Master Organ-Builder of the German Baroque
The Gottfried Silbermann Legacy

After his death, the influence of Gottfried Silbermann was to live on and indeed to flourish to a very remarkable extent. In the field of organ-building, many of his pupils gained important reputations in their own right, prominent among these being Zacharias Hildebrandt - who also lent his hand to the construction, under the direction of JS Bach, of a lute-harpsichord.

An interesting later organ-builder strongly influenced by the Silbermann family (both the Saxon/Gottfried and the Strasbourg branches) was Friedrich Ladegast (1818 - 1905). A Ladegast instrument can be seen in the Nikolaikirche, Leipzig.

The Silbermann tradition was also to travel to America, where it influenced early organ-building.

There's a beautiful little one manual organ in the Zion Church at Spring City PA built in 1791 by David Tannenberg from Saxony. Tannenberg was a pupil of one Johann Gottlob Klemm, who in turn was a pupil of Gottfried Silbermann. In comparison with Gottfried Silbermann, David Tannenberg's organs have not fared so well: out of 45 instruments, five survive more or less intact, three in part and the cases of 4 others. The only Tannenberg remaining exactly where it was first erected is located in Hebron Lutheran Church, Madison, Virginia. The organ is entirely original with its original bellows intact. It has been in constant use since it was completed ca. 1800.

A recent tribute to the genius of Gottfried Silbermann now stands proudly in the University of Michigan. Their Fisk organ is modeled very closely after the Silbermann organ at Rötha - in its specification, its interior design and construction, as well as in its splendid case design, complete with gold leaf! This organ even has a hand-pumping station which has been used in recital in lieu of electricity.

That a great Saxon organ-builder should leave an on-going legacy in the same, that is organ-building field, seems not unlikely. Less likely, though nonetheless real however, is Silbermann's little-known yet highly significant influence on the development of... the piano!

To see how this came about we need to review briefly the domestic keyboard situation in the early baroque times.

Two domestic instruments were in use during the baroque period: the harpsichord and the clavichord. The basic difference between the two was that the strings on the harpsichord were plucked, whereas with the clavichord they were struck.

The "strength" of pluck on the harpsichord could not be regulated from the keyboard - you pressed the key and a plectrum plucked the string, with the same intensity however hard or lightly you struck the key. There would normally be several sets of strings however, giving different sounds and intensities. So a system of "terrace dynamics" was used to give light and shade and architectural clarity to a performance - the player could pull stops or change manuals (if there were two) to give more or different types of sound.

With the clavichord on the other hand, the string was struck. The strings were damped at one end. The key when pushed down, pushed its other end, brass covered, up against the string. Thus the string was caused to vibrate in its "free" length between the brass hammer and the open end. As soon as the key was released, the damped end of the string came into play and the sound was deadened. An important feature of this system was that, since the key and the hammer were the same piece of wood, moving the key slightly from side to side would also move the hammer from side to side, thus creating a vibrato, or Bebung in German, which was generally used when musically appropriate. The clavichord however, while yielding loud or soft volume depending on key touch, was overall a very quiet instrument, ideal for home practice, but not for public concerts or church use.

Many keyboard players and builders were seeking a new kind of instrument, one which would give the volume of a harpsichord yet allow the loud-soft option through strength of key stroke.

It is generally agreed that the first builder to come up with a workable solution was Cristofori in Florence, who had already produced (about 1709) what he called a "gravi-cembalo col piano e forte", i.e. a 'harpsichord with soft and loud'. For the plucking of quills of the harpsichord he had substituted hammers, and now, by greater or less force applied to the finger-keys, louder or softer sounds could be produced at will.

Cristofori's mechanism was ingenious. There was an escapement by which as soon as any hammer struck a string, the hammer returned, so leaving the string free to vibrate; and there were dampers which, when the finger-keys were released, fell at once upon the string and suppressed its vibration, bringing the sound to an immediate end. The Italians however, appear to have taken this invention no further, and it was left to none other than the Saxon organ-builder Gottfried Silbermann to continue its development - over which indeed he was to have a great and lasting influence through his design skills and the work of his pupils.

Silbermann had apparently heard of Cristofori's instrument in 1725 through the appearance of a German translation of an Italian account of it. Why an organ-builder? So well-known was Gottfried Silbermann as an organ-builder - and indeed his reputation today rests on that special skill - that his work as an equally famous builder of large clavichords is often overlooked. From his clavichord side, it was but a short step to the new "fortepiano". And from his organ-building side, he had the knowledge of mechanics necessary to improve the new instrument's mechanism.

At first his experiments were - well - experimental! It is known that JS Bach tried one and commented critically by pointing out serious defects - heavy touch and weakness of the higher notes. Later instruments however, Bach was able to praise, and it is on record that when in 1747 Bach visited Frederick the Great at Potsdam he played upon Silbermann pianofortes, of which the king possessed a number, possibly fifteen. All pianofortes up to this point were of the harpsichord shape - what we now call the 'grand', with the strings horizontal and in a line with the finger-keys.

The wars of the mid-eighteenth century in Germany and especially the Seven Years War (1756-63) drove many German workmen to England. Amongst these was one of Silbermann's pupils and Saxon-born Johannes Zumpe, who, on coming to London, at first worked for the great Swiss harpsichord maker Tschudi or Shudi and then set up for himself and became famous all over Britain and France as the inventor and manufacturer of the so-called Square (really oblong) Piano, which he introduced in about 1760. On June 2nd, 1768, Johann Christian - the "London' Bach - played a Zumpe instrument in the first solo performance on a piano in England. The English musician-historian Dr. Burney relates:

"After the arrival of John Chr. Bach in this country, and the establishment of his concert, in conjunction with Abel, all the harpsichord makers tried their mechanical powers at piano-fortes; but the first attempts were always on the large size, till Zumpe, a German, who had long worked under Shudi, constructed small piano-fortes of the shape and size of the virginals, of which the tone was very sweet, and the touch, with a little use, equal to any degree of rapidity. These, from their low price and the convenience of their form, as well as power of expression, suddenly grew into such favour, that there was scarcely a house in the kingdom where a keyed-instrument had ever had admission, but was supplied with one of Zumpe's piano-fortes, for which there was nearly as great a call in France as in England. In short he could not make them fast enough to gratify the craving of the public."

Zumpe's square pianoforte was later greatly improved by Shudi's son-in-law and former workman, John Broadwood (1732—1812), who became his partner and then successor. At this period the London makers were undoubtedly the finest in Europe.

Great numbers of English pianos were imported into the United States in the period following the revolution. The Shudi-Broadwood firm shipped quantities to John Bradford of Charleston, S.C. Early American makers were John Brent (1774), Behrent (1775?), John Belmont (1775), Charles Jarvis (1785), James Juhan (1786); all were in Philadelphia, which seems to have been the first great center of the manufacture in America.

Thus did the influence of this extra-ordinary Saxon organ-, clavichord- and piano-builder Gottfried Silbermann not only lay the foundation of European organ-building in America, but also planted the seeds in England and subsequently America of what would become the modern pianoforte.

Where to next?

GOTTFRIED SILBERMANN: Master Organ-Builder of the German Baroque.
Friend and colleague of JS Bach, famed for his celebrated "silver sounds", craftsman, musician - and acoustician! Read his life story, visit the Silbermann Organ Museum in Saxony. Several instruments are illustrated.

For further information about Frauenstein, home to the unique Silbermann Organ Museum, visit Frauenstein's Website.

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