Saturday, 29 September 2007

Zimbelsterns and Linden Trees

Today I assisted at a wedding in our local Anglican church (no, that isn't it in the picture—you'll have to read on); the groom, a practising Catholic, had obtained a dispensation to wed his Anglican inamorata there, and I was keeping our end up. The hymns were not outstanding, I'm afraid. The first was 'Lord of the Dance'—we had a version of it in the seminary which went:
I danced on the altar when the Mass was begun
I took my guitar out and had a damn good strum
I giggled and I gurgled and I waved both my arms
With modern liturgy you need have no qualms.
Dance, dance, it's modern liturgy!
And we'll all dance around on the sanctuary
And sing silly songs fit for kids of three.
So give three cheers for modern liturgy!

But that isn't the point I'm getting at today. When the chorus of the wretched hymn began (me pretending to enjoy it), I nearly jumped out of my skin: this extraordinary tinkling of little bells emerged from the organ. It was a zimbelstern!
Now, the organ I learnt on had a celesta stop—no, not a voix celeste, but chime bells—the instrument that one plays the dance of the sugar plum fairy on. That was pretty unusual, but I have never heard a zimbelstern in England before. It takes the form of a star shape on the front of the organ case which, when switched on, rotates and rings a set of little tinkling bells. Very charming. Sometimes the bells are tuned in D or G. I was taken right back to my first encounter with a zimbelstern.
It was my first (and so far, only) trip to Poland. Usually, people head straight to Cracow, but I had to be different; I went to Warmia, because I have a good friend in Olszytyn. That neck of the woods used to be East Prussia until the various ethnic cleansings which followed WW2. Now the population is nearly all Polish, though I got by now and then with my sketchy German. It was the area where the Teutonic knights held sway: they governed from the extraordinary castle of Marienburg, modern Malbork—an intact mediaeval huge fortress curiously built in brick. By coincidence, I have a parishioner from Malbork. Anyway, there is also a Marian shrine in that corner of Poland called Święta Lipka, or Holy Linden (or lime tree) (German name, Heiligelinde). Web site here.(though the photo link doesn't work; use this one instead). It is, as you might see, a lovely church, and a beautiful Madonna in that rather severe northern European way. But what did it for me was the organ.

It was made by Jan Jozue Mosengel around 1720, and it incorporates two zimbelsterns, which you can see on the photo if you enlarge it (just click on it), positioned on the towers at either side of the organ. They spin round gently, tinkling away whenever the organist pulls a lever. But that's only the start. All those figures that you can't see very well in this picture also move. The angels blow their trumpets, turning from side to side; the putti play. And, best of all, on the very top of the instrument is a very large pair of figures (more than 6') representing the annunciation. The archangel Gabriel bows low before our Lady, asking her to bear God's son, and Mary graciously nods yes back to him. The whole thing is very moving in more ways than one. The unexpected sound of a Zimbelstern today transported me right back there. I must suggest to our vicar that he invest in some moving statues for his organ. I wonder if Ballinspittle has some to spare?
I have a tape of the organ, including with the zimbelstern. I wish I knew how to post a track for you.
Another link to Święta Lipka here.


Berolinensis said...

Fascinating post, Father!
Sadly, I've never heard one, but I will look out for them from now on. Also fascinating to hear about the sanctuary of Heiligelinde. Living in Berlin I really ought to visit all these places - can you believe that I've never been to Poland? A shame, I know, especially considering I've read so much about it. Might I make some corrections? It's Zimbelstern (Zimbel is derived from the same word as cymbal, i.e. cymbalum, but nevertheless written with an "e"), and the organ builder was the famous Johann Josua Mosengel, organ builder to the Royal Prussian Court in Königsberg (today Kaliningrad, Russia). And Heiligelinde is just outside of Warmia (Ermland). But speaking of Ermland, it has a fascinating and very much Catholic history (if you find all this boring and/or not pertinent, please don't hesitate to delete it). After Prussia had been conquered and christianised by the Teutonic order, Pope Innocent IV, through his legate William of Modena, founded four bishoprics in/after 1243, among them Ermland (Warmia; interestingly the Polish name Warmia is deduced from the legendary Prussian Prince Warmio, while the German name is deduced from his wife, Ermia). The bishopric managed to get away from the overlordship of the Teutonic order and by the time of the Golden Bull of Emperor Charles IV (1356) the Bishop is an independent Prince with the Ermland as his principality, immediately subject to the Emperor. This is why, when the territories of the Teutonic order were secularised and protestantised in 1525, the Ermland remained firmly Catholic and it's inhabitants developed a very strong identity that lasted even after the independent temporal principality was finally absorbed by Prussia in 1772. If you have seen the maps who German denominations and voters were distributed in the early 1930's posted by Fr. Ray Blake among others (, the Ermland is the isolated white/black spot in East Prussia. Now, this special common bond and shared identity survived even the expulsion after the war, and until this day, there is a Special (until 1998: Apostolic) Visitator for the Priests and Faithful from the Diocese of Ermland in the Federal Republic of Germany, currently Msgr. Dr. Lothar Hans Peter Schlegel (see: The last (German) Bishop of Ermland (the Polish Archdiocese of Warmia has only been erected in 1972, until then the territory was governed at the same time by a "lawful" German Cathedral Chapter, and a "new" Polish chapter, which was, however, not recognized by the Holy See), Msgr. Maximilian Kaller, was a heroic priest (see:, who is highly revered by the Faithful until today. In the year 2003, the process of his beatification was opened in the presence of the Cardinal of Cologne and the current (Polish) Archbishop of Warmia, see:

Fr Justin said...

Thanks very much indeed, Berolinensis, for your fascinating comment. And I've taken your correction (I'd only heard the word, never properly seen it spelt) for zimbelstern. Again thanks.

Philip said...

The organ in Portsmouth's Anglican cathedral has a Zimbelstern. I am informed that after its installation a few years ago, the organist couldn't play a psalm chant without managing to include the damn thing. In its place, it's okay, but usually sounds like the ice cream van is on its way.