article 114: G. L. 45rpm

This recent purchase came as a shock. I was expecting a standard LP; instead a 7” long-playing 45rpm emerged from the packaging. The label is so obscure that no information about it, other than short lists of its recordings of historical Dutch organs, is now available: DISCO–NEDERLAND, postbox 175 in Bussum – a town near Amsterdam where I lived 1981-8. The contents were an absolute delight: a 1965 celebration of the newly-restored organ of Amsterdam’s Waalse Kerk. This former convent church, tucked into a courtyard near the present red-light district, was given to Protestant refugees from Catholic Wallonia (now southern Belgium) at the Reformation.

Non-long-playing “45s” were what kids purchased in their hundreds of millions in the 1950s and early 60s. I followed the crowd in a small way. I can’t recall what my cheap turntable looked like, but I do remember, incredibly, the lyrics to a 1962 novelty acquisition.

My Daddy is President, what does your Daddy do?
We live in a big white house on Pennsylvania Avenue.
I always hide behind the desk in Daddy’s den
When I play hide and seek with Secret Service men.

These words, ostensibly sung by 5-year-old Caroline Kennedy (recently US ambassador to Japan), were probably seared into my memory by her father’s assassination.

The present “45” arrived from a different lifetime and a different galaxy. The organ, largely by Christian Muller 1743, was still sparkling like new when I arrived in Amsterdam in 1971. It was the first great Baroque organ I ever heard; in the small space, its plenum could pretty near blow you out of your pew. Gustav Leonhardt was the titulaire. His wife Marie was in the consistory, and he played for the French-language services every Sunday when in town. Afterwards Leonhardt would improvise a postlude for half an hour or so. Alan Curtis was living in the city at the time, and he and I sometimes sat together on a bench at the back, marveling both at sound and artistry. Improvisatory freedom seemed always to unshackle Mr. Leonhardt’s inner musicality, whereas interpreting works from the past sometimes induced a certain respectful inhibition. I remember in particular an impromptu tierce en taille which first led me to study the French organ literature.

Once, after Leonhardt came down from the loft, I told him how much I enjoyed listening. He said, “It’s always a pleasure to find this instrument here.” The present disc is a small monument to the beginnings of that pleasure, and to the role he played in the instrument’s renaissance from 19th-century gloom. The superb album notes – detailed, informative and concise – which, uniquely as far as I recall, Leonhardt wrote himself, provide a brief history of the church and its organ. One reads how the instrument was progressively converted to a kind of harmonium, and eventually painted brown. The action became “impossibly heavy” – an unusual emotional outburst from the writer. Years of work by Ahrend & Brunzema brought it back to splendid life in 1965, the year of this recording. As for the brown case, I read to my amazement that, after the lost wing doors had been reconstructed, it was repainted in the original colors by a “church painter” from tiny Karlstadt am Main – my residence near Würzburg 1988-91.

I was able to practice on the Müller for a nominal hourly fee, and took a couple of lessons on it instead of my weekly harpsichord session. I was always aghast to see the dark stain between two keys where an idiotic substitute organist had left a cigarette burning. Leonhardt tacked a handwritten note to the side of the case where, in pithy Dutch, he threatened to bar admission to all and sundry indien er weer gerookt wordt. I hope it’s still there, but it has probably fallen victim to a souvenir hunter.

Like with all good organ-demonstration records, the performer shows off as many registrations as they have time for, and gives details for each section of the works. The first track, the fabulous Sonatine by Christian Ritter (ca. 1700), is some of the best organ playing I ever heard – dense, flexible, radiating all the massive power of the North German Baroque. The other tracks, with one exception, are easy fillers. That exception is very difficult indeed: the first movement of a hymn setting by N. de Grigny. His Veni creator opens in five parts, with a pedal trumpet en taille – as a middle voice. Leonhardt wanted to show this important type of registration, but as he once told me himself, the pedals are difficult “because the left hand wants to play the bass line”. The confusion is compounded when the part isn’t in the bass. A degree of struggle is evident in this track, and Leonhardt even rather shockingly leaves out the more difficult ornaments in the manual parts. I think a sense of obligation, individual ability and possible time pressures came into conflict here.

Alan Curtis told me Leonhardt at first wanted nothing to do with French music, because he thought it was “a louche Catholic country”. By 1965 he was increasingly realizing its importance. And the main or “great” division of his organ had originally been built by Nicolas Langlez from Ghent, who judging by his name must have been a Walloon. Ghent was nominally Catholic at the time, but had been a hotbed of Calvinist rebellion for a century, so Langlez’ personal religion is indeterminate.

The last of the filler material on this disc was a bit of posthumous instruction for your author: a prelude and fugue by a composer I had to look up. Bernhard Christian Weber (1712-58) was organist in Tennstedt, northeast of Erfurt. His cantor, Georg Heinrich Noah had been a theologian in Leipzig. That was probably the connection that led Weber to compose a Wohltemperiertes Clavier, identical in layout with those of J. S. Bach. It is sometimes stated that Weber himself was a student of Bach’s, but there is no evidence to support the assertion.

The manuscript of this minor work is kept in Brussels. The Nazi Party member Max Seiffert edited it in the fateful year 1933. That edition must have found its way into Mr. Leonhardt’s library.

September 3, 2023

Postscript: Today a copy of the same edition landed in my mailbox.

September 9, 2023

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