The Königschor organ was consecrated on the 22nd of November 2008, the feast day of St. Cecilia. It is located in the second northern arcade of the cathedral’s nave, just before the transept, placing the organ almost at the centre of the 110 meter long cathedral. The front façade, fashioned of Palatine oak and 13 meter high, fits flush with the row of pillars, so that it cannot be seen from the main aisle. Instead, the organ, with its sounding rear façade, protrudes into the north aisle, allowing for optimal sound emission into the body of the cathedral. Conforming to the Romanesque simplicity of the cathedral, the façade has simple unobtrusive contours and the casings were given a shell finish by hand with a scraper.
The organ’s sound design is marked by its variety, and was created without relying on one direct model, such as, for instance, a type of organ that could have previously been used in the cathedral. There was no historicism in its design, just references to certain epochs in the history of organ building, as well as other external factors related to its planning and construction. Influencing the design were factors taken from the local cultural landscape, the acoustics of the space, as well as the functions that the instrument would be called upon to fulfill for church services and church concerts.
The properties of a large single manual organ from the classical Palatine organ building tradition acted as the model for the principal and positive organ stops. Typical for this type of sound is the ambiguity of the salicional stop, which lacks the elegant string-like sound associated with the French, substituting in its stead a more austere tone, located somewhere between a flute and a stringed instrument. The close proximity to France is reflected in the tonal quality of the organ’s swell, showing the influence and further development of the aesthetics that François Callinet (Alsace) and Aristide Cavaillé-Coll advanced in the organs they built. A sophisticated system of swell shades, used individually or combined with one another, were used to modulate the front, side and roof swells, allowing for nuanced shading in the cavernous acoustics of the cathedral.
Classical elements of southern German and French organ building provide the overriding structure for the sound design of the organ: four separate 8-foot flue voices (principal, flute, strings, muted); three 4-foot voices (octave, flute, and a conical organ stop); as well as French Aliquot, Cornet, Mixtures, and French-style reeds).
The three-manual instrument is handmade, and done in massive construction. The Seifert organ building workshop looked back at models from the 18th century, without compromising on the inclusion of the latest modern innovations. The organ possesses an integrated digital bus system, allowing for it to be controlled from the console of the main organ in the western gallery, with full control of the registration and playing of notes. Thus a number of innovative operating options are opened up to the organist.
A distinctive feature of the Königchor organ is the five meantone tuned stops, which together constitute a stand-alone instrument. Thus the possibility to authentically perform and reproduce works from the centuries-old tradition of sacred music in the Speyer Cathedral is made possible.
Inspired by the principal stop as the base tone of the organ as an instrument, and the desire to return to the idea of a gothic Blockwerk (linked rows of pipes), the pipes of the meantone instrument are fashioned according to historical precedent, utilizing an organ metal with an 82% lead content. The organ builders collected valuable experience by taking part in the John Cage organ project, where they had to work with descriptions of the gothic organ of the Halberstadt Cathedral (built by Nicolaus Faber, 1361) written by Michael Praetorius.
For over 800 years, the meantone temperament, with its perfectly tuned thirds, was common in organ building. It was ideally suited for combining with vocal music in ecclesiastical modes and for playing choral preludes from the early and high baroque. This temperament is also suited to intonating and accompanying church music, written with more conventional tonality.
The main feature of the meantone temperament is its use of perfectly tuned thirds to the detriment of other tonal intervals. Meantone temperament does not allow for enharmonic changes, as each pitch level is clearly tuned and within the range of the scale. Thus an F# cannot be interpreted as a Gb.
The setup of the keyboard includes a short octave without sub-semitones (divided upper keys) included. The short octave allows for the playing of bass figures and omits the tones C#, D#, F# and G#. Pressing the stop knobs in the key blocks of the first and second manuals reduces the flow of air; this allows for an especially nuanced way of playing that is very useful in interpreting demanding early music works.