Northern Pilgrimages and Fried Food

For an American organist in Europe, it seems that every city provides a kind of pilgrimage in homage to a famous historical composer, organist, or organ.  My most recent trip through Germany and the Netherlands (including Lübeck, Hamburg, Schwerin, Cologne, and Amsterdam) brought me to cities where giants of the classical- and organ-music worlds once lived and worked. Perhaps a part of me hopes that a little of the talent and dedication of these individuals might rub off on me as I visit?

Making travel plans for my first destination of Hamburg, I learned that Lübeck is a mere hour-long train ride away. There was no choice but to make my first pilgrimage to the former city where organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude held his longest tenure and final post at the Marienkirche. Buxtehude’s chamber, vocal, and organ music is still performed around the world, despite his having lived in the 17th century. He was one of the strongest influences in Johann Sebastian Bach, who walked over 400 km (250 m) from Leipzig to Lübeck to hear Buxtehude play and to study with him. Naturally, the Mariankirche was my first stop in this beautiful city.

Churches could not be the only things that I saw while in Lübeck, which features at least a half-dozen museums on such subjects as puppets, history, and fine arts. The Holstentor museum explored Lübeck’s 14th- and 15th-century role in the Hanseatic League and gave some fascinating descriptions of sailing vessels and the perils of trading expeditions.

Interested in exploring even more history, I plunged into the Aldstadt‘s winding cobbled streets and investigated some of the tiny passageways found between the leaning houses. I happened upon the Theaterfigurenmuseum, Lübeck’s Museum of Theatre Puppets! This houses puppets from three centuries and from three different continents, allowing the viewer to see how how puppet-making and -use has developed in Europe, Africa, and Asia. The associations that various cultures hold for these puppets showed some striking societal differences and was one of the most interesting parts of the exhibit, although I did also enjoy a German puppet film about train-hijacking!

Of course, I had to explore Lübeck through my daily jogs, which gifted me stunning views of the city, with the skyline reflecting in the endless canals surrounding this important German port, during both dawn and dusk. This sleepy town is even more so in the early hours of the morning, when the only people outside are those searching for the day’s bread or, like me, enjoying the quiet.

I am grateful that I was able to do all this running, because Lübeck was not a city in which to refrain from good food! Not only did I indulge in marzipan from Niederegger (since Lübeck claims to be the original city for this almond confection), I also visited Bräuburger for some excellent beer and schnitzel. Trying to keep some semblance of a budget, I enjoyed quite a bit of street food (while watching some quite astounding street performers) and hunted down some herring (since it is the season, after all).  I also found a moment to stop at the Freibackhaus, where there has been a bakery since the 13th century and is a UNESCO building. The pastries were even better than I had hoped!

Between meals, I took the 10-minute train ride visit Travemünde on the North Sea for the Sonntag Kantate at St-Lorenz-Kirche. This sermon of this beautiful service was punctuated by gustily-sung hymns accompanied by excellent organ playing on the 1966 von Beckerath. The sight of the ocean and walking along the shores only helped to make this a more meaningful Sunday morning.

I also found myself at a few organ consoles (a phenomenon that seems to happen more often than not). One of the greatest highlights of my time in the city was being locked in Lübeck’s Jakobikirche for several hours in the evening, during which I had free access to all three organs. The Groß Orgel was orginally a 15th-century Blockwerk organ and some of these pipes still make up a part of the modern instrument. The most recent of numerous organ projects and restorations was done in 1983-4 by Schuke in Berlin. Today’s instrument can play a range of repertoire from Sweelinck and Bach through Reger, Duruflé, and Escaich – and makes all of this repertoire feel easy under the hands (a seemingly impossible feat!).

The Kleine Orgel also has roots in the 15th century and is a charming testament to the German Baroque style of music and to the Gothic style of architecture, making the organist feel equally at home playing Mozart or Buxtehude.

