The Elbphilharmonie organ: An instrument that breathes

About the marvel of sound and technology at the heart of the Grand Hall.

»You can literally feel this organ. As soon as you turn the instrument on, you notice that it's breathing, flexing its muscles and preparing to fill the hall with music. Then the sound comes from all sides and really takes hold of you. You don't have that with any other church organ or concert organ.« Thomas Cornelius still falls into raptures when he talks about the Elbphilharmonie organ. The Hamburg organist and composer is responsible among other things for maintaining and tuning the instrument; he also gives tours of the organ for visitors, as well as regular recitals.

15 times 15 metres in size, weight: 25 tons

But even when the organ is silent, it is thoroughly impressive to look at. The huge instrument is 15 times 15 metres in size and weighs 25 tons; it extends over a height of four floors, and some pipes are even built into the reflector over the concert platform. Thus there is no classic casing or organ front here. Instead, the instrument fits into the overall design of the Grand Hall organically and »like  a sculpture«, as Cornelius puts it. He actually regards the room itself as just as important as the actual instrument:

»In a church the sacred surroundings contribute to the overall impression; a concert hall obviously has a completely different atmosphere. And there is much less echo here.«

Thomas Cornelius

Die Orgel der Elbphilharmonie
The Elbphilharmonie organ © Wilfried Sander

»An exciting hall needs an equally exciting organ«

Philipp Klais, organ builder

At the same time, the organ offers the public plenty of opportunities to have a look at its insides. When switched on, the organ's interior lighting reveals the impressive ocean of pipes behind the »white skin« of the walls, which is broken through in a few places close to the organ. Last but not least – and this is quite unique in the organ world –, some pipes are located in the hall so that people can touch them; these pipes have a special grease- and sweat-resistant coating to cope with fingerprints.

Merged with the concert hall

The organ seems almost organically merged with the concert hall, which is partly due to the fact that it did not feature at all in the first blueprints. Only a private donation enabled the organ to be built, and in the end the family firm of Klais in Bonn, which was founded in 1882 and has many international organ projects to its name, was given the commission. The experienced organ builders supervised by proprietor Philipp Klais had no choice but to integrate the total of 4,765 pipes, varying in length from 11 millimetres to 10 metres, into the niches still available, working in close cooperation with the architects. Philipp Klais, great-grandson of the company founder, followed the principle that »An exciting hall needs an equally exciting organ«. Now the visible part of the instrument adorns the rows of seats behind the stage arranged according to the »vineyard principle« as if it had never been planned any other way.

Inside the Elbphilharmonie Organ
Inside the Elbphilharmonie Organ © Peter Hundert

Secret access door leading inside the organ

You need to go up to the 14th floor to gain access to the insides of the organ: there is a kind of secret door made of dummy pipes that leads to the so-called swell box, whose shutters can be opened or shut to regulate the volume. The organist operates this mechanism using a foot pedal, the expression pedal or swell pedal.

A narrow spiral staircase leads from the swell box to the other levels. Above the swell box, the great organ and the choir organ are situated; as their names suggest, the former contains the main timbres of the instrument, while the latter contains those pipes that are particularly suited to the accompaniment of choral music. Right at the top is the solo organ, which is home to several unusual timbres, and can get very loud. But the heart and lungs of the organ can be admired in the instrument's »basement« on the 13th floor: on the one hand there is the main blower that ensures the pipes are supplied with enough air, and on the other hand there are the inconspicuous switch boxes housing small computers that control the entire organ.

Orgel: Thomas Cornelius im
Schwellwerk
Thomas Cornelius in the swell box. The wooden shutters used to regulate the dynamics can be seen in the background. © Peter Hundert

»You can play anything you want on this organ. You have absolute artistic freedom because everything works so well and sounds so good.«

Iveta Apkalna

Complex mechanics

Everything works electronically nowadays, of course. Nonetheless: »The basic technology has remained unchanged for 500 years«, Thomas Cornelius explains. This much can be seen from the manual console that forms an integral part of the organ, and allows at least some of the instrument's functions to be operated manually.

Manueller Spieltisch der Elbphilharmonie-Orgel
The manual console © Peter Hundert

Standing inside the organ, at the back of the console, you get an idea of the instrument's complex mechanics. Every single key triggers a whole series of actions. At the press of a key, first of all the long, thin strips of wood known as trackers are pulled downwards, which opens a valve at the other end.

»Every organist is enabled to mix his own, individual organ sound.«

Now air starts to flow through the wooden channels, which lead to different windchests – wooden boxes where pipes with the same pitch are arranged. To prevent these pipes all sounding at the same time, individual handles known as stops can be pulled to select pipes with the same timbre or »register«. This enables every organist to mix his own, individual organ sound. The more stops the organist pulls, the more pipes are heard; this is the origin of the metaphor »to pull out all the stops«.

Abstrakte der Elbphilharmonie-Orgel
Trackers of the Elbphilharmonie organ © Peter Hundert

In addition to the manual console located directly in front of the organ there is a second one, mobile and fully electronic, that is pushed on to the stage for concerts. A big black box housing four manuals, 32 pedals and 69 stops, it looks a bit like the control unit for a spaceship! And it's true that the organist has to enter his personal code on which his settings are stored before he can start playing.

The face of the organ: Iveta Apkalna

No-one knows better than Iveta Apkalna how to find her way around this cockpit. The Latvian organist is the Elbphilharmonie's titular organist, so that she is essentially the face of the organ. She was involved in the lengthy phase of tuning the organ, and was allowed to play it in public for the first time.

Elbphilharmonie Orgel: Iveta Apkalna am elektronischen Spieltisch
Iveta Apkalna © Daniel Dittus

»All the qualities and the details that impressed me about this instrument when I first played it are still there. I have developed a strong emotional bond with the organ which continues to grow and deepen.«

Iveta Apkalna

For Iveta Apkalna it is the warm root notes in particular that make the instrument so special: »They spread throughout the hall like foam and warm people's ears. That truly fascinates me. She adds: »You can play anything you want on this organ. You have absolute artistic freedom because everything works so well and sounds so good. This organ goes along with anything.«

For Apkalna, who studied in Riga and describes the organ in that city's cathedral as her musical home, the Elbphilharmonie organ has become a second home. Even if the acoustics of the concert hall are very different from those of a large church, »this feeling of a sound that embraces me while I play, coming from all sides and from the depths – this is a feeling I have in both places.«

She wants to use the opportunities she has as the Elbphilharmonie organist to increase interest in her instrument, particularly interest among young people. And she does what she can to get more compositions commissioned specifically for this organ. »It would be wonderful if in 20 or even in 50 years there was an organ book containing only works inspired by the Elbphilharmonie organ.«

Text: Simon Chlosta, last updated: 12.5.2020

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