The Dutch organ

The title refers, in fact, to a specific facet of Dutch organ history and only to a specific period of time. In Holland (the Western area of the Netherlands) in particular there arose, in the 17th century, an organ-type almost entirely free of outside influence. The reason for this was primarily that the organs of the time (in as much as they’d survived the Reformation) had their roots in the Roman Catholic period and were, as a consequence, only moderately useful for a phenomenon which was to become important in the first half of the 17th century: accompaniment of congregational singing. The typical Calvinist congregational singing had become truly dreadful as a result of the organs (the property of the cities rather than the churches) being diverted to other purposes and being perceived as a papish relic. In due course, and in order to restore some order to the congregational singing, the use of organs during church services became essential. In the 17th century, therefore, organs were built (or rebuilt/expanded), especially by builders such as Van Hagerbeer and Duyschot specifically for this purpose.  Specific traits dating from this period include the doubling of principal stops in the treble and an accent on strong solo colours in order to highlight the melody effectively. The accompaniment of congregational singing would remain the most important function of the organ until well into the 20th century (and, more or less, until today).

It was only in the 18th century that influences from beyond the United Provinces would start to make themselves felt. New sounds were introduced from Germany in particular, from where many organ builders came, for various reasons, to the Netherlands, a phenomenon which would continue into the 20th century. These influences came primarily from the North, first via Arp Schnitger in Groningen, and later in Holland by means of his successors, for example Hinsz and Garrels. In addition, Germans such as Müller and Bätz came to the Netherlands bringing with them unknown sounds from the Central German tradition. Incidentally, these builders sought, in Holland especially, to create a kind of synthesis with the native traditions. It is also clear that the musical developments during the course of the 18th century (the transition from Baroque to ‘gallant’) had its own influence on organ building in the Netherlands in the form of gradual changes to the choice of  stops, tuning systems and keyboard compasses.

Following the period of French rule, during which time little happened in Dutch organ building (although what did was of a high quality), better times dawned after 1816. Whilst many organ builders such as Bätz still stood firmly in the 18th century tradition, a new musical era was dawning with entirely different points of departure.  In Holland, this was illustrated by, among other things, the arrival of Christian Gottlieb Friedrich Witte, who had absorbed the organ building of the early German romantic builders. His instruments were of a high quality, in a sound idiom entirely unrecognisable from the 18th century, and attuned to tastes of the new era.

The Southern Netherlands witnessed an entirely development as Roman Catholicism had remained present, albeit behind closed doors, and during the French period was able to assert itself. Organ building here, far more than elsewhere, was influenced primarily by France and Belgium (a country only created in 1831). After 1800, native organ builders also flourished, sometimes idiosyncratic (such as Smits), sometimes schooled in the traditions of Holland (Vollebregt), but always creating instruments of a high artistic level.

Finally, Dutch organbuilding embraced the Romantic era at the end of the 19th century with influences from both France and Germany. However, the primary function of the organ in Protestant churches remained unchanged; the accompaniment of congregational singing. The accent lay on sweetness rather than clarity nevertheless. The number of organs provided by foreign builders from Germany, Belgium and France remained limited, with the exception of the South, where the Belgian organ builder Loret did manage to generate some commissions.

The story ends on a sour note: the period in which organ building entirely lost its craftsmanship and artistic level, instead embracing the assembling of parts made by supply houses. Less musical action-types such as pneumatic and electro-pneumatic became the norm, even in the Netherlands. The turning point was provided by the Second World War, after which the ideas provided by the Orgelbewegung gradually made their presence felt.  Until the 1980s, the resulting organs were in the neo-baroque style; later, more historically oriented instruments, even embracing later periods as models, became common. Dutch organ building today once against stands at a high international level of achievement and continues to develop as the knowledge and understanding of the past grows ever greater.