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Organ building in the Czech Lands.

Pipe organs have always been and remain one of the most impressive and also complicated musical instruments. As with violins, the making of organs has always been wreathed in a certain amount of mystery. Organ builders have guarded their knowledge and handed it down only to their successors in the workshop. This is something evident enough from the fact that our historical sources and literature are all with few exceptions silent on certain matters--specifically on the technology of the making of organ pipes, the scaling of the pipes and the way the organ is tuned (tempered). It is a tradition confirmed by a nearly anecdote story of 1804, although one that might send a chill down the spines of lovers of the music of Leos Janacek. Janacek's grandfather met with an unpleasant accident that almost ended in tragedy--while trying to cast the tin plate for organ pipes he and his friend suffered such severe burns that they spent a long time recovering. The secret of the correct approach was revealed to them later, in exchange for a bag of potatoes, by the window of a certain organ builder.

One reason we tell this story is that it is testimony to the fact that organs were a matter of fascination in all classes of our society. On the other hand, it was never easy to make a living as an organ builder, because as the famous philosopher and sociologist Max Weber observed, organ building was only a good prospect in economically prosperous places and regions. The same remains true to day. It was the reason why organs first appeared in metropolitan cathedrals and monastery churches. It is no accident that the oldest reports of organs in this country come from Prague and Olomouc, and that it was clerics who took up organ building. But as towns grew and flourished organ building became more widespread and became a recognised trade. Reports on organs in the Czech Lands in sources from the 14th century show that the trade was doing well here. Indeed, the oldest known Austrian organ builder, who built the organ in St.Steven's in Vienna, was probably Czech because, in documents of around 1400, he is named as Jorg Behaim (Behem, Pehen, Bohm). The organ builder Jan Behaim, a friend of the celebrated organist Paul Hofhaimer (1459-1537), was also Czech, a native of the village of Dobra near Prachatice.

The second half of the 16th century was a particularly favourable period for Bohemian organ building. At this time the Bohemian lands were arguably one of the trend-setting areas of Europe, as represented by their crowning creation, the so called Ferdinand Organ in the Cathedral of St Vitus in Prague. This was also a golden age in burgher musical culture. One positive factor was the fact that a substantial number of churches in the larger towns came under the patronage and administration of Protestant town administrations, which in line with musical traditions of this religion considered organs and organ music an important part of the spiritual life of their town populations. Rudolf Walter on the territory of the former Prussian Silesia noticed that the co-existence of two faiths inspired a spirit of competition in the construction of organs. The result was that two-and three-manual organs were much more numerous there than in the predominantly Catholic lands. The same trend was gradually evident in the Bohemian Lands too. The situation changed abruptly in the post- White Mountain period after the defeat of the Protestants and with the beginning of the Thirty Years War, however, allowing us to speak about the first great crisis of the organ-builders' trade. A land in economic and religious turmoil was not a promising place for the construction of new organs. Only later, in the second half of the 17th century, do we see renewed signs of development in organ building, especially after the end of the Turkish wars.

The results of re-catholicisation after the Thirty Years War routed the development of home organ-building to the style of the so called Habsburg organ building region. Towards the end of the 17th century foreign organ builders such as Petr Dotte from Westphalia or Theodor Agadoni (coming from Italy) spent time in the country and significantly influenced the form of domestic organ construction. Both of them contributed in their own distinctive ways to the local colour range of organ stops by patterns taken from the German and Italian organ building areas. At the same period we find the famous Johann Heinrich Mundt here, a native of Cologne, nevertheless a pupil of Jeronym Artmann of Prague. That is the ground why his importance results more from his excellent standard of craftsmanship than from any stylistic innovations. Thanks to German sponsorship his most important instrument in the Church of Our Lady before Tyn in Prague (1673) has recently been the subject of first-rate restoration. His other surviving instruments are still waiting for conservation and restoration rescue.

In the following period, however, it was domestic organ-makers who came into their own and exercised the greatest influence, particularly the members of the so called Loket and Brno schools. The most important figures here were the founders of the schools. In Loket (Elbogen) it was Abraham Starck (1659-1709). A number of his instruments are still in existence and attract the interest of every expert and laymen as well (Zlata Koruna, Plasy, Snezne (fig.1) and others). Other masters ranked to the Loket School are Leopold Burghardt, author of the wonderful organs in the monastery church in Kladruby and in Manetin (fig.2), Johann F. Fassmann, and Johann Ignaz Schmidt (fig.3).




