Work in progress – Frobenius & Sons11:35, 21st January 2020
The new home of Danish organ builder Frobenius & Sons keeps the north winds out and some intriguing projects in, writes Andrew Mellor.
Workshop photos Andrew Mellor.
It’s an unusually chilly October day when I visit the workshop of Frobenius & Sons in Birkerød, north of Copenhagen. But there’s no danger of the icy wind penetrating the premises: the company’s home since Easter 2018 is an airtight modern building with UPVC windows, a long way from its historic former workshop in Lyngby. ‘I was at the old premises yesterday, and it was painful, because it was such a fantastic place,’ says CEO Eskild Momme. ‘But it was expensive to heat and renovate, and every time we had a wood delivery it blocked the road. It was a problem we needed to solve.’
Frobenius now employs 27 in Birkerød, with another four at a Jutland office in Horsens geared mainly to maintenance and tuning. The company is busy, which reflects the investment Denmark makes in its state church (via a designated church tax), the traditional nature of the Lutheran liturgy and the seriousness with which it trains its organists. Momme teaches a course at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, in which organ students are briefed in the basics of design and function: ‘It’s not teaching them how to maintain an organ. It’s just that an organ is a big machine: if something goes wrong at 9.45am on a Sunday morning and you know a little about it, you might be able to fix the problem in time for the service at 10am.’
Maintenance and tuning account for around half of the company’s turnover, new-build instruments the other half. The company is working less abroad these days, in contrast to the 1970s when its neo-baroque tracker-action instruments were de rigueur in the UK, particularly in collegiate chapels. ‘That’s the way of the world,’ says Momme, referencing high salaries and tax rates in Denmark. ‘It’s more expensive to buy an organ from us, because the cost of running a company here is so much higher.’
Nevertheless, Denmark’s reputation for quality craftsmanship remains similarly high. ‘Danish furniture has a deserved reputation for beauty,’ says Momme, sitting on a Hans Wegner chair (recently, the company has made a distinct effort to use more locally sourced Scandinavian wood). ‘We have worked with many of the classic Danish designers, so of course they have influenced the way we do things, our aesthetic and our craftsmanship. You see the difference in Danish furniture in comparison with German furniture, and it’s the same with organs. And it’s not just look, it’s sound.’
Outside Denmark, we would consider it a ‘forward’ sound, potent even, with its roots in the Organ Reform Movement. ‘Our sound has changed down the years,’ says Momme. ‘It is certainly more gentle now. It was common to build instruments in the 1960s without Principal aid, but it’s now acknowledged that you need that sound even on an organ of four stops.’ So what makes Frobenius organs desirable in 2019? Momme points to the company’s experience: ‘We know what works for the size of the church. We have all the scales, we know what to do in terms of wind pressure and stop provision. We hope to do a brilliant job every time, but at the very least it will be a good job.’
Down in the workshop, there are some intriguing projects under way. One is a new console for the Frobenius organ at Enghave Church in Copenhagen that comes with unusual features. The first is a hydraulic lift, which means the entire manual section of the console can be raised and lowered – a feature requested by ‘Orgelklubben’ (‘The Organ Club’), an initiative which encourages children to take straight to the organ from the age of six. The console also includes a Bluetooth foot piston for turning pages on music read from an iPad.
In another room is an 1896 instrument by the now-defunct Danish builder Busch, undergoing full restoration following its removal from a Copenhagen church. It will become the second organ at Stege Church on the Danish island of Møn.
Occupying the central build area is the main frame of a new eight-stop instrument for Hvannasund on the Faroe Islands and ‘the smallest church we have ever built in’, according to Momme. The tiny gallery necessitates a pedal division without the customary Frobenius mechanical action that will sit perpendicular to the organ bench.
Of most interest, though, is a new instrument for an entirely new church. Trekroner is a suburb of Roskilde that has grown considerably due to the expansion of the town’s university. Trekroner Church is a stunning concrete ellipse with no straight surfaces, designed by architects Rørbeck & Møller. It is a deeply spiritual room but one that proved a challenge for Momme, charged with ‘putting a very square organ into a very round space.’
‘It has been a compromise with the architects,’ continues Momme. They conceived an instrument with no visible casework. The result will be a compromise, with some Plexiglass casing, a back frame in ash and what Momme describes as ‘a super-beautiful console facing into the church’. It is a large instrument, with 30 speaking stops across four divisions (including pedal) and space left for more.
