Max Reger - Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott, Op. 27
In 1905, Wilhelm Sauer (1831-1916) completed his—up to then—largest organ for the new cathedral: the monumental instrument with 113 speaking stops on four manuals is a unique testimony to the great art of late romantic organ building in Germany.
Restored to its original condition in the early 90s (the cathedral was hit twice during WWII; even though it had no roof for several years, there was relatively little damage to the organ), it offers a great opportunity to hear the works of contemporary composers such as Max Reger on the kind of instrument that they were written for, and in the cathedral that embodies the unhealthy relationship between church and state in imperial Germany.
Berlin's cathedral, built between 1894 and 1905, played an important role in the self-representation of the young empire, which had been founded only in 1871: "Amongst other things, it is the métier of the arts to create something impressive and imposing (or at least to simulate it), at least as long as glorious battles and triumphant military campaigns are not within reach."
Altar, throne, sword, and humanities were considered to be the pillars of the state, and Berlin cathedral formed the protestant counterpart to the Catholics' St. Peter's in Rome and the Anglicans' St. Paul's in London, the home church of the english relatives of the German emperor.
Wagner - Pilgrim's Chorus from 'Tannhäuser'
(Arr. by Liszt)
The "cathedral shall be the visible thanks for all the grace that the Almighty had visibly granted the fatherland and [that he had] called Prussia to accomplish such great deeds."
With its 7269 pipes, Berlin cathedral's organ represents the summit of German romantic organ building and features all the characteristics of this style: More than one third of the 113 stops are 8' foundation stops (42 total); together with the 32', 16', and 4' stops (32), the foundation stops make up two thirds of the entire instrument. The Great alone features the following nine 8' stops:
Mendelssohn-Bartholdy - Sonata No. 3 in A Major
In addition to the Walze, free combinations and preset combinations were two hallmark playing aids of late-romantic German organs.
Free combinations are tiny tilting switches above or below each row of stop tablets, that allow the organist to preset any kind of registration he or she may need later in a piece. By pushing a button, the Handregister are turned off and the free combination is activated. The number of free combinations vary: this organ has three of them.
Preset combinations are essentially the same, except that they have been preset by the organ builder, usually to certain volume levels (p, mf, f, tutti).
In combination with the Walze (which can be turned on and off as well), this allows the organist to begin on registration 1 on Handregister, cresc. with the Walze, push a free combination while playing, decresc. with the Walze, and arrive on registration 2. Or he can prepare a registration on the Handregisterand alternate between this registration and the preset Tutti, which is exactly what Reger makes ample use of in the first two verses of 'Ein feste Burg' - except that he wants the organist to also change the Handregister every time instead of keeping them the same, which is not possible without an assistant
Bach - Introduction & Fugue, BWV 21 (Arr. by Liszt)
These kinds of changes are virtually impossible with the playing aids of a Cavaillé-Coll organ, i.e., the appels. However, the music of Vierne and Widor does not require them. Instead, turning the reeds on and off by division is what the French wanted, which in turn is not possible on a Sauer organ. It is very obvious that the different technology available to French and German organists greatly influenced their playing style and thus their compositions
Preparing a concert on the Sauer organ at Berlin Cathedral was an amazing experience: while it does take a lot of time to plan how to use the free combinations (having to keep in mind that it is much easier for the assistant to make changes during a piece in the Handregister than in a combination!), and to set them up before each piece, the mesmerizing sound of the organ and the grand atmosphere in the imperial cathedral are far more than ample compensation.
Few instruments in this style and from this period have survived - the one in Berlin Cathedral is virtually unchanged, and without a doubt one of the very best organs in the world!
Lars Eisenlöffel, "Der Berliner Dom" (Berlin: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2013)
Pictures of the organ, the cathedral, and the view from the dome are available here.
Stoplist of the Sauer organ here.
All five live recordings are available here.