The final instrument of the Jakobikirche was the Richborn-positive organ: a beautiful late-17th century one-manual instrument that sings with all sorts of early music.

What happens when I have limited time on three gorgeous organs and end up going just a little too fast down the winding staircases…

As can be seen to the left, I may have been rushing up and down the winding staircases a little too quickly in my excitement of having all-too-limited time on these exceptional instruments. This resulted in a rather dramatic cascade of sheet music down one of said stairways. If I had gone just a little more slowly, perhaps I would have gained another three minutes on the positive…?

It just so happened that my time in Lübeck coincided with their annual Waldenkonzert der 4 viertel-stiftung kirchenmusik, where all four of the main churches hosted 30-minute concerts on Sunday afternoon. Beginning in the Jakobikirche, the several hundreds of audience members enjoyed Durufle’s Missa cum jubilo, Op. 11, performed by members of the Lübeck Musikhochschule and accompanied by professor Arvid Gast on the Große Orgel. We then walked to the next church, as a large crowd of organ aficionados. At each venue, the beginning of the concert was announced by a 10-minute mini-concert of well-known church chorales by a brass sextet. Since they played outside, this part of the “concert series” drew curious passersby to the concerts! The next concert featured a brass quartet in Buxtehude’s Marienkirche and the following was of a girls’ choir concert in St. Aegidien. The final event of the day was a demonstration of the Italian Baroque organ (1777 Biaggio di Rosa, 2000 Ahrend) at the Lübecker Dom, led by Hartmut Rohmeyer and punctuated by the singing of hymns and of the themes of the ricercars. The enthusiasm of this audience, from all ages and walks of life, was contagious.

Following the requisite post-concert cocktail hour, I was privileged to play the 1970 Marcussen organ in the cathedral and to learn more about the former 1699 Arp Schnitger organ, which was destroyed when Lübeck was bombed during the Second World War. Arp Schnitger was one of the most influential and prolific late 17th-century organ builders of the Netherlands and Germany and conversations about historic instruments are not complete without thorough discussion of his work. Less than a third of the instruments that he built exist today and the churches that house them serve as more “pilgrimage destinations” for modern organists.


Leaving Lübeck early on Monday morning, I boarded a train (whose final destination was in Poland) to travel an hour eastward to Schwerin. The Cathedral here houses the famous 1868-71 Friedrich Ladegast organ, which serves as yet another “must-see” for international organists. As Ladegast studied with the famous 19th-century French organ-builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (who built Toulouse’s “crown jewel” : the organ at the Basilique St-Sernin), he used many of Cavaillé-Coll’s organ building techniques in his own instruments, including Schwerin’s. He also experimented with new ideas, such as extra pedals that “crescendo” or “decrescendo” the stops of the organ (causing them to physically move in and out), in addition to a rudimentary swell pedal. My two hours on the bench were just enough to begin exploring the lush 8′ stops and the bombastic reeds and I can’t wait to return – with more music by Liszt and Reger!

I quite literally ran from the Cathedral to Schwerin’s Palace, the foundations of which were placed in the 16th century. It is beautifully situated overlooking the Schweriner Sea and I merely wish to have had more time to explore the stunning grounds and the interior of this former home of the dukes of Mecklenberg before catching my train back to Hamburg.

It was a bit of a culture shock to arrive in Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city, after visiting these smaller municipalities of the German countryside. Suddenly, I was back in the land of Starbucks, H&M, and tourists! Allowing myself the time to re-acclimate to the overwhelming smells of McDonalds alongside the delectable fragrance of coffee and German bakeries, I headed right to the Hauptkirche St. Petri, where I would perform.

Upon the naming of Hamburg as a “Free Imperial City” in 1529, a new church order was begun with the five Evangelican-Lutheran Hauptkirchen of Hamburg at its center. St. Petrikirche is the eldest of these Hauptkirchen, as its foundations were in the 12th century and the majority of the building was built in the 14th-century in a Gothic style. Former music directors included Carl Philip Emanual Bach (Johann Sebastian’s second surviving son) and Georg Philipp Telemann.

