by Arthur W.J.G. Ord-Hume
Mounted high in the wall of the mediaeval Castle of Salzburg is the world’s oldest barrel organ built in 1502 and recently fully restored. It plays music – and roars like a bull! The music we understand, but why does it have a bull’s roar? Nobody has questioned this but Arthur W J G Ord-Hume reveals the long-forgotten reason
Many things in life are taken for granted yet if we pause for a moment and think we are sometimes hard-pushed to come up with a reason behind something. We tend too easily to accept things at face-value and not to question when there is something we cannot understand. So many of our common sayings have meanings that are lost in the past, yet we still repeat them today without having the faintest idea what they really mean – like ‘swinging the lead’, ‘going off at half-cock’ and ‘reading between the lines’.
Occasionally, though, there is something that maybe we ought not take for granted but should actively seek explanation. The Salzburg Stier is one of them.
The City of Salzburg held a huge celebration in 2002 to mark the successful conclusion of a two-year project to restore this world-famous mechanical organ to its original condition. The City dignitaries and their guests from around the World did all the usual things that behoves celebrating a major event in an important city.
The organ played its newly-restored barrel with its ancient musical programme to be greeted by well-earned smiles, applause and even cheers. The roar was equally received with joy.
Salzburg, long possessor of the World’s oldest poorly-playing barrel organ now had its historic instrument in tip-top condition. It played its music and at the start and end of each tune it roared mightily over the City spread out beneath it. This was the traditional roar that it had been producing since 1502 and it was an event ingrained in the Salzburg folk-law.
There was only just one small question. Why does it roar like a bull? Why is it called the Stier (which is German for ‘bull’) and why is the animal depicted in a famous woodcut from the 19th century as a malevolent black bull emerging over the Castle walls immediately above the organ?
It was a question that I asked when I first went to Salzburg around the early 1970s. Everybody knew about the roar (except that nobody seemed ever actually to have heard it above the traffic noise), but there wasn’t anybody who seemed keen to offer an explanation that I could accept.
The stories bandied about were all different and included some which I shall summarise. Although the coat of arms for Salzburg depicts a lion, the people venerated the bull because, allegedly, of the ‘legend of the bull-washers’. The story goes that the Castle was under siege and after a time the trapped defenders realised there was no food left, only one solitary bull. Desiring to hide this fact from their attackers, they painted the bull black, exposed it from the high battlements, took it away, washed the paint off and repainted in white for a second showing. They kept this up, repainting, displaying and then washing the bull until the enemy became convinced that the castle was defended by a bevy of bullocks.
That sounded a load of bullocks to me. As did the story of the bull signifying the archbishop’s run-in with one Georg von Wisbeck and to remind him who was boss of the castle. A pretty feeble tale if ever I heard one and it reminded me that the insubstantial libretti of many early operas were invariably saved by the music and the singers. Here was an insubstantial story that meekly warranted an organistic belch without explaining it in any way.
None of this seemed to stand up to scrutiny, in particular as the legends sounded vaguely familiar. I then found that similar tales were told to justify vastly different historical events elsewhere in mediaeval Europe. The conclusion was that if there was a shortage of actual improbable events, the number of professed explanations was inexhaustible!
When two years ago I found that the story hadn’t really advanced much and still the bull’s-roar was thought to be merely a call to worship, I decided it was time to investigate the truth, especially now that the organ was playing again – and the bull roaring as new.
The history of the Stier is rather fragmentary during the 17th and early 18th centuries, but we do know that it was built to remind the people of Salzburg to go to their worship regularly. According to this, then, the Stier acted as a sort of organised church-bell created to bring people to Church. It seemed a curious explanation and I spent the next thirty years quietly pondering why they didn’t use a bell like everybody else.
There is plenty of literature on this instrument, the works of Gerhard Walterskirchen (Das Hornwerk der Festung Hohensalzburg and Musik auf der Festung Hohensalzburg) being among the better-known, but I became convinced that the real story lay elsewhere than in the words of organ historians and musicologists. I turned to history instead.
We know that the first organ and bull was erected in 1502. Salzburg’s ruler of the time was Archbishop Leonhard of Keutschack who acceded in 1495 until his death in 1519. At this time Salzburg was a somewhat decadent place where the religious influence of Rome had waned rather dramatically.
The city’s great castle, the Hohensalzburg Fortress, had been built by Archbishop Gebhard in 1077. Standing 119 metres above the town, the dominating position of the edifice now inspired Leonhard to enlarge it, a task he completed in 1500-1501.
After many years of religious uprising against the papal influence, Leonhard had been installed by the Pope with a simple mandate: to restore the city to the Catholic faith. In fact, not only was this the Archbishop’s given task, it was one that he grasped with fervour and he devoted the rest of his life to reinforcing Catholicism.
The Papal representative, for whom nothing but the closest adherence to the Catholic faith could be countenanced, decided to have erected a salutary lesson to the people of the town below his castle. It was a mechanical organ. As for devotion and worship, Salzburg needed not just waking up, but a constant reminder that Rome ruled. Leonhard did it in a very interesting way.
The style for the public organs in Austria that was peculiar to this age was called Hornwerke. In effect this was a semi-open-air instrument having all-metal pipework – equivalent, if you like, to the German Blockwerk organ. This style wasn’t restricted to German instruments, of course, for it existed as early as the year 980 in the great organ of Winchester in Hampshire.
The difference was that this one, to gain the attention of a captive audience, would before and after each tune produce a sound very much like the roar of a bull so as to remind everybody that the papal influence was always at hand.
