The organ’s renewed vitality

03. July 2017

The Liszt Academy’s Voit & Söhne organ boasts a 100-year old history. The instrument, which had a turbulent and hard time in the 20th century, will be seen and heard in its original state from the autumn of 2018. Please read the summary of László Fassang, Head of the Keyboard and Harp Department of the Liszt Academy on the organ’s past and restoration process.

The organ of the Grand Hall of the Liszt Academy was manufactured by the Voit & Söhne in Karlsruhe in 1907 as the workshop’s 975th piece with 4 manuals and 74 stops. The instrument was built jointly with the Main Building of the Liszt Academy at Liszt Ferenc Square, and thus its richly ornamented façade is an inherent part of the Grand Hall. It was Hungary’s first concert organ and the largest work of her builders, Voit & Söhne, which brought their firm significant international fame. 


László Fassang


Voit was an outstanding organ builder of his time, specialising in organs built for large concert halls. These instruments followed the sound ideal of the symphony orchestra, which resulted in an exceedingly wide range of timbres from pianissimo to fortissimo. For the first time in the world it was in Budapest that the stage keyboards supplied with electric tracker action had enabled the organist to sit in direct proximity of the audience and the other musicians performing on the stage. This way, this very instrument conveyed a special message: namely that the organ – after centuries of service in the church – now enjoyed an equal position with the other instruments and was also welcome on the concert stage.

Looking back on the history of this organ, we can separate four clearly distinct eras: golden age, decline, exile and revival. The first golden age of the instrument was between 1907 and 1925, when such renowned organists gave recitals on it as Alexandre Guilmant, director of Paris Conservatoire, Enrico Bossi, one of the greatest organ virtuosi of his time or the organ professor of the Liszt Academy, Dezső Antalffy Zsiross. Antalffy had a second keyboard-set built on the choir so that he and his students could perform symphony orchestral compositions.

The era of decline fell between 1925 and 1967, when due to repeated reconstructions, the instrument was increasingly losing its genuine character. The reconstructions far from the original concept and the negligence of the instrument’s maintenance led to the organ being much less reliable, so much so that the 1967 leadership of the Liszt Academy chose to procure a completely new instrument. This was the point when the original façade was silenced, and the pipes functioned exclusively as decoration elements (and mufflers).  The rest of the pipes and other parts were exiled. With this, the darkest period of the instrument’s history began. In 1967, the disassembled organ was first taken to Debrecen, then to the courtyard of the state organ factory (Municipal Craft Company- KFMV), where it was stored among dilapidated circumstances. Finally, two Hungarian town organs received the rest of its parts: the organ in Liszt Ferenc Hall in Sopron, and that in the assembly hall of the Győr’s Town Hall.  


Photo: Liszt Academy / György Darabos


The first signs of a slow awakening were perceivable in 2009, when the organ built in 1967 had to be pulled down during the reconstruction works of the Main Building. The then-President of the Liszt Academy, Dr András Batta asked the academic staff of the organ department – among others, me – to devise the most optimal solution from the perspective of Hungary’s entire music community. This was the time when besides my colleagues, Dr. István Ruppert and János Pálúr, also Dr Balázs Szabó - one of the most highly qualified organ experts of this country -  joined the preparation team.   

Prior to devising the plan, we made study trips in Hungary and abroad, spent several hundreds of hours doing research in archives and on the spot and prepared a condition assessment report of the 1967 organ. In the end, taking the artistic, architectural, heritage conservation, economic and organ-historical aspects into consideration, the expert-team voted for the reconstruction of the 1907 Voit organ. The plan was adopted by the Senate of the Liszt Academy on 18 May, 2010 and accordingly a decision was made for the implementation of the project.  

With was how the revival period of the instrument started. The President of the host institution established an organ committee, which consisted not only of musicians but also of economic, legal and technical experts. The committee was to professionally prepare the project and to map the feasibility and financial aspects. The great breakthrough came in November, 2014, when the Hungarian Government made a decision to back the project. As the result of the international public procurement procedure, the reconstruction is being done by the highly commended German Johannes Klais Orgelbau and their Hungarian partner company, AerisOrgona Kft. under the supervision of the committee made up of the organ professors of the university and of technical experts. The inauguration is to take place on Liszt’s birthday, on 22 October, 2018.

The main goal of the reconstruction was to restore the original sound and looks of the instrument while taking heritage conservation criteria into account. Fortunately, the located parts and similar organs provide us with sufficient information to re-build the original instrument. The design of the keyboard, the air-supply, the tracker and the pipe-material are practically identical with the original. At the same time, the modern inventions of organ building also appear in the structure, such as the Setzer-combination or a computer-controlled system, which makes the timbre combinations of the organ easier. The organ will be apt to function as a solo instrument and as a partner-instrument in various chamber music and orchestral formations. It will be an excellent interpreter of Liszt and Antalffy’s organ compositions and of the symphonic works written around the turn of the 20th century. Naturally, also music ranging from Bach to contemporary pieces can be authentically played on it.  Upon the request of the Liszt Academy, the composer Zsigmond Szathmáry will dedicate a grand orchestral organ concerto specially to this very instrument, which will be performed for the first time at the inauguration concert.   


Photo: Liszt Academy / György Darabos


The question arises, of course, how our organ will differ from that of Müpa, the Palace of Arts. The difference can best be fathomed by looking at the two buildings. As soon as we enter them, we sense the era they were built in. Similarly, the Voit organ will bring to us the nouveau art of the turn of the 20th century instruments, the ingenuities of a mature style.  Due to the size and acoustic parameters of the Grand Hall, the sound will be much more concentrated, more energetic, even more dignified. If we want to capture the difference in technical terms, we can specify the following: the Voit organ has 4 manuals, 74 stops and 5000 pipes, while Müpa’s organ has 5 manuals, 92 stops and 7000 pipes. Both keyboards of the Voit organ have electro-pneumatic tracker action, while the upper keyboard of the Müpa organ has a mechanical action, and the stage keyboard has an electric tracker. Both organs have two swell-boxes.

As to the future prospects, I would like to focus on how this instrument will change the everyday life of the Keyboard and Harp Department and in general, music instruction at the Liszt Academy. While presenting the criteria, we must note that the leading music academies of the world strive to use style instruments in organ instruction. Here we are talking about historic organs or their exact copies. These kinds of organs were either demolished or were not even built in Hungary, although they would convey basic information about the performance practice of the individual eras and styles, whose empirical study cannot be replaced by any other method. 

The reconstruction of the Voit organ is the most important step to make the organ inventory of the Liszt Academy fulfil the requirements of modern organ instruction. This instrument will namely enable students to become more profoundly familiar – both in theory and practice - with the German-Hungarian branch of the Romantic Era. At the same time, the size, equipment and state of the organ will make possible the concert performance of the entire organ literature, including the orchestral, choral and chamber music pieces using the organ. Thanks to this, students of the Liszt Academy will be able to acquire some secrets of organ playing: instrumental practice of the Romantic period, the art of registration, adaption to other instruments, stage practice. The instrument will represent a real inspiration to organ students during practice hours, classes and concerts.  Also, the number of international applications for the department will most probably grow, as worldwide, only two music institutions can boast a similarly grandiose organ: Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory and Yale University in the US.