This essay first appeared on the electronic
mailing list Piporg-l

My visit to the Netherlands in May with undergraduate organ students from the Royal Academy of Muisc was full of interest. Haarlem - whatever doubts one might express concerning its authenticity - is a wonderful instrument and any visit unforgettable. However, the organ that proved to be the most fascinating and rewarding was the scarcely less-renowned organ by Arp Schnitger's son, Franz Caspar Schnitger, built in 1722-5 in the Laurenskerk Alkmaar (and retaining the case and some pipes from the previous van Haagerbeer organ).

The originality of the Alkmaar organ is not greatly in doubt. It has most of its old pipes, the soundboards have not been altered, the key actions are original, and the restoration by Flentrop in 1982-6 was carried out with strict conservation in mind, restoring the wedge bellows that supply the wind. This instrument was, in 1725, the first in the Low Countries to be tuned to equal temperament - a significant detail.

To explain why Alkmaar is so important to our understanding of the eighteenth century aesthetic I need to make a small diversion.

Registrational conventions in northern Europe are illustrated in J. Mattheson's appendix to F. E. Neidt's Musicalische Handleitung of 1721. His advice is peppered with warnings and instructions clearly referring to the typical organs of the Hamburg school, especially those of Arp Schnitger. In these organs there was still no deliberate attempt to supply enough wind in the soundboard channels to allow the organist to draw a tutti, indeed certain quite simple combinations were avoided. Mattheson advises against drawing two stops of the same pitch at once - e.g. Posaune 16' with Subbass 16' - beacuse they will never be quite in tune. In this he is reaffirming the internal divisions inherent in the true 'werkprinzip' organ - instruments such as those known by Bruhns, Buxtehude, L&uunl;beck and Reincken: divisions between 'male' stops (principals) and 'female' stops (flutes); divisions between flues and reeds. On an early Schnitger, such as his 'first' instrument at St. Cosmae, Stade (a continuation of work begun by Huess before his death in 1676, and now restored by Ahrend), such rules are valid and useful. If one wishes to draw the Hw. Trumpet 8' in the pleno, then it really is necessary to push the Principal 8' in. If the Posaune 16' is required on the Pedal, then the Principal 16' must be off. In effect, the distribution of wind is such that stops are drawn sparingly, as in the French classical organ, with rarely more than five or six stops in use on any one division at any time.

Some years later Mattheson changed his mind, and the shift in his opinion is a nice reflection of the changes in organ building taking place at exactly this time. In his der Vollkommene Kapellmeister of 1739 he suggests that the pleno consists of 'all' stops execept the reeds. Pedal registrations are thicker: Prinzipal 16' plus Violone 16'; Prinzipal 16 + Subbass 16' + Posaune 16' + Dulzian 16' + Trompete 8' + Cornett 2'.

Some of these new interests are already reflected in Arp Schnitger's larger works. Take for example the four-manual instrument of 1689-93 in the Jakobikirche Hamburg (restored by Ahrend). This is an organ built to impress, with a 32' pedal, 16' Hauptwerk, 8' Rückpositif and even an 8' wood Principal in the Brustwerk. The fourth manual division is normally described as an oberpositif, but this description does not adequately describe its position or its function. The soundboard is behind that of the Hauptwerk, which has no back wall, and only a couple of feet higher. It is fact an extension of the Hauptwerk itself. This is made all the more obvious when you compare the stops available on the Hauptwerk and Oberwerk: Where the Hw has Spitzfloeht 8' and Viola da gamba 8', the Ow has complementary Rohrfloeht 8' and Holzfloeht 8'; where the Hw has Rohrfloeht 4' and Flachfloeht 2', the Ow has contrasting Spitzfloeht 4' and Gemshorn 2'; where the Hw has Rauschpfeiff II and Mixture VI-VIII, the Ow has the brighter Scharff IV-VI and Cimbel III; where the Hw has a lonely Trommet 16', the Ow fills in with the Trommet 8' and Trommet 4'. The two departments are clearly meant to be seen as parts of a larger whole, a fact confirmed by the original provision of a Ow-Hw coupler. With these two departments used together certain massed effects are now possible, but still without needing to draw more than a few stops on each department. Some examples: first, a pleno may include all four mixtures, covering the entire tonal spectrum, the only remaining stops needed being the Hw Principals 16' and 4', and the Ow Principals 8' and 2'; secondly, the unusual battery of Trommetten, 16' 8' and 4' may be heard in solo against other departments or as consituent parts of a reed-based pleno; thirdly various unexpected combinations of 8' flues, such as Principal 8' + Principal 8' are now fully successful.

