Pronkjuwelen in Stad en Ommeland – The Historic Organs of the province of Groningen

It’s the doldrum days of winter. Christmas is long past, spring is appearing but now it’s dull and wet with hot cross buns on the shelves in the supermarket. What do you need to lighten your mood? Why, just what I am about to describe: Pronkjuwelen in Stad en Ommeland or The Historic Organs of the province of Groningen.

So let’s tear the cellophane off the box and see what’s inside. A handsome matt black slipcase, slightly smaller than an old LP (vinyl for my younger readers) at 28.5 cms. by 29 cms. (or 11 in. by 11.5 in. in old money) containing what at first appears to be 2 slim books. Ah now this one certainly is a book. Printed on thick gloss paper with numerous colour illustrations I’ll come back to that later after investigating the other `book’. This turns out to be a neat box containing 1 DVD, 5 CDs and a small booklet. The packaging is well thought-out so it’s easy to extract the discs without damage to discs or fingers.

The DVD Martinikerk Rondeau is a revelation. I was apprehensive that a feature length documentary would not hold my attention. Many feature films don’t keep me wholly awake at the cinema these days but I should not have worried: if it was a book you would say it was unputdownable. As a documentary it seems to be just the right length for the subject. You can’t say that for many TV documentaries these days. They are either stretched to fill 60 minutes with tiresome repetition or compressed into only 30 minutes for a breathless canter through some important topic (who remembers the glory days of Panorama?). We start by selecting the language of our subtitles and then we’re off.

Our main guide to the organs and history in the province of Groningen is Cor Edskes, at a twinkling 85 years a man for whom the word sprightly could have been newly minted. He outlines his life and career in organs before leaving his modern flat and cycling to Martinikerk. We have something of the history of the province of Groningen shown in an excellent mix of words and images. In fact that is a feature of the whole DVD, the right mixture of `talking heads’, music and images to keep your interest. People speak very naturally to camera, a tribute to the director Will Fraser on the other side.

In Martinikerk we meet Jurgen Ahrend for the first time and he describes his own fascinating life in organ building illustrated by a number of historic black and white photos. Our other main guide to the organ culture of the region is Cor Edskes’s brother, Bernhard Edskes, an organ builder and organist. Clearly someone also with a keen interest in clocks, he tells us of his work in organ building including the restoration of many of the organs we hear. Through all this we have Sietze de Vries playing enticing snippets of music at the various organs. As soon as I mention scenes of an organ being played, I see that worried expression on your face. Is it like 21st Century Bach I hear you ask? Not for a moment do we get a player beset by cameras floating by attached to balloons, it’s all just shot very naturally.

In the course of the DVD we learn a lot about Schnitger and his working methods. One memorable scene shows Jurgen Ahrend at the top of the C# pedal tower behind the enormous pipes; those suffering vertigo, look away now to avoid the collywobbles. Certainly Schnitger must have been a consummate organizer having achieved so much in his working life. Imagine transporting pipes as separate bodies and feet so that you can take advantage of the saving from placing pipes and feet inside one another and simply soldering them back on site. From the Ahrend workshop, we also see the magical process of pipe-metal casting on a bed of sand and the steps in making a flue pipe. Both Ahrend sequences are on youtube and can also be seen on the website for the project.

The DVD ends with something about the restoration philosophy at Martinikerk, what point to start from, what to include of later good work and what to reconstruct. This includes the Speelfluyt 4′ where a complete stop was remade based on just 1 pipe surviving from 1542. This points to what is the `elephant in the room’ for the whole project, the sadly missing organ though it is mentioned: the Aa Kerk in Groningen where arguments over what to do have continued for many years. After Cor Edskes cycles back to his flat having just said `end of story’ there is a rather sad coda on the future of organs and churches. Will coming generations appreciate organs? Will they have a place in culture if organs no longer have a religious job to do? Questions that we all ponder from time to time.

Apart from the selectable subtitles, you can also access the 13 chapters of the DVD just to pick parts from the almost 2 hours of the complete story. Under the `Extras’ heading, Jan Jongepier talks about his role as organ consultant to the restoration of Zuidbroek by Bakker and Timmenga. Interesting that this is a Hinsz design carried out after his death by Freytag and Frans Caspar Schnitger jr. In a fascinating 15 minutes he ranges over organ building, organ styles and organ music. As ever talking very naturally to camera and just leaving you wanting more.

