When one considers the large churches in the great musical centers of northern Europe, it is remarkable to think that from the 16th through the 18th centuries many had not just one single magnificent organ placed in the west-end gallery, but a second, no less glorious, if somewhat smaller, organ on another wall. The organists of such churches commanded the resources afforded by two instruments of seemingly limitless potential, often spatially removed from one another by a considerable distance and each capable of playing the entire organ repertoire of the period. These secondary instruments were generally placed in side chapels and were most often used for smaller devotional services; this was the case in Marienkirche in Lübeck, where Dieterich Buxtehude served as organist from 1668 until his death in 1707. The church had an organ of some 54 stops in the main balcony and one of around 40 stops in the so-called Totentanz chapel along the north side of the building.
Another site of such abundance was Nicholaikirche in Hamburg, home to not only the largest organ Arp Schnitger ever made but another instrument of around 25 stops restored and rebuilt by him. The smaller organ was sold to another church early in the 19th century and subsequently disappeared; the large instrument fell victim to the great Hamburg fire of 1842. Both of the organs Buxtehude once played at Marienkirche were destroyed by Allied bombs a century later, in 1942.
When one tries to imagine what it must have been like to be in one of these churches, an alluring scenario presents itself: Two masters of the north German organ art, friends and colleagues, are seated at the two organs, say, of Marienkirche, Lübeck. Suddenly, one organist begins to play, perhaps the opening of a free-ranging toccata, perhaps an elaboration of the first line of a well-known chorale tune, perhaps the refrain of a popular song or dance. As the opening statement dies away and the echo of a cadential chord rings down the church, the other player responds. Thus the two disport themselves in spirited dialogue—a cooperative musical exchange to be sure, but one with more than a hint of competition in it as well.
Buxtehude counted among his friends Johann Adam Reincken, the organist at Jacobikirche in Hamburg, one of the most important musical posts in north Germany. It seems certain that Buxtehude visited Reincken in Hamburg, and it is no less likely that Reincken stayed with Buxtehude in Lübeck on occasion; a group portrait from 1674, now in Hamburg, shows them gathered around a harpsichord. Is it possible that the two never took the opportunity to fire organistic salvos at one another down the nave of Marienkirche? Or that other members of the tightly knit organist fraternity along the Baltic did not do the same?
Consider as well the two instruments that Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck had at his disposal in the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam. Both organs—one of three manuals, the other of two—were built in the middle of the 16th century but were not used in the divine service during Sweelinck’s tenure there, due to Calvinist dictates against instrumental music. It was in secular concerts, most famously for promenading city fathers and wealthy businessmen, that organs were permitted to sound forth.
Sweelinck taught an entire generation of north German organists. Among his many pupils were the gifted trio of Samuel Scheidt, Melchior Schildt, and Heinrich Scheidemann, all of whom went back to their sponsor cities (Halle, Wolfenbüttel, and Hamburg, respectively) after their studies in Amsterdam and then established themselves as three of the finest organists of the period. Might Sweelinck have held forth at one organ while a student answered him at the other? He would have had sound pedagogical reasons for encouraging such games because they spurred quickness of thought and helped develop acute hearing. Or might he and one of his students have played the two instruments in the Oude Kerk together in public concerts as a way of displaying the musical and fiscal wealth of Amsterdam in its Golden Age?
The Memorial Church at Stanford University, a space as grand and reverberant as that of the Oude Kerk, also has two mechanical-action organs within its walls. The large four-manual instrument in the gallery draws on the legacy of the north-German 17th century; the smaller one, which usually resides in a side chapel but can be wheeled to the front of the church below the altar, is a fiery consort instrument, a Renaissance organ on the cusp of the Baroque. Both are in a mean-tone temperament and are at the same pitch. By using two separate pairs of stereo channels during the recording and mixing process, we have tried to give the listener a sense of the spatial remove of the organs that, along with the varied sonorities each instrument offers, makes playing in dialogue such a challenging and rewarding endeavor. The Stanford church and its instruments, along with the recording technology employed, are ideal for re-creating the excitement of two 17th-century organs and organists in colloquy.
With this under-explored historical possibility in mind, the music on the present recording is drawn from composers who at some point in their careers would have had access to a church with two organs. Variations such as Sweelinck’s setting of the drinking song More Palatino, Scheidt’s no less raucous treatment of the popular Bergamasca tune, and Schildt’s swift-moving Gleich wie das Feuer are all readily divided between two organs. Scheidemann’s lively Galliarda ex D—a piece that reflects the composer’s charm and wit—is also in the secular vein, and shows again that Sweelinck, a virtuoso of variation technique, taught his students well. These secular pieces made up a fitting repertoire for the decidedly non-sacred duties of the Oude Kerk organs, but would also have been suitable for the home churches of Sweelinck’s German students, at least when they were played outside of the service and when the more austere of the resident Lutheran clerics were elsewhere.
Along with dances and songs, chorale tunes provide a bountiful source for tandem improvisation. Thus we have apportioned the sprawling fantasia on Christ lag in Todesbanden by Franz Tunder—Buxtehude’s predecessor at Marienkirche—between Stanford’s two organs as a kind of commemoration of the lost instruments of Marienkirche and the musicians who played them. Our version of Buxtehude’s great Toccata in D Minor makes a similar tribute, and, as a pendant to the Toccata in G Major by his friend Reincken, exemplifies the skill, imagination, and boundlessness of the north German organ art.
Of course, two masters would certainly have taken the time to play extraordinary solo works for each other as well. In doing so, they would have impressed upon each other their own unique powers of invention, expression, and grandeur of conception. Thus we have included Schildt’s plaintive Paduana Lachrymae and Scheidt’s monumental In te, Domine, speravi as solo compositions. But even here, the two masters would have come to a better understanding of each other, further developing a spirit of freedom that would have encouraged them to play against each other across vast spaces and that has encouraged us to revisit such past glories.
– David Yearsley