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The Art of Organ-Building in the Baroque Lithuania: between the Reality of History and Picturesque Legends

We can rightfully boast a unique legacy of Baroque organs in the European context. More than a hundred samples of late Baroque organs, built in the territory of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 18th century, have survived up to our days, either intact or fragmented. Moreover, in the large garretts alotted out in the churches still waiting for their renovation, discarded pieces of the dismembered carcasses of the organs can still be found, among them organ bellows, pipes and even small portable organs.

The date of 11 April 1408 is of particular importance in the history of Lithuanian organ art. It was on this day that Master of the Teuronic Order Ulrich von Jungingen donated a clavicord and a portable organ to Grand Duchess Ona, wife of the Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas. The so-called portatives (just the size of the chest) and slightly bigger to positives was the most prevalent type of organs up to the beginning of the 18th century, covering an environment much wider than the churches. The organs of this type and even smaller ones were also possessed by the Lithuanian nobility. In 1534, a positive was purchased byJerzy Radziwiłł in Vilnius, and in 1618 the Hetmon of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania Krzysztof Mikołaj Radziwiłł in Biržai acquired a fully functional 6-voice positive and a 3-voice regal (furnished with beating reeds and having two bellows). Back in those days, a positive was used not only for playing the instrument and making music but also for oter purposes, e.g., playing chess. The top of the organ, made in the shape of a chest, was divided into two-coloured squares. The oldest specimen of such type, dated back to the end of the 17th century, is currently exhibited in the Lithuanian Theatre, Music and Film Museum.

The magic of organ music

In all likelihood, the largest and most famous Baroque organ ever known were built in 1619, in the Bernardine church of Kretinga.

A legend is still being told about them, which says that “when the keys of the organ were struck for the first time, the sound of the music made the vaults of the church crack.” In Samogitia, the saying was quite popular of “a hum reminding of the Kretinga organ.” Regrettably, the Kretinga organ has not survived.

In the 17th-18th centuries, the most famous organ in Vilnius was also built in the Bernardine church (it has not survived up to our days as well). It should be noted, however, that a certain titbit was associated with the aforementioned organ. Side by side with the instrument itself, a theatre of moving sculptures, emitting various sounds, was installed within the organ. Among the sculptures was a pigeon, a cuckoo, a crane, an angel, a lamb, bells of different size and little acoustic drums, used during the holidays to strengthen the joy of humble believers.  In Germany, drums of this type, emitting a rich and intense sound, similar to that of a low buzz or hum, are called humble-bees.

The Bernardine St. George’s church in Kaunas boasted no less famous organ. Inside the church, within two wooden turrets mounted atop two pillars, pipes of an acoustic drum of the organ were installed with the lion’s jaw and teeth painted on them (only fragments of turrets have survived). This might have given rise to the saying that a person with unseemly large teeth is referred to as “the organ tooth.” It is not in vain that separate parts of the organ pipes are given the names of the human body parts, e.g., a foot, a leg, a chin, a beard, a mouth, lips and ears. If one chose to paint all these parts of the body, an overall picture would resemble a creature resembling a human being or a mystical creation.