Notes from The Netherlands

by Nigel C.B. Durrant

In the year 1622 Calvinism became the state religion of The Netherlands. It would go far beyond the scope of these notes (and seriously exceed the writer’s comprehension of theological debate) to give even the briefest résumé of the consequences of this historical decision for Jan-met-de-pet – the average Dutchman – but it cannot be denied that the chronicles of our small kingdom suffered an abrupt and irrevocable transition as a result. Calvin, a Frenchman, was born in 1509. His unfailing affirmation of the importance of Scripture as the basis for all human endeavour determined the structure of Dutch daily life to a surprising extent for more than 350 years and, though less surprisingly, has greatly influenced Protestant hymnody. Concertgoers might therefore expect some attention to be bestowed this year upon compositions based on biblical texts, with organists logically playing a leading role. In this context I find it amusing that the word organ does not appear at all in the new Dutch translation of the Bible. Enough oboes, trumpets, harps and cymbals, whether well-tuned or loud, and to spare. But no organs.

“Not surprising,” a member of the audience explained to me when I mentioned this in a talk to a ladies’ literary gathering recently. “They didn’t have organs in biblical times.” When the titters had died down I pointed out that there was indeed an organ in the third century B.C., replete with wind-chest, keys and stops. I stopped short of saying that it was invented by a barber but, being the being I am, could not resist pointing out that the Hebrew word formerly translated as ‘organ’ was derived from the verb meaning ‘to rut’ (which I expressed slightly more colourfully for clarity’s sake. A little etymology can lead to perspicacious insights). There were a few titters, which quickly dissolved into an uncomfortable silence while a small group of ladies considered their colourful misapprehensions about organists to have been confirmed.

But Calvin’s legacy lives on and the absence of organs in Scripture will not prevent me from enjoying the vivid colours of the organ in the St. Janskerk in Gouda, part of the Bible Belt, in a programme of music based on the psalms in July. Dutch composers are still producing organ settings of the psalms in the 21st century and the heritage of well-preserved early and neo-baroque instruments combined with a reaction against Romanticism on the part of some composers characteristically leads to a very pure style of organ composition. When preparing some of this modern music I am often torn between the use of historical or modern fingerings. Of course, inventive Dutch organists can still relish the possibilities for Sunday-morning innocent merriment in, say, psalm 150 (a line like ‘Loud organs, His glory forth tell in deep tone’ has several Dutch cousins). No longer welcome in the canonical books, our chosen instrument maintains immovable status in the hymnary.

Handel is well represented in this year’s anniversary offerings by his concertos; all manners of approaching this music are on display. I shall certainly not be surprised in a few cases to see his name on the programme brought into conjunction with that of Marcel Dupré, perhaps the authenticity bug is less viable now than 20 or 30 years ago. At the other end of the scale a fair number of string-playing confrères have been approached to play in ad hoc orchestras to join in some of these performances and in one or two instances the organ concertos by Haydn (1809) are being given a welcome airing at the same concerts. (I have not heard of any orchestras seeking an organist for the same purpose.)

Mendelssohn’s 200th  birthday was celebrated in Eindhoven on the day itself with four sonatas and a prelude and fugue played by Dr. Florian Wilkes from Berlin, one of several German organists brought in for a programme dedicated to this one composer’s music. I shall certainly try to hear Ludger Lohmann in September on a notable organ in Ravenstein. The name Ravenstein will not be familiar to many. It is a small community near Nijmegen, with a rather charming church. It would be necessary to tread the murky by-ways of Dutch history to understand how, in 1735, the Jesuits came to build and consecrate a church in South-German baroque style here, but there it is for all to see. Inside there is a pulpit, entered from a door outside and a passage through the fabric of the wall. Soon after the church was dedicated a new organ was installed, possibly the work of Matthijs van Deventer though documentary evidence is lacking. What is known is that this instrument was enlarged in 1834 and 1866 by F. C. Smits I, but again this name will be unfamiliar. There were in the 19th century three important families of organ-builders in the province of North-Brabant; Smits has the longest history. Progenitor was one Antonius Smits, organist in the village of Reek, and one could also knock at his door if one wanted one’s beeswax bleached. Antonius maintained the organ here and his sons became organ-builders in their own right (the younger, the first Franciscus Cornelius, also finding time to be mayor of Reek). Another two generations continued the business until about 1925. The family’s œuvre was initially based largely on principles of organ building as laid down by Dom Bédos de Celles, developing gradually and entirely naturally towards more Romantic ideals. Such was the quality of their work that Smits organs that have not been interfered with still function satisfactorily with their original action. The combination of the Ravenstein organ and Mendelssohn’s music can be either superb or dismal and I expect it to be the former in September.

Considering the history of his sonatas I would like to have seen more English organists amongst the ranks of peripatetic Mendelssohn-interpreters. Looking through published listings I cannot but surmise that some recitalists of note, whatever their provenance, have deliberately eschewed Mendelssohn this year. Why?

 (N.B.: Thinking of members who might find themselves in Amsterdam, I mentioned two organs in my previous article that visitors might like to hear. After I had relayed my copy to the editor I went to demonstrate the instrument in the Museum Amstelkring there and learned that the church was about to be closed for restoration, probably until 2011. Also, in January of this year, the organist of the Couperin organ at the Vrije Universiteit, Dr. Ewald Kooiman, completely unexpectedly passed away while on holiday. His absence from the Dutch organ scene  will be sorely felt. The Thursday-lunchtime recitals continue but the programmes are sometimes less idiomatic than they have traditionally been.)


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