Horst Jehmlich has been involved in the construction, maintenance and restoration of pipe-organs since he was a boy. But an instrument he worked on last year had a special meaning for him. He restored the organ at the Protestant church in the Saxon town of Lauenstein, the third organ or Opus 3 his ancestors Gotthelf and Gotthold Jehmlich built nearly two centuries ago. "I was overwhelmed knowing that my great-great-grandfather constructed it," Jehmlich says. "We learned a lot about his sound craftsmanship" from the instrument's design and treatment of the pipes.
Jehmlich's pipe-organ company in Dresden, one of the oldest in Germany, recently inaugurated its Opus 1,145 in Sievershütten, a town just north of Hamburg. Constructions of new pipe-organs like the Opus 1,145 have decreased and now the restoration and maintenance of existing instruments is gaining importance.
There are currently some 170 pipe-organ enterprises in Germany, employing about 2,500 people and generating annual revenues of $86 million. "Times are difficult, but organ construction is definitely no dying craft," says Anton Rösch, manager of the Association of German Organ Builders.
Known for centuries as the "king of instruments" because of its majestic sound and appearance, the pipe-organ is a royal synthesis of acoustics, architecture, music and the wood- and metal-working crafts. Most instruments are custom-designed to fit into individual spaces; the organ builder attempts to achieve an ideal congruence between space and sound. Sometimes, this leads to unique innovations. The instrument built for Tokyo's Sumida Triphony Hall in 1997, for example, was attached to a huge steel skeleton inside the instrument to withstand earthquakes.
Last year Jehmlich came up with another innovation. Working with Ludwig Zepner, former head of the art department at Germany's Meissen Porcelain Manufacture, he devised a way to incorporate porcelain pipes into an organ, something that had eluded builders since white porcelain was first produced in Europe in the early 18th century. The instrument, located at the factory showroom in Meissen, is the first organ to have wooden and metal pipes as well as 22 made of porcelain. "These pipes have a wonderfully warm sound with a suggestion of flageolet, which gives it a breathy sound," Jehmlich says. "They mix very well with the other materials. Their sound can be so voluminous that you have to tame them."
When he's not working with modern porcelain pipes, Jehmlich is busy with the organs of Gottfried Silbermann, the 18th century master organ builder whose instruments were favored by the likes of Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Jehmlich's family has been repairing and restoring Silbermann's work since 1836.
In contrast to themore robust-sounding organs built in northern Germany, organs constructed by Silbermann are marked by their rich overtones, silvery flutes and reedy trombones. To achieve such distinctive features requires skillful hands, eyes and ears as the builder individually shapes each of the sometimes thousands of pipes in the instrument. Organ builders meticulously cut and bend the lips of each pipe in order to achieve distinctive tones and timbres. Especially important are the dimensions of the slots near the top of the pipes; these slots determine the way the air flows through the pipes, which in turn determines the quality of the registers.
Jehmlich's immediate focus is the partial restoration of Dresden's Silbermann organ, which was largely destroyed during the Allied fire bombing of the city in February of 1945. Jehmlich's work includes the repair of existing parts, the lengthening of the pipes to reach the original pitch and the construction of a replica of the bellows that perished in the flames. "We put high priority on preserving the original substance," Jehmlich says. "This sometimes means that we bring historical working methods back to life."
Across town at Dresden's Church of Our Lady, which was completely destroyed in 1945 and is currently being rebuilt, city officials have decided against a historical reconstruction. Instead, a modified Silbermann instrument with an expanded number of stops and manuals, or keyboards, has been commissioned. Jehmlich is not averse to this decision but says that such an instrument will hardly be comparable to its ancestor. "You cannot expand a Trabant until it looks like a Mercedes and still call it a Trabant," he says.
Business was better in the old East Germany, though Jehmlich isn't nostalgic for the communist past. "There were not enough construction companies, so everything was left to rot," he explains. "As a result churches did not spend money on roofs and spires, but on organs." Despite facing tough competition, Jehmlich does not fear for the future. His organs can be found all over Europe and Asia, and next year he will inaugurate his first American instrument, in Lexington, Texas. In 200 years, one of his descendants will no doubt be restoring it.