Tracing the History of the Pipe Organ in China: Dr. David Francis Urrows and the Pipe Organ in China Project


25 October 2013

Western musical art, architecture, religious practice and the pipe organ are unsurprising bedfellows in the public's general perception of the instrument and its trappings. China, however, would be one of the last places people might expect to find those same artistic and religious concerns holding hands, buoyed by a riveting, 400-year account of the organ's presence in the country. This unlikely thread in the history of China is now authoritatively examined by Associate Professor David Francis Urrows. The comprehensive research he has conducted on the subject is supported by a sound knowledge of the instrument, its functions and both its musical and iconic powers ˇV Dr Urrows is himself an accomplished organist.

His interest was first piqued when he arrived in Hong Kong in 1989. A colleague at Baptist University asked if he knew of an organ that was constructed of bamboo in Shanghai. He didn't, although he was aware of a similar instrument in Manila.

ˇ§So, in that year, I began the Pipe Organ in China Project,ˇ¨ Dr Urrows explains. ˇ§Initially, this was just a census of instruments built largely by missionaries from 1600 onwards, but I gradually came to realise that there was much more than a musical dimension to the subject.ˇ¨ That research led to an ongoing book project, facilitated by grants from the General Research Fund of Hong Kong's University Grants Committee. Titled Keys to the Kingdom, the first two years of funded research examined a documentary history of the pipe organ in China; Keys to the Kingdom II deals with the instruments as vectors of artistic and cultural exchange in the country.

Unlike the current posturing of East-West power play, the organ's developing presence in China played out against a backcloth of interchange and confluence, not of confrontation. The manufacture of pipe organs was initiated by Matteo Ricci at the start of the 17th century. The Jesuit missionary used the instrument as a sweetener for the Wanli Emperor, a gift more representative of science than music. The instrument was already living up to its modern-day moniker of King of the Instruments, Dr Urrows says, ˇ§the largest examples representing the most complex mechanical device to be found in Western culture from antiquity until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.ˇ¨

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in China, the narrow association of organs with religion didn't apply; they were used extensively in domestic settings. They were also built domestically until the middle of the nineteenth century, when circumstances began to change.

ˇ§The establishment of the treaty ports, such as Tianjin, Qingdao and Shanghai, permitted western enclaves within those cities and the importation or organs to support religious practices,ˇ¨ Dr Urrows points out. ˇ§An instrument made by Gray and Davison in England for the Holy Trinity Church in Shanghai in 1856 is the first recorded commercial purchase of an instrument; the steam age made transport faster and more reliable.ˇ¨ The importation of instruments continues; none are manufactured in China itself. ˇ§They are still shipped in, which is a much safer exercise nowadays,ˇ¨ Dr Urrows says. ˇ§But I'm waiting for the day when the Somali pirates hijack an organ!ˇ¨

The ravages of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution trained their sights on both western religion and music, unfortunately encapsulated by the organ, many examples of which were looted or wantonly destroyed. Today, however, new instruments are regularly commissioned for prestigious civic venues and religious buildings. Beijing's National Centre for the Performing Arts, less formally known as The Egg, houses a spectacularly large instrument by the German organ builder, Klais. Such instruments are often not maintained very well, however, and deteriorate quickly.

ˇ§I would say the Klais instrument is not used much, and that's the case of most instruments that have been put into concert halls in China,ˇ¨ says Dr Urrows. ˇ§There's no culture to support the presence of these instruments. There simply isn't a population yet who can play.ˇ¨

Worshippers at the Anglican Cathedral in Shanghai had reason to be grateful to the 2010 World Expo that was held in the city. The cathedral had been gutted during the Cultural Revolution, divided into three floors and turned into the police headquarters. The prospect of huge numbers of overseas visitors to the exhibition, however, encouraged a new sensitivity on the part of the authorities, who completely renovated the building at public expense and returned it to the congregation. This included a plan to replace the 1925 Harrison and Harrison organ that had been ripped out with a new, identical organ by the same British company who happened to be still in business.

Dr Urrows continues his comprehensive study of the subject in his book Keys to the Kingdom: A history of the pipe organ in China. I ask him what Ricci would have made of the instrument's social status quo, were he alive today?

ˇ§It would probably remind him of the things he had to put up with in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, when he was trying to propagate the gospel in China,ˇ¨ he replies. ˇ§It would very much be the case of plus ca changeˇK how the same difficult dance is going on.ˇ¨

Dr. Urrows at the 2010 Jaeger and Brommer organ at the former Christus Kirche, Qingdao

The 2008 Jaeger and Brommer organ at St Michael's Catholic Church, Qingdao

Dr. Urrows at the console of the organ at St. Michael's, Qingdao