Since 1948, St. Petri holds an organ concert every Wednesday evening at 17.15 known as the Stunde der Kirchenmusik (except for those Wednesdays on Easter, Christmas, or New Years day), so my concert was number “three thousand and something” since the start of the series. Thankfully, I felt the weight of all of this musical history only before and after playing – not during!

I did find some time to explore a few of Hamburg’s “sights,” notably the Rathaus, which is fewer than 150 years old and in a neo-renaissance style, and the port, which has the claim to fame of being Europe’s second-largest! I was able to attend the skillfully composed exhibition on the works of Picasso at the Deichtorhallen, adjacent to the Rathaus. It felt strange to see explanations solely written in German (especially given Picasso’s Spanish heritage and time living in France) but I was grateful for the practice in reading German. The next time I return, I should understand even more…

On the morning of my concert at the Hauptkirche St. Petri I made the decision to try to see as much of the city as I could, since I would leave the following day. As a result, I made it to three more of the Hauptkirchen (all but St. Nikolai).

St-Michaelis is the most famous of the Hauptkirchen, and its Baroque spire reigns high over the other buildings in the city. Of course, given its fame, no fewer than five organs would do (perhaps one for each of the Hauptkirchen?). These include a 1962 Steinmeyer, 2009 Fenwerk, 1914 Marcussen, 2010 “Carl-Philipp-Emanuel-Bach organ” by Hartwig & Späth, and a 1917 “Felix-Mendelssohn-Bartholdy organ” by Strebel. It seems that one could spend a week merely exploring these many instruments, none of which I have yet tried!


I walked into the Hauptkirche Sankt Katharinen and, of course, the organ was playing: selections from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Clavierübung III, as the organist is performing the complete works of Bach this season! Although the original organ was mostly destroyed in 1943, during the Second World War, this moment was still especially poignant since Johann Friedrich Agricola describes Bach trying the original organ. Legend has it that his famous Fantasie und Fuge g-moll, BWV 542, was first improvised here. Of course, this is not the only “big name” organist and composer known to the Kathrinenkirche – Heinrich Scheidemann and Johann Adam Reincken were both organists here!

My final stop before returning to the St. Petrikirche to the Hauptkirche St. Jacobi, another pilgrimage site. Here resides one of Arp Schnitger’s remaining instruments: the largest surviving baroque organ in Northern Europe. Thankfully, the pipes of the organ were removed during the bombings of World War II, which means that the organ, restored by Ahrend towards the end of the 20th century, still sings into the room. I even arrived on time to listen to a student perform a recital showing off the instrument through works by Buxtehude, Scheidt, Muffat, and J.S. Bach. I have never heard such beautiful varieties of reed colors – although the 15 minutes of full organ for Bach’s Toccata und Fuge F-Dur, BWV 540 at the end of the concert certainly fulfilled my need to hear the plenum!

Following this inspiring performance, I played my own on the von Beckerath at the St. Petrikirche. I could not have asked for a better way to bid the city farewell than to see these pieces of history and to hear and play these phenomenal instruments.

IMG_3411The train from Hamburg and Cologne takes a mere four hours and traverses Germany’s beautiful countryside. In the spring, the fields are covered with tiny golden flowers – grass gilded with living gold that glitters as the sunlight alights on the petals. I was certainly grateful to see the sun, even from the interior of a train, since my time in Hamburg had mainly featured clouds and even hail!

Upon arriving in Cologne, my first stop was, naturally, the world-renowned Cathedral: Germany’s most-visited landmark. This Gothic cathedral was begun in the 13th century and is the largest in Europe. The overwhelming size led to constant discovery of new apses and recesses amid the grandeur of the stained-glass windows, which amazes the viewer. The light, upward direction of the Gothic architecture contrasts with more blocky and terrestrial Romanesque churches (no fewer than twelve of them!) found in Cologne’s Aldstadt.