The origin of the Brno Organ Building School is dated to the arrival of Johann David Sieber (1670?-1723) in Brno. Sieber created many excellent organs (1708 Polna (fig.4); 1723 Zdar nad Sazavou--monastery (fig.5) and others.). He also managed to get commissions in cities further away, for example for a large three-manual organ in the Prussian (today Polish) town of Svidnice (1705) and in Vienna (1714). His work was continued by his son Franz Sieber, Anton Richter and Jan Vymola. The last named organ builder ultimately achieved an exceptional standard, as we can see in his surviving organs, for example in Doubravnik (1760) (fig.6) and in Dub na Morave (1768).




These two organ schools were the most important ones, but by no means the only ones. Another remarkable example is the Kraliky School, residing in the small town of Kraliky (Grulich) on the northern borderland between Bohemia and Moravia. Several organ-building workshops existed there side by side in the later 18th century--for example four to five of them in the years 1769-1807. To this day it is unclear whether the relationship between them was competitive or co-operative.

What do we know today is that in the period 1600-1850 a large number of organ-making workshops existed on the relatively small territory of the historic Bohemian Lands. For example in Moravia and Austrian Silesia there demonstrably existed more than 170 workshops in seventy localities, and at least as many may be assumed to have existed in Bohemia. It must be stressed that here we are talking about organ-building workshops, places in which often only one to three people were making organs. This form of production went on deep into the 19th century. The handmade approach usually resulted in relatively high quality instruments. In these circumstances some of the builders could be autodidacts, some of whom turned fully professional and soon achieved excellent results. One example might be Frantisek Svitil senior from Nove Mesto na Morave, who founded a three-generation firm and himself constructed more than fifty instruments not just in the surrounding region but also in South Bohemia, South Moravia and Lower Austria (fig.7).


Starting in the 1860s the situation changed again--workshops were turning into factories. This was the period that witnessed the foundation (1873) of the well-known firm of Rieger in Krnov (Jagerndorf). One factor that made for the accelerated decline and disappearance of small workshops and the rise of factory firms was the transformation of the musical aesthetic ideal of the organ associated with the rapid implementation of what was known as the Caecilian reform of church music. This had its effects in the Czech Lands as well. Nonetheless, the smaller centres of production--more workshops than factories--, clung on up to the end of the century, and in significant numbers; it documents the list of organ-making firms throughout the former Austro-Hungarian state published in 1898. It lists a total of 141 firms, of which 45, i.e. almost a third, were in the Czech Lands. For purposes of comparison we should note that at the same time there were "bare" 13 organ-making firms in Switzerland. Among the 45 organ-makers listed in the Bohemian Lands, six were based in Prague and the others scattered throughout the whole territory of Bohemia, Moravia and Austrian Silesia. They were not located only in the larger centres, but could be found in small towns such as Policka (Bedrich Capek) or Lomnice and Popelkou (Josef Kobrle), and even in tiny villages like Hranicne Petrovice (Josef Mader), Nova Rise (Ludvik Nix) or Stare Mesto pod Landstejnem (Franz M. Stangl). Some produced organs of traditional type with slider windchest, but most were gradually moving over to cone windchest and later equipping their instruments with pneumatic action.

The consequences of the First World War were all too evident in organ-making--many firms went out of business. The economic crisis of later years compounded the damage. Nonetheless the number of organ builders remained relatively high, as was confirmed by Ceskoslovenska vlastiveda encyclopedia in 1935 with the following information:

"Among numerous domestic organ-building firms, some of which no longer exist, we should list: V. Brauner in Unicov in Moravia, K. Capek in Policka, Friedl (heir of Petr) in Prague, Lad. Hauser in Teplice, V. Hubeny in Protivin, Jos. Hubicka in Prague, Vojtech Kas in Brno, Langenauer in Podborany, J. Madlo in Prague, Medricky in Kutna Hora, J. Molzer in Kutna Hora (new organ for St Vitus's in Prague), J. Mudroch in Tisnov, the Pastika Brothers in Prague (they built the wonderful instrument in Emauze in Prague), Boh. Pastika in Stara Boleslav, G. Pastika in Cestin, L. Petrik in Brno, E. S. Petr in Prague (the organ in Karlin and many others), V. Polacek in Rychnov n. Kn., J. Rejna & Cerny in Prague, the Rieger Brothers in Krnov in Silesia (many outstanding instruments throughout the republic and abroad), Jindrich Schiffner in Prague (took over the workshop of the famous Gartner organ builders), this traditional firm is now directed by Jos. Ruzicka in Prague, Schonhoffer in Bratislava, Schusser in Tepla near Mar. Lazne, V. Skopek in Tabor, M. Strmiska in Uher. Hradiste, F. Surat in Ces. Budejovice, M. Svitil in Nove Mesto in Moravia, J. Tucek in Kutna Hora (the big organ in the Municipal House in Prague), K. Urban in Prague, Ot. Vazansky in Nitra, Vesely in Kutna Hora, Votruba in Pocatky, J. M. Wunsch in Susice, Fr. Zachystal in Trebic and others."

