Tuesday marks the 75th anniversary of the bombing of the north German city of Lübeck by the Royal Air Force. Some 400 tons of explosives fell in just under four hours; incendiary bombs created a firestorm. Among the burned-out buildings was the Marienkirche, St. Mary’s Church, home to numerous celebrated artworks — as well as two organs, both destroyed. That loss was, to be sure, only a footnote to the war’s human toll. But the Marienkirche organs were unusually important to the history of Western music; their destruction left a small but frustrating epistemological hole.
In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, St. Mary’s in Lübeck was perhaps the most prestigious church-music job in the German-speaking world, and the man who held the job, Dieterich Buxtehude, was perhaps the most famous organist in Europe. His performing brilliance indelibly shaped the instrument’s evolution; famously, late in Buxtehude’s career, Johann Sebastian Bach, then 20 years old, walked 250 miles to Lübeck just to hear the older man play, to absorb his style.
In other words, to a large extent, what we think of as Baroque organ music (and thus, to a large extent, organ music in general) sprang from those two Lübeck organs, from their features and idiosyncrasies. The main instrument boasted 52 stops, an elaborate, two-story facade, and impressively powerful pedal ranks. The smaller organ carried an unusual name: “Totentanzorgel,” the Dance of Death Organ, referencing the church’s famous mural of the danse macabre, depicting the entirety of the social hierarchy, from emperor to peasant, dancing with skeletons to the grave. (That confluence of instrument and mural has inspired much theorizing — ultimately inconclusive — over dance rhythms in Buxtehude’s organ works.)
All historical organs, like their churches, are continually modified palimpsests. But the Totentanzorgel, in particular, became a focus of the growing early-music movement. In 1937, it was restored to something approaching the state in which Buxtehude played it. That restoration is preserved only in a jotted-down stop list; the church’s own records, which survived the 1942 bombing, disappeared behind the Iron Curtain at war’s end, with many being lost along the way. As a result, the exact nature of the organs Buxtehude played is probably beyond knowing. Even how they were tuned — an important consideration, given Buxtehude’s predilection for key choices that would have sounded intolerably dissonant under many then-common tuning systems — remains a matter of guesswork. In crucial ways, Buxtehude’s musical practice and ours are permanently estranged. Casualties of war include connections to the past.