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A Tale of Two Cities

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Contributed by Thomas Spacht, DMA, Professor Emeitus of Music, Towson University

From 16 October until 22 October I traveled to The Netherlands for two reasons. First, I wanted to see and hear the newly restored Vater/Müller organ in Amsterdam’s famous Oude Kerk where Jan Pieterzoon Sweelinck once held forth as city organist. My second goal was to attend the annual Schnitger Festival in Groningen, far to the north and home to several organs Schnitger had built. None, of course, are in entirely original state, but the sounds of these instruments continue to inspire today.

The large organ in Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk was originally commissioned by the city council in 1724 and the contract awarded to Christian Vater of Hanover in what now is Germany. Amsterdam was still basking in the glow of its Golden Age and the desire to display its wealth and prestige was part of the commission. The restored organ case, with its spectacular gilding, statuary, and massive clock at the top, does not disappoint. The visual impressiveness is matched by the massive, dark sound coming from within. This is no ordinary “baroque” organ, but rather one that produces an auditory experience like no other.

Shortly after Vater’s instrument was completed the discovery of structural problems with the Oude Kerk tower resulted in the organ being dismantled until building repairs could be completed. Finally in 1736 a new contract was awarded to Johann Caspar Müller, brother of Christian Müller, the builder of the organ at St. Bavo in Haarlem. Müller’s rebuild of the organ included the addition of nine new stops and the doubling of the upper registers of some of the principals, adding both depth and brilliance to the organ. It was completed in 1738. Finally, in 1870 an extensive restoration was done by C.G.F. Witte of Bätz & Co. organ builders, further enlarging the organ with registers in 19th century taste. Witte’s work was so good that no further restoration was done until the most recent one begun in 2015. However, additional repairs along the way were not of good quality, causing the playing action to become overly heavy. The wind system, playing action, keyboards and more now have been restored and upgraded, while the case itself, darkened and “un-gilded” by orders of an early 20th cent. architect, has been returned to its original splendor. The organ will be formally presented to the public in May, 2019. I was fortunate enough to hear a private concert played by Henk Verhoef, a long time friend and adviser to the restoration project.

Following the two days in Amsterdam I journeyed to Groningen for the Schnitger Festival mentioned above. To review the entire festival would require too much space, but a few highlights that should be mentioned are the opening concert at Martinikerk by Matteo Imbruno on the only organ with a surviving 32’ principal by Schnitger, and a cantata service on Sunday morning at the Nieuwe Kerk that included the Mass in G, BWV 236 of Bach, and the first movement and closing chorale from the Bach cantata Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben, BWV 109 (I believe, dear Lord, help my unbelief). On Sunday afternoon the final concert of the festival was performed by organist Liuwe Tamminga and the early music ensemble “Combattimento” directed by Pieter Dirksen. This completed the Italian theme of the festival appropriately. Following the concert Dutch friends and I enjoyed dinner at Feithuis, a restaurant directly opposite the Martinikerk.

Next year marks the 300th anniversary of the death of Arp Schnitger and no doubt a special festival will be created for that occasion.

Thomas Spacht, D.M.A.

Prof. Emeritus of Music --Towson University

Louis Gephardt