A Skinner in Germany, Tag der Kirchenmusik, and Versperkirche

Back in September, I attended the American Guild of Organist’s European Chapter fall meeting in Ingelheim, Germany (this still feels ironic) and met one of two Skinner organs in Europe (the other resides in the Château de Candé, in France). Following the meeting, I was invited to return and give a recital on this instrument (1930, Op. 823) and on the 1853 Dreymann organ, both in the same Evangelische Saalkirche. Needless to say, I immediately accepted and had a wonderful time planning the program and, ultimately, returning to Ingelheim. I also took the opportunity to travel around southwest Germany, visiting a half dozen cities and about eleven organs, which I get to share with you in this post!

The extremely controversial lady-parking in the Frankfurt airport.

Besides the beautiful instruments and the generous German hospitality, what was most stunning about my experience in Ingelheim was the audience. Carsten and Iris Lenz, organists of the Saalkirche, have the publicity for their concert series down to a science. Even for their own concerts outside of their “home” church and “home” city (they are a wonderful organ duo!), they take it up on themselves to contact local newspapers to get the word out about the upcoming concert. Refusing to charge for tickets, which seems to frequently deter audience members, they take a freewill offering. Of course, this often makes far more money than ticket sales. Another excellent idea that they have, specifically at the Saalkirche, is to allow people to make “reservations,” which cost nothing but simply give Carston and Iris an idea of the number of attendees, and allow early reservers to select their seats. This seems to work quite well, as they had 160 registered and nearly 200 attended the concert, despite the weatherman predicting a terrible ice storm. There was also a “keg” made out of an ORGAN PIPE at the reception. Who wouldn’t want to come, with that as a draw?! (Click here to see the website for the concert series)

My program included a variety: Howells, Bridge, Bach, Schumann (the latter two on the Dreymann organ), Liszt, Langlais, and Ives. After playing mostly French and German mechanical organs for the last four months, it took a little time to re-acclimate myself to the curved pedalboard and the pistons, but the organ made it all seem easy and this first leg of my trip started all off extremely well.


Staying the night in Mainz, I travelled to Stuttgart the next day to see the near-legendary facilities and meet the professors. Little did I know, it was the Tag de Kirchemusik – essentially their “potential students” day! Not only was I able to see and play the instruments, I could sit in on lessons and some lectures and meet many of the excellent church musicians from Stuttgart and its environs.

I can affirm with pleasure that the facilities at Stuttgart are not exaggerated. Naturally, it’s not enough to simply have an “practice” organ here. It has to be in any of a dozen historical and national styles, so that the students can best acquaint themselves with how the play the repertoire. You can find information here, but I saw an Italian Baroque (Woehl), German Baroque (Ahrend), French Baroque (Elsässerin), a “Bach” organ (Silbermann- and Wender-inspired), French Symphonic (to mimic Cavaillé-Coll), and German Romantic (Walcker-inspired Schwäbin). One day wasn’t enough and I returned to Stuttgart a few days later to see the rest of the instruments and the two organs at the Domkirche St. Eberhard- a 1982 Albienz and a 2006 Winterhalter. Take a look at what the choir organ’s pipes are doing (upper right below) because Winterhalter put in the special “Mysterium Eberhardi” just for this church, giving choir members a laugh when the organist decides to pull out this stop!

I made a too-brief tourist visit of Mainz, where the windows of the Pfarrkirche Sankt Stephan are not to be missed. The beautiful space dates from the 13th century but the windows are only installed by Russian-Jewish artist Marc Chagall in the ’80s. The colors of the windows make the visitor feel as though they have gone underwater and one can do nothing but enjoy the quiet while contemplating the Old Testament scenes.

The Cathedral of Mainz is also a “must-see,” simply because of its size. Pictures simply can’t do it justice! Within the churches are fascinating descriptions of these spaces during and after the war, which are challenging to those not versed in German but give unique insights to reactions and aftermath of the turmoil of the last century, which so drastically shaped the Germany of today.

Walking along the Rhine, I was struck by the sheer beauty of this part of the country – even in the dead of January (and although it was over 40 degrees Fahrenheit). How amazing it is to visit these places I have only ever read out, to contemplate the river that played such large parts in Wagner operas, and to explore the streets, although much-changed, that Gutenberg walked.

For the final part of the trip, I headed out towards the Schwarzwald (the Black Forest), a mountain range covered with black-topped conifer trees an hour or so west of Stuttgart. While out “west,” I visited the organ of the Stadtkirche in Nagold, a new organ from 2012 which combines German and French pipes and styles into one instrument. The extensive computer system attached allows all sorts of exciting possibilities, like coupling not only at the octave, but at the fifth, 13th, or any pitch you can imagine!

Besides being able to practice here (the whole night), I was also able to attend the Stadtkirche’s Vesperkirche. What an experience! During the long, cold months of January and February, Germans have noticed how many families struggle to pay for heating. Churches take it upon themselves to, for two weeks each, offer coffee, warm meals, and cake to any who come – for just one euro or so, allowing families to use the money saved for their heating! This also gives everybody a few hours out of the cold and feeds not only the stomachs of the hungry by the spirits of those who are lonely. The more affluent visitors (from all walks of life) donate more (sometimes far more) than just one euro, in order to support the program. I can attest to how excellent the meal was but what was even more rewarding was the spirit in the room. Everybody was smiling, laughing, and enjoying meeting new people. Several hundred people come every day, from students between classes at school, to retirees and widows, and to people who are struggling to make ends meet. This is a huge community event, and everybody comes to support it. Find out more here!

As a few friends have mentioned that it seems like some of my trips seem larger-than-life, I have to share some travel stories. Neither air nor ground travel are without their challenges – during one trip from Stuttgart to Mainz (a 2-hour trek), the high-speed train suddenly stopped and stayed on random tracks in the German countryside for an hour and then proceeded to go fewer than 60km/h until we reached our next destination, which is quite slow when it normally was going about 260km/h! I arrived in Mainz around midnight, which was about 3 hours later than I should have. On the scale of travel malfunctions, this was quite minor, although it was a surprise considering the amount of pride Germans take in the timeliness of their trains!

Arriving in Toulouse I encountered another travel adventure. After landing at the Toulousain airport from Brussels at 23h20 and after going through passport control (since France’s borders are still closed), I discovered that the tram and the bus from the airport were both not working and all of the taxis were still on strike, as they had started the strike the day before. Being in Germany, I hadn’t know about the strike…

When I was told by the police that “there is no way into town” (as they stood by the four police vans), I began the 2-hour walk into town with my suitcase, planning to figure out how to bike with the suitcase bounding along behind me – once I reached the first city bike stand, a 45-minute walk way. I approached some Barcelonians who, upon learning of my plight, kindly drove me to the nearest metro, although it was very much out of their way, as they were staying in a hotel near the airport.

After realizing that the metro had closed for the night and there would be no train until 5h, I again began to walk, until I saw another car – this one with two people from the Basque region. While we joked about France’s penchant for strikes, they drove me all the way to my home in Toulouse. Shamelessly, I gave both good Samaritans my business card and invited them to either send me a bill for gas or come to a recital!

No trip is without its challenges and I was happy to be back in Toulouse – for a little over two days! I am sharing these stories with you from Paris, where I am having yet more adventures, which I can’t wait to tell you all about. However, with all of the travelling and visits, I think I may need a relaxing European vacation when all of this is over!

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