Scholla: David Tannenberg, Organ Builder

David Tannenberg, Organ Builder

Berks Countians generally are acquainted with the name of Dieffenbach as an expert builder of church organs and many of his creations still are serving the purpose which they were constructed. But the name of David Tannenberg is not so well known because he built organs in the colonial churches of Eastern Pennsylvania. In most cases both church and organ have been superceded by more modern structures. And yet in his day, Tannenberg was regarded as the best organ builder in America and according to some of his contemporaries Europe itself could boast of none better than he.

Tannenberg came to America from Moravia in 1749. After a stay in Bethlehem, as a member of the Moravian colony there, he moved to Lititz in Lancaster County and helped to build the second great Moravian settlement.

Music was Tannenberg’s forte. He sang an excellent tenor, played a violin and participated in the many forms of musical worship which even now are characteristic of the Moravian brethren. He was a patriot. In spite of the prohibition against the taking of oaths imposed upon the followers of the Unitas Fratum, Tannenberg took the oath of allegiance to the new government of the United States in the year 1778 when the British occupation of Philadelphia forced that colony to count its friends.

Tannenber constructed organs in churches in Albany, New York; Salem, North Carolina; Hagerstown, MD; Madison, VA, and in most of the towns in Pennsylvania . In 1770 he built the organ for Trinity Lutheran Church in Reading and shortly before that in the Maxatawny Lutheran Church. His greatest single achievement  was the building of the organ of Zion Lutheran Church in Philadelphia in 1790.

In a letter to a friend Tannenberg wrote of his progress in Philadelphia as follows:

“On the main manual seven stops are now in place, and pedal is now complete with the exception of five pipes in the trombone bass. The echo is in place. On the Upper manual, one stop, the principal is finished. When all is drawn out on the lower manual, with pedal, the church is well filled with the volume of sound and to every one’s astonishment.”

On October 2, 1790, the Philadelphia newspaper the Neue Correspondenz commented upon the brilliant achievement which had been wrought in Zion’s Church declaring that European organ builders could not do any better than Tannenberg had done and the newspaper exulted in the statement: “It was done by an American.”

Archival Notes: The oldest surviving organ built in colonial America resides in Berks County, below is an excerpt on that particular Tannenberg Organ.

Tannenberg built an organ for Zion Lutheran Church near the town of Moselem Springs in Richmond Township in Berks County in 1770. This was one of Tannenberg’s earliest organs; quite possibly his opus 8. It is interesting to note that this is not only the oldest surviving Tannenberg organ, but also the oldest surviving organ built in the colonies. Tannenberg provided a case constructed from black walnut and is the only extant Tannenberg case made from this wood. The organ was dedicated by the pastor, John Helfrich Schaum in 1770 and was located in the west gallery of the church’s 1761 stone building. An old photo of the organ in this building can be seen hanging in the present church (see below).

The organ remained in the old church for 124 years. Then, in 1894, the old church was torn down and the present brick building was erected. At this time, the Tannenberg was extensively rebuilt by Samuel Bohler of Reading. Bohler removed the Terz and Mixtur and replaced them with string stops. In addition, he installed “ears” on the front pipes. He also completely rebuilt the key and stop actions and in the process, also replaced the old recessed keydesk with a typical late 19th century design. The reversed color keyboard was also replaced. The entire winding system was discarded in favor of a single rise bellows installed within the case. Finally, the case was grain-painted a dark brown. When the organ was installed in the new church, only the chest, the case, parts of the stop action and six ranks of pipes remained from 1770.

After becoming unplayable in the 1950’s, the organ was again reworked in 1974 by Joseph Chapline. The 19th century pipe work was removed and modern, factory-made ranks were installed to replace the missing Terz and Mixtur stops. A recessed console was reconstructed and the case was painted an off-white. All other alterations by Bohler were left in place, however, including the 19th century winding system. The six original ranks, however, still produce a very beautiful articulate and antique sonority.

The organ was completely restored by the shop of R. J. Brunner & Co. from 2010-2011. All the missing Tannenberg parts were replicated to match the originals, including the 18th century style winding system. The shop of Paul Fritts in Tacoma, Washington provided the missing Terz and Mixtur ranks. These were made to match the original Tannenberg pipes. Bill Ross provided parts of an old Pennsylvania-German winding system — possibly from an old Dieffenbach organ. In addition, the case was restored to once again reveal the beautiful black walnut.

The organ is pitched rather high — in the old “Chorton” (a= 458.2Hz), which was common in central Germany in the 18th century. It was decided to tune the Tannenberg in one of the temperaments designed by Georg Andreas Sorge and given in a table in his treatise that he sent to Tannenberg. This particular temperament gives the various keys wonderfully different characters and qualities.

In September of 2011, after a little more than a year, the organ was returned to the church. The service of rededication and recital took place on Sunday October 2, 2011 with the author as recitalist.


Photo is stone church 1892.
Photo is stone church 1892.
Zion Lutheran Church Moselem, Springs. (Stone Church). Courtesy of Berks County Historical Society
Zion Lutheran Church Moselem, Springs. (Stone Church). Courtesy of Berks County Historical Society
Zion Lutheran Church Moselem Springs (Brick Church) Built in 1894. Courtesy of Berks County Historical Society
Zion Lutheran Church Moselem Springs (Brick Church) Built in 1894. Courtesy of Berks County Historical Society
Tannenberg organ in Brick Church.
Tannenberg organ in Brick Church.
Tannenberg Organ June 2009.
Tannenberg Organ June 2009.
Tannenberg Organ after 2010-2011 restoration.
Tannenberg Organ after 2010-2011 restoration.

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