The modernising trends visible at the Jakobikirche Hamburg in embryonic form, and more generally in the early eighteenth century are essentially twofold: -

First, they allow the organ to include new instrumental effects, keeping pace with the changing fashions in instruments themselves: violins instead of viols; oboes and flutes in place of krummhorns and recorders; trumpets and horns in place of cornets and sackbuts.

Secondly, they allow effects of great density and grandeur, calling for changes in layout and disposition, increased use of couplers, and more ample wind supply and distribution.

Are these not in essence the major demands implied in the few indications passed down to us in the legend of Bach's 'extraordinary' manner of using the stops? First: imitative variety after the new manner. Secondly, gravität: the new interest in truly massive effects.

Each builder at the time found an original way of tackling the evolutionary process. For some, the process was Francophile, and thus in the organs of Gottfried Silbermann, or Karl-Josef Riepp, or the Stumm family, the French element is plainly evident.

The Alkmaar organ demonstrates a different but completely successful approach, and one that I had never imagined possible. It is in some ways steeped in the family tradition: this must be one of the last organs to have the old north German terzians and zimbels. In other ways it takes a most startling leap towards the new fashions, and to my mind must therefore stand as crucial evidence in assessing the period of Bach's maturity, and offering an alternative voice to that of G. Silbermann, Trost, Herbst, Wagner, the Hildebrandts or Müller.

At a glance the divergences from the old 'werkprinzip' are apparent. Of the three manual divisions, the Hoofdwerk is clearly 16', but both the Bovenwerk and Rugwerk are fully developed 8' divisions, each with three 8' reeds. The Bovenwerk is indeed above the Hoofdwerk, but as both divisions inhabit a huge main case without internal walls, and are moreover flanked by the large divided pedal department, there is no promounced sense of spacial differentiation. Even the Rugwerk is only slightly more 'forward' and 'present' than the other manuals, and the traditional effects of inter-manual repartee are now much simplified.

New fashions in instrumental imitation are there in abundance.

The Viool di gamba 8' on the Hoofdwerk is a reed stop of the variety christened, by Cecil Clutton, the 'snake swallowing a rabbit' type: try and imagine three funnels soldered together. It may be an obvious survivor of the old schnarrwerk regals, but situated on the back of the Hauptwerk chest it cannot quack in your face. Rather, it sings, and that simple singing quality makes it a really remarkable imitation.

Why a lonely Flachfluit 2' on the Hoofdwerk, a department which otherwise has no flutes at all? It no longer belongs as part of a wide-scale, 'female', flute chorus, for it has become a solo stop imitating the traverse flute in the left hand. Indeed those flute choruses are generally diminished; there is no sixteen-foot stopped rank anywhere on the organ.

And then there are the solo reeds, six at 8' pitch (excluding the Viool di gamba). The one remaining werkprinzip-like effect obtainable in this organ is that of contrasting the 8' Rugwerk with the similar but much higher placed 8' Bovenwerk. The distance between the two is enormous - perhaps fifty feet - and the effect in the cavernous acoustic is that of a true echo: exactly the same sound, not pianissimo, but coming from a different place.

As if to clarify this function for us, the reeds in pairs: the Fagot 8' is echoed by the contrasting Hautbois 8', and - what luxury - there are two Vox humanas, allowing the novel experience of contrasting billy goats close-at-hand with nanny goats in the neighbouring field.

