Voyages of Discovery: Part 1 — Haarlem
Stephen Bicknell
oneskull@dircon.co.uk

August 9, 1997

Imagine a version of HELLO! Magazine devoted to organs. It would have to be audio-visual, of course:

The Principessa von Gabler relaxes in her rococo south German abbey home. . .

'Of course I tend to hang around the west end most of the time,' says Princess Gabler, 260 years old this summer, standing proudly in her luxuriously appointed tribune at Weingarten Abbey, Baden-Württemburg, Germany.

'In the morning I am woken by the sun rising over the altar in the east; and evening skies seen through my six west-facing windows can be quite stupendous.'

Her Royal Highness is proud to show off her unique collection of ivory pipes, and her unusual pedal gongs are the envy of connoisseurs anywhere. Her reputation in organ society has been justly famous since her youth, and many will remember the beautiful engraving of her façade executed for Dom Bedos' Art du Facteur d'Orgues'. Over the years her beauties have remained undiminished, despite the tensions of her much-publicised marriage to the industrialist Herr Otto Weigle. Since the divorce came through a couple of years ago (with an excellent settlement arranged by the Swiss lawyers Messrs. Kuhn) she has been more radiant than ever, and once again has more ranks in her sparkling mixtures than any other noble instrument in Europe.

[fade in Mozart's Fantasia in F]

I am sure you get the general idea. Of course there is a high society of organs, and a very old-fashioned aristocracy too. Those fine old instruments of Europe — the ones that were famous from the day they went in and have remained so ever after — are the Lords and Ladies, Princes and Princesses of the organ world.

Amongst these pilgrimage instruments — organs like Poitiers, St. Maximin, Freiberg, St. Sulpice, St. Cosmae Stade — there is, most certainly, a Royal Family, a crusty group of bicentenarians and older, whose stubborn refusal to be brought up to date is entirely appropriate to their blue-blooded pedigree.

Of all of them the Queen must surely be the instrument by Christian Müller in the Bavokerk in Haarlem, built in 1735-8. Müller came from the Harz mountains in what was later to become East Germany, and I do not know how much work has been done on his roots or training. He must have assembled quite a team to build this large thirty-two foot organ; the Swiss/English builder John Snetzler is said to have worked on it.

Its fame was immediate and lasting; when it was new the young Mozart played it to the amazement of his listeners; Handel and Mendelssohn were amongst many other distinguished visitors; in the nineteenth century new modes of transport made it a point of pilgrimage for enthusiasts and organ builders; in the twentieth century it has stood for all that is wonderful about the finest old organs of Europe.

Some of that fame is because of the case. Expense was no object; Haarlem and Weingarten must be the two most luxurious and extravagant instruments on the planet. At Haarlem the finest artists were brought together: Hendrick de Werff (architect); Hendrick van Limbourgh (painter); Jan van Lotgeren and Jan Baptist Xaverij (sculptors). The design shows the art of harmonic proportion developed to its fullest and most erudite extent. The baroque carving and sculpture is as fine as one could hope.


Organ façade; Bavokerk in Haarlem. Drawing by A. G. Hill in Organ Cases and Organs, 1883 (London). Click for a photograph (197KB) by Penny Lorenz of the same view.

The colours — a deep red for the woodwork, tin pipes, carving in stone-grey, abundant gilding — are breathtaking. The scale of the whole instrument — thirty-two foot towers in the main case and a cleverly proportioned dummy twelve-foot front in the positif — is majestic beyond belief. Walking round the church — a great advantage over the static view obtained from a photograph — the three-dimensional interest of the whole structure is incredibly complex and fascinating. Even before the first note has been sounded this is one of the most remarkable works of art one could wish to see.

And of course it sounds good too; this much is known to all. But is it Müller's voice we hear today?

No. At a time when plastic surgery was in its infancy, Her Majesty the Queen of all the Netherlands took it in to her head to have a comprehensive facelift. The date was 1959-60, and the surgeon was Marcussen.

It is universally agreed that the sound of the organ changed substantially. Of course the argument was that the instrument had been altered in the nineteenth century, especially by Bätz of Utrecht. It was claimed that the pressures had been raised, that the nicking was not original, that the reeds had been revoiced to make them louder, and so-on. It was also asserted that in some respects the original disposition was 'faulty'. The 'alterations' were 'reversed'. There were also substantial additions. The Hoofdwerk, with its sixteen-foot pleno, was found insufficiently clear and brilliant, and a Scarff VI-VIII was added. The Pedal was thought lacking in independence, and gained a Mixtur VI-X. The Bovenwerk mixtures were both new, as was the Cymbaal on the Rugwerk.

