Hradetzky and Organ Revival Movement

... Organ is a means of communication between people of different cultures, a vehicle of communication transmitting emotions across cultures. — Gerhard Hradetzky

To give a proper perspective on the evolution of the Hradetzky organ building firm — Hradetzky Orgelbau — it is necessary to put it in a context of the history of the Organ Revival Movement, one of the most significant developments in organ building of the 20th century. The Organ Revival Movement (also called Orgebewegung) started with Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), a great humanist, Lutheran theologian, musicologist, and organist, who was one of the most famous personalities tied to the renaissance of organ music of J.S. Bach.

In his seminal pamphlet — The Art of Organ Building and Organ Playing in Germany and France — he critically evaluated the state of organ culture at the threshold of the 20th century and outlined his view on how to restore the organ's lost splendour. Schweitzer's criticism was warranted by poor craftsmanship and lack of understanding of the tradition prevalent among builders of his times. For Schweitzer, the organ should come back the ideal of sound clarity, transparency, and tonal integrity that would enable a successful rendition of the polyphony. To achieve that, he postulated a return to several features that were developed in the Baroque to be abandoned later as "obsolete and unnecessarily expensive: purely mechanical action, slider chests, lower wind pressure, older pipe scaling practices and a return to so-called Werkprinzip that specifies characteristics of different organ divisions, assures completeness of each of them, and defines their relationship to each other. Schweitzer's views were discussed at the Congress of the International Musical Society in 1909 in Vienna. His call for action was gaining momentum since that time. Consequently, Schweitzer became not only the father of the revival of interest in Bach's music but also the father of the revival of the organ as a church instrument.

The next important step in the development of the Organ Revival Movement was a conference held in Freiburg in 1926. The keynote speaker, Christhard Mahrenholz (1900-1980), one of the most influential German liturgical experts connected the organ reform with a general reform of the liturgy.

That conference established the main principles of the movement:

  1. The organ is, first and foremost, a polyphonic instrument and all aspects of its technical design and construction must serve the goal of the best possible presentation of the polyphonic music.
  2. The organ is ideally a sensitive and responsive keyboard instrument, and the performer must be placed close to his instrument and have direct control of the key mechanism.
  3. The placement and acoustic environment must be optimized for the most efficient projection of the sound of the instrument throughout the room with maximum resonance, blend, balance, and warmth of tone.
  4. The tonal design of organ should be developed according to the requirements of the literature to be played, with the polyphonic writing given first consideration, with Werkprinzip used as a guide.
  5. Suitable acoustic for an organ requires that the major surfaces of the room remain natural and "untreated."

Two among the most influential builders associated with the Orgelbegung, Sybrand Zachariassen (the chair of, Markussen & Son in Aabenraa, Denmark), and Rudolph von Beckerath from Hamburg, played a pivotal role in the history of the Hradetzky firm.The ideals of the Organ Revival Movement were disseminated in the United States by new instruments built in America by Rudolf von Beckerath, These were Beckerath's new organs that gave inspiration to new generations of American builders to use the mechanical action. Consequently, the standards of organ building in the USA improved significantly.

Franz Gregor Hradetzky, Sr. (1880-1942) was a son of Franz, a planner of a Balkan railway Sofia-Praha, and Maria, -a piano teacher. Franz Gregor Sr. learned the craft of organ building from Franz Capek in Krems an-der-Donau near Vienna. He was, then, associated with three well-established firms as an apprentice and journeyman: Seifert, Kleis (both in Cologne) and Furtwängler & Hammer in Hanover. He came back to Krems an-der-Donau in March 1914 and bought Franz Capek's business, establishing, thus, the Hradetzky Orgelbau. The outbreak of World War I completely changed the situation. Building new instruments at such a dire time was out of the question. He received orders compelling him to make ammunition boxes for the army. In 1916, by an irony of fate, he was put in charge of a recovery of organ pipes in Northern Italy to recycle the metal for the military. His new responsibility gave him, however, some capability to save from destruction some instruments of historical value. Fraz Gregor Sr. came back to Krems an-der-Donau in November 1918 seriously ill. His health condition compelled him to form a business partnership — Hradetzky & Blauensteiner — to continue his business. That partnership ended in 1928.

Most common tasks in which Hradetzky firm was engaged during that period — rebuilding existing instruments with pneumatic or electro-pneumatic action — was typical work for most organ building companies of that time. However, Franz Gregor Sr. was also finding some occasional projects of particular interest: repairing mechanical action organs or classification of historical instruments. His most important project was a reconstruction of Gottfried Sonnholz organ (originally built in 1731/32) in Stift Melk, Southern Austria (1936).

Franz Gregor Sr. and his wife Maria had two children: Maria (b. 1907) and Gregor (b. 1909). In 1926 Gregor, Jr. began to learn the trade of organ building at the family-owned business from his father. Since his early childhood, Gregor had shown a high aptitude for sports and soon, after he chose rowing and kayaking as his specialty, he reached the highest competitive level. His peak achievement was winning two gold medals in kayaking at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
Watch this short Ducumentary of 1936!

As in the case of his father, his life was deeply affected by the war. By the end of WWII, Gregor Jr. found himself in American captivity. When he was finally released and came back to Krems an-der-Donau, he figured out that, after his father's death in 1942, the ownership of the family business was transferred to his mother, who was running its operations together with his sister. Gregor Jr., however, soon took the lead over. At that time the overall situation was quite difficult (Eastern Austria was still under Russian administration, and churches were greatly impoverished) and, consequently, there was no market for new organs. The firm had to contend, most of the time, with small projects such as alterations and minor repairs. The first order for new organs came in 1956-57.