At the cinema I’m always the last audience member to leave, avidly reading the credits of the film and wondering just what efforts these scores of people made to keep me fitfully awake. So in this feature length documentary exactly how many people were on the other side of the camera? There seems to be just 3: Will Fraser (Director), Simon Still (Camera) and Jan Willem van Willigen (Sound). This is therefore a remarkable achievement that must have involved weeks of well-planned work to achieve. By the way Jan Willem van Willigen is a doctor, sound technician, and musician who owns the house organ built by Bernhardt Edskes based on the Schnitger organ in Uithuizen that you see in the DVD.

For a complementary portrait of Arp Schnitger the man and his work please refer to John Smith’s fine article in OCJ 2007-3, pages 48-51. Here you can read that he was beset by family tragedies yet still managed to build and restore organs that have continued to influence organ building for more than 320 years.

After so many snippets of music now you need to hear them properly so turn to the CDs. An exhaustive review of every one might try your patience so just a summary of the 5 CDs with some highlights, particular pieces that delighted my ear during more than 5 1/2 hours of listening pleasure. For details of all the organs and composers featured, please see the lists at the end of this article. Actually I should say something more about the small booklet in the box. This is of 36 pages and 50% larger than a normal CD booklet so it’s not constrained in its layout. Staring with a summary of each CD on 1 page each and a 2 page outline of the DVD, there follows the specification of each organ and the registration used for every piece. The larger format booklet allows a decent type size and very easy navigation through the pages to the right CD and track. The booklet finishes with a Curriculum Vitae of Sietze de Vries, the player of almost all the pieces on the CDs with just one small exception. The CV is a fair, though rather modest, description of his talents given what more he has added to the project but more of that later.

CD I is wholly devoted to the organ in the Martinikerk in Groningen and this seems entirely apt as it is the pivotal organ of the whole project. We start with a lively account of Bach’s Fantasia in G minor (Piece d’Orgue) BWV 572 played by Wim van Beek. I have heard the organ `in the flesh’ a number of times so I can vouch for the naturalness of the recording that captures the glorious sound of the organ and its warm acoustic so well. Sietze de Vries plays a simple setting of Nun komm der Heiden Heiland is followed by Bach’s 3 great chorale settings BWV 659, 660 and 661. For a grander piece the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue BWV 564 is given an authoritative performance that I am sure you will enjoy comparing with other versions in your CD collection. There exist few better pieces than Bach’s Partita diverse sopra Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig BWV 768 to ramble over an organ’s resources and Sietze de Vries has a fine time selecting some delightful registrations. For the last set of pieces he improvises on the Lutheran hymn Jesus, meine Zuversicht.

CD II forms a fine contrast by featuring the smaller 1 manual, 2 manual and 2 manual and pedal organs from Krewerd, Zeerijp, Midwolde, Kantens, Noordwolde and Pelstergasthuiskerk in Groningen spread over 45 tracks. Starting at Krewerd with the 1531 single manual organ of only 7 stops beautiful, unforced sounds show the skill of Sietze de Vries as an improviser able to draw colour and interest from what might appear scant resources. In fact every organ featured benefits from being heard in improvisations on chorales, hymn and psalm tunes. Zeerijp gives us some lovely rich dark brown hues in a verse of Scheidemann’s Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott and a perky nightingale fluttering through an improvisation on Psalm 84. On to Kantens with an example of exactly how to play Sweelinck’s Est-ce mars on just 2 manuals with 15 stops, where Ahrend has reconstructed one manual to blend seamlessly with the Huisz from 1684. At Noorwolde Tunder’s Prelude in G contrasts a glorious manual chorus against a fine pedal line with a nicely growling 16′ reed. We end at Pelstergasthuiskerk in Groningen, Schnitger 1693, where a combination of Quintadena 16′ and Holpijp 8′ produces eerie chiffs and transients to send shivers down the spine.

With CD III we start at Noordbroek, Schnitger 1696, with Buxtehude’s Prelude in G minor BuxWV 148 which gives ample registration changes to show off the organ before 7 improvisations on Psalm 47 to highlight quieter stops. Nieuw-Scheemda, Arp Schnitger 1698, with its 8 stops shows that delightful combinations are still available from a small well-chosen palette. It also serves as an amuse-bouche before the `main course’ at Uithuizen, Arp Schnitger 1701, starting with a stately performance of Buxtehude’s Prelude in C major, BuxWV 137. Improvisations on Psalm 42 Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele lead us gradually in increasing volume to the last organ at Appingedam. Here it seems strange to play the whole of Scheidemann’s Prelude in D minor on Trompet 8′ and Dulcian 8′ when the chorale Jesu, wollst uns weisen benefits from 2 contrasting manual choruses. We end with delightful improvisations on Lob Gott getrost mit Singen and a satisfying flourish on full organ to finish.

