The history of organs

The history of the great organ at the Basilica Minor of St. Andrew the Apostle in Olkusz that has been preserved to this day begins in 1611, when Olkusz city authorities signed a contract with Hans Hummel, a Kraków organ builder originally from Nürnberg, for the building of the instrument. Archival materials made public in 2016 concerning the Olkusz organ confirm that the instrument built had 6 stops more than originally planned. As Hummel writes in a letter from 1616, this happened because the Olkusz city council wanted to ‘make a name for itself’ before other cities. An important person with whom the work was consulted was the organist at St. Mary’s Church in Kraków, Rev. Sebastian Zielonka. The good reputation enjoyed by Hummel meant that shortly thereafter, two more orders of almost identical size appeared: the restructuring of the organ above the pulpit at St. Mary’s Church in Kraków, as well as a new instrument at St. James’ Church in Levoča, Slovakia. The long distance between the towns in question (as well as, perhaps, the death of his four-year-old son) meant that Hummel began to have trouble organizing the work of his studio, which (as shown by inscriptions discovered in the Olkusz organ) employed an international group of workers. This is no doubt why the Olkusz instrument’s first reception in 1618 was unsuccessful. After this event, Hummel interrupted work on the contracted organs several more times, simultaneously changing his place of residence. This meant that both St. Mary’s parish in Kraków and the Olkusz parish decided to take legal action aimed at sorting out the situation. After the personal intervention of the Polish king, Zygmunt III Vasa, the organ builder – at the time resident in Levoča – was accused of misappropriating church property, and summoned to appear before the court in Kraków. Crushed by the burden of responsibility, Hummel died – probably from an act of suicide – in Levoča in 1630. Hummel’s employers in Levoča, Kraków and Olkusz thus found themselves in a similar situation, and were obliged to find an organ builder who would undertake to finish the instruments begun. This person was Jerzy Nitrowski, who later founded a renowned dynasty of at least three-generations of organ builders that provided organs to a large portion of the First Republic’s territory in the 17th and first half of the 18th century.


Documents held by the National Archives in Kraków, representing fragments of the City of Olkusz’s records, confirm that Jerzy Nitrowski, son of Stanisław Nitrowski from the town of Waralia (presently Spišské Podhradie, near Levoča), was educated by Hans Hummel, which could have been the reason he was deemed the most appropriate person for this purpose. Nitrowski trained under Hummel in Levoča, beginning as a journeyman ca. 1624 and finishing 5 years later as a fully independent organ builder; after this, he worked with Hummel for another year on the Levoča instrument. The aforementioned Olkusz documents indicate that in Olkusz, Nitrowski was supposed to build or install five ordered but unfinished registers, work on ‘certain unfinished portions’ of the organ, and bring the whole to a proper state of ‘harmony’. A positive reception of Nitrowski’s work in Olkusz took place in 1631; the expert who signed for the reception was the aforementioned Rev. Sebastian Zielonka. Some final corrections were made by Jerzy Nitrowski in 1633. Hummel and Nitrowski’s Olkusz organ was definitely surrounded by musical life, traces of which are documented in the Olkusz parish church’s surviving account books. The sponsors’ aspirations concerning the Olkusz parish church’s music are confirmed in the two expansive balconies for musicians on either side of the organ which have survived to this day.


The aforementioned organ was not, furthermore, the only instrument located in the main Olkusz church – archival materials also prove the existence of at least one positive organ and a regal whose bellows were repaired by Hummel’s journeymen. The Olkusz organ probably survived the second half of the 18th century without any major changes, though it was repaired by, among others, Friedrich Wilhelm Scheffler of Brzeg. Only at the beginning of the 19th century did damage to the church caused by, among other things, atmospheric precipitation make its mark on the organ’s condition. Church oversight council records surviving from the first decades of the 19th century document, among other things, the complete ruin of eight organ bellows. The first major work on the instrument was performed in 1839 by Jan Słotwiński of Kraków. He restored the organ’s fitness, at the same time removing some the pipes from the mixture stops and using the material gained thereby to fill in gaps in the remaining registers. The end of the 19th century brought the removal of eight of the instrument’s bellows; in the first few decades of the 20th century, only minor repairs to the organ were made. Some of the most recent repair work was done by the Stefan Krukowski company of Piotrków Trybunalski in 1945. From that time onward, the organ’s condition gradually deteriorated; in 1967, plans were even being made to remove the historical mechanism and build a new instrument. Gradually increasing awareness of the value of historical organs meant that by the end of the 1960s, the Olkusz instrument found itself in musicologists’, organists’ and organ builders’ center of interest.

