January 26, 2010
Vol. X, No. 2
"Taking Bach's Name In Vain"
Right before Christmas, an article appeared in The New York Times profiling the new pipe organ at Rochester, NY's Christ Church, commissioned by the organ faculty of the Eastman School of Music. Well, new as in new in 2008. I'm not sure why the article was only then appearing but my first thought was "What a nice Christmas present for organists from The New York Times. On a closer read, however, I found myself quite upset with the article, ignoring thoughts like "I should just be glad it wasn't a digital organ" and "There's no such thing as bad publicity."
"New Pipe Organ Sounds Echo of Age of Bach"
To be clear, I wasn't upset about the organ so much as I was upset with the writer of the article. In order to make the article "interesting," the writer worked an angle on the story and that angle invoked the name Bach. Why drag Bach into it? Obviously, the Bach name 1) gets people's attention and 2) lends credibility to a project. But make no mistake, Bach had extremely little or nothing to do with this organ.
Case in point, the Casparini organ on which the Eastman replica was based was built in 1776 (26 years after Bach's death) which not only is not "in all respects a Bach-era instrument," it's even a stretch to call that period "late Baroque." The flimsy Bach connection is the fact that Casparini was a journeyman (day laborer) who helped build an organ that Bach tested and "could have" known him – not even may have, could have.
Let me back up a bit. According to the article, the organ faculty at Eastman set out to find and replicate "an organ from the high Baroque, preferably one that Bach himself had played." Well, that's not what they got. And that's fine. I'm sure they have a lovely instrument. But the article clearly takes the facts and spins them for the sake of the angle. Perhaps it's only a case of naiveté. After all, the writer, Guy Gugliotta, is typically a science writer for major newspapers and magazines, and indeed the article under discussion appeared in the Science section of the Times, not the Arts & Entertainment section.
But a writer needs to check his or her "facts" to make sure they are indeed facts. This is not an uncommon problem in the Press today and why I take with a grain of salt much of what I read in the Papers. Exactly one expert was consulted and that expert's opinion happened to be aligned with the angle of the article. A writer familiar with the field of organ building never would have allowed the "expert" assertions by Craig Whitney to go unchallenged. In fact, I found those assertions offensive as I'm sure many builders of fine organs everywhere would. Where was the balancing opinion of a non-associated organ builder or professional organist in this article?
Now, the writer doesn't deserve all the blame. I would suggest that the organ faculty of the Eastman School of Music isn't exactly innocent in the matter. I believe the following quote from Hans Davidsson, organ professor at Eastman, is evidence enough that they were drinking their own Kool-Aid:
"This completed project will provide the community with an organ more suitable for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach than anywhere else in North America."
Contrary to the opinions of Mr. Whitney and Mr. Davidsson, I would argue that organists were blessed with many great instruments during the 60s and 70s and continue to be today. I could be wrong but for the most part, I don't believe builders tried in the past or try today to build exact replicas so much they share the goal of building living and breathing instruments on which organists are able to perform the works of the Baroque era in a musical way. I'm not sure that the whole idea of replicating a historic organ in a different location doesn't go against the art of organ building altogether. After all, you're not running a science experiment; you're building a musical instrument.
So to sum up this tawdry tale, the Vilnius Organ is no Bach Organ and no such thing exists anymore, no matter how badly we would like it to. And despite the fact that Eastman picked out an organ the way that most people pick out furniture (specific size and shape for a pre-existing space), they ended up with an instrument that they are happy with. But above all, the experience has provided a lesson in the importance of approaching items in the Press with a critical eye. It's true that you can't just believe everything you read. However, where I will give credit to the writer Gugliotta is that his article served as a launching pad for me to take a wonderful excursion across the web to Vilnius, Lithuania. By the way, it's about 600 miles from Vilnius to Leipzig, by way of Poland. That's a long way from Leipzig. Anyway, here are some of the interesting websites I found:
Organs of the Casparini Dynasty: An Introduction to the Family
From there, if you click on "Adam Gottlob", then "Vilnius, Dominican church," you will end up at:
Vilnius, Dominikaner (Holy Ghost) church
Historical Organs in Lithuania:
Video of the condition of the Casparini Historic Organ in Vilnius in 2008:
And finally, info about and photos of the Eastman organ:
Have a great week!
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