(No.1 of 6 articles published in Choir & Organ in 1998-9 under the heading 'Spit and Polish')

The 'Father' Smith organ at Edam

1. Learning from the past: the 'Father' Smith organ at Edam

At the end of my last series of articles I stated my growing opinion that organ pipes do not 'improve' or 'mellow' with age - implying that if we want our modern organs to sound as beautiful as the best survivors from the past, then there is a great deal left to learn or re-learn about the art of voicing. A visit to Edam later in the year was a splendid opportunity to gather evidence.

Edam, famous for its cheese, is a very small old town a few miles north of Amsterdam, facing East across the lonely grey waters of the old Zuider Zee. It stands at the point the rising waters finally reached in the 16th century - almost surrounding Amsterdam at one time - before development of the windmill allowed reclamation to begin in earnest.

The Nicholaaskerk was provided with a new organ in 1663, at a time when congregational psalm-singing had come into favour, and it is this instrument that survives today. It has a small double case, with eight-foot front pipes in the Hoofdwerk and four-foot in the Rugwerk. What the case lacks in size, it makes up for in exuberant decoration.

The gallery and Rugwerk are painted sky blue: various shades darkened with earth or brightened with white lead. Some of it is marbled - in fanciful imitation of an azure stone never quarried in the real world. Leafy carving surges in gilded profusion. On top of the Rugwerk towers, King David and two Fames, all with gold instruments, stand in three-quarter size splendour in stone grey. Blue and gold folding shutters hang limply on either side of the little case. The Hoofdwerk above, with its own grander shutters, has matching polished tin front pipes and much gilded carving, but this time on a ground of timberwork painted deepest maroon. This time, from the three towers rise chunky grey-marbled and gilded urns; out of these urns sprout vigorous pinnacles of abundant fruit.

How is it that we have, in the last century and a half, utterly lost this delight in decoration? Why are so few things made this way now?

The organ at Edam was built by Father Smith - the very self-same Bernard Smith who later came to London and whose name has echoed down the centuries in the annals of English organ-building.

Barend Smit - as they know him in Edam - was an organ builder from Germany. There is a legend he trained with Christian Fo"rner, who was an expert in the mathematics of tuning. Why he had moved to Holland is not clear. The Edam organ seems to have been the only substantial thing he built before, in 1667, he seized the opportunities offered by the Great Fire of London and set sail for England.

Just to make the question of judging the surviving material more difficult, the organ had one major facelift, in 1716, at the hand of one Matthijs Verhofstad. What survives today (restored by Flentrop 1982) is pretty much as it was then - a two-manual organ with twenty stops and only a coupled pedalboard.

From this rather plain tale we can tell one thing for certain - the good people of Edam were short of money. When they bought the organ from Smith it was hopelessly small for the building. When it was enlarged in 1716 they couldn't even afford to add a pedal stop. They were so strapped for cash that they even fitted a panelled acoustic 'hood' above it to try and make it adequate for the enormous building.

We can thus be almost completely certain that for reasons of economy alone Verhofstad would have used every old pipe he could, and the consensus seems to be that the entire Rugwerk is Smit, with the exception of the Trumpet, and that the Hoofdwerk is Smit with Bourdon, Trumpet, and some upperwork by Verhofstaad.

The voicing? I think we can reasonably expect to hear more than a shadow of Smit's original intentions regarding the voicing. This organ is important in having escaped any major intervention in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. Its recent careful restoration was executed to high standards in the full glare of revelations regarding unsympathetic work elsewhere the 1950s and 60s.

I would like to go back to Edam and spend much more time at the organ before coming to any definite conclusions, but I will admit to being very struck by some things.

The Prestant on the Hoofdwerk is by Smit. The tone is full, rich, prompt and sweet. It is not quite like any other work I know - for no equivalent stop survives in good condition on an organ in Britain. It produces a surprisingly lush and smooth sound, from modest-scaled pipes of coarse metal, with quarter mouths cut up about two-sevenths and with no ears. The pipes are voiced very quick, with little or no attack. The bass is rather mild, but very warm.

