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Interview, Anders Eidsten Dahl on Mozart and the Organ

Anders Eidsten Dahl
Anders Eidsten Dahl

On a list of instruments people associate with the name Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the organ probably doesn't come very near the top. All those piano, violin, horn, flute concertos and more understandably dominate the limelight. Yet there's a small but significant body of music by Mozart for this instrument - one that played an important role in his employment at Salzburg and which he held in high esteem.

A new recording by Norwegian organist Anders Eidsten Dahl on LAWO puts the spotlight on this side of Mozart - his Epistle Sonatas, written as interludes for use in the middle of church services, his two Fantasias (both in F minor) and a charming, elegant Andante in F. I spoke to him to dig deeper into Mozart's connection with the organ.

Mozart was of course an accomplished keyboard player - but what about the organ specifically? How much organ playing would have been involved in his job as Konzertmeister in Salzburg?

Mozart performed on the organ at the same high level as he played other keyboard instruments. He wrote in a letter to his father Leopold that “the organ is the queen of instruments!”. This statement was made after a contemporary, “Mr. Stein”, could not understand why Mozart had wanted to try an organ in his vicinity. Mr. Stein described the organ as “neither quiet or loud, without any expression, able only to drone on in the same manner the whole time”. But Mozart, as a rule, sought out organs on his journeys, and would improvise on them when he had the opportunity. Between 1779 and 1781 he was the organist at the archbishop’s court in Salzburg, in addition to the position of concertmaster that he held there from 1769. In the Salzburg Cathedral there was a large instrument with 42 stops in addition to several instruments in the galleries throughout the church. His duty as organist was to play basso continuo in ensembles during performances of music written for mass. The solo organ music that he played was improvised.

A personal anecdote: In the winter of 2023 I was in Verona for a week for a teaching exchange and visited, amongst other churches, the St Tomasi church with its famous organ. In this church Mozart played a concert (improvised) for a large audience in 1770. The organ he played is the same that is still in the church today. He was permitted to engrave his initials on the organ case, as you can see in the below picture. (W.S.M = Wolfgang Salzburgensis Mozart)

Close-up of the organ casing at St Tomasi Church in Verona, showing Mozart's initials 'WSM'
Close-up of the organ casing at St Tomasi Church in Verona, showing Mozart's initials 'WSM'

It’s tempting to write the Church Sonatas off as finely-crafted but ultimately inconsequential works whose sole purpose was to pleasantly fill an otherwise awkward silence during Mass. Is that fair, or do they have hidden depths?

In my opinion this is an unfair description. The music was clearly functional music, written for a special purpose in the mass, but just as a tradesman would not build a house’s chimney 10 meters too high just because he was inspired, Mozart wrote music that was appropriate for the specific circumstance. He delivered the music that was commissioned. And the commission was that the masses should be short, maximum 45 minutes. Similar to other composers of high-standing, such as Telemann, who also produced an enormous amount of functional music (Gebrauchsmusik), Mozart left small signatures and idiosyncratic quirks in the music. Small details that differentiate Mozart from other composers with similar functional music. The church sonatas are bursting with youthful energy and lust for life and I constantly experience new layers of quality after repeated listening.

Organs outside churches are relatively rare; is there any reason why these sonatas couldn’t have enjoyed a separate existence as chamber works with piano?

I know that the Sonata in C (K.336) is also performed as a small piano concerto. Therefore I can’t see why this music also couldn’t have had a life outside the church. But maybe they have disappeared a bit because of their liturgical origin and that Mozart wrote so much other chamber music? Aside from the titles, and that we know what they were written for, the music itself has no specific liturgical expression.

As Philip Borg-Wheeler observes in the notes to this album, it’s a shame that there is so little music by Mozart for the organ. The magnificent F minor Fantasia K608, in particular, makes one yearn for an entire book of similarly grandiose pieces! Is there any chance that there are lost works hiding somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered?