The allegory of the bull in the Catholic faith is probably less understood today than even a century ago. A ‘Papal Bull’ was a charter or edict of the Pope a die Incarnationis, in other words an Apostolic brief. Lewis Atterbury the English Divine (1631-93) wrote: ‘A fresh bull of Leo’s had declared how inflexible the Court of Rome was on the part of abuses’. He writes of Pope Leo X (Giovanni de Medici) who, born in 1475, demonstrated that Popes of the past died young: enthroned in 1513 he was dead by 1521.
The actual term ‘Papal Bull’ is a specific reference to the heavy lead seal used to impress wax on the communication that carried the name. Here ‘bull’ is itself a corruption of the colloquial Latin for seal (signum) which is bulla. The Salzburg Stier, the origins of which seem today to have been overlooked by the present-day city, was thus a constant reminder of the power of Rome to a people thought (by the archbishop) to be too far removed from Catholicism.
Quickly nick-named by the public as the Salzburg Stier (itself something of a dangerous religious snub to Rome), the organ was erected by an unknown maker in 1502. There is some uncertainty as to what music it played at this early date other than the piece Alten Choral written in the year of the organ’s construction (therefore probably expressly for it) by Augustin Ebler. However, Johann Evangeliste Engl (Das Hornwerk auf Hohensalzburg, Salzburg, 1909) tells us the organ played every morning at four o’clock and every evening at seven, sounding an Ave Maria.
The practice of religion at the end of the Dark Ages certainly demanded a good deal of personal sacrifice, sleep being just one thing.
In 1539 a Hymn composed by Paul Hofhaymer set to music the ode Ad Lydiam. In 1669 the organ played three pieces but by 1753 this had been increased to twelve. By 1753 two pieces by Leopold Mozart were being played: the allegro Die Jagd and the Menuetto Pastorello. At the same time, Johann Ernst Eberlin’s Wiegenlied and his Menuetto were pinned. In 1791 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Mailied (Komm lieber Mai und mache die Bäume wieder grün) was installed and, finally, in 1804 Michael Haydn’s Sehnsucht nach dem Landleben sounded out from the organ high up on the castle wall.
In July 1668, a restoration was carried out but not until the next century do we find a reliable name associated with the instrument when, in 1745, Johann Christoph Egedacher carried out an extensive restoration. The musical barrel seems to have been renewed or repinned several times over for, in 1797, Josef Haydn composed his Austrian Folkhymn for the organ.
Housed in a rickety-looking shed protruding rather precariously from the top of the castle wall, the old barrel organ, for a long time referred to as the oldest in the world (but a bit like the ancient broom that had had five new heads and three new handles), gallantly soldiered on. But its imperious roar at the start and end of each tune had long been emasculated by the mounting rise of modern traffic noise in the city below, reminding, now effetely and only to those that cared, that ‘Rome was watching’.
When played, the louvered shutters at the front were opened but their presence meant that the organ was always exposed, at least in part, to the atmosphere. It was still played by turning a rather too-small hand wheel but the organ room was so small and cramped that there was only sufficient room for one person at a time and photography was a challenge even with a wide-angle lens.
It was almost 35 years ago that I was invited to inspect the state of the instrument and discuss a project for its ultimate restoration. This was my first visit to Salzburg and on that occasion I was accompanied by Prof Jorg Lässig and was escorted over the organ by local Salzburg historian and musical-instrument collector Otto Fichtinger.
At the time of my inspection the instrument was still playable but without any degree of musical accuracy as heavy keyframe and barrel-pin wear combined to produce both wrong notes and no notes.
The musical compass of F – g2 was made up of 125 all-metal pipes. Interestingly, the overall pitch of the organ had been lowered at some time by very heavy cone-tuning. Subsequently this end has been better achieved by the soldering of extensions to the tops of all the pipes. The so-called roar of the bull is from a separate department on the chest where a large number of pipes play the chord F A C in a blast at the start and finish of the music. The keys to sound these pipes are raised by thick, wide brass blocks screwed to the extreme left end of the barrel’s surface.
In a charmingly ‘olde worlde’-style, the air in the bellows reservoir was maintained at the correct pressure by the use of rocks of various sizes placed on the upper board.
Restoration finally got underway in the year 2001 in order that the 500th anniversary of the inauguration of the first and original barrel organ could be suitably marked. The restoration process was undertaken by a team including organ-builders Ferdinand Salomon of Leobendorf and the Nationaal Museum in Utrecht where a wholly-new barrel was made and pinned with a replica of the 1753 12-tune Mozart/Eberlin programme.
On October 26th 2002 the restored Bull organ once more shouted out its papal warning over the heads of the Salzburgians again, marking half a millennium since Archbishop von Keutschach first dreamed up his cunning plan to re-affirm Catholicism in a then-religiously-delinquent Salzburg.
Perhaps it is a shame that few people today understand the power of belief and religious upbringing for then we would find it easier to understand what a powerful symbol the Salzburg Stier really was in its day. Now it is merely a tourist attraction and a statistic for the history-books.
This is the first time this explanation has, to my knowledge, appeared in print. Incidentally, for the benefit of those that know their Bible, there is another misunderstanding that ought to be corrected: the ‘wild bull’ of the Old Testament is now thought to have been but an Oryx.
Guildford, February 7th, 2005
Note: The author wishes to acknowledges the assistance of Dick van Minnen of the Nationaal Museum van Speelklok tot Pierement who kindly provided the photographs taken in the Museum workshops in Utrecht during the making of the new barrel for the Stier.