The incresed concern with 'special effects' is also evident in the fact that only the Rugwerk Principal 8' has a two-rank treble - the one and only 'stereophonic' stop was placed as close to the listener as possible. Anywhere else and it wouldn't have been worth the trouble.

As to the massive effects, Schnitger's intentions are clear in several ways.

Most obviously, he provided so many manual couplers as to make it evident that he expected the organist to find them useful: in 1725 this instrument had Rugwerk to Hoofdwerk, Bovenwerk to Hoofdwerk and the surprising Bovenwerk to Rugwerk.

The implication of this arrangement is that the 16' pleno on the Hoofdwerk may be contrasted with the Rugwerk and Bovenwerk coupled together. This allows two massive tonal effects to be used in opposition to each other - see the Dorian Toccata for details. That Schnitger was thinking in such terms for the use of the couplers is further clear from the disposition of the trumpets. As at Hamburg the reed battery is distributed between the manuals: Trompets 16' and 4' on the Hoofdwerk, but no 8'; the 8' Trompet is found on the Bovenwerk (the present Rugwerk Trompet 8' replaces Schnitger's Trichterregal 8').

The temptation is, of course, to try the effect of all three manuals coupled together. Did Schnitger intend there to be a super-pleno, a registration that we would now know as 'full organ'? I believe he did. For a start, the wind system can cope with the demand and the soundboard channels are large enough to permit almost all stops to be drawn at once (though in practice one might wish to choose between flues 16', 8', 4' and reeds 16', 8', 4' in the tutti - combined in various ways but not with two of the same pitch drawn at once).

Schnitger's intentions regarding the tierces are quite clear, and his provision sheds much light on a modern debate. Neo-classicists hold many things dear, among them the strange belief that no counterpoint can sound clear on a 16' pleno, a falsehood firmly demolished by countless large old organs in northern Europe. They are also inclined to believe that the pleno should not include a 'strong' reed component and that it should not include tierces. On the latter point it has often been averred that the sesquialteras and terzians of the Arp Schnitger's organs are solo stops. Certainly they have solo potential, the sequialteras more convincingly so than the terzians, but did they not also provide, in almost every Schnitger instrument, the possibility of a pleno strongly coloured by the inclusion of a narrow tierce rank?

At Alkmaar the Sexquialteras and Tertiaans have little usueful solo function, for they all break to 16' pitch in the treble. The implication is that they are destined for use in the tutti, equal temperament or not.

This information shows that Franz Caspar Schnitger may have sought to amplify the tonal resources of the Schnitger type with an emphasis on off-unison harmonics: in conjucntion with the low quint ranks on Hoofdwerk (5 1/3', 2 2/3') and Pedal (21 2/3', 10 2/3', 5 1/3'!) the combined mixture choruses are full of slow-beating harmonics, a delightfully restrained growling that greatly amplifies the tutti without resorting to force of any kind.

Indeed force may have been something that F. C. Schnitger wished to avoid. Loudness was a hallmark of his father's organs, built to accompany congregations of nouveau-riche, nouveau-Lutheran townspeople in hearty evangelical singing. Instruments like those at Stade or Hamburg - yelling their heads off in surprisingly dead rooms - present the listener with fluework far louder than that made by Compenius, Stellwagen or Fritzche in earlier times. Though in the eighteenth century the congregational singing continued undiminished, it was only natural for there to be a period of refinement (and anyway, by now everyone knew the tunes). A more delicate touch is to be found, I am told, in the one or two unaltered works of Arp Schnitger's Dutch pupil A. A. Hinsch.

