In the medieval fortified churches of Transylvania, dozens of majestic church organs have fallen prey to rodents and the ravages of time.
But thanks to the dedication of Swiss restorer Barbara Dutli, these imposing instruments — “whole orchestras by themselves,” as French writer Honore de Balzac used to say — are rumbling back to life.
And Baroque organ music has started to resound again in this region of central Romania.
“Transylvania is a very interesting region for historical instruments. I don’t think you’ll find anywhere else in Europe with as many instruments of this value and beauty that aren’t in working order,” Dutli told AFP.
The restoration project has even won the support of Britain’s Prince Charles, a staunch promoter of Transylvania’s rich heritage.
Last summer, he sent a message saying he “prayed with all his heart” for the successful restoration of the organ at Rupea village.
To breathe new life into these instruments built between the 17th and 19th centuries, Dutli becomes a detective trying to unearth the original construction plans and identify the materials used for the keys, pipes and wooden panels.
“We are trying to restore the organs to their original condition,” she says.
When she started work on the Rupea model last year, she could not immediately identify the builder. But after scrutinizing the instrument’s thousands of pieces, her heart began to pound when she spotted a date written on the sheepskin of the bellows: 1699.
“Can you imagine? This means that this organ was built in the 17th century when Bach was just 14 years old,” she said, her blue eyes twinkling.
Beside her, sitting above the bellows, celebrated organist Steffen Schlandt is rehearsing “with great emotion” on this historical instrument that seemed doomed to decay just a few years ago.
To restore the keys Schlandt is playing, Dutli had to look all over Europe to find a plank carved from the root of a walnut tree.
The 700 pipes — ranging in height from a few centimeters to more than two meters — were either restored or replaced according to methods used by craftsmen in the 17th century.
“I shape them on the sand,” Magyar Arpad says proudly as he applied the technique of casting flat sheets of alloys on a special sand bench. The 29-year-old ethnic Hungarian from Romania learned organ-building in a workshop Dutli set up here in Harman, a village in the heart of Transylvania.
Dutli, born in the Zurich area, first began coming to Romania in the 1990s, just after the fall of the brutal dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, to help restore organs during her holidays.
Under the Communist regime, religion was banned and the craft of organ-building disappeared.
Fascinated by the region, she settled in Romania and set up a training center for restorers in 2003 with the help of the Swiss Foundation for Organs in Romania.
“We want to train a new generation of Romanians to build and restore the organs of their country,” Dutli says.
Students follow a three-year training program, combining theory and practice under the guidance of Swiss maestros. They are also taught cabinet-making to broaden their chances on the labor market.
“What is really good is that we learn a craft that will be very useful in the future. There are so many organs to be restored that I think even my grandchildren will have work,” 22-year-old apprentice Lorincz Konrad Leher told AFP.