Saturday, December 11, 2010

Tannenberg, First American Organ Builder

Tannenberg organ at the York County Heritage Trust.

     David Tannenberg is the most well-known and respected American builder of organs of the eighteenth century. He became the first professional organ builder trained in North America. Tannenberg lived with his family in the Bethlehem, Nazareth and Lititz Moravian communities.
     In April of 1804, Tannenberg brought his last commission, a pedal pipe organ, to the 1762 Christ Lutheran Church in York where he and his assistant worked five weeks to install it in the gallery. Tannenberg did not live to see the installation finished. As he stood on scaffolding, he suffered a stroke, fell and struck his head. He died two days later on May 19, 1804, at 76 years of age. The instrument was played for the first time at his funeral service. Tannenberg was buried in the Moravian cemetery in York.
     Tannenberg was born in the village of Berthelsdorf, Saxony in the eastern part of Germany, on March 21, 1728. His parents, Johann Tannenberger and Judith Nitschmann were Moravians who had found refuge from religious persecution in their native Moravia (now the Czech Republic) on the estate of Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf. Count Zinzendorf came to know the young Tannenberg and saw to it that he received proper schooling.
     Tannenberg arrived in Bethlehem in May of 1749 at the age of 21. His occupation initially was that of a joiner, a woodworker who did carpentry or millwork. That summer, on July 15, 1749, Tannenberg and Anna Rosina Kerner, along with 30 other couples, were married in what came to be called the "Great Wedding". The Moravian Church leaders proposed the matches but the women and men had the right to refuse the marriage. They had five children, Rosina, Mary, Anna, David and Samuel.
     When Johann Gottlob Klemm, a professional organ builder from Germany arrived in Bethlehem, in 1757, Tannenberg found his calling in life. He became Klemm’s apprentice and they built at least five organs together until Klemm’s death in 1762. They had set up a shop in the house, at the Burnside Plantation.  Tannenberg wished to continue building organs however the Moravian elders decided that the occupation would bring Tannenberg into too much contact with the outside world. Tannenberg had been making frequent trips around the colonies in search of wood, ebony, ivory, and tin. Fortunately for American music lovers, Tannenberg disobeyed the Moravian elder’s order.
     To supplement the training he had received from Klemm, Tannenberg ordered a copy of Georg Andreas Sorge’s treatice on organ pipe scaling and tuning called "The Secret Art of the Measurement of Organ Pipes". Sorge, a court organist and musical theoretician from Lobenstein, Germany, was the first to apply logarithmic progression to the scaling of organ pipes.
     In 1765, Tannenberg moved with his family to Lititz and set up his organ factory there. During his long life, Tannenberg built approximately 50 organs, along with pianos and clavichords. In Lititz, he was a part of the musical community as an organist, violinist and a cantor for the church services. He initially built organs only for Moravian churches, however by 1769, Lutheran and Reformed churches requested organs as well. Tannenberg built his organs according to the needs of the congregation. He understood that Lutheran and Reformed churches would require an organ that could stand alone and lead congregational singing of the chorales. Moravian Churches used their organs to accompany stringed and woodwind instruments. The notes played on his Moravian Church organs have been described as sweet, lovely and not overpowering. His organs were built for churches in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, New York and Maryland.
     George Washington was so impressed with Tannenberg’s organ at the Zion Lutheran Church in Philadelphia that he made a return visit to attend another organ recital in 1791. George (one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence) and Betsy (designer of the American flag) Ross, were admirers of Tannenberg and contracted with him to repair their house organ. Tannenberg was commissioned to build the organ for the Bethlehem Moravian Church. His plans required the church’s roof to be raised four feet higher than called for by the architect. This was done when the church was built. Tannenberg died before he could build this organ.
     There are nine surviving organs built by Tannenberg. The closest one is located at the Moravian Historical Society in the Whitefield House in Nazareth, PA., along with the only existing clavichord made by Tannenberg.  He built the organ in 1776 for the Moravian Chapel in the Single Brethren's House in Bethlehem. George Washington listened to music from this organ during a 1782 visit to Bethlehem. It was reconditioned by R. J. Brunner & Co. in 1997 through grants from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and Questers Whitefield Chapter 514. Questers is an international organization dedicated to preserving and restoring works of art and antiquities.

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