The Great Organ of Himmelheim
The construction of the largest organ in the world – indeed the biggest musical instrument of all time – began in October 1737 and was initially the rather hazy vision of Baron Gustav von Leyendecker, in whose lands, at the foot of the Alps not far from Salzburg, lay the small town of Himmelheim. The organ was inaugurated fifteen years later on the occasion of the town’s patron saint’s day. The Baron’s original idea was to install a vast instrument that could play at a greater volume and with more colour than a symphony orchestra, if such a thing could be imagined. Its construction, meanwhile, demanded the involvement of all the townsmen: a true communion of souls that would doubtless find an ally in the Bishop of Salzburg when it came to covering the costs. If the image had come to him in dreams, perhaps it would have been clearer to everyone, above all to the gentlemen and architects, carpenters and other craftsmen he had convened one day to explain the project. Gustav von Leyendecker spoke to them of a machine bursting with crank handles, pedals, cogs, ramps, pegs. Then he told them about the sound. He said that it must not be homogenous and constant but rather, according to the instructions and certain delicate mechanisms he found it impossible to describe, sometimes a wind-sound should dominate, sometimes the sound of strings. Everyone listening was left imagining some kind of demented music box with an erratic timbre. He then specified that a general conductor would give his orders from a twenty-metre tower, and at least four deputy conductors would be located on a succession of balconies. Only they would be required to be able to read music, while everyone else need only follow their instructions. The Baron was unable even to produce a coherent sketch on paper, with the result that everyone else understood little or nothing of his plans. Nevertheless, his enthusiasm did not falter as the morning wore on; instead, in his effort to clarify his ideas, the crank handles and frameworks disappeared and the complicated mechanisms gave way to pipes, bellows and keyboards, which led, in the end, to the manufacture of an absolutely colossal organ. At that point, everyone got excited.
As is true of venison, some ideas work better in literature than in cuisine.
It took fifteen years to build the instrument, and everyone wanted to have a hand in its construction, even if only to adjust a screw. The organ was to be the emblem and pride of the town, and no one wanted to be left out of the enterprise. Costs were covered by tax hikes and an exorbitant loan from a bank headquartered in Vienna.
To achieve as clear a sound as possible, the alloy used to make the pipes contained more tin than lead. The largest measured as much as twenty-five metres in length, and in total they numbered almost 15,000, including the flue pipes and reed pipes, and the so-called stopped pipes that, with their closed ends, can achieve the lowest sounds of all. There were seven manuals with ivory keys; the valves, the stops and the stop rods were made from the finest ebony.
Brillo, brillo! exclaimed the Baron as he clenched his fists and contemplated his pyramid growing day by day.
It was self-evident that such an enormous instrument could not be installed in the modest church of Himmelheim (nor even in the largest in the Empire, for that matter). Instead, a church would have to be constructed around it. That would be dealt with later. For the time being, a kind of monumental pergola had been built to protect it from the rain and snow.
People from neighbouring villages, eager to view its progress, began arriving in such numbers that a Sunday fair was created. One way or another, it was turning out to be a very good business that made everyone happy.
Despite the inevitable contretemps that befall all such great enterprises, the organ was finally completed without major setbacks.
The Kapellmeister of Munich had composed a choral prelude for its inauguration, accompanied by his cathedral choir. But when he arrived in Himmelheim and saw the great size of the organ, he realised his error. The sound of the instrument would undoubtedly drown out the human voices. So that night, at the inaugural banquet, he announced to the Baron that he had decided to change the programme. He proposed performing a series of preludes and fugues and ending with a fantasia that would allow him to improvise and explore the instrument’s range of possibilities. The Baron assented; after all, he was not the expert. The members of the choir put on a performance at the end of the meal, justifying their journey.Their voices were truly marvellous. Many of them didn’t go to sleep that night, heading instead to one of the town’s three taverns. The exaltation of the beer – everyone was excited about the concert the next day – contrasted with the icy silence of those walking like pilgrims to the outskirts of the city, eager for a glimpse of the organ that night. The good weather had permitted the dismantling of the temporary roof that afternoon,
and the light of the waxing moon ascended the pipes until the eye could follow no more. The organ gave the impression of truly reaching the heavens. A few visitors even kneeled and crossed themselves.
The next day dawned cold. Crowds gathered early. They drank coffee and ate warm pastries distributed by the Baron’s lackeys. By mid-morning, every soul in Himmelheim was awaiting the concert. The town would have been a sitting duck for thieves, if the thieves hadn’t been there too, eating pastries and drinking coffee.
At the expected hour, the Baron delivered a stirring speech.
Everyone applauded, moved.
The bishop blessed the organ (droplets of holy water bespattered the console).
Then the Kapellmeister of Munich stood up. He bowed to the authorities in attendance, as a chamberlain hurried to adjust his chair. A forest-like silence descended. If the sun had fallen directly on the pipes, many people would have been blinded by the reflections.
Although the organ had been tested the previous autumn, and its timbre and volume had left everyone speechless, no one was truly prepared for what came next.
The Kapellmeister played a chord in A minor. Followed by one in B minor.
And the sound not only seemed to expand from the
instrument into everywhere at once, but also thundered in their chests as if someone were shaking them from the inside. Everyone was vibrating.
The sound inundated everything. It ricocheted off the mountains. The organ was redoubled by an Alpine reply.
Brillo, brillo! The Baron’s eyes were wide, his fists clenched.
A deep rumble came from the mountains. This was no echo: it was a monstrous avalanche.
All those who could ran for their lives.
The snow buried the organ of Himmelheim. And it buried the little town of Himmelheim.
For days, clouds covered the sun and the cold did its wintry work. The snow didn’t begin to melt until a week later, once all the curious visitors from nearby towns were gone. The first to melt was the snow that had accumulated inside the organ pipes, while it was still piled deeply on the keyboards. And so the organ began its slow euphoria. As the pipes gradually freed themselves of snow, its volume and splendour grew. And then it would snow again, and some pipes would be stopped up.
Music was falling from the heavens.
A Musical Offering (Charco Press, July 2020) traverses the same shifting sands of fiction and history as the tales of Jorge Luis Borges, while also recalling the ‘constellation’ structure of Olga Tokarczuk’sFlights. Filled with insight and ideas yet unexpectedly tender and personal, it is a celebration of storytelling, of childhood, and of the transformative power of music.
Luis Sagasti, a writer, lecturer and art critic, was born in Bahía Blanca, Argentina in 1963. He graduated in History at the Universidad Nacional del Sur where he now teaches. From 1995 to 2003 he was Curator in charge of Education and Cultural Outreach at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Bahía Blanca, authoring numerous art catalogues for exhibitions. Including Fireflies (known in Spanish as Bellas Artes, 2011), he has published four novels: El Canon de Leipzig (Leipzig’s Canon, 1999), Los mares de la Luna (Seas of the Moon, 2006), and Maelstrom (2015). He also has a book of essays Perdidos en el espacio (Lost in Space, 2011). His new novel, Una ofrenda musical (A Musical Offering) came out in early 2017.
Fionn Petch was born in Scotland, lived in Mexico City for twelve years, and is now based in Berlin. He translates fiction, poetry and plays from Spanish and French, and also specialises in books and exhibition catalogues on art and architecture. He has curated multidisciplinary exhibitions, including the Citámbulos urban research project, and worked for several film and literature festivals. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the National University of Mexico (UNAM), on the concept of persuasion in early Greek thought. @elusiveword