If we leave aside the Slovak towns, we reach a figure of 31 firms, which once again testifies to the character and staying power of the Czech organ-building in the inter-war period. Once again we should stress the significant fact that organ-makers were based not just in cities like Prague and Brno but could be found in small towns like Pocatky (Josef Votruba), Protivin (Eduard Hubeny) or Nove Mesto in Moravia (Metodej Svitil). The one with the best reputation was Rieger Brothers (Gebruder Rieger) of Krnov, who in the inter-war years 1925-1939 produced more than 700 new organs, half of which were exported from the then Czechoslovakia to other European countries, Asia, South America and Africa. In this respect the firm overtook all the other domestic producers of organs include otherwise excellent firms such as Emanuel S. Petr (fig.8)


This development was once again halted by world war; after 1945 the organ companies scarcely had time to recover before the communist take-over in 1948 struck a final blow to their development. The production of organs was henceforth to be state planned within the monopoly nationalised firm of Rieger in Krnov, newly operating under the name of Tovarna na varhany--Organ Factory. The new secondary title Rieger-Kloss signified the merger of the two previous organ companies after their nationalisation. This single state enterprise, producing and repairing organs, at the same time became the sole, i.e. state monopoly exporter of organs. A few local co-operatives, most of them former organ-building firms, were allowed to meet the domestic demand for new organs and repairs to older instruments. The most important of these was Organa Kutna Hora, created by the nationalisation and merger of the two earlier local firms of Tucek and Melzer.

These changes meant that the natural development of Czech organ-building was frozen, since with the political-ideological restrictions and the new iron curtain it lost contact for many years with the best European and world developmental trends in the organ construction. Particularly hard hit was the important artistic and technical area of organ restoration.

The development of organ building with in the Czech Lands was thus to be essentially planned and determined by a single producer. The application of socialist industrial methods in so sensitive field as organ-building inevitably had effects precisely opposite to the planned demands for increase in quality--the Krnov concern produced instruments of very uneven standard. Over the years 1948-1989 almost six hundred instruments were built in Krnov. Among them there are some good enough to merit attention and protection in my view. They cannot be listed here in full, but we might here mention at random at least the following: Velehrad (1964), Cheb--St. Clare (1974), Olomouc--St Michael (1975) and Unicov (1987).

As in the other post-communist countries of Central Europe, 1990 was another major turning point. At the time in the Czech Lands, three other enterprises were building organs apart from the Rieger--Kloss Organ Factory: Organa Kutna Hora as a smaller producer of organs with pneumatic action often inserted into old organ cases; the organ division of the toy factory Igra Praha, which was mainly devoted to repairs but in the seventies was already managing to build new organs with mechanical action and slide wind-chest (1976 Nove Mesto in Moravia); and finally the organ workshop of the Drevopodnik Brno (City of Brno Wood Concern), which produced below-average pneumatic instruments that replaced older, often historically very valuable organs in South Moravia.

Apart from these official producers, however, there existed some "independent" essentially only semi-legal organ makers, some of whom were capable of building new smaller instruments. Among the most promising at that time were Vladimir Slajch, Bohumil Zloutek & Jan Kubat and Pavel Doubek & Dalibor Michek.

The situation after 1990 can be briefly described in terms of the following basic features:

--The privatisation of all existing organ making and repairing facilities

--Rapid growth in the number of licensed organ-makers and repairers as a result of extremely liberal legislation

--A decline in the traditional organ-making and repairing facilities as a result of tough competition on domestic and foreign markets associated with the changed economic situation

--Improvement in the production qualities of a few organ firms as a result of liberal and concurrently tough market conditions

--How have these changes affected the established organ builders? In relation to the most important, the Rieger-Kloss firm, we may sum up as follows:

--The loss of monopoly position on the Czech market, resulting in the gradual cutback of production and reduction of the workforce

--The loss of traditional export areas (The Soviet Union and other former communist countries)

--Privatisation involving a new owner and new management

--Gradual orientation to "combined" instruments with pipe and digital registers, associated with the attempt to break into the American market

--Continuing neglect of modern restoration approaches with older instruments

The overview of the firm's production confirms the features identified above (see chart).