F. C. Schnitger's version of this delicacy is clear in his instrumental imitations and in his echo effects. It is also clear in his use of a low windpressure, only 76mm compared to perhaps 85-90mm in his father's organs. That this pressure is, at least, not much lower than the original is clear from the pipework, which would not bear being blown harder without the cut-ups being raised (the organ has never been repitched or re-tempered). An additional touch: the mixtures, depite their many ranks and many low pitches, are of quite small scale. The tone is completely dull: in the manner of the period the pipes are cut up higher and higher the smaller they are, and the speech is quick. The effect of the upperwork is incredibly harmonious; all the pitches are present but there is no trace of mounted-cornet tone. The tierces add a degree of jangling, but they are well covered by the multiplied quints and unsions.

This fascinating and original tonality is extended to include the Cimbels. They follow the archaic north German pattern, being of very high pitch and very peculiar composition. They break twice every octave, and as they go up the compass there are, as well as unison, quint and tierce ranks, episodic pepperings of pipes sounding the fourth and sixth. Yes, when you play c, it plays f and a.

Now these fourth and sixth-sounding ranks are not a regular part of the harmonic series, and the effect is percussive. In Arp Schnitger's organs it can be used as a glockenspiel on top of a flute chorus or to spice up a reed solo, but it has usually been assumed that such stops have no role in the tutti.

In trying to decide whether F. C. Schnitger saw his Cimbels as yet another adventure in harmonic breadth one simply has to experiment. It is interesting to observe that adding the Cimbel to a chorus extends its tonality by the same amount as previously adding a Sexquialtera or Tertiaan. Because of the narrow scale of the upperwork its off-unison ranks do not contribute to grittiness of tone, but maintain their individuality as 'other' notes. The ample-scaled unsion foundation secures unison pitch and a sense of key-centre, and all is well. The result is also remarkably beautiful. The most extravagant and adventurous way of registering - drawing all the flue work in the entire organ and coupling all three manuals - is triumphantly successful. It is a completely enveloping spectrum of harmonic sound uttered at a level of power that stops nicely on the safe side of the threshold of pain. It is also entirely homogeonous; no stop or rank sticks out, and this is an effect which surely cannot have been achieved by chance. The Cimbels are indeed the icing on the cake. The resemblance to electric bells is uncanny; each note sounds as though it has a little tuned alarm clock sounding with it.

To add to the spice it turns out that even the pedal 2' stops have new roles in accordance with the latest mode. In an organ by father Schnitger the pedal towers were at the front of the gallery and the wide 2' pedal stops sang out chorale solos at soprano pitch. At Alkmaar they are narrow chirpy stops, housed in the cavernous main case. They add point and definition to the Pedal tutti, making the pitch clear to the ear without disguising the thunderous rumbling of the principals at their various complementary pitches.

Of course, to assume that F. C. Schnitger had a 'purpose' in making these various stops sound so good in larger combinations begs several important questions, not least that of whether the voicing is in its original state or not.

Well, whatever the true answer to that question, it is quite easy to demonstrate that the voicing and regulation of the organ is at least entirely consistent within itself. There is a method in the approach to balance between voices and between bass and treble. It can be followed by making tests at the keyboard. If the organ had ever been partly revoiced, in would not be consistent in this way. We already can be fairly certain that it has never been completely revoiced, because the pressure can surely never have been lower than it is now, nor can the smallish toe-holes in the upperboards ever actually have been larger (voicers will apreciate the impasse this implies).

Either way, the result is so stunning as to demand attention. In effect it anticipates the more extensive use of remote off-unison principal ranks by two hundred years. Such techniques were picked up by John Compton in the twenties and by avant-garde German builders in the fifties and sixties (remember those nones, aliquots and sept-terzes?). The Alkmaar version of the idea is considerably more beautiful than these, although less 'scientific' on paper.

Was such a thing ever done anywhere else? I think not. This sound is not apparent in Arp Schnitger's organs, where it is inadvisable to draw so many stops and the individual ranks are louder. It is not provided for in any way in other schools; there is a less successful version in the Trost at Altenburg, but that is all. G. Silbermann achieves his brilliance through tone; his mixtures are few and sober, with quint and unsion predominating. Later Dutch instruments tend to roar more, and the mixtures take on a cornet-like quality that positively encourages the use of the mounted cornet and trumpets in full organ. On a Bätz organ this reaches a satisfactory peak: it was a grand-choeur to be admired and imitated by no less a man than Cavaillé-Coll.

