top of page



Erben Organ at Festival Hill 1835


Henry Erben was born in New York City in 1800. He built organs under his name from 1827 to 1884, building as many as 1,000 instruments including the organ in Trinity Episcopal on Wall Street. The Erben organ in the Old Chapel at Festival Hill was built in 1835 original for a church in Maine and for many years resided in a Methodist Church in Showhegan, Maine. The one manual, 11 rank organ is a rare survival of the Erben's early work. The classical case is 14 feet tall, 9 feet wide and 6 feet deep and has 14 half stops and 484 pipes of both wood and metal.  


The organ is the oldest American built organ in use in Texas today. It is a fine example of English style organ building of the 18th century, which was common in 19th century America. The organ arrived at Festival Hill in May 1993 and was dedicated in May 1997 after a complete restoration.


Round Top Festival Hill










The pipe organs at Festival Hill


To most of us Festival Hill is known for its piano concertos and orchestral music. But Festival Hill is also home of 19th century pipe organs made from organbuilders coming from Silesia, New York and England. Some times for performances of chamber music an small English cabinet organ is set on stage in the concert hall. This is just one of the four 19th century pipe organs that belong to Festival Hill. I am very familiar with all of them and had the chance to restore two of them. At the time my home country, East Germany was just falling apart, the Berlin Wall was taken down and I just had experienced the most wonderful regime change ever, done by its citizens in 1989 I began to travel. As an German organbuilder with my new passport open to the world I came to this little village and could not believe how many German things I saw in Round Top including some very interesting pipe organs.


The most famous of the collection is the small 3 rank Traugott Wandke organ, the first organ built in the state of Texas. It was actually built in Round Top around 1860, long before Festival Hill existed. Across from it in the Edythe Bates Old Chapel is the Henry Erben organ with 8 ranks of pipes built 1835 in New York. This was my first restoration of an American organ and took place under particular favorably circumstances. With the introduction of Susan Fere´, who just had donated the English Chamber Organ, it was an pleasurable opportunity to meet and work with the staff, chefs, herbalists, artists and craftsman of Festival Hill and together create a beautiful new home for this organ from 1835. Although the Chapel and the organ were built in different locations, they now form an harmonious ensemble. Henry Erben was one of the best 19th century American organ builders. Like other New York organbuilders of that time, he adhered closely to English traditions of nomenclature and keyboard compass. These organs have a low G-compass so that the manual extends to the octave below todays C-compass. Organists today can still play lower notes at Festival Hill as usually.


To see the fourth instrument, the large and unusual William F. Mohr organ built in 1861 I had to go to a storage barn to discover the enormous pieces of this instrument. Only the organ case with two pedal chests survived. The organ was rescued from sure extinction in 1982 when organbuilder Rubin Frels of Victoria, Texas, attended an auction at St. Mary´s Roman Catholic church in Buffalo and bid successfully for the instrument. With the help of Ted Blankenship the organ found its way to Festival Hill. The Mohr dynasty worked for three generations in New York as pipe makers and for organ maintenance. History in America made especially Robert Mohr, the uncle of William F. Mohr, as a pipe maker. He was hired from Thomas Edison who needed a skilled metal worker to built the resonator for his recently invented phonograph. After several experiments later, Mohr´s design became the basis for the manufacture of the first phonograph horns. But most famous is the family from Austria for Joseph Mohr (1792 – 1848) who wrote the words for the Christmas hymn “Silent Night, holy Night” (Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht). The only organ the Mohrs built is still waiting to find a permanent building. It could be in an new entrance to the concert hall where this impressive 34 feet tall organ would greet visitors with a pre-concert before you enter the concert hall.