A typical example of the recent production of Rieger-Kloss firm might be the organ op 3724 for a Presbyterian church in Savannah (USA, Georgia) in 2005, which has up to three manuals and pedal 45 pipe and 21 digital registers.

Unlike in the case of Rieger-Kloss the privatisation of Organa Kutna Hora did not mean the change in the firm management, which consisted simply of the organ-makers themselves. Production of new organs with pneumatic action was halted, for the management quickly grasped the changed situation. Now the firm is orientating itself more to modern methods of restoration and renovation of organs with pneumatic and mechanical systems.

The activity of the organ-makers at Igra Praha was terminated and some of its former employees went independent as private entrepreneurs focused mostly for organ repairs. Drevopodnik Brno ended in much the same way, with the new firm Varhany Ostopovice, being formed in its place; Organ Ostopovice is moving from pneumatic action to the production of organs with mechanical action and slide windchest.

With the help of his son Dusan, Pavel Doubek enlarged his earlier workshop and turned it into a modern firm, newly founded in 1992 in Cizov. During the 1990s he made several interesting organs, for example the two-manual mechanical instrument made in 1992 for the Blahoslavuv dum (an evangelic Church) in Brno (fig.9). This firm also restored Baroque organs, for example Burghardt's organ in Kladruby and the Starck organ in Prague at St. Francis's. Towards the end of the 1990s the firm's activities were halted as a result of poor management decisions and business plans.


Bohumil Zloutek worked most often with the pewterer Jan Kubat. The new conditions allowed him to set up his own firm in the town of Zasada, where his son also assists him. They have revived the family, pre-Communist tradition. Among organs recently made by the firm we might mention organs in Bystrice nad Pernstejnem (2000), Krenovice (2002) and Krovi (2005). Most are smaller instruments designed to meet the liturgical needs of rural churches.

In the 1990s Dalibor Michek founded a new firm in Puklice and then in Studenky near Jihlava. At first he continued working with Vladimir Slajch and with the Doubeks, but then he became a sought-after producer of wood pipes, which today he is still manufacturing for many foreign firms. His customers include Georg and Thomas Jann - Allkofen, Peter Vier - Oberweier, Hans-Georg Vleugels - Hardheim, Kristian Wegscheider - Dresden, Yves Koenig - Sare Union, Gaston Kern - Hattmat, Friedrich Hartig - Seewalchen am Attersse and others. In the last two years he has been going back partly to restoration, using his own effective methods of conserving and petrifying the wood parts of organs.

His former colleague Vladimir Slajch has emerged as one of the most talented of Czech organ makers. In 1992 he founded his own firm and in Borovany he started from scratch to build a modern organ-making and restoration workshop. Since then he has made a number of remarkable organs. While still working with Dalibor Michek he created the organs in Ruzena (1989, 1/7) and in Trest (1990, II/24) (fig.10). The two concert organ positives for the organists Jaroslav Tuma and Vladimir Ruso are also from this period. In his new workshop in Borovany he has built organs for Ebreichsdorf (1996, Austria, II/14), Feldafing (1997 SRN, II/14), Ceske Budejovice (1999, II/20), Traun-Oedt (1999, Austria, II/16), Prague--St Bartholomew's (2000, II/18), Prague--St. Ignatius (2001 I/6) and Bruchsal (2004, Germany, II/30).


Vladimir Slajch is perhaps the purest example of the handful of Czech organ makers who have not stagnated and slept on their laurels. He has been constantly improving and developing his work. Just a comparison of his chronologically successive organs Traun--Ceske Budejovice--Bruchsal makes this very clear. His last organ for Burchsal, indeed, shows that his work is in the European first rank. His huge experience and historical knowledge of organs, the like of which we shall find win no other Czech organ maker, makes him not only an outstanding domestic restorer of historical organs, and one almost without competition, but is manifest in his approach to the building of new instruments.

