The Psalms, the Organ, and Sweelinck - Norma Kobald

Taken with permission from the Reformed Music Journal Vol. 9, No. 2, (1997)

"The Dutch nation was born because, during the second half of the 16th century, a state came into existence, within whose territory men lived and strove together, and shared experiences so crowded and so intense that they found themselves overnight where it had taken the people of other national states centuries to arrive."

J.G. Renier

"If when thou by alien men art driven from thy land, This book, used well, shall comfort thee. If thou in stocks or dungeon art detained, As' by God's hand to thee relief is given here!"

Marnix van Sint Aldegonde (in his forward to the Psalter)

"Concerning the playing of unseemly and worldly songs on bells and organs it is unanimously decided, that each church ... shall persist in having the same rectified by the city fathers."

(Acta Synod: Edammensis - June 2, 1586)

The Sound of Freedom

"Singing is the foundation of music in all its aspects", so wrote G. Ph. Telemann. [1] Agreed, but try putting the why of it into words. By itself singing is a curious phenomena. In a very distinct way man transforms his breath, needed for his metabolism, into sound. His whole existence is involved in the process. Not only are his breath and heartbeat connected with each other, but also with his whole body and with his whole personality. It is, in short, the inspired existence, the essence of which is to be connected with the self. [2] How ever, to advise someone to start singing in order to solve his problems is of little avail, for what is needed in the first place is a relaxed, naturally moving body. Man must be man, free, or as Dr. VanderLeeuw once put it, "Men sing, gentlemen don't! " [3]

We often dismiss the human ability to reproduce a given tone as a learned reflex action. We do well, however, to reflect on this complex organism for a moment. Through extraordinarily beautiful teamwork (ensemble) the tone produced, apart from nuance and strength, is of the same pitch as the incoming one. In other words "on the basis of this organism man can become a fellowman." [4]

In addition to the tone there is the word, the text. The great physician, Paracelsus, paused on seeing a fish. "How curious", he said, "there lies a fish, when I eat that fish, it changes into my flesh, my body!" In the same way: There lies the word, if I make it my own by singing it, it becomes the "will" in me and by and by the "deed". In singing our body consumes words. When we sing, we admit the word into the inner sanctum, into the command centre of our being.

Conclusion: Singing presupposes freedom, promotes fellowship and moves to action.

The Reformation in the Netherlands during the first half of the 16th century was marked by a real concern for biblical studies, by a critical attitude towards the Roman church, by a lack of dogmatic inflexibility, and by a large measure of tolerance. This attitude was a result of northern humanism (personhood) and devotio moderna (community).[5] The two questions most often discussed were: what is man's relation to God? and, What is the Church? The Roman Catholics taught that man must approach God through the church (the institution). The Protestants taught that man himself approached God. Man's worthlessness as opposed to his self worth On the second question the Roman Catholics thought of the church (the institution) as the bride of Christ. The Protestants saw the church as the communion of saints. To the first you belonged "en bloc", to the second you belonged on equal footing by virtue of the uniqueness of each person.

These crypto-protestants were in need of freedom songs, Biblical texts that could be sung to well-known tunes. There was no lack of them. A flood of scriptural songs provided ample material for use in these conventicles. The content of them was completely concerned with the Bible. Suffering at the hands of the Spanish oppressors and the Inquisition, it was the Book of Psalms that spoke to them in particular. In the Psalter people in distress called to God and God saved His people from destruction. The psalms had that curious vice versa aspect, as was the case with the angels climbing Jacob's ladder.[6] The peoples' praise to God was at the same time His food for them. Here the organism is whole. Here lies the heart of music. Close to God. [7]

Conclusion: The songs of freedom (the Psalter) promoted a sense of community, and moved the Protestants to action.

On Frivolous Ditties

In 1540 the nobleman, Willem vanZuylen van Nyeveldt published his "Souter Liedekens, made to the honour of God ... and the edification and spiritual enjoyment of all Christians." [8] These psalms were sung to the tunes of existing folk songs The squire wished to put on the lips of the people that which up to now had been the special property of monks and priests." [9] The Liedekens gained an enormous, albeit, short-lived, popularity. In the first place because, although the Psalter was secretly intended for the use of the followers of the Reformation, the book had received official approval of the Roman Catholic Emperor, Charles V. Thus the Protestants could openly sing their beloved psalms without fear of reprisal. In the second place an arrangement of the Psalter "with three parts ... composed by Jacobus Clement no Papa" provided the common folk with an excellent opportunity for private music-making, both vocal and instrumental.

