. 11 May 1699) is described as a 'builder and tradesman' (Bauherrn und Handelsmann) in the register of deaths of the Neue Kirche at Arnstadt dated 15 May 1699.
See https://jsbach.de/dokumente/stiftung-des-kaufmanns-johann-wilhelm-magen (accessed 9 November 2021).
15. Johann Magen's contribution towards the building of Wender's organ was said to have amounted to about 40% of the cost:
"Towards the close of the previous century the Municipality of Arnstadt had rebuilt one of their churches, which had been destroyed by fire in 1581, and had consecrated it in 1683 under the name of the New Church. Only an organ was lacking; but the new sanctuary lay so near the hearts of the inhabitants that the Consistory could show soon after, that a sum of 800 gülden had been collected for it, by contributions from all sides, and would still increase to 1100 gülden. A rich citizen, in 1699, bequeathed 800 gülden more, and now they could take steps for the construction of a really worthy and complete organ."
"Johann Sebastian Bach", vol. 1, Philipp Spitta, Berlin 1880, p.222 et seq.
(Trans. C Bell & J A Fuller-Maitland, Novello & Co, 1889. Republished by Dover, New York, 1952; reissued in facsimile 1992, 2015)
16. Spitta, op cit, pp. 224-5.
17. Spitta, op cit, wrote of the tendering process and the resulting instrument::
"An inefficient builder was passed over, though a native of the town, and Johann Friedrich Wender, of Mühlhausen, was chosen, who constructed and erected the organ between Whitsuntide and the winter of 1701. Wender had built many organs in Thuringia, and had so made a name; but he was not a thorough workman. In a very short time it was shown that four pipes were wanting to the work. Repairs were already needed in 1710, and Wender effected these so carelessly that Ernst Bach, the organist at that time, was forced to explain that the organ required complete restoration to preserve it from becoming quite unserviceable. The same experience was gone through with regard to the organ at the Church of St. Blasius at Mühlhausen, which Wender had also built, and in which there was always something to mend."
Information from https://pipedreams.publicradio.org/tour/2019germany_fall/fall_tour_booklet_germany.pdf
pp.37-39 (accessed 7 November 2021)