Click here to view in a gallery.
GOSHEN -- Perched in the balcony, the new organ at Goshen College looks as majestic as any other but its sound may be closer to what Johann Sebastian Bach heard during his lifetime.
The organ, installed in December, is tuned to a system that Goshen College alumnus Bradley Lehman claims was developed and favored by the Bach family.
This is the first organ in the world tuned to the Bach-Lehman system. Moreover, with organ building being what it is, the tuning system is pretty much a permanent fixture to that instrument and, as word of the new temperament circulates, the organ and its tuning could be toasted or roasted in the musical world.
Lehman's theory is young, having been developed just last year and appearing in a two-part scholarly article in the February and May 2005 issues of the prestigious journal "Early Music." In the study of history, theories and ideas of how things might have been are judged by the standard of is it plausible, and the plausibility of the Bach-Lehman temperament may be heavily determined by how it sounds.
While musicians as a whole will take a couple of years to form a collective opinion, initial reactions indicate Lehman has made a remarkable discovery.
"I love this," Craig Cramer, professor of organ at the University of Notre Dame said of the instrument's sound. "I think it's just very sweet. It's got a very lyrical quality."
The instrument's maker, Taylor & Boody Organbuilders in Virginia, has already had inquires from other organists about the new temperament and may install the tuning on one or two of the smaller organs they are building.
"Right there in Northern Indiana something earth-shattering is happening," said John Boody of Taylor & Boody.
In addition, the English Concert, a European baroque orchestra, tuned to the Bach-Lehman system during its tour of the United States in the fall of 2004 and at its February performance at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. Renowned harpsichordist Robert Hill also used the tuning at two recitals in May 2004.
"I think this is such a fortuitous thing," Cramer said. "It's really like discovering an old manuscript or renovating a painting and finding out it's a Rembrandt."
How the discovery was made
Lehman made his discovery by turning upside down the title page of J.S. Bach's "The Well-Tempered Clavier," a collection of 48 preludes and fugues for keyboard in all major and minor keys. Along the top of the page flows a series of loops and loops within loops that many scholars have previously dismissed as mere decoration. In fact when the manuscript was being rebound in the 1900s, the book binder lopped off the squiggles, thinking them unimportant.
By looking at the drawing upside down and reasoning that a small half circle attached to the second loop represents middle C, Lehman, who holds a doctorate in harpsichord from the University of Michigan, was able to calculate which fifths should be tempered and which should be pure when tuning a keyboard instrument.
"There's always a possibility that I'm off by a tiny little bit," Lehman said of his theory. "It just sounds right to me. It aligns with all the historic writing I've seen by Bach and his sons."
Even though the diagram is on a document dating from the mid-1700s, Lehman said the tuning system accommodates compositions from any era.
"You can play anything, play everything, play (20th-century composer Arnold) Schoenberg on this," Lehman said. "That's the thing, it makes everything sound amazing."
The difference in sound between the Bach-Lehman temperament and other temperaments is very subtle and, for the most part, only heard when the tuning systems are played one after the other. But organists are particularly sensitive to temperaments because their instruments can be tuned to several different systems.
For example, the new organ in the Marie P. Debartolo Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Notre Dame is tuned to the modified Kirnberger system.
Opus 41, the organ in the Rieth Recital Hall at Goshen College, was originally set to be tuned using the Bach-Kellner system but then Lehman sent an abstract of his research to the music department.
Christine Thogersen, assistant professor of music at Goshen College, acknowledged "there were a number of sweaty palms for quite awhile" when deciding whether or not to use the new tuning system since it is an untested theory and no recording on an organ using the temperament was available.
Encouraged by the praise from Taylor & Boody, the college decided to have the organ's pipes cut to the Bach-Lehman system.
"The sound carries itself," Thogersen said. "I like the way it develops itself but I also like the individual character of the sound and the way they voiced it."
Lehman said his tuning system gives each key signature a distinct personality and increases the emotional impact of the music.
"It sounds like Equal Temperament but has a more psychological difference," he explained. "It gives you a different feeling about it. Otherwise, why do music at all if it's going to sound boring?"
A cover photo and story of Opus 41 will be featured in the May 2005 issue of "The Diapason," a magazine focusing on organ, harpsichord and church music. That kind of publicity coupled with the series of concerts during the Organ Dedication Week will stir interest and bring organists to Goshen College to play and hear the instrument.
Thogersen said she is awed that what started as a germ of an idea is now part of the organ's temperament. "We don't know the end of it," she said. "We're just at the beginning. It's a little scary."
Contact Marilyn Odendahl at email@example.com.