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

Spare a moment's thought for the bravery and tenacity of the people of the Netherlands in their age-old battle to protect their land from the elements. If you look at a modern map of the country you will see that it is dominated by the substantial inland incursion of a stretch of water, once known as the Zuider Zee. Since the building of the Afsluitdijk across the mouth of the Zuider Zee and the partial reclamation of the land below, it has been known as the Ijssel Meer. Out beyond that, well into the North Sea, is a chain of islands stretching north-east towards Friesland: these are Texel, Vlieland, Terschkelling, Ameland, Schiermonikoog and so-on. Some of them still have their own language, different from either Dutch or Friesian. That line of islands represents the position of the coast of the Netherlands before a series of disastrous storms and floods in the middle ages.

Today few realise the enormous extent of fully-settled and prosperous land that was lost. Whole communities, villages and towns sank beneath the sea. In the twelfth century and again in the fourteenth, the protective sand dunes on the North Sea coast just melted away. The destruction was like nothing else in the Middle Ages apart from the Black Death; where the water lay across the Low Countries the loss was total and devastating.

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 the late mediaeval technology of the windmill allowed reclamation to begin in earnest.

There are three or four intersecting canals, in turn threaded through with three or four streets, also intersecting. Canals and roads alike are bordered with narrow fronted houses built of local dark red brick, most of them old or ancient. There are bridges cross the canals, some hump-backed of brick, and some lifting bridges in timber. A handful of more prominent old buildings are peppered round the tiny market place. On dry ground to the north of the town, perhaps a foot or two higher than the surrounding fields, is the town's great church, dedicated to St. Nicholas.

It is a magnificent gothic building, also built of dark red brick. It is the size of an ocean liner, immensely long and five aisles wide. Inside it wears the bright white austerity of Calvinist reform: monuments, but no images; clear glass in the windows; an elaborate oak pulpit; fancy pews for the local bigwigs; flagstones and worn tablets on the floor; brass chandeliers. The church is big enough to hold the entire population of the town - and their animals.

The story of Noah must have meant a great deal to the Dutch. All the time the bleak grey mass of the sea is nibbling at your heels; every inch of useable land is bitterly contested with the elements; despite your every attempt over hundreds of years the water comes back and swallows all in its path. The relationship between the Church and the Ark is clear.

God gives you technological skills to build machines driven by the wind that drive back the water. In the church stand the other great mechanical marvels of mediaeval invention - the clock and the organ.

The Nicholaaskerk in Edam was provided with a new organ in 1663, at a time when congregational psalm-singing had come into favour, and it is this instrument 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 its 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 ridiculous imitation of an azure stone never quarried in the real world. Vegetable carving leaps about in gilded profusion. On top of the rugwerk tower caps, 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 garving, 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 Förner, 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.

Smit's contract of 1662 states he is going to provide the following:


Mixtuir (VI?)

Super Octaef


... and what survives today (restored by Flentrop 1982) is this:


16 Bourdon
8 Prestant
8 Roerfluit
4 Octaaf
3 Quint
2 Octaaf
IV Cornet (treble)
III Sexquialter (treble)
IV Mixtuur
8 Trompet

8 Holpijp
8 Quintadeen
4 Prestant
4 Roerfluit
3 Spitsquint
2 Octaaf
2 Blokfluit
III Scherp
I-II Sexquialter
8 Trompet (bass and treble)

Pulldowns to Hw only

Manual shove-coupler


From this rather plain tale we can tell one thing for certain - the good people of Edam were very short of money. Their land was under water to the east. To the South, on the far side of the Rhine the land round Amsterdam was under cultivation and the people were wealthy. To the west the ground was a little higher and Alkmaar reaped the rewards. When they bought the organ in the first place 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 over the enlargement of the tiny instrument that they even fitted a panelled acoustic 'hood' above it to try and make it louder still.

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 Smid 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 and very rare in having missed out on any major intervention in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. Its recent careful restoration by Flentrop was executed to high standards in the full glare of revelations regarding arguably 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 is really a surprisingly lush and smooth sound, issuing 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 so many 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 intention 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 quite exceptional. Nothing less will quite explain his documented success and the fragments of his reputation that have survived. Yet is 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 considerably 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 more accustomed to the sound of the 'new' organ.

After that time, far from improving with age, 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 exceptionally 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 hideous shrill brightness of everything neo-classical, compared to one or two old organs (that only a few people ever went to see)?

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 abberation?

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 far 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, for example, Alkmaar 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 throughout 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 more or less as they do now. Construction, scale and voicing all help. In addition the metal used by Smith is so coarse, and scraped with such blunt tools, that the pipe is in effect ready-nicked in every pore. The redcution of attack to a reasonable minimum relies here not on nicking, but on quick speech, the absence of ears, a counter-beveled 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.