The Organ culture and Psalm-singing of Dutch Reformed churches in the Seventeenth century: Revisiting Huygens and Sweelinck

Henk Verhoef (Organist of De Nieuwe Kerk Amsterdam, VU University Amsterdam)

Henk Verhoef studied in Amsterdam, where he received the concert diploma ‘cum laude’, and Paris. He won prizes at various contests, and as a concert organist he has an international career, which takes him to most countries in Europe, as to Brazil, the U.S.A. and Russia.  He is organist of the Nieuwe Kerk and VU University, both in Amsterdam. Previously, he taught at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam (CvA).  He is frequently invited to serve as a jury member at international organ competitions, as well as to give master classes and lectures at musical academies and schools, on musical interpretation and improvisation. 

    Verhoef is also a consultant in organ restorations, the organ of the Nieuwe Kerk The Hague being one of the instruments he is occupied with. Board member of the foundation issuing the Dutch Organ Monographs, he edited its publications on the organs of the Amsterdam Nieuwe kerk and the baroque organ of Purmerend.

     In addition, Verhoef is a conductor and a carilloneur. He conducts Camerata Oude Kerk and he teaches at the Netherlands Carillon School in Amersfoort. In his capacity of city carilloneur of Monnickendam he plays the oldest carillon in the world.

A. Recital

            The early Dutch Calvinist church opposed itself strongly to the organ, that was felt to distract the mind from things spiritual. Congregational singing on the other hand was judged essential. City governments not being inclined to abandon or destroy existing instruments, and the melodies of the Psalms being relatively new, a compromise was found. The organ reained silent during the church service, but sounded during recitals, that occurred almost daily. Organists were instructed to play the Psalm melodies.

            A small recital (15’ to 20’) with works by Sweelinck and Van Noordt gives an idea of the typical repertoire of the Dutch city organist in the 17th century.


B. Lecture

            During much of the 17th century congregational singing was a struggle. Complaints about ‘disorderly’ singing are many, as are proposals to improve the situation. Huygens’ plea to have the organ support and guide the singing was not isolated: there were numerous other authors putting forward pros and cons. Experiments in which the organ was called to accompany the congregation are recorded from the 1630’s onwards. From 1680 (the year in which Amsterdam embraces the idea) onwards, the organ is accepted in its role as accompanist.

            It is interesting to read Huygens anew, and try to get a picture of the precise problem and what exactly Huygens proposes to solve it. Also Huygens must be confronted with the role the organ took, or was given, in the 18th and 19th centuries, often until today. Did it improve the singing, and if yes in what sense? Once accepted as church instrument, did the organ’s role evolve, and was there some evaluation? What is the situation today? Is there a typical Dutch Calvinist way to play the organ, and what is the actual impact on the singing?


C. Singing

            Tot accompany, in danger of being too passive, or to lead, risking to overpower the singers – those seem to be the poles that define the field of the organist. In order to experience what the organ can do, I would like to turn the audience into a congregation. Three Genevan Psalms will be handed out, in english translation. We will sing them in three different ways:

            1. Practice and sing without accompaniment

            2. Sing with a soft accompaniment, the congregation takes the initiative

            3. The organ leads, the congregation has to follow, or might choose to strive