Organ of Riga Cathedral

The Organ of the Riga Cathedral

The Organ in the Riga Cathedral (Rīgas Doms) was built by E.F. Walcker & Co in 1883-4, and is a unique and outstanding instrument. It is an example of the highest levels of achievement in the Late Romantic period of organ construction, with few equivalents in Europe. 


The history of the instrument begins on 16 November 1881 in the Cathedral, when a contract was signed with the organ builders E.F. Walcker & Co from Ludwigsburg, Germany. The firm was already well-known for its successful organ building projects in Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Munich, Ulm, Tallinn and St. Petersburg. The administration at the Cathedral ordered an organ with 102 stops, and the organ builders promised to complete the work and install the organ in 18-20 months for a sum of 75 000 marks (around 19 000 US Dollars at the time). The longstanding Organist and Director of Music at the Dom, Wilhelm Bergner (1837-1907) suggested that an additional 6300 Roubles should be raised (approximately 18 000 USD) to increase the number of stops to 120. The organ builder, Karl Walcker, added four more stops to bolster his firm’s reputation. Thus in January 1884 the largest and most modern organ then existing in the world began to sound in the Dom in Riga, with its 124 stops and the newest technical innovations: a Barker Lever, crescendo pedal and pre-set and free combinations. 


The inauguration of the organ took place on 19 January 1884 (Julian Calendar, 31 January according to the present-day Gregorian Calendar). The organist at the Cathedral, Wilhelm Bergner; the organist at Holy Trinity, Mitau (Jelgava) and Director of Music for Jelgava, Rūdolfs Postelis (Rudolf Postel 1820 – 1889); and the Director of the Organ Class at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire, Louis Homilius (Louis Homilius 1845 – 1908), all took part in an evening concert. Works performed included a work by the notable Hungarian composer, Franz Liszt, Nun danket alle Gott (1883; Now thank we all our God), which was dedicated to the inauguration of the new organ. It can be performed either as an organ solo, or in a setting together with choir and brass instruments. 


The organ is constructed on a grand scale: it is 25 metres high, 11 metres wide and 10 metres deep, with 6718 pipes on 26 wind chests. Approximately half of the pipes are of wood (pine, maple, oak, pear and apple), while the rest are made of a lead/tin alloy. Their dimensions vary – the longest are more than 10 metres in height, while the shortest are just 13 millimetres. Thus the instrument has a huge diapason of sound, with a wide range of tonal height and timbre. The sounds of a whole orchestra can be heard, reflected in the names of the stops: Viola di alta, Violine, Cor Anglais, Trumpet, Oboë, Fagott&Oboe, Physharmonika. Some stops have notably poetic names: Unda maris (waves of the sea), Vox celeste (heavenly voice), Vox angelica (angelic voice), Vox humana (human voice).


The organ at the Cathedral has two consoles, which, along with the pipes, are shared between two balconies. The upper console has 4 manuals and a pedalboard; the lower has one manual, connected to the stops on the fourth manual (Schwellwerk, swell organ). The key and stop actions are mechanical; wind is supplied to the pipes by an electric motor and 10 bellows of different sizes. 


Changes to the Walcker instrument began to be introduced shortly after its construction. The lower balcony was dismantled in the late 19th and early 20th century, and the pipes placed there were transferred to the larger upper balcony. This in its turn was extended to allow more room for musicians. The organ continued to retain this configuration after the major renovation carried out between 1959-1962 by the German firm of Hermann Eule from Bautzen. The mechanical parts were restored, and missing pipes inserted. After many years of intensive concert performances, and in preparation for the organ’s 100th anniversary, the Dutch firm Flentrop Orgelbouw (Zaandam) rebuilt and restored the instrument in its entirety between 1981-1984, renewing its placement over 2 balconies. This renewed the organ to its original configuration and sound quality. 


The visible part or façade of the Riga Cathedral organ is very ornate. The composition – three great ranks of pipes, with rows of smaller pipes interspersed, and many ornamental and figurative woodcarvings – was originally constructed in 1601, when Jacob Raab (died in 1609) completed work on a new instrument after fire damaged the Dom in 1547. It is one of the oldest existing organ façades in Europe. 


In 1721, after the Great Northern War had ended, extensive restoration work took place in the Riga Cathedral, during which the organ façade was also rebuilt. It was supplemented with four very expressive wood carvings, the figure of a councillor was reconstructed, and the whole façade was painted in a shade of blue. 


The last reconstruction of the façade was undertaken from 1773-6 by the organ builder Heinrich Andreas Contius (1708–1786), whom the famous composer Johann Sebastian Bach described as the “honourable master from Halle” in a recommendation to a church in Leipzig. During this period symmetrical ranks of pedal pipes, decorated with a rococo-style motif, were added to the façade. The new section of the façade was painted in shades of blue in an attempt to match the blue marbling on the older parts. The last restoration of the façade was undertaken between 2000-18.