David Tannenberg, Organ Builder

Chapter 1: Life and Training

David Tannenberg was born in the village of Berthelsdorf, Saxony in the eastern part of Germany in 1728. His parents, Johann Tannenberger and Judith Nitschmann were Moravians who had found refuge from religious persecution in their native Moravia (now the Czech Republic) in the village of Herrnhut two years before. Herrnhut, just across the border in Germany, was the estate of Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, a Lutheran count who sympathized with the Moravians. A year before Tannenberg's birth, his parents moved from Herrnhut to Berthelsdorf about a mile away. Count Zinzendorf had a profound influence on the young Tannenberg and was responsible for seeing that he received proper schooling.

In 1742, Tannenberg decided to leave his studies and return to live in Berthelsdorf with his parents but in 1746, he returned to Herrnhut. Two years later, he answered a call to join the Moravian community in Zeist, Holland and left Herrnhut in September of 1748. Shortly after arriving in Zeist, he made the decision to join a group of Moravians who were bound for the New World. After meeting with Count Zinzendorf, who was in London at the time, the group set out on February 20, 1749. They arrived in New York on May 12 and then traveled on land arriving in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania on May 21. That summer, on July 15, 1749, Tannenberg, along with 27 other couples, was married in what came to be called the "Great Wedding". His new wife was Anna Rosina Kern. Tannenberg was a joiner by trade and as such, was undoubtedly called upon to help with the building of the new houses and other structures in Bethlehem. On August 8, 1752, Tannenberg and his family moved to Nazareth, a town a few miles to the north, but on December 11, 1754 moved back to Bethlehem because of the possibility of attacks by the Native American tribes living nearby.

The chronicle of David Tannenberg's training and career as an organ builder must begin with the man who trained him in that art, Johann Gottlob Clemm. Clemm was born near Dresden in 1690 and was trained there as an organ builder. It has not been determined who trained Clemm, but is an important topic that warrants further research. In 1733, Clemm arrived in Pennsylvania and almost immediately, began constructing organs for churches. Many of these churches were Moravian chapels. Since no complete organ by Clemm has survived for us to examine, we cannot know exactly what these instruments were like. We do have, however, the nine surviving organs of Tannenberg as well as various surviving cases and pipes, all of which tell us a great deal about the style of Clemm's organs.

In late 1757 or early 1758, Clemm began training 31-year-old David Tannenberg in organ building. The elder Clemm had been residing in New York but returned to Bethlehem on November 25, 1757. On March 1 of the next year, Clemm moved with the Tannenbergs to Nazareth, living in Nazareth Hall. Later, in 1759, Clemm and the Tannenbergs moved from Nazareth Hall to what was then known as the "Nursery", a residence for children whose parents were involved in church work. This building is now known as the Whitefield House and houses the Moravian Historical Society where the 1776 Tannenberg organ is now located. Together, Clemm and Tannenberg built at least five organs for Moravian chapels.

Clemm died on May 5, 1762, and there was almost immediately some question as to whether Tannenberg would continue in the organ building business. The Moravian elders were against it as it was connected to a certain level of "worldly disorder", as they put it. Three years were to pass before Tannenberg continued the work of constructing organs. It is very interesting to note that in that time, he ordered a treatise on pipe scaling and tuning from a German organist and theorist, Georg Andreas Sorge. It must be understood that Sorge's work, Die geheime gehaltene Kunst der Mensuration der Orgel-Pfeiffen (The Secretly Kept Art of Scaling Organ Pipes), deals, as the title suggests, chiefly with the scaling of pipes but also with tuning. It does not, however, deal with the actual construction of the organ itself. This is possibly evidence that Clemm was the type of organ builder who kept the method of determining the scaling of the various ranks of pipes to himself rather than sharing that knowledge with students (such as Tannenberg). This could explain why Tannenberg needed to obtain this treatise from Sorge in order to continue building organs. That Tannenberg seemed to have followed Sorge's advice both with regard to scaling pipes and with tuning throughout his career is further evidence in support of this theory.

Sorge's ideas were quite revolutionary - even in late 18th century Germany. His support of the use of equal temperament (as opposed to well-tempered systems) was very forward-looking. Also, his use of a regular system of halving the pipes on the 17th note (every 17th note is 1/2 the circumference) points to developments in organ building in the early 19th century. Tannenberg's organ building style was, then, a mixture of the old fashioned traditions (from Clemm) and the most modern thinking (from Sorge).

On August 16, 1765, Tannenberg moved with his family to Lititz where he remained for the rest of his life. Lititz was a Moravian community located several miles north of Lancaster. Tannenberg was active in the musical affairs of the town as he was an organist, violinist and sang as a cantor for the church services. As Tannenberg's fame spread, he was called upon to construct organs for Lutheran and German Reformed churches as well as for Moravian churches. Some of these instruments were the largest to be constructed in the colonies as well as in the early decades of the United States.

By the early 1790's, Tannenberg felt a growing need for someone to assist him in his work. He had several journeymen who had helped him at various times, but as he grew older and the work more demanding, Tannenberg sent for someone from Herrnhut in Germany to come to Pennsylvania as an assistant. As a result, Johann Philip Bachmann, then 30 years old, arrived in Pennsylvania in 1793 and immediately began working with Tannenberg. Even though Bachmann was trained as a musical instrument maker in Germany, it is not known how much, if anything, he knew about organ building before his arrival in Lititz. At any rate, Bachmann's help made it possible for Tannenberg to complete fourteen or fifteen organs in the last ten years of his life. Also, Bachmann was able to make the long journey to Madison, Virginia in 1802 and to Salem, North Carolina in 1798 and 1800 to install organs there.

Tannenberg died on May 19, 1804 two days after suffering a stroke while installing the organ he had built for Christ Lutheran Church in York. This organ, which still survives and is now at the York County Heritage Trust, was at least the 42nd organ that Tannenberg had constructed since 1765. His funeral service was held in Christ Church on May 21 at ten o'clock and the organ he had built was played for the first time for this service. He was buried in Moravian God's Acre as children from both the Moravian and the Lutheran churches sang hymns beside his grave. Tannenberg's grave has since been moved to Prospect Hill Cemetery on North George Street in York.

For nearly one hundred years after his death, many more organs were constructed in the old German style by his followers in Pennsylvania - the same style which was transplanted to this country by Johann Gottlob Clemm and then brought to a fine perfection by David Tannenberg. By the mid nineteenth century, there was a recognizable German organ culture in the southeastern part of Pennsylvania. Today, many of these noble instruments have been replaced or have otherwise disappeared. Nine of Tannenberg's organs have survived, however, (see Chapter 3 for a list of these) and the appreciation of this unique style of organ building has led to many of these being restored to their original condition.



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This page was created & is maintained by
Philip T. D. Cooper
Organist & Organ Historian