The first of three organs that I was able to see in the city’s environs was to the west: a 1994 Klais organ in St. Vitalis. This instrument particularly favors German music from Sweelinck to Mendelssohn, but also has a lovely French accent that even allows performance of French Classical music. The generosity of Michel Rychlinsky (a French organist who is now Kantor of St. Vitalis) in sharing this organ allowed me visit an entirely different corner of the city of Cologne.


The following day, I took the S-Bahn outside of the city to visit the workshop of Oliver Schulte in Kürten.  I can attest, through personal experience, that this workshop is full of hard work, organ parts in various stages of completion, and perhaps too much fun! The team welcomed me with open arms (quite literally – another reminder that I was no longer in France and a way to make me feel completely at home!). We held fascinating discussions of the state of organ-music and -building throughout Germany and England, from where the majority of their currently stems, and I learned quite a bit about their current restorations and rebuilds of English organs in both countries. I am grateful to Jay Zoller, who now lives in Maine’s capital and formerly worked Andover Organ Company, for generously sharing his connections with Oliver and enabling me to have these illuminating discussions!

Of course, no visit to an organbuilder’s shop is complete without meeting some of his instruments! Our first stop was to the “Queen-am-Rhein” organ, a fitting title as the city in which this organ is found (Heilig-Kreuz-Kirche, Bonn: where Beethoven was born), sits along the banks of the Rhein. The original 19th-century organ, by James Jepson Binns, was resided on the outskirts of London. Following unsuccessful rebuilds and a few moves, parts of the organ found its way to Germany to make the basis of this instrument. The titles of the stops point to a multilingual instrument, which is also true in its sound. The beautiful flutes contrast with the resounding plenum that can be adapted for Bach or for Howells, depending on one’s plat du moment.

Our second stop was back in southern Cologne, where this American was suddenly transported across the Atlantic. At St. Maternus, a 1869 Steer & Turner (Op. 14) that was originally installed in Grace United Methodist Church in Keene New Hampshire, found a new home. There was a lovely kind of symmetry in meeting an organ that lived a mere 2-hours from my childhood home here in Europe! It was a great pleasure to hear the exquisite American strings and flutes in such a wonderful acoustic – and thanks to the appearance and company of Austrian organist Michael König, who added even more to the thought-provoking conversations about these instruments, I was even able to to listen away from the organ console!

The mere 2.5-hour train ride from Cologne was over in what seemed like a few seconds (although we were diverted around a broken track north of Ghent for an extra hour). I emerged from the train station in a whole new world: Amsterdam – “the Venice of the Netherlands.” This breathtaking city has some 60 miles of canals that all lead to the world-famous port and parse the city into half-circle sections. Of course, water is a huge part of Amsterdam’s history (one only need mention the Dutch Golden Age) and, during my time in the city, I saw hundreds of boat parties and sight-seeing boats floating along the waterways. I even succumbed to taking a canal ride, in between samplings of Dutch cheese.

No organist’s visit to Amsterdam is complete without yet another pilgrimage to the Oude Kerk. This 13th-century church is the oldest building in Amsterdam, and can be found amid evidence of the oldest profession known to mankind: the Red Light District. There is something rather paradoxical yet sociologically fascinating about leaving a beautiful service of Buxtehude toccatas and English sacred solos to see the signature glowing red lights and inebriated groups of men: perhaps the simplicity of music juxtaposed with humanity’s complexity.

The signature wooden roof of the Oude Kerk also shelters the grave of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, who was organist here for 44 years. The unmarked stone that indicates this composer and teacher’s resting place does tend to remind the onlooker of the impermanence of our bodies. Another august personage who was buried here was the wife of Rembrandt van Rijn.

While the great organ 1724 Vater organ had been removed from its case (giving a whole new meaning to “no one’s home”), I was still able to hear and play the 1965 Ahrend & Brunzema organ, which was reconstructed in 2002 by Flentrop to return to its original tendencies: those of 17th-century Dutch organ. The organ was even more recently retuned in meantone temperament, making it ideal to perform works of Sweelinck and Reincken.