It doesn't take a great savant to realise that there was an agenda to this rebuild. When one learns that Marcussen completely rebuilt all the soundboards, incorporating slider seals, that they replaced the entire key action with a new one of their own, and that they replaced the bellows with schwimmer regulators in the bottomboards, one begins to wonder just how sympathetic this 'restoration' really was.

How can we decide whether what we hear is original or nearly so?

It is difficult; there is not a great deal of work by Müller to compare it with. However, I would not be the first to suggest that Haarlem is currently a far cry from Müller's intentions or the true eighteenth century tonal aesthetic. My reasons for this belief are as follows.

Shortly after the restoration of Haarlem the other important Müller, that at the Walsekerk Amsterdam, was restored by Ahrend & Brunzema (1965). This restoration was deliberately conceived as a demonstration of an alternative, historically sympathetic approach (indeed it could be seen as a public statement of rebuke). The sound is significantly bolder and chunkier, with a tendency to a quinty roar in the big Hoofdwerk pleno. Given that the work was carried out in 1965, the level of brilliance in the upperwork may be assumed to be slightly overdone, but the general character of foundation and chorus is apparent.

The general style of the Waalsekerk organ is confirmed by other early eighteenth century instruments that have survived without alteration. Since Müller came from the Harz mountains, I would cite in comparison the 1728-32 Herbst organ at Lahm-in-Itzgrund, and organ that roars and growls in a way that convincingly demonstrates the 'gravität' called for by Bach himself.

I would also draw attention to this fact: in the early eighteenth century, when the organ at Haarlem was built, Dutch organ-building was very advanced. In the nineteenth century, when Bätz and later Witte were the most famous builders in the Netherlands, it was conservative. Indeed, it is quite clear from an organ like the little altered 1830 Bätz at Utrecht Cathedral that the general style had not changed a great deal from a hundred years previously, the only obvious change being a slight darkening of tone in the foundation stops and an interest in a rather 'cornetty' quality in the tutti.

The level of nicking one might find in a Bätz organ is very much what is typical of the early eighteenth century. How do we know? Well, since the dogmatic 'no-nicking' days of the Organ Reform Movement enough of us have seen enough old organs with our own eyes to have worked out that different kinds of nicking are appropriate to different periods, and that each has a different effect. It is easy to identify eighteenth-century nicks. Take, for example those in pipes by Snetzler (who, it will be remembered, claimed a connection with Müller). Regular knife-nicking on the languid with a left-handed slant is a hallmark of every organ that Snetzlr built. The technique is applied consistently throughout, some of the nicks being tucked so far into the corners as to suggest that the nicking was actually done before the pipe was even assembled.

What I am suggesting is this. Bätz would not have found enough 'wrong' with the Haarlem organ to warrant such extensive changes. His taste would in many ways have concurred with what he found. He simply wouldn't have bothered to change the pressures and revoice the whole organ. It is a very real possibility that the 'later alterations' so enthusiastically suppressed by Marcussen in 1959-60 were in fact original, or at least much more nearly so than they were prepared to believe. Nicking? One would actually expect to find it throughout an organ of this date and provenance.

The organ, as I said to start with, does sound wonderful. But please let no-one imagine that this is an eighteenth century sound. The light, even underblown quality of the principals gives the game away. It sounds as though the pressure is still too low. The pleni glitter with brilliance. This is Marcussen's taste, and the taste of 1960 (admittedly somewhat tamed by revoicing in 1987). It has nothing to do with the grandeur and impact that this instrument was supposed to have, an intention made patently clear by the breath-taking case.

Joost van der Kooy, the present City organist at Haarlem, is a fine player. He plays Reger, and said to us that it would be nice to have a parallel electric combination action fitted to the organ.

Quis Custodiet Ipses Custodies?

The Queen of the Netherlands relaxes in her palatial home and talks of her troubles with plastic surgery. . .

'Of course I tend to hang around the west end most of the time,' says Her Majesty, 259 years old this summer, standing proudly in her luxuriously appointed tribune at the Bavokerk, Haarlem.

It will be known to many that Her Majesty undertook a programme of cosmetic surgery some years ago. I was interested to know what she now felt about her decision in retrospect.

'Eh? You will have to speak much louder'

I SAID . . .

[fade in Mozart's Fantasia in F]

Stoplist: St. Bavokerk, Haarlem, The Netherlands



Back
to PIPORG-L's "Essays" page

Last modified January 28, 1988.