David Litwin Productions
Organi Storici d'Italia

David Litwin's unique collection of music from historic Italian pipe organs, published by Lyrichord Discs. We present six instruments in five northern and central Italian towns, including the oldest in Italy (Bologna, 1473). Featuring three renowned organists who know these instruments best, performing works by composers who were writing when the organs were new. Read on for the story of how David brought this project to life, and click here to order Organi Storici d’Italia directly from Lyrichord Discs.

A HIstory of Organi Storici d'Italia

Northern Tuscany, 1990. My wife Sharon and I were strolling through the old walled section of Lucca on a Sunday afternoon, when motorized traffic is prohibited and peace descends on the town. Through the quiet air I began to hear, in the distance, the soft flutey tones of an organ playing Bach Inventions. The sound, in its peculiar sweetness, was like nothing I had ever heard, and it had the same compelling effect on me as if I were a child hearing the Pied Piper of Hamelin: all other sounds fell away and there were only these breath-like tones. I had to follow them and learn where they were coming from. Quickly enough, they led us to the open doorway of the 11th century abbey of Santa Maria della rosa, not far from the town wall. Peeking inside, we saw that a small boy was taking a lesson on an ancient pipe organ. The teacher would play a few bars, then the boy would take a turn. It was a perfectly ordinary moment in the lives of these two people, in the life of the town; but to me these sounds were anything but ordinary. Their sweet buoyancy was breathtaking, and they seemed unique in all the world to that little church, that particular sheltering space.

I began to wonder whether the sound of that organ was special only in my mind - after all, we were in Italy, where everything seemed special - or whether there might actually be something about Italian organi a canne that set them apart from their counterparts in the rest of the world. In North America we are accustomed to English, French, German and Dutch models of organ building. Perhaps, I thought, the instrument evolved differently in Italy.

A few days later when the organ in a small church in Florence cast a similar spell, I felt I was on to something. These sounds needed to be captured. I began to develop the idea of recording a collection of the more historically interesting organs in Italy, to share them with people who couldn’t make the trip to hear them in person. To recreate an authentic experience of these instruments, I would need to pay attention to a trinity of interdependent elements: the organ, the space that surrounds it and into which it is built, and the music itself. Ideally the music recorded would be at home with each particular instrument; that is, it would come from the same geographic region and the same period in time, so organ and music would resonate together from their common cultural source. I wanted to record in such a way as to take full measure of the acoustic spaces, to place the listener "there" in each organ’s unique habitat, thus in a sense within the instrument itself, since the reverberant space is in truth a part of the instrument. This ambient technique would contrast with the typical method of organ recording, which by using many microphones close to the pipes, captures the immediate sound with clinical clarity but divorces it from its acoustical surroundings. The complications of the organ’s voice in space, I felt, are intrinsic to the listening experience, and should be embraced rather than shunned in recording.

Playing the “ambient card,” using only one pair of microphones placed in the best possible listening spot, would also bring a welcome simplification to the recording process, keeping it clean, faithful, and uncomplicated by multi-microphones and mixers. And setup time and the disruption of the normal flow of events in the space (in every case a functioning church, as it turned out) would be minimized.

Back home in the San Francisco Bay Area, I began planning the project. I would need help with the list of recording sites I was compiling: books and periodicals didn’t tell me enough. I would need access to churches while keeping the public out during recording. Organists would have to be engaged who were intimately familiar with each of our subject instruments. I found the help I needed at Fratelli Ruffatti of Padova, one of Europe’s premier organ building and restoration houses. Ruffatti had built the organ at Davies Symphony Hall, home of the San Francisco Symphony. With a letter of introduction from the Symphony, I met Francesco Ruffatti in Padova. Francesco proved to be an angel, helping me to refine our recording site list, facilitating access, and putting me together with the organists I would need:

We recorded in 1991 (Feltre, Tai di Cadore, Mestre) and ’92 (Bologna, Vignole-Quarrata). The little organ at S.Maria della rosa in Lucca proved to be in deep disrepair and could not be recorded, but I will always think of it with affection as the instrument that put me on the road to Organi Storici d’Italia.

I asked Professor Pineschi whether he thought there was something “different” about Italian pipe organs. His surprising answer is an object lesson in the wisdom of using the metaphysical to deepen one’s understanding of the world. According to his idea, if an organ were dismantled in Germany, carried across the Alps into Italy and reassembled, it would sound different, because in Italy the air is different – warmer, softer, both heavier with fragrance and an almost liquid sunlight, and lighter with the spirit of Mediterranean life. Sound carried through this air will partake of these qualities, and become more “Italian.” It only takes a visit to il bel paese, land of the twin Renaissance flowering of science and art, to sense the truth of these words.

But for the materially inclined, there is a more pedestrian truth. The evolution of the pipe organ did follow its own course in Italy, a course which included the tendency to use lower air pressure to the pipes, resulting in a softer, milder, rounder tone (but not always! as witness the Moretti pieces which open this album), and greater attention paid to flute stops and less to the reeds.

These masterpieces of the organ builder’s art are by no means mere historical relics. While they remain not only unheard but virtually unknown outside of Italy, they continue to be used in their communities routinely, part of the landscape of everyday life. They are the living artifacts of a singular confluence of musical art, organ building technology and architectural acoustics that helped make Italy the great world center for music during the Renaissance, a synergy that has endured into our own time. These three elements combine to enormous power, yet no one who has not been there has experienced it. Among Italy’s great art treasures, these organs don’t travel very well, for obvious reasons. But with Organi Storici d’Italia the listener can relax at home, a glass of wine in hand, and thrill to some of Italy’s priceless artistic treasures as if actually there.

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