Albert Schweitzer


Albert Schweitzer : biography

14 January 1875 – 4 September 1965

American journalist John Gunther also visited Lambaréné in the 1950s and reported Schweitzer’s patronizing attitude towards Africans. He also noted the lack of Africans trained to be skilled workers. After three decades in Africa Schweitzer still depended on Europe for nurses. By comparison, his contemporary Sir Albert Cook in Uganda had been training nurses and midwives since the 1910s and had published a manual of midwifery in the local language of Luganda.


Schweitzer rapidly gained prominence as a musical scholar and organist, dedicated also to the rescue, restoration and study of historic pipe organs. With theological insight, he interpreted the use of pictorial and symbolical representation in J. S. Bach’s religious music. In 1899 he astonished Widor by explaining figures and motifs in Bach’s Chorale Preludes as painter-like tonal and rhythmic imagery illustrating themes from the words of the hymns on which they were based. They were works of devotional contemplation in which the musical design corresponded to literary ideas, conceived visually. (Widor had not grown up with knowledge of the old Lutheran hymns.)Seaver (1951) p. 20.

The exposition of these ideas, encouraged by Widor and Munch, became Schweitzer’s next task, and appeared in the masterly study J. S. Bach: Le Musicien-Poète, written in French and published in 1905. There was great demand for a German edition, but, instead of translating it, he decided to rewrite it.Schweitzer, My Life and Thought, pp 80–81; cf. Seaver (1951) pp. 231–232. The result was two volumes (J. S. Bach), which were published in 1908 and translated in English by Ernest Newman in 1911.Joy (1953) pp. 58–62. During its preparation he became a friend of Cosima Wagner (then in Strasbourg), with whom he had many theological and musical conversations, exploring his view of Bach’s descriptive music, and playing the major Chorale Preludes for her at the Temple Neuf.Schweitzer, in Joy (1953) pp. 53–57. Schweitzer’s interpretative approach greatly influenced the modern understanding of Bach’s music. He became a welcome guest at the Wagners’ home, Wahnfried.Joy (1953) pp. 53–57, quoting from and translating A. Schweitzer, ‘Mes Souvenirs sur Cosima Wagner’, in L’Alsace Française, XXXV no. 7 (12 February 1933), p. 124 ff. His pamphlet "The Art of Organ Building and Organ Playing in Germany and France" (1906,Reproduced in Joy (1953) pp. 127–129, 129–165: cf. also Seaver (1951) pp. 29–36. republished with an appendix on the state of the organ-building industry in 1927) effectively launched the 20th century Orgelbewegung, which turned away from romantic extremes and rediscovered baroque principles—although this sweeping reform movement in organ building eventually went further than Schweitzer himself had intended. In 1909 he addressed the Third Congress of the International Society of Music at Vienna on the subject. Having circulated a questionnaire among players and organ-builders in several European countries, he produced a very considered report.Joy (1953) pp. 165–166: Text of 1909 Questionnaire and Report, pp. 235–269. This provided the basis for the International Regulations for Organ Building. He envisaged instruments in which the French late-romantic full-organ sound should work integrally with the English and German romantic reed pipes, and with the classical Alsace Silbermann organ resources and baroque flue pipes, all in registers regulated (by stops) to access distinct voices in fugue or counterpoint capable of combination without loss of distinctness: different voices singing together in the same music.

Schweitzer also studied piano under Isidor Philipp, head of the piano department at the Paris Conservatory.

In 1905 Widor and Schweitzer were among the six musicians who founded the Paris Bach Society, a choir dedicated to performing J.S. Bach’s music, for whose concerts Schweitzer took the organ part regularly until 1913. He was also appointed organist for the Bach Concerts of the Orféo Català at Barcelona and often travelled there for that purpose. He and Widor collaborated on a new edition of Bach’s organ works, with detailed analysis of each work in three languages (English, French, German). Schweitzer, who insisted that the score should show Bach’s notation with no additional markings, wrote the commentaries for the Preludes and Fugues, and Widor those for the Sonatas and Concertos: six volumes were published in 1912–14. Three more, to contain the Chorale Preludes with Schweitzer’s analyses, were to be worked on in Africa: but these were never completed, perhaps because for him they were inseparable from his evolving theological thought.Seaver (1951) p. 44.