Albert Schweitzer and Music

Lecture given on 12 October 2000 in Regensburg – International Symposion Bach 2000 – by Rainer Noll

„Albert Schweitzer and Music“ – the „and“ must be stressed because Albert Schweitzer without music would be inconceivable. On 26 August 1904, in the middle of negotiations about the French edition of the Bach biography, Schweitzer wrote to Oskar von Hase (1846-1921), the Senior Manager of the publishing company Breitkopf & Härtel: „…music is my heritage, I cannot help it“ (Erwin R. Jacobi: „Musikwissenschaftliche Arbeiten“, Zurich 1984, p 264). He also claims that his love for the organ is a hereditary factor. „I inherited my passion for the organ from my grandfather Schillinger who devoted much of his time to organs and organ building.“ (A. Schweitzer: „Aus meinem Leben und Denken“, Hamburg 1955, p. 7) Schweitzer’s grandfather, Johann Jakob Schillinger (1801-1872) was a reverend in Mühlbach, in the Alsace Munster valley. He continues: „Because the love for organ building had been passed down to me by my grandfather Schillinger, even as a boy was I keen to find out what was inside an organ“ (A. Schweitzer: „Aus meinem Leben und Denken“, Hamburg 1955, p. 60). Thus closes the chapter „Music“ in Werner Picht’s great biography „Albert Schweitzer – his character and meaning“ with the beautiful sentence: „Anyone who wishes to comprehend the being of Albert Schweitzer should see it as an oratorio with organ accompaniment“ („Albert Schweitzer – Wesen und Bedeutung“, Hamburg 1960, p. 197)


  • First piano lessons with his father at the age of five.
  • First organ lessons at the age of eight.
  • First activity as an organist at church service at the age of nine.
  • Piano lessons with Eugen Münch in Mühlhausen/Alsace at the age of ten.
  • Organ lessons with Eugen Münch at St. Stephan in Mühlhausen at the age of fifteen.
  • First encounter with Charles-Marie Widor in Paris at the age of eighteen (1893, after graduation from the lyceum). Continued studying with Widor in Paris for several years.
  • 1898, at the age of 23, continues organ lessons with Widor in Paris, at the same time piano lessons with Isidor Philipp and Marie Jaëll Trautmann, a native from Alsace and pupil of Franz Liszt. He served as a „guinea pig“ in her physiological experiments and revised his technique under her supervision.
  • Schweitzer spent the summer of 1899 in Berlin, serving as a „guinea pig“ in Karl Stumpf’s psychological experiments on the sensation of sound.
  • As well as studying Theology and Philosophy, he read Music Theory with Jacobsthal at the University of Strasbourg (here he studied thoroughly the pure counterpoint).


At the age of seventeen first organ recital in concert (accompaniment of Brahms’s Requiem in Mühlhausen with Eugen Münch).

1894-1910 Organist of the Wilhelmer choir in Strasbourg under Ernst Münch (brother of Eugen in Mühlhausen). Participation in 60 choir concerts (mainly works by Bach, but also Beethoven, Bruckner, Händel, Mozart and Schumann). He accompanied Bach works from the piano score, to which he had added the basso continuo figuring. Also „Chief Press Officer at the Wilhelmer concerts“. He wrote the texts of the programmes and the press releases.

1905-1912 Organist of the Paris Bach Society, which he founded in 1905, together with Gustave Bret, conductor of the society’s concerts, Paul Dukas, Alexandre Guilmant, Vincent d’Indy, Charles-Marie Widor and Albert Roussel. He played in 16 concerts (his last took place on 25 April 1912 where appeared for the first and only time as a soloist in Paris!). Again, he also wrote the texts of the programmes.

To thank him for his achievements, the Paris Bach Society presented him with a tropic-proof piano with organ pedal which was sent to Lambarene. Schweitzer used this piano to work on his repertoire of organ music until his death (the piano is today at his home in Günsbach).

1908-1921 Organist of the Orfeó Català in Barcelona under Lluís Millet. Participation in 12 Concerts (the last was the premiere of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion in Spain on 27 February 1921). Apart from writing the texts of the programmes, he was responsible for hiring and rehearsing soloists and for arranging the orchestra’s parts.

At the age of 80, on 18 September 1955, he gave his last concert in Wihr-au-Val (Alsace). In total, records show that Schweitzer played in 487 concerts which took place in Alsace-Lothringen (150), Switzerland (73), Germany (67), Sweden (63), Holland (39), England (30), France (23), Denmark (20), Spain (13), Chechia (7), Italy (1) and Guinea (1).

Calculated over the years, his most active years were 1922 with 77 concerts, 1928 with 70 concerts and 1932 with 42 concerts (see Harald Schützeichel: „Die Konzerttätigkeit Albert Schweitzers“, Bern/Stuttgart 1991).

The repertoire of solo concerts consisted mainly of works by Bach, but it also regularly included works by Mendelssohn, Widor and César Franck (and several others before the First World War).


Schweitzer made a remarkable number of recordings (by comparison, not a single recording has been made by Karl Straube (1874-1950), the acclaimed interpreter of Reger).

