North Central: Dutch Organ Culture During the Reformation

Greetings from the North Central region of AGOYO! In light of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 theses, effectively beginning the Reformation, I would like to address reformer John Calvin’s important role in shaping Dutch organ culture through religious doctrine.

  • John Calvin (1509-1564), French theologian and reformer based in Geneva, Switzerland
  • Most well-known for his doctrine of predestination and the sovereignty of God in the role of salvation
  • Influenced the development of the Reformed and Presbyterian traditions
Three Important Scripture Verses and Calvin’s Interpretation
  • I Corinthians 14:16: surrounding the context of speaking in tongues during worshipand the need for an interpreter. According to Jan Luth, Calvin saw music as produced by instruments or in any language outside the vernacular as a foreign tongue that must be interpreted. Since the clergy’s position in worship was not to interpret music, but to reveal the Word of God, any music without direct reference to Scripture was unedifying.
  • Psalm 33 and I Samuel 18:6-7: Old Testament references to God’s people (specifically in the context of victory) using musical instruments–harps and lyres–to praise God. Due to little context for this in the New Testament, Calvin believed musical instruments were only necessary in the Old Testament to better help God’s people in singing praises to Him. Christ, by his Spirit, had redeemed the need for such guidance in praise. “Let us believe that instrumental music…had been tolerated…because [God’s people] were as children, just as sacred Scripture says, who were in need of these childish instructions. [We should not] wish to obliterate evangelical perfection and..dim the full light which in Jesus Christ we have attained.”
Calvin’s Indirect Influence on Dutch Organ Culture
  • Due to Calvin’s iconoclasm–the belief that religious images are idolatrous and distracting from true religious purpose, thus calling from their removal–many new Protestants would take the time to destroy religious images, stained glass, even organs–anything that reminded them of the excesses of the Catholic church–during the 1560s.
  • Though the State Church originally had no issues with organ playing in services, Dutch pastors returning from religious training under Calvin’s tutelage in Geneva demanded the removal of the organ from services.
  • An odd juxtaposition of church and state occurred: as the State Church expressed a desire to get rid of organs from churches, the care of the organs and organists’ salaries was left to the town magistrates.
  • In the late-16th century to early-17th century, an organist’s duties included required half-hour to hour-long recitals after church services, but certainly not during them , placing organists in an uncomfortable position with the church.
  • While many instruments were destroyed in France and Geneva, the northern Dutch people refused to destroy their organs , remembering the state taxes they had paid for them.
  • The greatest concern for using organ during worship:
    • Detraction from the Gospel.
    • Improvising and playing tunes that were not based on Scripture (i.e,
      the Psalms).
    • Playing music that did not reflect the humility and seriousness
      demanded by the Gospel.
    • Consistently having organ recitals after services, thus inadvertently
      associating them with worship.
The Return of the Organ to Dutch Worship
  • After 1581, the State Church provides no more statements explicitly banning organ usage from worship. The church began to weaken its stance. The 1586 Synod of Edam called no longer to ban organs from worship, but rather to remove any flashy practices and Catholic organists from the bench.
  • In 1610, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck was compensated cooperatively by both the city of Rotterdam and the Oude Kerk to serve as organ consultant, suggesting a renewed recognized importance for the organ within such a space.
  • Though many cities and churches throughout the Netherlands began to change their approach to the organ, the issue took decades to solve in many areas. In 1638, the Synod of Delft left the decision of using the organ in worship up to each
  • Respected military secretary to Prince Frederick Henry, Constantin Huygens (1596-1687) , brought up important ideas for reform of organ use in worship. He disliked how short airs and madrigals during the service detracted from the sermon, yet understood the need for the organ to introduce Psalms, as the people “howled and screamed” rather than sung without the help of the organ.
  • Due to Huygens’ respected position in society, much opposition to the organ in worship fell away after his proposal. The Resolutions of the Church Council
    of the Hague, 1641, officially gave up their struggle against use of the organ in worship.
  • While some rural areas refused to add the organ back to worship until the nineteenth century, the Dutch Reformation managed to ban organ completely from worship and bring it back into a reformed use within the span of a century.

If you would like to know more about this history and current Dutch organ culture, check out these resources:

“The Organ Controversy in the Netherlands Reformation to 1640”, by Henry Bruinsma. JSTOR.

Het Orgel magazine.
Information for the next Haarlem Organ Festival, summer 2018.
Information about organ builder Arp Schnitger’s instruments remaining in the Netherlands.
Information about the Grote Kerk in Haarlem (St. Bavo), its organs, and its music program.

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