Momme invites me to Trekroner the following week to see the instrument taking shape. Joining us is the project consultant, Frederik Magle. The instrument towers from floor level into the curvaceous, glassfronted balcony. ‘The organ is inspired by the golden age tracker instruments of the 19th century but will do far more,’ says Magle; ‘It has this romantic base, but more mixtures and the possibility to make distinctly baroque registrations.’
Magle and Momme are proud to have resurrected a nearly extinct stop, the 8ft Flauto Amabile. ‘There hasn’t been one of these made in Denmark since 1916,’ says Magle; ‘It’s very special, like a transverse flute. It’s difficult to describe the sound because it doesn’t sound like anything else.’ The first octave is stopped, and at the highest registers the pipework turns to metal. ‘It has this tenor and alto range, but we have purposefully placed a more normal Rørfløjte [Rohrflöte] in the same division so they can supplement each other.’
Other unusual touches include a ‘Rollschweller’ for general crescendo, a full-bodied Pedal division with a trombone in full length (one of three 16ft ranks), and a Swell division that, for Magle, ‘will make a lovely distant echo sound, as the shutters really close.’ From the inauguration on Palm Sunday onwards, it is sure to have a magical effect in the generous acoustics of a striking modern church.
History of Frobenius & Sons
Theodor Frobenius was born in Bavaria in 1885, the son of a winemaker. For four years he was apprenticed to the organ builder across the street from the family home, Laukhuff. Having set out to expand his knowledge at other German firms, Frobenius met the Danish organ builder A.C. Zachariassen, who soon returned to Denmark to take over an organ workshop in Aarhus, the country’s second city.
Zachariassen was aware of Frobenius’s uncommon talents and appetite for international experiences, and invited him to help out temporarily in Aarhus. While working on the instrument at Viborg Cathedral in central Jutland, Frobenius met and fell in love with a Dane. There was no going back to Germany.
In 1909, Copenhagen called. A piano manufacturer named Christian Winther wanted to supplement his firm with an organ department, and invited Frobenius to establish it. From an old mill in the Nørrebro district, Frobenius masterminded his Opus 1: a six-stop instrument for a church in Harboøre on the west coast of Jutland. Two small but notable instruments followed in Copenhagen: one for the Swedish Church, Gustafs Church, another for Godthåbs Church.
Frobenius was making a name for himself, and it became clear his activities were outgrowing the partnership with Winther. In 1917, the two split and Frobenius was born as an independent firm. By 1926, it had moved to the north Copenhagen suburb of Lyngby, where it remained until 2018.
Over the years, Frobenius & Sons established itself – with Marcussen & Sons – as one of the foremost builders in Denmark. The firm has incorporated a number of competitors, including Horsens Orgelbyggeri (which now constitutes its Jutland office), Jensen & Thomsen and Carsten Lund. Theodor Frobenius stayed with the company as a voicer even after passing general management responsibilities on to his three children, Walther, Erik and Rita. Between them, they turned Frobenius & Sons into a limited company and later established the Frobenius Trust, which now owns the company outright and distributes its profits to good causes.
Theodor died in 1972 and the last of his offspring, Walther, in 2007. The third generation of Frobenius children declined the chance to manage the company, and Henning Jensen – founder of the Fyns Orgelbyggeri on the island of Funen – became the first non-Frobenius CEO. In 2017, he was replaced from the inside by company voicer and former professional singer Eskild Momme.
Frobenius instruments can be found in every Nordic country (including Iceland and the Faroe Islands), as well as in the US, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, and particularly in the UK. Its most famous British commissions came from Kingston Parish Church, Canongate Church in Edinburgh, Lancing College, Oundle School, The Queen’s College, Oxford, and Robinson College, Cambridge. In 1994, Frobenius relocated its 1965 organ for Copenhagen Cathedral to the Church of the Assumption in Tullamore, Ireland.
1972 saw the building of a 40-stop instrument for the First Congregational Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That was followed 12 years later by a larger organ for the Mahikari Grand Shrine in Takayama, Japan. High profile instruments in Denmark include the cathedrals of Ribe and Aarhus, the latter the largest in Denmark and one of Theodor Frobenius’s first major works, dating from 1928.
In 2018, after 92 years in Lyngby, the company moved to a modern building in nearby Birkerød, adjacent to the former workshop of the Carsten Lund company which it had long since acquired. Its latest instrument (Opus 1046), built for a new church in Trekroner outside Roskilde, will be inaugurated in March 2020.
Andrew Mellor is a retired organist and choir trainer, and now a freelance journalist and critic based in Copenhagen.