WSOA Study tour of organs in North Holland, May 30th to June 3rd 2016

A substantial proportion of organists in Germany, the Low Countries and Scandinavia are obliged under their church or city contracts to undertake further professional development each year. This might be lessons with specialist tutors in technique, repertoire or organ historiography. It might also include touring to see unfamiliar instruments to develop their sense of organ aesthetic. Such diverse study is much valued.

Thus, it was good to participate in a WSOA short study tour of some of the organ jewels of North Holland, initially based on the provincial capital Groningen and ending at Zwolle. Nicholas Plumley had prepared a fine monograph, with idiomatic illustrations to enrich the document, on the organs to be visited - covering their construction pedigree as well as highlighting where excess of modification in former times had, for the most part, been overcome by painstaking restoration work in the post-war years, notably by Ahrends and Flentrop. The legacy of this work was a marvel to see and, above all, hear.

Every instrument we saw contained pipework from the 17th and 18th centuries and a number had good examples from the 15th and 16th centuries. This allowed appreciation of the match between repertoire, instrument and authoritative performance practice. Listening to North German organ music before JSB on instruments built by Schnitger - surely the high priest of North German organ building - enriched by up-to-date performance practice was to offer perspectives on the music, its liturgical relevance and the sheer beauty of the coincidence of music, instrument and perfomer.

Members should read Nick Plumley's monograph to appreciate the scale and scope of the treasure-trove in North Holland! The WSOA web-site has a 20-minute audio improvisation in late Baroque style, by the accomplished and delightful Sietze de Vries, who gave much of his time and vast knowledge to our group, played upon the superb instrument in the Martinikerk in Groningen.

His brilliant improvisations on smaller organs in the Groningen area, including a 17-stop house organ, built in 2013, owned by Tim Knigge, added much to our appreciation of stop colours, articulation and the variety possible, even with limited resources.

Members of the group tried their hands and feet at each venue, coaxing effective sounds and musical performance even upon the briefest acquaintance with the instruments.

The Groningen cycle of visits was concluded with a magisterial concert of pre-JSB repertoire on the largely Schnitger organ in the small hamlet of Nordbroek. The perfect empathy between the three recitalists, the finely restored instrument and the carefully selected works by Bruhns, Weckman, Lübeck, Tunder, Sweelinck, Scheidt and Buxtehude will live long in our memories.

The last day took the group South to the Michaelskerk in Zwolle with its vast four-manual instrument in excellent condition - albeit further work to build upon that undertaken by Flentrop is planned for its 300th anniversary in 2021. Organist Toon Hagen played three works by JSB and then the group took turns to explore the instrument's potential in music from pre-JSB to contemporary Dutch composer Jan Mulder, illustrating the dazzling variety and opulence of sonorities to be heard in that exceptional acoustic.

The tour was arranged and led by our gallant Secretary Matthew Cooke and proceeded through its exciting timetable in an orderly fashion, allowing time for reflection upon the many wonders seen and heard.

If that is professional development for organists, let's have much more of it.

Gavin Barrett

Click on the links below for:

Sietze de Vries's improvisation at the Martinikerk, Groningen.

Matthew Cooke's recording of Bach's Piece d'Orgue on the organ of the Martinikerk, Groningen.

Nick Plumley's brochure for the trip, containing much interesting information about the organs.