The next stop in the day’s organ tour was at the Ronde Lutherse Kerk, which is no longer used as a church and can only be entered from the Renaissance hotel nearby. Flentrop also restored this 1830 Bätz organ and the colors to be found within the extensive stoplist are entirely unique and beautiful. I found the weight of the keys when the organ manuals were coupled to be a particular challenge – after so many Barker lever machines in France (a pneumatic system developed alongside the organs of Cavaillé-Coll in the 19th-century that relieves the pressure of the coupling of organ manuals), I had to modify nearly the entirety of my technique in order to “lift the weights” of this instrument!

Some more touristic historical visits were in order between time spent on organ benches. Following the suggestions and with the company of my Amsterdam traveling companion, Julie Pinsonnault, I made the emotionally sobering visit to Anne Frank’s House to see the family’s living quarters during their two years of hiding. This testimonial to the horrors of what mankind can inflict upon itself, left no visitor, myself included, untouched.

The next visit was again one to what used to be a private home: Rembrandt’s house! This is full of paintings by his countless students (and quite crowded with tourists). During Rembrandt’s own “Golden Age,” which was concurrent with that of Amsterdam, this painter certainly lived very well. The museum has been excellently set up to bring a viewer into a little more knowledge of how one could live if they were a successful artist at this time.

Of course, no trip to Amsterdam is complete without checking off some of the required food items: Patatje oorlog fries, which come with peanut sauce, mayonaise, and raw onions (yes, I promise that I have since brushed my teeth!), Stroopwafeln, the requisite burger from the Burger bar (where you could watch them making the burgers and throwing around all sorts of ingredients) and, of course, Dutch apple pie. However, I still managed to avoid having herring, pancakes, bitterballen, and countless others. Since I also somehow missed seeing the Rijksmuseum and the van Gogh museum, it seems that another trip to Amsterdam is already in order…

As I arrived in the Netherlands two weeks prior to the end of the tulip season, I had no choice but to go to the Keukenhof Gardens, a 40-minute bus ride away from Amsterdam in Lisse. This “garden of Europe” claims to be one of the world’s largest flower gardens and is only open for two months of the year: late March to early May. It is superbly laid out, with gardens spilling in all directions that are able to handle the millions of visitng tourists. One can still find some quiet corners to refresh the spirit. Perhaps the best part, however, was meeting the people come from all over the world to experience the beauty that nature has to offer. One speaks of music as a universal language, but I might argue that the beauty of nature speaks even more clearly across linguistic and cultural borders.

On the day of my return to Toulouse, I made a last pilgrimage to the Waalse kerk of Amsterdam. This late 15C church is a “Walloon church,” which refers to its French-speaking Calvinist attendees. Vincent van Gogh was a regular attendee in the 19th century, since his uncle was the preacher!

The draw of the Waalse kerk for organists is its 1733 Müller organ (built during the time of Johann Sebastian Bach!), which remains in essentially original condition (except for the placement of the manuals). I was gifted with several hours on the bench of this extraordinary world-renowned instrument and I reveled in discovering the instrument, especially the divine principal stops and the sonorous plenum – all in a beautiful acoustic. A better “farewell” (for now) to the city of Amsterdam could not have been better planned.

The direct flight to Toulouse had me on the ground and running in time for a fortepiano lesson and concert rehearsals for two Tolousain recitals this week: 8 May on the 1885 organ at the Église St-Exupère and 11 May on the 1981 Ahrend organ at the Musée des Augustins. The best part is that the second of these recitals falls on the day of my parents’ arrival in the city of Toulouse!

I finish this particular post with a promise to soon share more “local” experiences from Toulouse and a few more insights to music- and organ-playing on this side of the Atlantic… and with a tentative assurance that my next few blog posts will be significantly shorter!