John Nagy | January 14, 2017
In 1720, Johann Sebastian Bach, 35 years old and still making a name for himself, still ascending to the heights of his powers as a composer, paid a visit to one of his heroes. A leading composer of the day, Johann Adam Reincken had held the prestigious post of organist at St. Catherine’s Church in Hamburg for nearly 60 years. Bach had studied his works since childhood, and when he sat down at Reincken’s instrument and improvised a fantasia on a familiar Lutheran chorale that paid tribute to Reincken’s own interpretation, the music is said to have lasted an hour. The older man, the story goes, was awestruck. “I thought that this art was dead,” he said, “but I see that it lives in you.”
Nearly three centuries later, anxieties about the future of improvisation as a skill set linger among organists, but Reincken’s fears might have been better placed on the St. Catherine’s organ itself — nearly destroyed when Allied warplanes firebombed Hamburg in 1943. The attack devastated the city, killing and wounding tens of thousands of civilians, and the anticipatory rush to save the city’s historic treasures along with its citizenry fell similarly short of the mark. Only about 500 of the pipes survived that bombing — and the decades of storage and neglect that followed the war. Yet they were enough, Bruce Shull says, to establish the “tonal direction” of the organ’s reconstruction, a project that the American organ builder and historian and his employer, Paul Fritts, were invited to join during its final stages in 2013.
Billed as “an organ for Bach,” the project identified the genius composer’s 1720 visit as its historical target for the reconstruction. Shull’s task was to lend the Dutch firm leading the work a hand with the tuning and final voicing of pipes both new and old, some of them dating to 1630. When the refinement of the organ’s historical sound was complete, Shull got to hear the church organist play An Wasserflüssen Babylon, the very piece Bach had elaborated for Reincken. “It’s like a little bit of time travel,” he says. “You hear that and you think, ‘It’s probably pretty darn close to what that sounded like when Bach played it 300 years ago.’”
For the Ohio-born Shull, now 63, the rare international collaboration marked a personal milestone as well: 40 years as a key player in the resurgence of traditional organ building in the United States. “It’s a real treat to get to work on something like that, to be trusted with a piece of history,” he says, and you need a full career to prepare yourself for it.