The Great Organ at the Laurenskerk at Alkmaar
Gertrud Loos

The following is from the liner notes accompanying an Arkiv recording of Die Kunst der Fuge performed by Helmut Walcha on the great organ at Alkmaar. The notes bear no copyright notice nor date but are probably from the early 1960's.

The choice of a genuine instrument of the Bach period for the performance of "The Art of the Fugue" hardly requires justification; but the question may be asked why the organ at Alkmaar has been singled out for that purpose. With its many reed and mixture stops, it possesses a range of tone-colours which allows the 18 counterpoints to be displayed side by side like drawings of different hues and tints. The high vaulted interior of the Gothic church adds volume to the clear polyphonic texture of the music, which is an advantage considering the majestic grandeur of the compositions. The requirements of the notation, reaching d''' in the manuals and making full chromatic use of the great octave are extraordinarily well served by the unusually large structure of the organ; none of the other known historic organs are equally suitable.

The reason for the organ's exceptional size can be traced to a lawsuit of the year 1630. and the following short account of events leading to it may be of interest.

Near the town of Alkmaar and the Egmonder Meer stood once a monastery, founded about 1420, to which in a bequest extensive lands between the towns of Alkmaar and Haarlem were made over. One condition, however, was attached to the bequest by the far-seeing founder: In the case of dissolution, the lands should go to the town with the parish church nearest to the monastery. When the reformation of the church took place, the bishopric faced utter ruin, and Haarlem took over the administration of all church estates, without compensating in any way the small town of Alkmaar, to which in accordance with the founder's will the lands of the bequest should have gone.

This action resulted in protracted controversy, and in 1630 Alkmaar went to law. After another six years the High Court of Holland gave judgement in favour of Alkmaar. Haarlem had to pay compensation with compound interest, to the tune of 60,000 guilders.

Overwhelmed by the sudden and after such a long time hardly expected windfall, the good citizens of Alkmaar resolved to commemorate the event with a monument pleasing to God. For many years they had wished and planned for a great organ in the church of St. Laurens, a lofty building in the Gothic style, which possessed only two small choir organs without pedals.

It must have meant a considerable effort to spend such a large sum of money (more than £85,600 at today's [1960's] value) on the construction of an organ. Neither time nor effort was spared in order to build in the course of seven years (1638-45) a magnificent, and by contemporary standards very large instrument. The general plan, which has been preserved to this day, was designed by Jacob van Campen, the famous architect of the royal palace in Amsterdam, and the painting of the large doors was carried out by Cesar van Echterdingen, an artist of considerable renown.

Whilst the interior of the organ has been subjected to some reconstruction, the exterior — an example of Renaissance art at its best — has not been touched. Originally the instrument had 31 stops, controlled by three keyboards (great organ, swell organ, positive). The ample funds available to the town also explain the extraordinarily extensive compass of the manuals. The short or broken lower octave, which is usually found in organs of that period, had been completed, and in the great organ even extended seven notes lower, in order to serve as bass for the attached pedal. The compass of the great organ manual started therefore at contra F and consequently required a register with the lowest pitch of 24'. The question who built the organ, no straightforward answer can be given to. Like most old instruments of the same kind, its history goes back beyond famous names and important dates into the misty past. Between 1638 and 1645, three organ builders were successively employed (Eckmans, Germar Galtus and Jacobus Galtus van Hagerbeer). On the other hand, old accounts show that pipes of the small choir organ situated at the south side of the church were used in the process. The other choir organ, at the north side, still used today, was built in 1511 by Hans van Coblenz, one of the oldest Dutch organ builders. As the southern organ dates back to the same time and corresponded in dimensions, it is presumed that it was built by the same master.

The sound of the great and elaborate organ sufficed for no more than a hundred years. The new compositions demanded an independent pedal, and at the beginning of the 18th century well-tempered tuning had to be introduced. In 1722, when the famous organ player, carillon player and composer G. Havingha took over the post of organist of St. Laurens, he immediately asked for a comprehensive reconstruction of the organ, and his endeavours over the period of one year led to the employment of the German organ builder Frans Caspar Schnitger. Schnitger's father, Arp, was already known in Holland, where he had built several excellent organs in his time.

If the organ, for simplicity's sake, is today called a Schnitger organ, it is done with some degree of justice, for the contract stipulated that Frans Caspar should build a new interior, using some of the old pipes available; he was not, however, entitled to alter prospectus or encasement. If a man, following so great a tradition as that of north German organ builders carried out the required work, it must be assumed that he could not do so without imparting to the object of his efforts the indelible stamp of his individual skill and craftsmanship.

Schnitger increased the existing number of registers operated, from the manuals, added an independent pedal for 13 ranks, and standardized the compass of the three manual keyboards uniformly from C to d'''.

Further modifications to the organ were made in the course of the 19th century. That the tonal structure is now once more as clear and abundant as in the heydays of the instrument's long life, and Schnitger's disposition is still adhered to, is due to the Dutch organ builder D. A. Flentrop, who affectionately cares for the instrument to this day.

A technical appraisal with stoplist

Last modified August 25, 1997.
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