The combination of elements of smoothness and richness in the sound is really exceptional, even compared to other organs in the Netherlands, where there are many rather dark-sounding old organs. Curiously it echoes almost exactly the reputation Smith later secured in England for fullness, promptness and sweetness of tone.

On the Rugwerk the flutes are assumed to be old. 8', 4' and 2' combine seamlessly. It is quite a shock to find blend so immaculate on an old organ. It doesn't sound like Flentrop to me, where the 2' would be too loud and bright to do this - indeed any three flutes chosen at random will not usually blend particularly well unless their maker has actually set out with that result in mind. You see, the suggestion that comes down in English organ legend is: - that Father Smith may have been a bit rough, but that his organs sounded exceptional. Nothing less will explain his documented success and reputation. Yet is terribly dangerous to judge anything from old and battered pipework, because so much can change with time.

Anyway, are we not taught that the tone of organ pipes improves with age?

The more old organs I see, the more I become convinced that the idea of organ pipes 'improving' with age, rather like good wine, is simply not true. A new organ has a settling-in period, during which time it will gradually become tamer in sound as its various voicing and tuning irregularities get ironed out. At the same time the audience gradually becomes accustomed to the sound of the 'new' organ.

After that time, far from improving, the sound may well deteriorate. With long-term use and tuning, plus a rebuild or two, the regulation of battered, altered and revoiced pipes becomes more and more difficult, and the tonal results, if anything, rougher.

In the nineteenth century there was a purely romantic notion of 'the mellowing hand of time' - and given that the new organs being built then were loud and hearty, anyone could reasonably have believed older organs to have had certain more 'beautiful' tonal qualities. In the twentieth century we were assured that the tone of pipework 'aged', as a pure diversionary tactic: how else could one explain the shrill brightness of everything neo-classical, compared to those few old organs left largely unrestored?

This supposed ageing: is it supposed to affect reeds and flues, and pipes of both metal and wood? How else do we explain the beautiful tone of old wooden pipes, such as those in the 1609 Compenius at Frederiksborg (an organ barely ever touched by human hand)? How do we explain the impeccable quality of the 1789 Clicquot Trompettes at Poitiers, every bit as perfect as the fluework of that fantastic organ?

How do we explain the fact that the organs of the nineteenth century sound duller in tone than those of the eighteenth, even though they are not so old? Does the ageing process apply to some centuries and not others?

Is it not rather the case that many modern organs (aping in one way or another the great organs of the past) are built either: a), by people who voice well but see no particular point in copying old pipes; or b), by people who are obsessive about copying old pipes but don't really like the idea of 'voicing', which they consider to be a nineteenth century aberration?

The Edam organ indeed demolishes any idea of tonal maturation.

One glance at the exuberant case is enough to convince one that the craftsmen at work in the seventeenth century knew more than we do today about the decorative arts. We can be certain, as a matter of principle, that they would have devoted as much time as they could to fine details of musical tone. They may have voiced by mouth in the church, rather than on a jack or machine in the factory, but what they lost in regular perfection they made up for in consideration of quality of tone, and blend. The experience of visiting Alkmaar (to take another example) is proof enough that some old builders were really excellent voicers who had a very high degree of control over their finished result. They did not rely exclusively on good pipes knocked quickly onto speech and dumped in the organ. They used their ears and skill, and were committed to an exceptionally high standard of artistic excellence.

A second glance at the detail of Smith's pipes simply adds to the conviction that he meant them to sound as they do now. Construction, scale and voicing all help. The metal used by Smith is so coarse, and scraped with such blunt tools, that the pipes are in effect ready-nicked in every pore. The reduction of attack to a reasonable minimum relies here not on nicking, but on quick speech, the absence of ears, a counter-bevelled languid, coarse metal, and a very fine balancing act between pressure, tip size, flue width and cut-up.

I came away from Edam with the feeling that the organ still speaks in part with Smit's voice. This is of course a romantic notion, and not one that can really be of much use to anyone - except in that the Edam organ sounds very beautiful and we probably have something to learn from that. However, if the organ building world can gradually be made to realise that good musical instruments really do have to sound perfectly lovely on day one, and that no amount of leaving them in the dark with the lights out will ever improve the tone, then that will be a good thing.

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