  1. 1928: Recordings at the Organ of Queen’s Hall in London for His Master’s Voice (works by Bach and Mendelssohn).
  2. 1935: Recordings at the Organ of All Hallows in London, Barking-by-the-Tower, for Columbia London (works by Bach).
  3. 1936: Recordings at the Organ of St. Aurelien in Strasbourg for Columbia London (works by Bach and Franck).
  4. 1951/52: Recordings at the organ of the Parish Church in Günsbach for Columbia USA (works by Bach, Mendelssohn and Widor).


  • 1905: „J.-S. Bach, le musicien-poèt“ (French Bach biography)
  • 1906: „The art of organs and building organs in France and Germany – Deutsche und französische Orgelbaukunst und Orgelkunst“ (re-published in 1927 with a detailed epilogue)
  • 1908: „J. S. Bach“ (German Bach biography)
  • 1909: „International Guidelines for organ-building – Internationales Regulativ für Orgelbau“
  • 1912/13: „Johann Sebastian Bach: Complete Organ Works, volumes 1-5 (Schirmer, New York)
  • 1954: „Johann Sebastian Bach: Complete Organ Works“, volume 6 (Schirmer, New York)
  • 1967: Johann Sebastian Bach: Complete Organ Works, volumes 7+8 (Schirmer, New York)
  • 1984: „Albert Schweitzer’s unpublished manuscripts on ornaments in Johann Sebastian Bach’s music – Albert Schweitzers nachgelassene Manuskripte über die Verzierungen bei Johann Sebastian Bach “ (Bach Studies 8, Leipzig)
  • 1995: „The Organ Works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Preface to the „Complete Organ Works – Die Orgelwerke Johann Sebastian Bachs. Vorworte zu den ‚Sämtlichen Orgelwerken'“.

Homage to Wagner

It may be a surprise to many people that Schweitzer was not only a great admirer of Bach but also of Wagner.

At the age of 16, he heard Wagner’s „Tannhäuser“ at the Theatre in Mühlhausen/Alsace and was so overwhelmed that it took days until he could concentrate on his studies at school again.

In 1896 he travelled to Bayreuth for the first time to see the first revival of the Tetralogy after its premiere in 1876.

Time and money permitting, he made numerous additional pilgrimages to Bayreuth.

He was a personal friend of Cosima and Siegfried Wagner, and also of Wieland and Wolfgang.

He began work on his German Bach biography in 1906 in Bayreuth after seeing a performance of Tristan.

The last time he travelled to Bayreuth was in 1923, in order to visit the 86-year-old Cosima who resided at Wahnfried.

In 1929, the music scientist Erwin R. Jacobi (1909-1979) visited Schweitzer at his home in Königsfeld (Black Forest). He recalls that Schweitzer, after giving his daughter Rhena her piano lessons, frequently fantasised for half an hour or more on themes from Wagner operas to vent his dissatisfaction with the piano playing of his child.

In Lambarene, he named three young pelicans Parsifal, Lohengrin and Tristan.

Schweitzer never talked about Bach without mentioning Wagner. He held the view that Bach was the painter, but Wagner was the poet in music. He writes about his Bach biography: „I hold against thr guardians of the holy grail in pure music Bach, the painter and poet in music.“ (A. Schweitzer: „Aus meinem Leben und Denken“, Hamburg 1955, p. 57). Since the second half of the 19th century, the anti-Wagnerians have attempted to lay claims on Bach as one of their number, as the impersonation of „pure“ music. One of Schweitzer’s favourite pieces was the Adagio from Widor’s 6th Organ Symphony, which is held entirely in the spirit of Wagner.