By CD IV we’ve reached the Hinsz organ at Leens from 1734 and a nicely judged performance of Bruhns’s Prelude in E minor (played in D minor) with just the right dramatic pauses proving that music often relies on silence as well as sound. At Zandeweer’s Hinsz organ from 1731, Sweelinck and Sietze de Vries improvise on Psalm 23. With Loppersum we have an organ which is mainly Hinsz from 1736 on one manual and Freytag from 1803 on the other. Here Krebs and Sietze de Vries prove what a malleable chorale is Jesu, meine Freude. Nieuwolda introduces to the later work of Wenthin from 1761 and a chance for Kellner and Sietze de Vries to muse on Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan.

It seems churlish to complain that CD V has only 57 minutes of music but after 4 very well-filled CDs I was greedy for more. At Zuidbroek on the Freytag and Frans Caspar Schnitger jr. organ from 1795 we hear the Allegro assai from CPE Bach’s Organ Sonata in A minor, Wq 70 no. 4. It did introduce me to 2 composers I had not come across before: Thomas Sanders Dupuis (1733-1796) and William Hine (1687-1730). We hear Dupuis’s Trumpet Voluntary and Hine’s Flute Piece on the 1825 van Dam organ at Huizinge. This CD feels as though we are approaching the present day as we have Mendelssohn’s Prelude and Fugue in C minor op. 37 no. 1 played on the 1829 Lohmann organ at Farmsum. At Middelstum we finally complete our feast for the ears with Schumann’s Canon in A flat major, op. 56 no. 4 and Brahms’s wonderfully delicate chorale Herzlich tut mich verlangen op. 122 no. 9 played on the van Oeckelen organ from 1863, the most modern in the set.

At last, but certainly not least, I return to the book. A handsome, slim volume of 106 pages, printed on high quality gloss paper and lavishly illustrated. It starts with a Foreword by Sietze de Vries to set the scene for the project `Pronkjuwelen in Stad en Ommeland’ or in direct translation `Treasures in City and Surrounding Areas’, the city of course being Groningen. The essay that follows makes a fine complement to the DVD covering the churches of Groningen, the organs, organ builders, restoration aesthetics and ending like the DVD with the use of the organ. Surprisingly it’s not written by Cor Edskes but by Sietze de Vries though how he found the time with all his playing commitments for the CDs escapes me.

The majority of the book is devoted to double page spreads for each of the 19 organs featured. Here are fabulous photos of the organ cases with smaller inset photos of some detail from the organ or church. Each spread also has the specification and dates of major work on the organ. The book ends with a repeat of the CV of Sietze de Vries. With so much fine photography I wondered who was responsible. I was amazed to find that Sietze de Vries was also the photographer; I think you can see that my comment about a modest CV was well founded.

What more can I say about this fantastic project? Can I find much wrong? Well a few minor typos but what pedant would point those out. Surely you can tell by now that I have been bowled over by the sight and sounds of everything contained in that unassuming slipcase. It is an object lesson in how to tackle organ histiography in such a way that whether your interest is history, culture, religion in Europe, organs or organ music you will be thoroughly satisfied, entertained, informed and delighted by this `must have’ addition to any organ lover’s collection.

If you need more details and background information to the project then do visit the website for Will Fraser and Simon Still’s company fugue state films (very lower case, very today) at

Organs featured: Appingedam, Farmsum, Martinikerk in Groningen, Pelstergasthuiskerk in Groningen, Huizinge, Kantens, Krewerd, Leens, Loppersum, Middelstum, Midwolde, Nieuw-Scheemda, Nieuwolda, Noordbroek, Noordwolde, Uithuizen, Zandeweer, Zeerijp, Zuidbroek.

Composers featured: Anonymous, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Johannes Brahms, Nicolaus Bruhns, Dietrich Buxtehude, Antonio de Cabezon, Thomas Sanders Dupuis, William Hine, Johann Peter Kellner, Johann Ludwig Krebs, Johann Adam Reincken, Heinrich Scheidemann, Robert Schumann, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Franz Tunder, Sietze de Vries, Matthias Weckmann.

Pronkjuwelen in Stad en Ommeland – The Historic Organs of the province of Groningen
Boxed Set: 5 x CD, 1 x DVD, 1 x Fully Illustrated Hardback Book in Dutch, English and German.
ISBN /EAN 978-90-70425-65-4
DVD Martinikerk Rondeau in Dutch and German with English/German/Dutch subtitles selectable.
Introductory Price: £62.50, see for more details and the chance to order a copy.