Notes from the Netherlands

by Nigel C.B. Durrant

THE majority of visitors to The Netherlands in past centuries have probably been drawn by virtue of our visual art: say ‘The Netherlands’ and the names Frans Hals, Rembrandt and Van Gogh will not be far away. But even the most impressively true-to-life Dutch genre-painting and the most unarguably evocative winterscapes can only tell part of the story for our mortal coil has long been tinged by manifold noble sonorities and these will of necessity be lacking in their creators’ work. I am not referring to the ubiquitous and detestable muzak a coeval sub-culture inflicts upon us or to more traditional mendicant buskers, nor yet to the street-organs beloved of foreign filmmakers. A peaceful stroll along a sleepy village street, a cycle-ride through idyllic country lanes or a visit to a medieval architectural gem will ultimately resound with the tinkles and rumbles of some meritorious mechanical marvel, for there are nearly 5000 of these monuments – carillons, bells and church clocks – listed in this country. Some 1600 of them are organs.

About half of these organs have at some stage undergone restoration; within a thirty-year period, 25 organs with monumental status have on average been restored annually. On August 31st the Dutch government published an official strategy for the maintenance of monumental organs, based on this activity. The document Klinkende Monumenten establishes the foundation on which organ experts’ recommendations should be based. Four years of probing discussion between organ builders and associated specialists ratify the authority of this document.

Contemporary plaque commemorating the completion of the Alkmaar koororgel on May 1st 1511

As my deadline approaches I once again peruse my file of recital programmes heard during the past season. Buxtehude in all shapes and sizes, of course, though no one piece seemed more popular than the rest. Jean Langlais passed almost unnoticed in and out of the limelight as several recitalists commemorated his birth in 1907. Rien Donkersloot, in one of the most memorable lunchtime recitals I have ever heard, gave us a programme in the Laurenskerk in Rotterdam with Couperin, Franck, Vierne and Dupré (Prelude and Fugue in B – surely one of the most un-Buxtehudian fugue subjects ever contrived!); I got there early and heard how a master practises. There were novelties – Satyagraha by Philip Glass (Henk G. van Putten, Basilica, Haarlem); music by three (living) composers born in 1927 (Jos van der Kooy, Grote Kerk, also in Haarlem); Fata Morgana by Jacques van Oortmerssen (the composer, Grote Kerk, Alkmaar) and Sakskøbing Præludier (hat-trick for Haarlem), this time in the Philharmonie, where Naji Hakim played his gratifyingly tongue-in-cheek settings of Danish hymns; well, hymns as sung in Denmark. These, not surprisingly, were thoroughly at home on the hall’s Cavaillé-Coll, though perhaps rather uncomfortable in these surroundings.

Franck’s Pièce héroïque and Grande Pièce Symphonique in the St. Bavo at Haarlem or Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue on B.A.C.H. on the 1646/1725 Van Hagerbeer/F.C. Schnitger instrument in Alkmaar’s Sint-Laurenskerk, incongruous on paper, were, in performance, splendid. That these performances were not in any way hampered by the lack of 19th-century technical wizardry at the console bears elegant testimony to concerted preparation by the organists and their assistants; even short-reach pedalboards passed unnoticed. But then the complete lack of a pedalboard combined with a 38-key manual presented no problems for Léon Berben as he played, fleet of finger, a full-length programme of Byrd, Sweelinck, Frescobaldi and Bull on ‘his’ seven stops at Oosthuizen. Nobody knows exactly when this delightful mean-tone organ was built: it can safely be said that certain features date from the late 15th and early 16th centuries though careful and thorough research has still left troublesome lacunæ in its later history. The contemporary choir-organ of similar compass in the above-mentioned Sint-Laurenskerk in Alkmaar, however, can be accurately dated; it was built in 1511 by Jan van Covelen(s). It is the oldest playable organ in the country. It had already been enlarged by the addition of a borstwerk in 1545 and, six years later by a second trumpet, disposed on its own pedalboard, the pipes being placed to one side of the case. As the church was not yet complete at the time the organ was erected it was located – in harmony with (Catholic) liturgical practice – above the choir on the north side (where, incidentally, the wall was protected from the sun so fluctuations in temperature were at a minimum).

  Whereas, immediately following the Reformation, Dutch congregations exercised considerable restraint in the use of musical instruments in their services, the situation changed in the 17th century and the organ gained increasingly in importance in Protestant religious observance in The Netherlands. Organs then came to be cherished, with no expense spared in many cases. Larger instruments, capable of supporting lusty congregational singing, were built and these instruments were regularly brought into line with the most modern insights. Consequently the smaller organs from the past were quickly considered outdated: they were maintained so they could be available when the main organ was being overhauled or enlarged (or temperamental). Therefore, especially in the north of The Netherlands, a surprising number of pre-reformation organs have been partially preserved in churches where a later, larger organ was subject to modification. So in Alkmaar: the work done by Flentrop Orgelbouw between 1994 and 2000 on this choir-organ has effectively restored to us an original 16th-century instrument and, where later additions are concerned, approximated the situation of the organ as it was heard in 1625. Whenever I play or listen to a successfully restored organ, or talk to the master-craftsmen actually involved, I try not to forget those who so brilliantly manage the relevant ‘paperwork’ – the archivists who not only know how to retrieve each and every scrawled note between the protagonists from centuries ago but also where to look for it in the first place.


The koororgel in the St.-Laurenskerk, Alkmaar.
The polychrome gallery was extended to the right to make room for
the addition of the pedal trumpet soundboard

But our organs are not only to be found in stately buildings and organs whose monumental merit is in no way assured can still captivate the imagination. Readers who read beyond ‘street-organs’ in my opening paragraph and who have come to realize that organ-lovers can do worse than to flock to Haarlem might, having arrived, like to stand outside the shop at Wagenweg 88 and look up.

Combi/organ at Wagenweg 88

There they can see not only what the time is where they are standing but also in other towns world-wide, watch Father Time turn his hourglass or at appointed times listen to the carillon. And there, at the top, they will see organ-pipes. For here is not only, literally, a permanent street-organ but an actual outdoor two-manual-and-pedal concert-organ built in 1964.


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