The organ expert


  1. Schweitzer was one of the first initiators of the „Alsatian/new German organ reform“, which, after 1900, advocated organ building of high-quality craftsmanship and condemned the cheap, mass produced so-called „factory organs“.
  2. The organ from Bach’s times or even the „Baroque Organ“ which was lauded as the ideal organ by the later tracker organ revival [Orgelbewegung] from the First World War until the 60s/70s was, in his view, not the true organ. He held the view that the best organs were built between 1850 and 1880.
  3. If Schweitzer saved old organs (e.g. the Silbermann organs in Alsace) from dismantling and had them restored, he did not do this with today’s principles of conservation in mind. In all instances, the organ was fundamentally converted so that the original came closer to Schweitzer’s own ideal and his idea of perfection. For instance, all instruments from the 17 and 18 century were fitted with swell boxes in the „restoration“ process.
  4. Apart of „restorations“ of existing Silbermann organs, Schweitzer’s developments in organ building „in the Silbermann spirit“ reached their peak in the creations of the French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899) which, with the exception of the dominating reeds, Schweitzer considered utmost perfection of organ building hitherto. Schweitzer’s own ideal was the synthesis of old and modern organs, of the soft, round, flexible flue stops of a Cavaillé-Coll and the adaptable German reeds from the second half of the 19th century, coupled with state-of-the-art technologies to support the artistry of organ playing. More than with all Silbermann-restorations, he realised his concepts for instance with the little-known organ of the „Erlöserkirche“ in Strasbourg-Kronenburg in 1907, which still exists today. In his view, the basis for the beautiful sound of an organ was the rich palette of foundation stops (including strings), while he condemned shrill, piercing compound stops and mutations. In later years, he put great emphasis on the „Trinity“ of great organ, swell and ruckpositiv, combined, of course, with the mechanical tracker action and the slider soundboard.
  5. Even to today’s school of thought, it is a bold and challenging idea that Schweitzer’s strength lay in the belief of his own thinking which could not but transgress purely historical views and write history there and then. He refused every plagiarism, archaistic tendencies and historicism. His thinking was not about reviving or even imitating historical ideals, but to create new ideals for his time, wrestled from past and present for the future. At best, historical personalities served as catalysts for mental processes, not ideals that wanted to be copied. The strong belief in the creative power of his own spirit gave him the courage to step up to leading lights in history and continue their lines of thought into the present. His actions „in the spirit of…“ gave Schweitzer sufficient scope for own creativity and at the same time observe the historical continuum.
  6. „Considering today’s tendencies to split matters up to an almost dissecting point, it is only to be regretted that Albert Schweitzer’s influence on organ building in Europe has only been little noted by history. This is mainly because of his move to Lambarene but also due to the First World War“. (Bernhard Billeter in „Albert Schweitzer’s influence on organ building in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century“ – „Albert Schweitzers Einfluss auf den europäischen Orgelbau am Beginn des 20. Jahrhunderts“ , in „Acta Organologica“, vol. 15, 1981, p. 179)


The Bach Interpreter

These are the three roots of his way of playing Bach:

1) Germany’s tradition of playing Bach before the turn of the century, as Schweitzer had experienced it through Eugen and Ernst Münch, who were both pupils of Carl August Haupt (1810-1891) in Berlin.

His opponent was Heinrich Reimann (1850-1906), organist at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche in Berlin, whom Schweitzer met in 1899 and for whom Schweitzer even covered in 1899 during his holiday.

Haupt used to play Bach in monotonous fortissimo, while Reimann started in piano with a overpowering increase in speed and volume towards the end.

2) The tradition of playing Bach at the French organ school taught by Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937). This tradition can be traced back to the Breslau organist and „Bach apostle“ Adolf Friedrich Hasse (1809-1869). Calm tempi and mostly monotonous, little-articulated but well-phrased legato lines were the most essential elements.

3) Schweitzer’s own research of Bach. First and foremost, he sought an articulation that brought the piece to life.

In a letter for the occasion of the organ convention in Freiburg/Breisgau in 1926, Schweitzer wrote: „… anyone concerned with an organ is transposed beyond anything human. He will learn the pure delight in truth and will cherish organs and the sound of organs as the great spiritual educators to experience eternity“. Experiencing eternity: This is the key to understanding his interpretation of Bach. The character of his interpretation, which distinguishes Schweitzer from almost all organists both of his times and ours, lends his playing heavenly solemnity. Once accessed, his playing is meditation, an immersion into the world of transfiguration, elevation and inner peace, leaving behind all relentless passion and restlessness. For him, organ playing means „manifesting a will, filled with the seeing of eternity“, as his teacher and friend Widor used to say.

With Schweitzer you will be looking for thrills and attractions in vain. He does not play like a trained horse at the circus, his playing is not about showing off technical skills. When he played, one immediately had the impression that this was someone who did not deem it necessary to render a piece and secretly revel in his vanity. Schweitzer kept more than aloof from any egocentric virtuosity. His presence could always be felt in his playing, but he was not seeking himself. Certainly not in his technique but in his passionate matter-of-fact attitude to his interpretation, Albert Schweitzer may safely be called the greatest phenomenon of all Bach interpreters – disregarding the question how close he came to the historical Bach. The essential point is that an interpretation is convincing and something to believe in. And this is only the case where all knowledge and skill is incorporated from the profound perceptions of the interpreter. Disregarding historical aspects, Schweitzer’s Bach was alive, because Schweitzer played him as he felt him deeply within (often knowingly ignoring historical knowledge!).

In the most positive sense of the word Schweitzer was a dilettante (from the Italian dilettare = delight) who found in his music satisfaction, concentration, strength and joy and sought to communicate that, while today’s often „commercial“ top virtuosos may merely experience recognition as a kind of reward for their ever increasing physical achievements. „They don’t carry the pieces in their heart, they carry them in their pocket“, as Arthur Rubinstein had once said.

Facing this spirit is the root of the problem for today’s organ virtuoso if he is confronted with the organist Schweitzer, even if (or because!) his technique is a hundred times better than Schweitzer’s. Nowadays, technique is, to a high degree, a given conditio sine qua non which is often used to hush up artistic shortcomings. It is often a question of the interpreter’s personality if he chooses to subject his technique to the musical idea or if he prefers to display a breathtaking demonstration of the acrobatic skills of his fingers and feet. Here, Schweitzer is a challenge to the „brainless key-pushers, heartless speed-players and arrogant pseudo-historians“ (Hermann J. Busch in a review in „Ars Organi“, issue 56, June 1978, p. 375).

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