With clocks, organs were the most complex of mechanical instruments developed before the Industrial Revolution. As such they were a source of awe and admiration far beyond musical cognoscenti and their makers often enjoyed a level of fame greater than the musicians who played them.
The greatest of the composers for the organ, Johann Sebastian Bach, had the good fortune to live at a time and in a place where organ-building reached a peak of excellence which perhaps has never been surpassed. This was not entirely coincidence: interaction between players and makers was an important element in refining the skills of both sides.
The most famous of these organ builders was Gottfried Silbermann. He was born the son of a carpenter in the mountainous backwoods of Saxony in 1683, gained an almost monopolistic grip on keyboard manufacturing in the region and died a rich man in 1753. Nearly thirty of his fifty Saxon organs survive, some very nearly in original condition. They are famous – and always were – for their distinctive sounds, from the silver flutes to the strong and characterful 16’ Posaune in the pedal.
Other organ builders whose work we see and hear on this tour include Zacharias Hildebrandt (1688–1757), an apprentice and later a rival of Silbermann, and Heinrich Gottfried Trost (c. 1680–1759). All had some sort of collaborative or critical relationship with J.S. Bach.
This tour selects some of the finest instruments in a region exceptionally richly endowed with historic organs. Many are located in village churches far from cathedral or court, leading the visitor through terrain which is rural and remote. All of the organs visited are located in villages and small towns with wonderfully picturesque historic centres. Some organs have hardly been altered since they were built.
The tour is accompanied by organist James Johnstone, who performs regularly in Europe and America and who has won several prizes for his recordings.
The eleven included recitals are exclusive to this group and twenty to thirty minutes long, performed by James Johnstone or the local organist.
London to Merseburg. Fly at c. 08.45am from London Heathrow to Berlin (British Airways) and continue by coach (c. 2 hours) to Merseburg, a cathedral town on the river Saale; first of three nights here.
Pomßen, Naumburg. The village of Pomßen has a church with an organ of the 1660s, a delightful instrument which is more Renaissance than Baroque, set in a painted wood ensemble of gallery, chest and panelled ceiling. The church of St Wenceslas in Naumburg has a major Hildebrandt organ of 1748. There is also time for the cathedral with its exceptional 13th-century sculpture. Second of three nights Merseburg.
Zschortau, Störmthal, Rötha. Visit three small towns outside Leipzig with outstanding organs. The Scheibe organ in the church of St Nicholas, Zschortau was tested by J.S. Bach in 1746 who found it to be ‘efficiently and painstakingly well-built’. Störmthal has an organ by Hildebrandt which was inspected and approved by Bach in 1723 and is still in its original condition. In the fine mediaeval church of St George in Rötha there is a Silbermann organ tested in 1721 by Johann Kuhnau, Bach’s predecessor in Leipzig. Final night in Merseburg.
Altenburg, Ponitz, Freiberg. Travel from Merseburg to Freiberg via Altenburg and Ponitz. The court city of Altenburg is one of the rarely visited jewels of the former DDR, with a hilltop ducal residence featuring mediaeval fortifications, Baroque apartments and a quite remarkable collection of Italian Renaissance paintings. The chapel has a fine organ by Trost of 1739. After free time for lunch and independent exploration in Altenburg, travel on to Ponitz. Gottfried Silbermann began building an organ for the Friedenskirche in Ponitz in 1734, before the construction of the church itself had ended. Continue to Freiberg. Before dinner, there is an opportunity to hear the Silbermann in St. Peter’s Church. First of two nights in Freiberg.
Freiberg, Helbigsdorf. The morning is free in Freiberg. In the afternoon drive out to Helbigsdorf, whose church is home to Silbermann’s smallest, double-manual instrument (1726–28). Freiberg cathedral is one of the most beautiful of Late Gothic buildings in Germany and has retained an exceptional panoply of furnishings. The organ by Silbermann (1711–1714) is one of the world’s finest instruments; three manuals, 44 stops, largely unaltered. Dinner and final night in Freiberg.
Freiberg to London. Drive to Prague and fly to London Heathrow, arriving c. 3.30pm.
For participants joining The Johann Sebastian Bach Journey: travel by high-speed train from Freiberg to Eisenach via Dresden (c. 3 hours). The first event of the day is dinner in your chosen hotel.
Price – per person
Two sharing: £2,120 or £1,890 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,250 or £2,020 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus 320); travel by private coach (and first class train tickets for those joining the Bach Journey); hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 1 lunch and 4 dinners with wine; all organ recitals, admissions and donations, visits, etc.; all tips for drivers, guides, waiters; all taxes; the services of the two lecturers and a tour manager.
As flights are included with this tour, those joining the JS Bach Journey will be charged at the ‘no flights’ price for the festival (returning on flight option 5, arriving at London Heathrow at c. 5.40pm) - See Practicalities section of The Johann Sebastian Bach Journey.
All recitals are subject to confirmation from the relevant churches.
Changes to the itinerary are possible.
Radisson Blu, Merseburg: situated in the historic centre of the town, within walking distance of the cathedral, this modern 4-star hotel is housed in the former Zech’sche Palace. Hotel Freyhof, Freiberg: opened in 2016, this traditional hotel is situated in a reconstructed monastery, within walking distance of the cathedral.
There is a lot of coach travel with some long journeys. Average distance by coach per day: 95 miles.
Maximum 28 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
I was very excited about this trip and the actual experience exceeded my expectations. It was the highlight of my month-long travels in Europe, by far.
The quality of the performances was out of this world - magical!
We were priviledged to have exclusive access to the various venues to listen to the concerts.
The itinerary was very well paced. The churches visited were also very well chosen and interesting from an architectural viewpoint as well as having superb organs. The music was sublime.
I thought the range and pace of this particular tour made it one of the most successful I've ever done.