In 1960 the new ideas promulgated by the Organ Revival Movement also reached Krems an-der-Donau. A knowledge of the reform in the art of organ building came first to Gregor Jr. Hradetzky from his good friend, Hans Haselböck, who was a three-time winner of the Contest of Organ Improvisation in Haarlem, Holland.

Haselböck, who later became a professor of organ at Viennese Musikhöchschule, was an ardent advocate of the aesthetic ideals of the Orgelbewegung. Haselböck's influence was one of the most important factors of Gregor Jr. Hradetzky's decision to focus on the construction of organs with the mechanical action. Also in 1960, Gregor Jr. Hradetzky had an opportunity to participate in a summer conference of the Gesellschaft der Orgelfreude in Kopenhagen where he met Sybrand Zachariassen, the CEO of Marcussen and Son Organ Building Company, and one of the leaders of the Organ Revival Movement. Meeting Zachariassen turned out to be a pivotal event for Georg Hradetzky, Jr. One immediate and practical consequence of that contact was Zachariassen's permission given to Hradetzky for the use of Marcunssens' proprietary design of the windchest.

Built by Hradetzky Orgelbau The Organ in the Großer Musikvereinssaal, Vienna — the first concert hall organ with a mechanical action in Europe!

The largest in scope and most prestigious projects in the new phase of growth of the Hradetzky Orgelbau were two new organs: one built for Stift Wilten in Innsbruck in 1964 (so-called Olympic organ), and another constructed for the Mozart Hall of the Vienna Concert House (1965). The latter organ was significant not only in the history of the firm: it was the first concert hall organ with a mechanical action in Europe!

Stift Wilten Monastery near Insbruck, Austria

Stift Wilten Monastery near Insbruck, Austria where the Hradetzky Orgelbau instrument was built in 1964

Gregor Jr.'s son Gerhard Hradetzky (b. 1944) received his first instruction in organ building from his father. When he was ready for more in-depth professional formation, Egon Krauss, a well-known musical pedagogue, convinced Gerhard's father to send him to some prestigious organ builder for an apprenticeship. They chose Rudolf von Beckerath in Hamburg.

After the first six months of the organ-building "boot camp," Gerhard was assigned to a department working on voicing and tonal design, areas that became Gerhard's life-long particular interest. In 1962 Gerhard had the first opportunity to go the United States where he worked on an installation of a new large Beckerath organ (Pittsburg, 1962).

In her paper titled "Gregor Hradetzky-Mensch und Werk," Anja Liske wrote that a construction of a tracker organ at the Saint Louis Priory Church was a result of a recommendation of Anton Heiller, a legendary organist, organ professor of Viennese Conservatory of Music, and a good friend of the Hradetzky family.

Dr. Marie Kremer of Saint Louis, who studied with Anton Heiller in Vienna on a Fullbright scholarship, remembers that the person who facilitated contact with the Viennese circle and The Priory was another American student of Anton Heiler's - Thomas Harmon, a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, who become later an organ professor at UCLA. The organ arrived in a container on August 3, 1967.Gerhard Hradetzky together with another employee of Hradetzky Orgenlbau, Oswald Wagner were in charge of installation. In addition, Gerhard was responsible for the voicing of the pipes. In addition, Gerhard was responsible for voicing of the pipes.

The organ was officially played for the first time at a conventual Mass by Dr. Thomas Harmon six weeks later on September 17.

Installing Hradetzky organ in the Saint Louis Abbey

Before the grand opening of the Hradetzky organ in the Saint Louis Abbey Church: voicing, tuning inspecting. [Photograph is Courtesy Missouri History Museum, St. Louis. Taken about 1968 by Henry Mizuki, commissioned by the Hradetzky Organ Company. They are from the Missouri History Museum, Mac Mizuki Photography Studio Collection Saint Louis Abbey.]

To understand the significance of the Abbey organ it is necessary to refer to some more general reflections that gave birth to the Organ Revival Movements:

  1. the organ is an important part of the heritage of the Western culture and spirituality. It has had a central role in Christian worship. Any comprehensive discussion of the development of Western music is incomplete if it does not consider the historical role of the organ.
  2. one of the chief obstacles the transmission of organ culture encounters in our culture is lack of quality instruments placed in proper space. All too often, one finds beautiful churches with no pipe organ at all, or churches endowed with instruments that are aesthetically and technically so deficient that their only "contribution" seems to be nourishing some negative stereotypes.
  3. the organ culture retains the power of inspiration and ability to enrich lives in today's world only through instruments representing the highest level of craft of the organ building and uncompromising aesthetical values.

Since building high-quality pipe organs is expensive, it is critical to give care and use a full potential of these high-value organs in existence. Saint Louis Abbey Hradetzky organ is such a great tonal asset. It is an instrument of great flexibility that can be used for liturgical accompaniment, supporting soloists (vocal or instrumental), chamber music ensemble, chamber orchestra or solo playing (extempore or organ literature). The space of the Abbey church, which is, according to many expert musicians, one of the best acoustic environments for sacred music in the entire Midwest, enhances the musical impact on this outstanding organ.

We do hope that this organ continues to serve well Saint Louis Abbey, Priory School, and Saint Anselm Parish for a very long time. Gerhard Hradetzky wrote that organ is a means of communication between people of different cultures, a vehicle of communication transmitting emotions across cultures. May the Abbey landmark organ be rediscovered as one of the most important local instruments that enhances the spiritual and cultural life of Saint Louis and the region.

Hradetzky Organ in Saint Louis Abbey

Hradetzky Organ in Saint Louis Abbey today — October 2017

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