The Alkmaar organ was controversial when new, both on account of the fact that it was made by a German builder and because of its equal temperament. Despite this bad start, it won over its critics on account of its beauty, and for that reason alone has always stood alongside Haarlem as one of the Crown Princes of the Netherlands' royal family of organs. It had no real successors, for though the Dutch people continued to employ German organ builders (Müller, Wagner, König and later Witte) they seem also to have liked the twin modern concerns of imitative variety and grandeur to be dealt with à la Française, and in many of them the mounted cornet and battery of trumpets begin to play a more important part, alongside mixtures of larger scale and greater power.

The Cimbel did live on in atrophied form. In nineteenth century Dutch organs it is sometimes found travelling as 'Carillon III', and in that form it was used in a handful of large organs by Cavaillé-Coll. Shorn of its many partners in the narrow-scale family its most obvious and rather pathetic use is to imitate a hurdy-gurdy in conjunction with the Cromorne à la Léfébure-Wely.


The Organ of the Laurenskerk, Alkmaar, The Netherlands
Germer Galtusz van Hagerbeer, 1639-46
Frans Caspar Schnitger, 1722-25
J. S. Strumphler, 1781-82
Restored by Flentrop, 1982-1986

16' Praestant 1645, C-F# stopped, from G in facade
8' Praestant 1645
6' Praestantquint 1645/1782/1986
4' Octaav 1645
3' Quinta 1986
2' Octaav 1645
2' Flachfluit 1645/1725, C-B stopped, rest cylindrical
II Ruyschpyp 1645/1725, 2'+ 1 1/3'
II Tertiaan 1725, 4/5'
VI Mixtuur 1986, 1'
16' Trompet 1725
8' Viool di Gamba 1725 (reed)
4' Trompet 1725/1986

8' Praestant I-II 1645/1725/1782
8' Quintadena 1645/1782/1986
4' Octaav 1725
4' Fluit 1645/1725, with chimneys
3' Quintfluit 1645/1983, cylindrical
3' Nasaat 1725, conical
2' Superoctaav 1725
2' Waldfluit 1645/1725/1986
1 1/2' Quintanus 1725/1986
II Sexquialtera 1725, 1 1/3'
V-VI Mixtuur 1725, 2/3'
III Cimbel 1725, 1/5'
8' Trompet 1725/1782
8' Fagot 1725
8' Vox humana 1725
- Tremulant -

8' Praestant 1645
8' Baarpijp 1685
8' Rohrfluit 1725
8' Quintadena 1645/1725
4' Octaav 1645/1725
4' Fluit dous 1645/1725, stopped
3' Spitsfluit 1725, conical
2' Superoctaav 1645
2' Speelfluit 1725, conical
II Sexquialtera 1725, 1 1/3'
IV Scherp 1725, 1/2'
III Cimbel 1725, 1/5'
8' Trompet 1725
8' Hautbois 1725
8' Vox humana 1725
- Tremulant -

22' Principaal 1645, sounds 21 1/3' G on C, 64' resultant (!)
16' Praestant 1645
12' Rohrquint 1645/1725/1782/1986
8' Octaav 1645
6' Quinta 1645/1725/1986
4' Octaav 1645
2' Nachthorn 1725, narrow-scale, with chimneys
III Ruyschpyp 1725, 3'
VIII Mixtuur 1725/1986
16' Basuin 1725 (= Posaune)
8' Trompet 1725
4' Trompet 1725
2' Cornet 1725


RP/GM, BW/GM, BW/RP (original), RP/P (added), GM/P (added)

4 Sperrventils, Calcant

Equal temperament; Pitch: a' = 415 Hz
Wind Pressure: 76 mm/WS

Manual Compass: C - d''', 51 Notes
Pedal Compass: C - d', 27 Notes