Le Marseillaise Huguenotte

Shortly after his return to Geneva, Calvin discovered that the French court-poet, Clement Marot, had versified thirteen psalms. Although Marot was a secular poet, Calvin entrusted him with the rhyming of the psalms. Unfortunately the co-operation between the reformer and the poet was of short duration. Discouraged by the strict, harsh living conditions in Geneva, Marot soon left the city. He left 49 metrical psalms behind, the remaining 101 psalms were versified by Calvin's colleague and fellow reformer Theodor Beza. In 1561 the complete Psalter appeared in print. The melodies were skilfully composed by the cantors Louis Bourgeois and a certain "Maistre Pierre". Simple, but grand tunes they were, worthy to be sung "in the presence of God and His angels." [10] Many of the melodies had Gregorian precursors, but some of them were originally secular tunes. Revamped they conformed to Calvin's dictum: "Poids et majeste, modere et moedeste." [11]

So the Calvinist began to sing the psalms,their trademark, their identity. They sang them in church and at home, at work and at play, on the battle field and tied to the stake. In a dignified, lofty manner. So the Dutch Calvinists did, too. At least ... ?

The Devout Psalmist

In 1555 the Netherlands came under the influence of the Genevan Reformation. A number of Genevan-trained preachers began their work. Conscious of their calling and with great courage they served the cause of the Reformation. The fact that they established congregations and had consistories elected in accordance with the Genevan model was of great significance for the future development of Dutch national life. One of these young men was Petrus Dathenus, the man who gave the Dutch Protestants a metrical Psalter, which for more than two centuries stood unchallenged. With great zeal and determination this "minister with the ruddy beard" - the image of the ruddy David, the sweet psalmist fitted him - translated the psalms from French into Dutch in less than a year and a half. The work was published in the spring of 1566, and dedicated to "all congregations and servants of Jesus Christ, who sigh and weep under the tyranny of the Antichrist." The word all in the dedication proved to be prophetic, for the Psalter took the nation by storm. Soon all the congregations were singing Dathenus' psalms. Great admiration of the common people for Dathenus as a person greatly contributed to the success of his Psalter. The man was a folk hero, an orator of the first order, and gave himself with all his strength to the cause of the Reformation. A man with unbelievable energy, but a poet he was not, let alone a musician. The Dutch poet C. Huygens sums it up rather neatly in the following epigram:

"The Psalms of Dathenus, to all the world are dear. That may be so; they're all content but God I fear."[12] Conclusion: In the struggle for freedom and independence the Genevan Psalter assumed a central position in the Netherlands.

A Popish instrument

Powerful and moving the psalms resounded in the purified church buildings. In "spirit and truth" the Dutch Calvinists sang their praise as "with one voice", but the organs were silent. Silent because the 16th century organ was incapable of accompanying congregational singing. Besides, congregational singing of this magnitude was new and the custom of supporting it with organ sounds was unknown.

The use of the organ in the Roman liturgy may be summarized as follows: 1. The organ played a prelude, 2. accompanied the choir, and alternated with the choir. This use was restricted to the small organ, the positiv. The large organ was a "concert" instrument, and had no liturgical function except on special occasions. [13] The playing of this instrument was considered public entertainment. [14]

The organ's use in the Roman liturgy made it suspect. It was a "popish instrument", "an invention of the prince of darkness", with "seductive siren voices", and "the same as iconalatry and idolatry".[15] The entertainment provided by the large organ drew the ire of Roman Catholics and Protestants alike. [16] They fought against the use of "scandalous, lewd, and vulgar" songs which---brought dishonour to the Art", and "were hated by intelligent people." [17] Erasmus found this king of music so disgusting that he refers to it in terms of the world's oldest profession. [18] "There can be more faith in a miller lad than in ... all the Popes and monks with their organs", Luther remarked. [19] And according to Calvin "the human voice ... is better than all the dead organs". [20]

