Arp Schnitger was born on 2nd July 1648 at Schmalenfleth, in the district of Golzwarden , near the city of Oldenburg. In this small village his father ran an important carpentry workshop, and after school his son would be taught the carpentry trade. His initiation into the art of organ building was due to his uncle Berendt Huss (?-1676 ) who had just moved his workshop to Gluckstadt on the river Elbe and was in need of a young apprentice / carpenter to assist him.
So in 1666 the young eighteen year old Arp Schnitger left home to work for his uncle. At the time that Schnitger joined the company, Huss was completing the organ in the local parish church and was also beginning to extend his workshop to deal with much larger contracts. It would appear that Schnitger excelled in his uncle's firm, because when Huss secured the contract for the building of the organ at St. Cosmae et Damiani at Stade in 1675 after the previous instrument had been destroyed by fire in 1659, Schnitger began to take on far more responsibility for the technical planning and voicing of his uncle's organs.In particular, this organ at St Cosmae, still extant, gives us a valuable insight into Arp Schnitger's early development as an organ builder. The principal manual for example, (Oberwerk ) employs a Springchest (Springlade ), the kind of windchest typical for Huss's day. Schnitger, however, always employed the more modern type of slider windchest (Schlieflade ), which is the kind of mechanical windchest still in use today.
When Huss died, leaving the organ at St Wilhaldi at Stade unfinished, Schnitger was able to complete it himself in 1678, after which he set up in business on his own.
In the beginning he took over his uncle's workshop at Gluckstadt, but by 1679 he had already made a name for himself as far away as Hamburg where he was commissioned to rebuild the organ at the St Johannis Monestery in the city in 1680. (This organ is now in the village church at Cappel, of which more will be said at a later date.
Three years later he secured the valuable contact to rebuild the organ of the St Nicholaikirche in Hamburg, and on the strength of this he decided to move his entire workshop to Hamburg where he took up the oath of citizenship in 1682. He worked on this great organ for five years between 1682-87,and with four manuals and a fully independent pedal with 67 speaking stops, it was not only the largest organ in Germany, but also in the rest of the world as well! (Unfortunately this organ was completely destroyed by fire in 1842
Although there is some evidence that he was previously married for a short time, the information we have proof of was that he married Gertrude Ott in 1684, from whom he inherited a farm at Neuenfelde (once a separate village but now a suburb of southern Hamburg ). She bore him six children; Arp II ( 1686- 1712), Hans (1688-1708), Johann Jurgen (1690-1739), and Frans Caspar (1693-1729).
All his sons became organ builders but only the two youngest outlived him. Of his two daughters nothing unfortunately is known, not even their names, because records at that time apparently never considered girls to be of any real importance! Of all his sons, it was the youngest, Frans Caspar, who was to perpetuate the name of Schnitger well into the 18th and early 19th century, and it was Frans Caspar who was to found the Schnitger workshops in the Netherlands, which through his foreman, Albertus Anthoni Hinsz, (1704 -1795), after Frans Caspar's early death aged 36, adopted his son Frans Caspar Schnitger Jr. (1724-1799), married his widow, and through this carried the Schnitger tradition on until well into the early 19th century.
The rebuilding of the organ in the Nicholaikirche in Hamburg was to spread Arp Schnitger's fame far beyond the German frontiers and opened up a large field of activity for him. From Flensburg in the north, to the Dutch provinces of West Friesland and Groningen in the West. East to Stettin on the river Oder, South to Zellerfeld in the Hartz mountain area of Germany - he even deliverd one -manual or small positive organs to Russia, England, Spain and Portugal.
Arp Schnitger is known to have worked on over 160 different organs, of which at least 99 were completely new instruments. Even ignoring the enormous technical and artistic elements involved, this represented a quite remarkable talent for organisation. Although he was involved in the planning of the great organ at the Michaeliskerk at Zwolle in the Netherlands., it was his son Frans Caspar who was given complete freedom in the completion of that instrument in 1721.
Arp Schnitger had originally specified a three - manual organ of 46 speaking stops, but after his death his son added a fourth manual at no extra cost, increasing the number of speaking stops to 64, and so making it the largest organ by far in the United Provinces. This would suggest that this was done to further his ambition to supply many new organs in the Netherlands, and in this he proved to be completely successful. In fact, the arrival of Schnitger and other German organ - builders in the Netherlands was soon to dominate and virtually eradicate most of the indigenous Dutch organ - builders completely.
Like his former master, Arp Schnitger died leaving an organ unfinished, the organ of St Laurens at Itzehoe which he began in 1715. (Case still there but nothing much else. ) He was buried in the north transept of the St Pankratiuskirche in his home village of Neuenfelde on the 28th July 1719.
(People who like to remark on strange coincidences point out that the death of Johann Sebastian Bach occurred on the exact same day 31 years later. )
Apart from the organ in the church at Neuenfelde, built by Arp Schnitger in 1688 (still there and lovingly restored ), the church also bears other souvenirs of the great master. After he renounced the final payment of 800 marks that the church owed him on completion of the organ, he was granted the right to build a private family pew next to the altar. It is inscribed "To the Glory of God and for the ornament of the church " and it bears the Arp Schnitger trade mark; a compass intercrossed with two organ pipes.
With best wishes.