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Day 6 Pipedreams Tour of Organ of Pilsum, Uttum, Westerhusen and Rysum, Germany

Day 6 – Friday, May 13, 2011

This morning started off with some internet problems.  I was hoping to post Day 5, but the network in the hotel was not working. It was heavy jacket weather today, the inevitably situation of being up by the North Sea where the wind blows constantly and, this morning, it is cold out. After a good breakfast the group was off to Pilsum to see the organ at the Reformed Church

, formally St. Stephanus (under the previous R.C. Ownership). The town of Pilsum is quite interesting, as all of the homes are very close to the church and also face the church in a circle. Ulrich, our tour guide, explained to us that this was common in medieval times. It was also interesting to see under the whitewashed walls recently discovered frescos from former Catholic times. They are simple, not done by the best artists I have seen from the period compared to what I have seen in museums, but have a charm to them.

We were supposed to travel to Uttum, but somehow got directions mixed up and instead went to Eilsum, where they were very welcoming and gave us the key to the church as though we were expected, though we weren’t. Nonetheless, it was educational to see another small, beautiful, and very well kept German village with its church in the center.  Our ‘accidental’ pipe organ turned out to be a modest 1967 Schuke in an historic case. I asked if any of these little towns would have electronic organs in their churches and I received a resounding NO! Everyone in the group took the error in stride and Winfried Dahlke drove over from the right church (in Uttum, where he had been awaiting us) to the ‘wrong church’ (in Eilsum) and played a short recital, after which we all sang ‘Nun komm der Heiden Heiland’. So how many tour guides does it take to get to Uttum?

We attempted to get back on schedule and now drove the short distance to the ‘right church’, the Reformed Church in Uttum.  The last year a Catholic priest was attached to this parish was in 1535, according to a list of all the clergy that had served the church. Since then the building has been altered and literally cut up, its vaulting, choir, and altar removed. This is the difference between the Reformed (no decorations) Lutheran churches, as the latter almost could pass for Catholic Churches but for the narrower
altars and only one step to the altar that don’t seem wide enough to celebrate the Tridentine Mass on them.)

The Uttum organ was built in 1600 using material from an older organ. The church has good acoustics. The organ, in mean-tone temperament, has nine stops on one manual with no pedal. The case and bellows are original, as is the trumpet stop, one of the very oldest original organ trumpet stops anywhere in the world. The instrument was restored by Ahrend & Brunzema in 1957, and has a flutey yet pungent sound. Part of this tone quality is due to the mean-tone tuning.

A word on mean-tone tuning.  Common with the keyboards of today, the only pure interval is the octave, as the standard ‘equal temperament’ requires that all of the other intervals be slightly imperfect, not pure, really slightly ‘out of tune’ (triads are not as ‘sweet’ as in mean-tone tuning). However, equal temperament allows musicians to modulate to any key, and this is impossible in mean-tone tuning, where the thirds are pure and several
keys (C and F, in particular) sound quite sweet and ‘locked in’, though other keys (F#, B) can sound very “out of tune” and sour. Composers from earlier times used mean tone tuning as an effect in their scores to give their works ‘spice’ and flavor.

After a nice lunch on our own, we drove to the Reformed Church in Westerhusen. Here, too, we saw some fascinating remnants of frescos dating from the previous Catholic owners: Christ’s Father lifting Him into heaven, St. Peter holding the keys to heaven, the Last Judgment and St. Christopher. This organ by Sieburg from 1643, also very small and with only a single manual and no pedal, has a very powerful, even somewhat aggressive, clear sound, but the church also lacks some of the warm acoustics we’d experienced
in Uttum, so this might be why I perceived the difference in sound.

Rysum’s Reformed Church was next church, containing the oldest organ on our itinerary, built in 1457.  We know it is a very old organ because the compass of the keyboard starts on B and not C. According to the Chronicle of Eggerik Beningas, local farmers were asked to send their fattest cattle to Groningen towards the payment for the organ which, in all likelihood, was built by Master Harmannus in Groningen.

This organ was almost replaced before WW I, but due to financial difficulties was retained. It was restored in 1960 by Ahrend & Brunzema, who had to recreate the mixture and trumpet (which, I am told, were based on similar ranks in the organ in Westerhusen).  The church would like to recreate the original bellows in the future. The building was, of course, originally a Catholic Church, built in the 12th century.  After the Reformation, the interior was rearranged so that you enter the church from the former choir area.  The pews all face the pulpit, and the organ gallery is on the west wall, though it had been relocated in the church.

The sound of the Rysum organ is bold and very dark, and fills the room. Unlike the organ in Westerhusen, Rysum has a lot of fundamental in its sound. I couldn’t imagine putting a Praestant of this size in this room, yet it works beautifully. When the full chorus plus mixture is drawn, the mixture significantly adds to the ensemble but doesn’t separate. The trumpet almost spits like a Spanish Trumpet en chamade. The mean-tone temperament makes this a thrilling sound. I could imagine this instrument really leading the full congregation in boisterous hymn singing.

We had an ‘official East Frisian tea ceremony’ in this little town of Rysum…where a special blend of black Assam tea is flavored with special sugar ‘rocks’ and whole cream.  Tasty, especially when drunk with current buns! Again in this village, all of the houses surround the church and are very close together, well kept with lace curtains in the windows. It is very quite in the town.  It might be nice to live here, but I would assume that everyone knows a lot about everyone elses business – maybe too much.

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