About the organist Jānis Sērmūkslis

From the book “Traditions of organ school of Saint-Petersburg Conservatory”, issue #1. Saint-Petersburg, 2012

Article by I.K.Rosenbacha “The students of L.Homilius – the leading organists of Latvia in the beginning of 20th century”

Janis Sermukslis (1855-1913) – a very hard-working, quiet, serious person. He looked more like a priest, than a musician. <…> Sermukslis’ hearing was exceptional – his favourite “sports” was to identify the height of the sound of multiple church bells in Petersburg. During three years of studies in Petersburg Sermukslis reached such a success in organ playing, that he finished his studies with honors, and Homilius characterized him as “an artist from God.”

For all his life Sermukslis worked as a church organist. First in Petersburg, and from 1887 till 1912 (25 years) in Latvia, Liepaja, in the Holy Trinity church. This fact in the biography of the professional organist might have not been something special, if not for the place of Sermukslis’ work in Latvia – the organ in the Holy Trinity church was the largest not only in Latvia, but in the whole world.

The first organ in the Holy Trinity church was built in 1779. In 1884-1885 the organ was rebuilt, and the new instrument was consecrated on December 1, 1885 – a year later than the organ in Riga Dom cathedral was opened. The organ in Liepaja had 131 register, 4 manuals and pedal. Until the year 1912, when the organ in St.Michaeliskirche in Hamburg was finished (163/IV, P), the organ of the Holy Trinity church was considered to be the largest in the world.

The place of the organist in the Holy Trinity church was regarded to be very prestigious, and in 1887 there was a competition for the vacant place, where over 20 candidates sent their applications. After the first tour only four organists were left, their performance was evaluated by an expert jury. There were: the organist of St.Peter’s church in Riga – Albert Berndt, a big authority and a music director from Elgava – Rudolf Postell (1820-1889), and the professor of the organ class from Petersburg Conservatory – Louis Homilius. In the non-public competition with the German organists Richard Bartmuß (1859-1910) from Dessau, Karl Daehn from Berlin and organist Wilhelm Rötiger from Liepaja, Sermukslis became the winner, while working in St.Michael’s church in Petersburg during that time. The Holy Trinity church was a German congregation, and the representatives of the church administration were highly indignant with the fact that their parishioners would have to sing to the accompaniment of Latvian. But the competition was won, and Sermukslis became the master of the largest in the world organ for 25 years (until his death in the end of 1912). Sermukslis made himself respected thanks to his professionalism, responsibility and diligence. He became a well-known teacher, choirmaster and music critic. All his activities were based on the solid foundation, which he got in Petersburg Conservatory.

Information prepared by the member of the church council of St.Michael’s Lutheran church –
Olga Ryumina