Alliance Française de Bâle, de Société d’Etudes françaises de Bâle en de Freunde Alter Musik Basel, 'Von der römischen Wasserorgel bis zur modernen Orgel', Stadtcasino Basel)

Roman organ in Basel

A citizen of the Roman town of Augusta Raurica (today Augst/Kaiseraugst) would not have believed his ears in the third century AD: the sound of an organ in Basilia (present-day Basel), a hamlet of a few hundred inhabitants.

Augusta Raurica and Basilia around 117 AD: Picture: Augusta Raurica Museum

Augusta Raurica was about 10 km from Basilia and had 15 000 inhabitants then. Only after the departure of the Romans, the Alemanni invasions, and the Bishop’s move from Augusta Raurica to Basilia in the 5th century did history take its course and on 1 June 2023, the organ played in Basel.

The organ is a Greek construction invented in 246 BC by Ctesibios in Alexandria, from where it found its way to Greece. Alexandria was a Greek city at that time. The Romans conquered Greece in 197 BC, but Greek culture conquered Rome. The organ also quickly found its place in Roman culture. However, the Romans introduced some improvements.

Picture: Dr Anne de Pury-Gysel. Stadtcasino Basel

Villa Nennig (Germany). Image: Dr Anne de Pury-Gysel. Stadtcasino Basel

Image: Dr Anne de Pury-Gysel. Stadtcasino Basel

Roman organs appear in around fifty paintings from classical antiquity. Often in the context of the theatre or theater (especially at gladiatorial fights), sometimes in a private setting, with or without other instruments or singers.

The instrument was a luxury item that could be heard in the villas and palaces of the local elite and at performances in amphitheatres and theatres. These buildings had primarily political and propagandistic functions, and the music was also part of the elite’s spectacle, euergetism and self-expression.

The problem with contemporary music of a Roman organ is the need for complete organs and the absence of recordings of their sounds. Only three parts of a Roman organ have been discovered: in Avenches (the Roman town of Aventicum, Canton Vaud), near Budapest (the Roman town of Aquincum), and Dion in Macedonia.

Picture: Dr Anne de Pury-Gysel.

The technical details of Roman organs have been described in Roman literature (especially in de architectura by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (c. 85-20 BC). Based on archaeological finds, pictures and Vitruvius’ detailed description, scholars have been able to reconstruct a water organ.

The water organ works through an ingenious combination of air, water, stops and pipes. This construction replaces the blowing of wind instruments. During performances at the Stadtcasino, two people had to operate a lever on either side to keep the air circulating.

Organs with bellows probably existed in classical antiquity. The medieval organetto was based on this technique. Since then, little has changed. Only the number of stops, keys and pipes increased, as the modern organ in the Stadtcasino Basel shows.

The sounds of a replica of a Roman water organ from the 3rd C., played by organist Justus Willberg, in a joint performance with an organetto (organist Corina Marti) from the late Middle Ages (1300-1500), a Metzler-Klahre organ (organist Thilo Muster) and the world premiere of the composition “Canzona” by Basel composer Hans-Martin Linde represented a world premiere.

Contemporary compositions and chants (by the soprano Aline de Pasquier), a Latin declamation of the inscription on the sarcophagus for the Roman organist Aelia Sabina (3rd century AD), were also performed. The organist Justus Willberg interpreted his performance on two rare fragments of compositions from antiquity.

The Roman water organ (reconstruction)

Justus Willberg explains the functioning of the organ; on the left, the organetto.

Justus Willberg, the organ and the inscription on the sarcophagus, soprano Aline de Pasquier

Corina Marti and the organetto, soprano Aline de Pasquier

Thilo Muster and a Metzler-Klahre organ

This concert on Roman, medieval and contemporary organs with compositions from the associated periods was organised by the Alliance française de Bâle, the Société d’études françaises de Bâle and the Freunde Alter Musik Basel in collaboration with Dr Anne de Pury-Gysel, former director of the Musée romain d’Avenches and the Roman excavation site of Aventicum.

The closing words of the event were also meaningful: without knowledge of the past, there is no understanding of the present and no view of the future. Without Greek inventions, Roman adaptations and the advent of Christianity, there would be no Johann Sebastian Bach and no Bach concerts on the 18th-century Silbermann organ in Arlesheim Cathedral. Incidentally, another organ festival will occur from 1-16 September in Stadtcasino Basel.

(Source: F. Jacob, M. Leuthard, A.C. Voûte. A. Hochuli-Gysel, Die römische Orgel aus Avenches/Aventicum, Avenches 2000; Von der römischen Wasserorgel bis zur modernen Orgel, Stadtcasino Basel, 10.06.2023).

Picture: Dr Anne de Pury-Gysel. Stadtcasino Basel, 10 June 2023

 Two fragments of compositions from antiquity. Pictures: Justus Willberg. Stadtcasino Basel, 10 June 2023