But you can hear and play music on the locally built small Wandke organ from 1863, that I restored to its original conditions in 1996. It is a special treasure for Round Top as the organ gives us some idea how music was performed in the past in Round Top. Especially as the organbuilder Traugott Wandke (1808–1870) left not only his tools but also a handwritten hymnal book, now at the library in Austin, written for the Bethlehem Lutheran Church down the road where is workshop and his largest instrument is still located. Wandke was born in 1808 in the town of Nickolschmiede in Silesia, today in Poland, and we assume he completed an apprenticeship as cabinet maker prior to his immigration in 1855, at the age of 47. We know very little of his life in Germany in contrast to his extensive notes of his life in Round Top. His detailed dairy during his trip from Hamburg to Galveston is a pleasure to read. He brought his wooden turning lathe (today at the museum in Round Top) with him and gave performances of his craftsmanship on the sail ship to the amusement of the crew and his fellow immigrants. Detailed descriptions of organbuilding and medical advise to the survival in Texas fallow in his notes. During the restoration of his instruments I was impressed from his accuracy of all his work. He hand-planed all wood to the perfect thickness in smallest fractions to built hundreds of organ pipes with a precision I only could do today with the help of machinery. It is clear to me his complex organs require an planing process with advanced knowledge of organbuilding. After reading his detailed measurements of the Eugenio Casperini Organ in the town of Görlitz, 80 kilometers from his home, I believe Wandke was very involved with pipe organs prior to his emigration and he must had training as an organbuilder rather an apprenticeship as a cabinet maker. He could have traveled often to Görlitz to tune the organs in town. He knew the world famous German Casperini family who builded organs for several generations. Eugenio Casparini had traveled to Italy to work as an organbuilder, was invited in to Vienna as “Organbuilder for the Emperor” and returned later to his workshop in Sorau only 30km from Wandkes home, to built 1706 his masterpiece the “Sonnenorgel” in Görlitz. Wandke took detailed measurements of this instrument. And not only measurements he had detailed description of every organ part including the characteristica of different organ stops. He came clearly with the intention of building organs to Texas. Although shortly after his arrival Wandke had to realize his ambitious preparations combining the finest Italien and German craftsmanship had little use in undeveloped Texas. To built his three instruments he scald down to almost two materials that their available to him but made the finest small organs simply from cedar wood and leather and one of them is at Festival Hill.


I hope in the near future also the Mohr organ can be rebuilt. It is too sad this magnificent case is just in storage. The entire organ has to be new designed and built but it would open an opportunity to enrich the organ heritage in Round Top with an instrument that you will not find for the next hundreds of miles in this area of Texas. It should be based on the original stop list that Ted Blankenship recorded for us as he measured all pipes before helping to dismantle the organ. And a new design could include copies of pipes from Wandke and stops of the Casperini organ in Görlitz. Bringing together the three organ characteristics of Round Top.


For the Mohr family emigrating 1846 to America, it was the first time that the Mohrs famous for poets, musicians and composers in Austria, worked in organbuilding.

It lasted for three generations until 1982, although only one organ was built new.


But already in 1818 an organbuilder had played an important role to the Mohr family in Austria and the hymn “Holy Night, Silent Night”. First performed on Christmas Eve 1818 after the poem from Joseph Mohr at St Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf, a village in the Austrian Empire on the Salzach river where Mohr was a young priest.

Joseph Mohr, had come to Oberndorf the year before. He had written the lyrics of the song "Stille Nacht" already in 1816 at Mariapfarr, the hometown of his father in the Salzburg Lungau region, where Joseph had worked as a co-adjutor. Franz Xaver Gruber his organist in Oberndorf had problems with his pipe organ for Christmas Eve after the Taurrach river damaged the instrument through flooding and made it unplayable. In search of music for his guitar, Father Mohr ask him to compose a melody to his lyrics, that Mohr had already writen. In the evening both sung in duet to Grubers guitar Silent Night , Holy Night for the first time. The organbuilder Karl Mauracher who serviced the instrument at the Obendorf church, was so enamoured with the song, that he took the composition home with him to the Zillertal. From there, two travelling families of folk singers, the Strassers and the Rainers, included the tune in their shows. The Rainers were already singing it around Christmas 1819, and once performed it for an audience that included Franz I of Austria and Alexander I of Russia, as well as making the first performance of the song in the U.S., in New York City in 1839.


What would it be to perform this song one day on the Mohr organ at Festival Hill? It would unite all the Mohr family and combine the history of a long journey of collecting and preserving different pipe organs in playable conditions at the Institute. The new design should include Richard Royals vision of a stair cases in the both organ towers to access the top of the organ at 34 feet where two trumpet players will open the concert with their fanfares. And William Mohr the organbuilder, as he would have known in 1861, had built two doors in the front of his organ case.


Sources include. The Traker, volum 29 1985














bottom of page