Time Travel


Some of you know that I was admitted to an international organ competition in the Netherlands, which, COVID permitting, will take place in mid-June. Of the more than thirty applicants, only ten were selected to compete on the basis of an audio recording of music by J. S. Bach and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (more on him later). This honor is especially meaningful to me because I was the only American admitted, and indeed the only competitor who is the product of an American university and music school. I am also excited to travel to the Netherlands because my family on my mother’s side is almost completely of Dutch heritage. But the most exciting aspect of this competition is what makes me so passionate about playing the organ: time travel. Before the invention of recording technology in the middle of the nineteenth century, there was no way to record musical performances, or indeed to record anything at all. Music is by its nature ephemeral, lasting only as long as it takes to be heard. In our new era of radio broadcasts, vinyl, cassette tapes, CDs, MP3 players, and, most recently, streaming services like Spotify, we take for granted that we can instantly hear any piece of music wherever and whenever we want. This incredible power lets us reinhabit the “sonic worlds” of the world’s immediate past history. For example, we can understand something about the American Civil Rights movement by listening to the African American spirituals and gospel music so closely associated with it. To me, this is an extraordinary gift. But if we go back just a little further in time, this link to the past is all but severed. We don’t know what George Washington sounded like. We don’t know how medieval Latin was spoken. And, with respect to music, we have a profoundly limited understanding of how ancient music was composed and performed. The documentary record is full of written explanations of how music was performed in pre-industrial time periods like the Renaissance and the Baroque eras, but a written explanation can only get one so far. It turns out that the church, in all of her variety across space, time, and denomination, has preserved one of the main tools for understanding the music of the past: pipe organs. Organs in their original condition, or faithfully restored by organbuilders and scholars, allow us to feel and hear the music of the past. For example, in the first round of the competition, I’ll get to play an organ by Jan van Covelens. There have been a number of changes to it over the centuries, but the mechanical action of the organ as well as a large chunk of the pipework date to 1511. (For this reason, despite later additions and changes to the organ in the following centuries, this organ is generally considered to be the third-oldest organ in the world). When I sit at the console of this organ (I can hardly wait), I will touch centuries-old keyboards and cause wind to move through centuries-old pipes. The repertoire (early seventeenth-century Dutch music) is uniquely suited for it. The organ is even tuned differently than modern organs, in what is called “meantone temperament,” a tuning system that causes the repertoire to sound sweet and transparent. In playing this organ, this ancient music will live again: perhaps, for a moment, the audience (should one be allowed!) will return to the Dutch Golden Age, the era of Rembrandt and Vermeer. (Coincidentally, this is also around the time of the birth of modern capitalism, with the world’s first multinational corporation and stock exchange established in the Netherlands around the turn of the century) In the same church as the van Covelens organ, there is a mammoth instrument by Franz Caspar Schnitger. This organ has an interesting story. It was built by a Dutch organbuilder in 1646, and features a beautiful and architecturally significant organ case. This organ was built in a very conservative Dutch style. But by the early eighteenth century, the church’s organist wanted something different – an organ in the popular North German style. The German organbuilder Franz Caspar Schnitger (for which the competition is named) essentially replaced the Dutch organ with a North German while keeping the same Dutch classic case. This was one of the first important North German organs to be built in the Netherlands and has had a profound impact on European organbuilding to the present day. But Schnitger’s renovation was controversial: many conservative Dutch organists resented a German intrusion into their domain. When I sit at this organ in the first round, I’ll play the music of Heinrich Scheidemann, a German organist who travelled to the Netherlands to study with the famous Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, the so-called “Orpheus of Amsterdam” who taught a generation of German organists. In a way, I’ll participate in the complex conversation between instrument, repertoire, composer, culture, and nationalism. Perhaps my performance, as an American trained in California, Boston, and Rochester, New York, will add to this conversation. Finally, this time travel allows organists to learn new things about early music and give compelling performances of this ancient repertoire on modern instruments. For example, the stop knobs on either side of the console extend for several feet. Moreover, they are very heavy and difficult to draw, and indeed several of them are fully out of reach to the organist. This suggests that much of this music didn’t feature a lot of changes in “registration,” the term we use to describe an organist’s choice of stops. On most modern organs, you can hit a button with your thumb or foot to instantly turn on as many stops as you like. On old organs, the opportunities to switch stops were limited, so the registration changes were likely significantly less complex than what we do, say, when playing hymns nowadays. When we play old organs, whether in the Baroque style from the Netherlands in the Early Modern era, or in the Romantic style of France during the nineteenth century, or in the symphonic style of organs by American builders like E. M. Skinner and Möller (this latter a Maryland company!), a voice speaks from the past. If we listen, we can learn new and fascinating things about the music of the past and the societies that produced and enjoyed it. As Christians, we can learn something about the role of music in worship in, say, Catholic Venice or Lutheran Hamburg or Elizabethan England. I’ll be playing the repertoire for the competition’s three live rounds in a series of organ recitals at Christ Church in the months ahead. Please keep me in your prayers as I prepare to compete in the Netherlands and represent my country, my home state of Maryland, our diocese and our parish. Adam Detzner Director of Music