You can never rule anything out. It has happened long after the death of many composers that previously unknown works, or works thought to have been lost, have been discovered. But Mozart’s production was collected and catalogued by his family and friends immediately after his death, so I’m afraid the chance of discovering unknown organ works is small. There are some free-standing fugues from the 1780’s that are often played on the organ. These were mostly contrapuntal studies and were completed by others at the behest of his widow Constanze Mozart. It is also known that the organ was primarily seen as an instrument for improvisations during church services. Additionally, the church lost much of its influence on culture during the Enlightenment. As a result, very little significant organ music was composed during this period. The first composer of real stature after Bach’s death to write and publish organ music was Felix Mendelssohn, and that was almost 100 years after Bach’s death!

In places there’s something very Bach-like about the Fantasia; how much do we know about the kind of organ repertoire Mozart would have been exposed to, and perhaps influenced by?

I don't know very much about that. Mozart was familiar with J.S. Bach’s keyboard music and his contrapuntal craft, but as far as I know he didn’t himself play any of Bach’s organ music. C.P.E. Bach had an enormous influence on Mozart. An interesting point is that the works Mozart wrote that are found on this album are stylistically more in the direction of J.S. Bach than his son C.P.E. Bach. The “Empfindsamer Style” that C.P.E. Bach employed often had strong emotional outbursts of expression and didn’t have the forward moving, “fortspinnung” style found in J.S. Bach’s music. Mozart writes more in the direction of a steady "baroque pulse" and the advanced counterpoint à la Bach, such as we hear in K. 608. Indeed K. 608 is a fascinating synthesis of French overture, three complicated fugues, with a middle section in a distinctly elegant Viennese classical style.

The “mechanical clock” pieces by Haydn, Mozart and others are fairly well-known - but why were these musical machines so popular around their time? And what became of them afterwards?

Perhaps it wasn’t so strange to put instruments inside a clock. A clock is a complex mechanical object, and the self-playing instruments use many of the same technical solutions. Handel, C.P.E Bach, Haydn and Beethoven wrote a lot of music for this invention.. Other similar inventions are the hurdy-gurdy or the player piano (pianola), which was relatively common in the 19th century. Today we have digital playback methods for music.

I don’t know where the clocks from Mozart’s time can be found today, if in fact they can be found. In the 18th century and during the Enlightenment people were obsessed with advanced mechanical devices and new inventions. It was popular to develop diverse mechanical machines that could do things on their own. Mozart’s music was commissioned by Count Joseph Deym von Stritez and was to be used to colour figures and tableaux in the Count’s museum in Vienna. The instrument Mozart wrote for was much smaller than a traditional church organ. The sounds I use on the organ for this recording are therefore not authentic in the sense that Mozart intended originally. But the music works really well on the church organ from a musical perspective. An organist must match every performance and score to each individual instrument, regardless of who wrote the music.

In some parts of the world today, the live organ is sadly under threat from pre-recorded hymns and voluntaries. The technology of Mozart’s time was admittedly more simple, but do we know of anyone considering using a mechanical organ for church services?

As far as I know it’s not in use for church services, at least not in Scandinavia. Now that that is said, there is nothing that surprises me anymore regarding being creative to save money or to solve a challenge with a shortcut. But it is somewhat contradictory to use pre-recorded music for liturgical purposes. Music is created in the moment, and is never objective when performed live. For example, at a funeral. In particular the accompaniment of psalms and the liturgy must be an interplay between the congregation/liturgist and the organist. Each side must be responsive and pedagogical towards the other in the interaction, making each other meaningful in the moment. This can never be planned, but must be created in the moment, then and there.

More recently, pieces written for player-piano have explored the possibilities of having, as it were, an infinite number of fingers and hands. Do any of these mechanical works include sections that a mere human can’t physically play?

The solo works on the disc were written for a mechanical instrument and were not intended to be performed by a single performer. Naturally, this creates some challenges. And these works are considered by many to be among the most demanding solo literature to perform on the organ. This requires the performances to be arrangements of the original score. My versions are combinations of Martin Haselböck’s edition for Universal, my own original arrangements, and other solutions and good suggestions for technical problems from other performers. But the music is so fantastic and inspiring that it is worth the effort! And this music also shows the organ's potential to perform complex music with just one musician.

Anders Eidsten Dahl (organ), Arvid Engegård (violin), Atle Sponberg (violin), Embrik Snerte (bassoon)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC, Hi-Res+ FLAC