Enormous involvement of church institutions, Olkusz city hall, state conservation services and private individuals meant that a detailed restoration project for the instrument was initiated, lasting with interruptions from 1972 to 1992. Carried out by the State Historical Building Conservation Company of Kraków, the endeavor was consulted by the most outstanding Polish organ experts of the time, among others Rev. Prof. Jan Chwałek, Prof. Jan Jargoń and Jacek Kulig, and the restored instrument found itself the center of attention at the Days of Organ and Chamber Music in Olkusz, which are widely recognized in Europe. Without doubt, the Olkusz organ was successfully saved from progressive deterioration and responsibly passed on to future generations.


The instrument’s enormously labor-intensive drawing and measurement documentation, encompassing several dozen volumes, is exemplary. The Olkusz community’s Increasing understanding for the instrument – which is one-of-a-kind on a European scale and, according to the present state of knowledge, is not only the oldest functional Polish instrument of its type, but also one of the best-preserved late Renaissance organs in the world – led to the founding of the Hans Hummel Organ Society in Olkusz. The numerous artistic and academic endeavors initiated by the Roman Catholic parish of St. Andrew the Apostle in Olkusz and by the Olkusz organ society, as well as by Polish and European institutions of higher learning, meant that the store of knowledge concerning the Olkusz organ and – more broadly – old Polish organs was considerably expanded. At the same time, there was a gradually increasing need for revision of the organ-building work carried out between 1972 and 1992, based on the most recent results of archival and instrumentological research, this time carried out in a broad European context. Of particular significance here were the activities of the Baltisches Orgel Centrum e. V. of Stralsund (German), a distinguished association in the field of restoration of Polish and German organs. In collaboration with Olkusz decision-making bodies, as well as conservatories in Kraków, Łódź, Amsterdam and Hamburg, a store of information unique in the history of Polish organology was successfully gathered from Polish, Slovak, Ukrainian and German archives, as well as from the examination of several dozen instruments from the appropriate sphere of reference. Thanks to this, it was possible to designate a restoration strategy for those points which recent conservators of the Olkusz organ had left open. The resultant continuance of restoration operations concerned, among other things, reconstruction of eight wedge bellows, positive case doors, reed stops and the instrument’s proper tuning type; restoration of the original color scheme of the organ case and music balconies; and above all, a detailed inventory of pipes, together with restoration of their original length and location within the instrument. The direct impulse to begin the work, on the other hand, was the progressive corrosion of the metal pipes made of Olkusz lead.


After acquainting himself with the initial restoration documentation, the bishop of Sosnowiec, Rev. Dr. Grzegorz Kaszak, consented to the taking of actions to begin the restoration of the organ. Thanks to the patronage of the Herman-Reemtsma Stiftung foundation in Hamburg – which, from 2002 to 2008, financed the restoration of the 17th-century organ at St. Mary’s Church in Stralsund; and from 2010 to 2013, subsidized the restoration and partial reconstruction of the 18th-century organ at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Pasłęk – it was possible to initiate restoration work in Olkusz, which was begun in 2015 and completed in 2018. Shortly thereafter, numerous patrons joined in the foundation’s activities, among others the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Administration, the Provincial Historical Preservation Office in Kraków and private sponsors. Thanks to the initiative of Rev. Prelate Mieczysław Miarka, rector of the parish of St. Andrew the Apostle in Olkusz, it was possible to secure the parish’s own impressive contribution. From the beginning, the work was carried out under the close supervision of the Małopolskie Province Historical Building Conservator in Kraków, and consulted by an international group of experts comprised of: Dr. Krzysztof Urbaniak (Łódź/Kraków – team leader), Prof. Marcin Szelest (Kraków), Prof. Pieter van Dijk (Amsterdam/Hamburg), Dr. Dorothea Schröder (Cuxhaven) and Martin Rost (Stralsund). Beyond this, archival research was conducted by Piotr Matoga (Kraków) and Bartosz Skop (Elbląg/Gdańsk). Work on the organ mechanism was carried out by the renowned Flentrop Orgelbouw firm (Zaandam, the Netherlands); the organ case and the balconies were restored by Marcin Chmielewski’s MODULUS atelier (Kraków). The aforementioned international group of academics is preparing a monograph on the Olkusz organ; study visits of academics from Europe, America and Asia during the work reinforced the restoration’s organological foundation. The restored instrument’s condition presently reflects the idea of Hans Hummel and Jerzy Nitrowski. This wonderful work will serve the liturgy and sacred music for future generations, attract people of the arts, represent a permanent mark of care for the material cultural heritage of Poland, and blaze trails for further similar restorations.

Dr. Krzysztof Urbaniak

Additional information



Organ disposal


Discography after organ preservation


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Friday, 13 December 2019