As the majestic closing harmonies of Franz Liszt's variations on the hymn "Now Thank We All Our God" pealed forth from the only pipe organ in all of Siberia, a Soviet audience of several hundred adults and children who had braved bitter cold for some cultural uplift in this remote city burst into delighted applause.
"They certainly wouldn't know it as a hymn," the dark-haired, lively organist explained later. Birgetta Mieze, well known in her native Latvia, flashed a smile.
The recital, her first ever in this Siberian capital, and the intent audience that called her out for repeated encores after a program devoted almost exclusively to J. S. Bach and Liszt are part of a fascinating trend in this country.Like so much else here, it is one that sheds light on the complexities and ambiguities of Soviet life.
It starts with a straightforward fact: The pipe organ, instrument of the ancient Greeks and raised by renaissance Europeans to unrivalled status as the "royal instrument" for performing music that glorified God and monarch, is thriving in Soviet Russia.
There is much in Russian culture and Soviet society that would seem against such a development. The Slavic Russian Orthodox Church, unlike its Christian relatives to the West, developed sacred music for a cappella choral singing, without instruments of any kind. When the Russian Revolution broke the power of the church here, God was officially banned and "believers" or worshipers are barely tolerated. Many churches have been abandoned, turned into factories or languish as seldom-open museums. Although there has been preservation and restoration of many sacred buildings, many as well have been demolished.
But at the same time, philharmonic societies in Moscow, Leningrad, Odessa, Kiev and other centers of culture had built impressive organs and recital halls, sponsored instruction, scheduled concerts and brought the mighty achievements of baroque, renaissance and classical organ compositions to Russian audiences.
When the Soviet Union annexed the Baltic States, it incorporated societies with traditions of non-Slavic Europe. There were 400 churches in Latvia alone at the start of World War II, said Mieze. "Many of them had organs. Although many have been destroyed, many are still left." Fearful that this rich heritage of church and churchly instrument will be permanently lost, a group of pipe organ enthusiasts is now painstakingly registering every neglected pipe organ in Latvia. It is their hope to restore several and record their sound in the cathedrals and country churches for which they were built. For reasons relating to the Soviet Union's dislike of churches, Mieze refused to say much about it.
But this turn toward the royal instrument, according to one official of the Glinka Conservatory where the recent recital was held, is a result of something missing in Soviet society today. Or perhaps it is more fair to say that what is missing is not confined simply to Soviet Russia, with its continued intense drive to industrialize, but a symptom of industrial states everywhere in this era.
This official, who preferred not to be named, could have been speaking for any observer of late 20th-century life in the "developed" nations. "With people running here and there and all the rush, the organ supplies something spiritual to thern."
Her enthusiasm seems to be shared by Siberians in general. When the 3,256-pipe instrument was installed in a small recital hall at the Glinka Conservatory in 1968, this official recalled, "The young people derided the elders, saying organ music was out-of-date." Now, said the official, young people have become intrigued with the instrument, which was built by the W. Sauer works of Frankfurt on the Oder, a famous German organ-guilder still in business in East Germany.
Fully half the audience during Miere's recent recital was young people.
They seemed somewhat aloof as the program began with introduction and choral by Leon Bollmann, but when Mieze moved through Liszt's "fantasy and fugue" and reached the core of her program, a series of pieces by Liszt and J. S. Bach, the audience seemed drawn toward the recitalist. The hall - bare of adornment with the exception of large oils of Tchaikovsky and two other composers, all hung slightly askew - warmed and the applause grew longer.
She performed three encores, including pieces by Bach and Liszt and a Swedish composer, Oskar Lindberg, and finally left the stage for good.
People mived out slowly, clearly wanting more.
"The audience likes Bach much," said Mieze.
"Bach answers an internal need of the people."