As has been noted above, after 1990 (and in some cases earlier) a number of organ-builders left the firm Rieger Kloss Krnov. Most of them then founded their own organ trades, but to a greater or lesser extent they have all continued to show the influence of the original "mother firm", the "Rieger-Kloss" method for building organs and their acoustic and visual aesthetic. This entitles us to use the term of Krnov Organ-Building School in the same sense that the terms Loket or Brno School are used. The following firms and organ-makers are among the most important representatives of this Krnov School:

Vaclav Smolka (Krnov) produces smaller and larger instruments, applying his own technical improvements and ideas. So far his most important organs have been for the Cathedral in Ostrava (1998, op. 3, III/43) and for the Church of the Holy Spirit in Opava (2003, op. 5, III/34).

The firm Kansky and Brachtl (Krnov) was founded in 1997. It produces new organs using historical inspirations and approaches, especially Baroque organ-building. The firm's most important organs include 1999 Odry (III/44) 2001, Novy Hradec Kralove (II/23), 2003 Banska Bystrica (Slovakia, III/35), and 2004 Humpolec (II/25) (fig.11). It is a firm that has achieved surprisingly well thought out and high quality results, making it one of the leading representatives of contemporary Czech organ-building. It is gradually creating its own aesthetic idea of sound and visual form, emancipating itself from the earlier influence of the Riegerian traditions.


Vladimir Grygar left the Krnov organ firm long before 1990, but officially founded his firm in Prostejov in 1992. He is the author of a number or organs, largely conceived and executed in the Riegerian tradition of universal instruments for all organ styles. We shall find them for example at St. Anne's Hill near Opole (1998, Poland, III/34), in Litomysl at the Holy Cross (2000, IV/50) (fig.12), and in Ceska Trebova (2005, III/38).


Other firms producing smaller instruments should also be considered a part of the Krnov Organ School: Jiri Vaculin (Vsetin), Robert Ponca (Krnov) and Jan Stavinoha (Valasska Bystrice). Their activities have not so far risen above the level of ordinary organs for liturgical needs.

We can summarise the present state and prospects of Czech organ making today as follows: The new legislative conditions after 1992 meant the "unfreezing" of the unnatural arrested state that had lasted for forty years. A large number of people have since acquired trade licenses in the field, but only a few firms are actually capable of producing new instruments, and these mainly belonging to the so-called Krnov organ school with its more conservative character of production and sound aesthetics. Only a very few firms have achieved high quality new organs enabling them to break into foreign markets, especially Germany. Unfortunately what was hitherto the largest Czech organ producer, Rieger-Kloss, has been dropping out of this progressive group. Vladimir Slajch, on the other hand, deserves to be taken very seriously, as does the firm Kansky a Brachtl. The typical feature of both is strong inspiration from historic instruments, but this makes their products almost unacceptable for some Czech organists and customers who want "modern" organs of the Rieger-Kloss or Grygar type.

This fact reflects the two main developmental trends in contemporary Czech organ-making:

1) the established, i.e. traditional style based on Krnov organ-making, representing the so-called "modern" organ with a wide range of technical possibilities.

2) the historicizing style, based on detailed, precise craftsmanship using historical organs as models.

If we look at the question from the point of view of the wider Europe, and European Union, for the moment the only firms capable of competing are in the second group. Only time will tell which path Czech organ-making as a whole is more likely to take.
Overview of the Output of Rieger-Kloss Krnov since 1990

Year No. of Destination

1990 13 7 Czechoslovakia, 3 USSR, 1 Italy, 1 Cuba, 1 Germany

1991 14 9 Czechoslovakia, 1 USSR, 1 Slovenia, 1 Austria, 1
 Italy, 1 S. Korea

1992 14 5 Czechoslovakia, 3 Germany, 3 USA, 1 Norway, 1
 Portugal, 1 Austria

1993 8 3 Czech Republic, 1 Slovakia, 1 Italy, 1 Austria, 1
 Norway, 1 S. Korea

1994 11 5 Germany, 2 S. Korea, 1 USA, 1 France, 1 Slovakia, 1

1995 10 6 Germany, 2 China, 1 S. Korea, 1 Denmark

1996 12 5 S. Korea, 2 USA, 2 Germany, 1 Austria, 1 Slovakia, 1
 Czech Republic

1997 3 1 S. Korea, 1 USA, 1 Czech Republic

1998 2 1 Germany, 1 Slovakia

1999 2 1 USA, 1 Japan

2000 2 1 Poland, 1 Great Britain

2001 4 2 USA, 1 S. Korea, 1 Japan

2002 4 3 USA, 1 Slovakia

2003 0

2004 1 1 Czech Republic

2005 1 1 USA
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Title Annotation:instrument makers
Author:Koukal, Petr
Publication:Czech Music
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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