Notes from the Netherlands

by Nigel C.B. Durrant

EARLY in 1609 a group of English dissenters in The Netherlands, having escaped the religious strictures of the wisest fool in Christendom King James I (or VI for our Scottish readers), arrived in the fair and bewtifull citie of Leiden. Most lived near St. Peter’s church where today a memorial to their leader, Pastor John Robinson, depicts a ship. The ship is the Mayflower; for these refugees (being generally known since 1820 as the Pilgrim Fathers) later departed, by way of Plymouth, to colonize America. Since 1643 a splendid Van Hagerbeer organ has graced this church. Albert Schweitzer went so far as to carve a record of his enthusiasm for the instrument into its music-desk. Our intrepid colonists, had they ever attended St. Peter’s, could also have enthused about some of the sounds of this organ to their New World fellow-countrymen as Van Hagerbeer incorporated into his design pipework dating back to 1446. When I was there in July, however, this instrument, Schweitzerian vandalism and all, was clad in ugly plastic, possibly to protect it from such further intimacies as might be devised by the workmen restoring the floor immediately below. However, my journey there to hear Leo van Doeselaar play the complete organ works of César Franck was not wasted as the afternoon and evening recitals were given at the opposite end of the church on a three-manual Thomas Hill organ with 31 speaking stops. This instrument, brought here from London in 1990 and undergoing expert restoration by Sicco Steendam, is still almost exactly as it was when it left Hill’s workshop in 1883. Its positioning is, to my mind, unfortunate; placed high above the choir its sound is projected radially so the ensemble is inevitably somewhat unfocused as it enters the nave. To hear these French compositions resounding with such a pronounced English accent in this typically Dutch environment was a curious experience. The two recitals on this notable organ were separated by something equally remarkable – a recital by Dirk Luijmes on his Alexandre harmonium, in which he was joined by the organist for the second performance of the day of Prélude, Fugue et Variation, this time in Franck’s own version for harmonium and piano. I was tempted to engrave my enthusiasm for the player’s supremely musical performance into the music-desk of his instrument. Still in Leiden, but looking forwards rather than backwards, advanced plans have been announced for the construction of the largest English organ in mainland Europe. This will have at least 55 stops spread over four manuals and pedal, including a 32ft. Double Open Wood and a 32ft. Double Ophicleide. The instrument, based on "the English organ between 1880 – 1920", is to be erected in the town’s Hooglandse Kerk to provide for the "optimum interpretation of English choral and organ music for a large audience in appropriate surroundings". The surroundings are certainly appropriate.

Later in the year I had looked forward to attending two screenings, with organ accompaniment by Joost Langeveld, of Eisenstein’s classic silent film Battleship Potemkin. The first was given in a Lower-Rhine gothic church with the largest organ built (in 1773-76) by (Christian) Ludwig König (which surely promised to be as surrealist as the Anglo-Dutch Franck experience), the second in a modern concert-hall. It would have been interesting to compare the improvisations and I hoped to acquire some insights into the player’s specialized approach to this sort of music-making. Unfortunately I missed both. A singularly persistent tickle in my throat on the day of the first showing presaged unwelcome additional sound effects and a rare Saturday-afternoon funeral vexatiously coincided with the October event. Organs are of course both by their nature and traditional usage (whether ecclesiastical or wholly profane) pre-eminently suitable as a vehicle for improvisation. Some commercially available recordings feature (reputedly) extempore creativity, which can certainly give some idea of a particular organ’s musical character as well as the player’s inventiveness. Some performers make a point of ending a recital with a virtuoso improvisation, often with tongue-in-cheek entertainment value (as witness Andrew Cesana’s remembrance in the February 2005 Journal of a symphonic concatenation of Veni Emmanuel and The Teddy-Bears’ Picnic). This seemingly symbiotic relationship between organists and the art of improvisation has led to a number of contests in The Netherlands, the most renowned being "Haarlem", the recurring International Organ Improvisation Competition in St. Bavo’s church in that city (also fair and beautiful). In 2006, the 46th competition ended – for the first time ever – in a joint first prize. This has been described as an "elegant solution" to the judges’ quandary when confronted with a finale where the standard of the four finalists was generally considered ‘less than excellent’. Those with a bent for "do it yourself" might care to turn their own hands and feet to the competitors’ task: the Competition’s theme (by Hans Kox, a composer born in Arnhem in 1930) for improvisation is reproduced here. Participants were required to improvise on this for about 15 minutes.

An annual brochure published in the spring lists an astonishing variety of independent recitals and organ events on many instruments ancient and modern in Dutch venues between June and September – admission charges are seldom prohibitive even when the recitalist gets paid! In 2006 I made my way to several recitals in the colossal St. Janskerk in Gouda, well known, according to the guidebooks, for its cheese, candles and town hall. This beautifully atmospheric church hosted some often outstanding recitals encompassing a wide range of styles on its 1732-36 Jean Moreau organ with 53 speaking stops. (A well-authenticated legend tells of a 32ft. Bazuin discarded from the Pedal during the 1950 restoration of the organ, "the most beautiful 32ft. stop in the whole country," according to the late lamented Feike Asma. For a letter to the then organist of the church this jovial gentleman did not shrink from fuelling his pen with the bitterest gall imaginable.) Hearing little-known 19th century music on this organ was a delight, and the main organ was not allowed to detract from an admirable small organ in the choir in some recitals. The public simply moved from one end of the church to the other. The brochure bears healthy witness to the continuing enthusiasm for the organ in The Netherlands. With certain glorious exceptions however the public will display quality rather than quantity, and a refreshing temporary bonhomie usually characterizes the snippets of conversation exchanged with fellow coffee-drinkers at the end of most of the proceedings. Is the organ world in The Netherlands healthy? I don’t really know. But I happily maintain that a Dutch organ recital is usually a highly civilizing occasion.


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