“Bach and the Lutheran Legacy” and
“Female Organists and Composers”
20-29 October, 2017

The Organ Moves Into the Brave New World of the Exhibition (Part I)

In 1851, the first world’s fair took place in London, officially entitled “The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations,” but better known as the “Great Exhibition.” It was opened on May 1 by Queen Victoria and after the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus had been sung, the Queen walked through the building while the exhibited “organs played marches, each one taking up the music as the Queen approached.”

The “Great Exhibition” received more than 6 million visitors and its success inspired many cities that were eager to follow London’s example; here is the list from 1851-1900:

  • 1851 London
  • 1853 New York
  • 1855 Paris
  • 1860 Besançon
  • 1861 Metz
  • 1862 London
  • 1864 Bayonne
  • 1865 Dublin
  • 1867 Paris
  • 1871 London
  • 1872 Lyon
  • 1873 Vienna
  • 1876 Philadelphia
  • 1878 Paris
  • 1879 Sydney
  • 1880 Melbourne
  • 1883 Amsterdam
  • 1885 Antwerp
  • 1889 Paris
  • 1893 Chicago
  • 1894 Antwerp
  • 1895 Amsterdam
  • 1897 Brussels
  • 1900 Paris

If we rank the countries according to the number of expositions, we find France on top (9 out of 24), England, Belgium and the US (3 each), Australia and the Netherlands (2 each), Austria and Ireland (1 each). By 1889 the number of visitors had risen to more than 16 million and the centennial exhibition of 1900 saw as many as 50 million visitors.

Those were the days, when organs were exhibited amongst various kinds of power engines, locomotives, huge constructions in metal, etc. There is a famous 1867 engraving showing Joseph Merklin’s three-manual organ for the St. Epvre Church in Nancy, put on a balcony next to and above a huge locomotive. Quite understandable that the organ builder complained that the instrument could not be heard and in an official letter to the exhibition committee requested “hours of rest” to make it possible to listen to the exhibited organs.

Those were the days when organ research and technical developments were discussed during meetings of the scientific academies in Europe and Aristide Cavaillé-Coll stated: “Theory without practical experience is at least as blind as habitual routine. In my opinion, the most beautiful aspect of pure sciences is their application, and I believe that theory must be based on extensive practical foundations, in order to be sound. The theory of the organ and other musical instruments still leaves much to be desired.”

Those were the days when art, craft and technical development merged and when organs still were an important part of public musical life. Both instruments and the programmes performed on them attracted large audiences. After having heard Cavaillé-Coll’s Trocadéro organ in 1878, the Hungarian organ builder Josef Angster wrote in his diary: “It swept, sang, laughed, cried, prayed, lightened and thundered, all in the French manner.”

(to be continued in part 2)