Return to Homepage

On-line Book Review



Dimension: 22.3 x 14.5 x 1.4 cm
TITLE Albert Schweitzer As I Knew Him by Edouard Nies-Berger. (=The Complete Organ, No.5)
PUBL. DETAILS Hillsdale, New York: Pendragon, 2003. viii + 143p. US$36. / £26
ISBN 1-57647-039-3
TO ORDER Pendragon Press, PO Box 190, Hillsdale, NY 12529, USA. Order in UK -- Rosemary M S Dooley, Crag house, Witherslack, Grange-over-Sands, Cumbria LA11 6RW, England
DESCRIPTION Nies-Berger's portrayal of Schweitzer as they worked together to complete the final three volumes of Bach's organ works between 1954 and 1967.
WORKS COVERED Passing mentions of some of organ works; Schweitzer's struggle with the issue of ornamentation.
READERSHIP Scholars re-evaluating Schweitzer's contribution to Bach promotion and scholarship.
RESEARCH CONTRIBUTION It offers a rare insight into what Schweitzer considered important, priorities and attitude to his work.


lbert Schweitzer had many faces — a medical doctor, minister, organist, Bach scholar, philosopher, a pacifist who won the Nobel Peace Prize, etc. While his own monograph on J. S. Bach (originally published in French in 1905, first translated into German in 1908, then into English in 1911, and into many others subsequently) is still available in our bookshops, many books and articles were written about him and his contributions to the world, acknowledging him as one of the most important authors of Bach’s life and works in the first half of the twentieth century.

Does Nies-Berger offer something unique to what we already know? I think the answer is probably yes. He was a man who lived closely with Schweizer; he was a boy who grew up in the town where Schweitzer was already an accomplished organist and a church minister; he later became Schweitzer’s right-hand man from 1949 to 1964 to finish off the long-awaited volumes of the Widor/Schweitzer edition of Bach’s complete organ works (New York: G. Schirmers, 1912-1914).

This book consists of twelve chapters without subtitle or any description of its contents. It also includes an index and a foreword by Rollin Smith, an internationally known organ scholar. Nine illustrations showing the images of Schweitzer and his associates supplement the vivid, picturesque writing with some degree of historical objectivity. The book is full of Schweitzer’s philosophy as to how one should respond to things happening in one’s life, the aspect which I liked best about this book.

 offering a rare insight into Schweitzer's world

Nies-Berger’s memoir is powerful, and on occasion unforgivingly personal. In it he depicts Schweitzer’s wife, Helen, as well as their daughter Rhena as hindrance to his good work, someone who did not understand Albert’s divine mission and purpose of life. Most clearly came through were the difficult situations under which Nies-Berger worked with Schweitzer – striking balance of priorities with Schweitzer’s hospital duties, other engagements that were associated with the promotion of peace, pestering journalists, etc. In all it vividly describes their difficult and challenging lives they shared together.

To my disappointment, I find little in the book that matters me most — in-depth discussion of musicological nature that Bach scholars would be most eager to find. It documents scarcely any concrete details of the progress of three volumes that they were edited together. Nor it gives specific reference to the dates, which are often very important when using it as historical documents. The book nevertheless offers a rare insight into what Schweitzer considered important, which will surely help re-evaluating his writings, such as his concern of his understanding of Bach’s ornamentations, how he sought opinions from full-time musicologists, etc.

Now, looking at Vol.7 of the Nies-Berger/Schweitzer edition of Bach’s Organ Works (published in 1967), we can perhaps appreciate what went on behind the scenes. Behind a very detailed commentary on Bach’s ornaments and the Orgelbüchlein on pp. ii-lxii, Nies-Berger seems to be saying how much that his association with Schweitzer meant to him.

Published online on 23 August 2004