A Perilous Thing

Originally there was little or no opposition to organs and organ playing in the Netherlands, the Organ was "dead". The influx of Huguenot refugees, who were aghast on hearing the frivolous organ sounds within the sacred confines of the church, changed all that. Complaints to church officials slowly brought about a change in attitude.[21] The "needless ornament" began to be viewed as "unlawful". Neither the convent of Wezel (1568) nor the Synod of Embden (1571) had anything to say about organs and organ playing. The National Synod of Dordrecht (1574) decided "concerning the playing of organs in the churches, it is held that it should be completely abolished according to the teaching of Paul, I Cor. 14:19". Nothing happened, for four years later the same synod under the chairmanship of Petrus Dathenus decided "that organs, which were tolerated for a time, should be removed on the earliest possible date", Still nothing happened, consequently the Synod of Middelburg (1581) repeated its decision and instructed the ministers to take up the matter with the magistrates.[22]

The City's Honour

Fortunately the Synod did not have the needed authority to implement its decision. With the Reformation the church buildings and its furniture had become the properties of the cities. The removal of costly organs, according to the city fathers, was absolutely out of the question. They, on the contrary, sought ways and means to make proper and profitable use of the fine organs in their care. In earlier times the city councils had employed town musicians, who at certain occasions entertained the "good burghers". Now that the organs were in their possession, they appointed organists who were instructed to play after the church services on Sundays and to give "recitals" during the week. These recitals were given for the amusement of the visitors to the church, and they were many. City fathers, on their daily constitutional, discussed the current affairs; lovers strolled hand in hand; merchant men praised their wares, children played; dogs romped, and occasionally dice were rolled in the dark corners. One has only to look at old paintings of church interiors to get a good impression of the goings on in a typical city church. In this easy, rather cosy, traffic one thought to heighten the general atmosphere by muffling the hubbub with organ music. The Sweelinck scholar vanSigtenhorst Meyer wrote, "precisely because of Calvinism, singing psalms, recitals in the churches became a possibility. " [23]

A Sweet Sound

Under such benign conditions, freed from ecclesiastical tyranny, organ building developed into an art in the Netherlands. It became famous far beyond its boundaries, a fact acknowledged by Michael Praetorius.[24] The Dutch organ historian Havingha wrote that "the Dutch have exerted themselves to have a purer organ sound then anywhere else ... and to pass the Dutch inventions on to other nations. [25] A rapid succession of inventions made an unparalleled evolution, almost a revolution, in organ building possible. The most important of these inventions were the improvements and popularizing of the spring and slider-chest, the application of full length reeds, the use of an extended, wide-scaled chorus, the invention of string stops, a separate chest for "het bovenwerk", the enrichment of the pedal with high cantus-firmus stops, and the addition of non-musical stops such as tremulant, drums, and bird whistles. The result of these innovations was the magnificent Dutch organ of the late 16th century. It was an anthropocentric designed, [26] democratic organ [27] in which the individual voices blended into a magnificent whole, a feast for the ear and eye. An organ which made the Dutch minister- poet exclaim: "The organ is a picture of life lived here below the pipes, each with its place and tone, stand neatly in a row.[28]

A Minor Matter

The Synod of 1574 forbade organ playing and the one of 1578 even gave instructions to have the organs removed. The Synod of 1638, however, considered organs and organ playing "a minor matter left in the freedom of each church." Between 1574 and 1638 fall the development of the popular organ recital and the art of organ building, or rather the meeting of the recital and the organ in the Genevan Psalter. In 1598 the consistory of Dordrecht struck the right balance between religion and art by instructing its organist "to begin playing the psalms and to pursue them 5 or 6 times right after the service.[29] In other words he had to improvise psalm variations to instruct and edify the congregation.

Organistae Summi

Amid the atrophied theories and uncouth organ practices of the 16th century, a "new" music concept, which resuscitated and ennobled it, made its appearance in the Netherlands; the art of variation. An art to which the reformed "5 or 6 times" and Sweelincks "first this way and then that way" give witness. This art made it possible "to give each tone its place and meaning"

[30] and it replaced the mechanical reproduction of vocal music on the organ with independent instrumental music. The imitator of choir scores became the composer of true organ works, and in so doing gave the organ its unique language.

Essentially English in origin, the new art form found fertile soil in The Netherlands. In Roman and Lutheran churches, where liturgically much remained as it was, the art could not take root. In The Netherlands, however, where the organ, thanks to the Calvinistic form of worship, was freed from all ecclesiastical custody, and where the organist, now a civil servant, had to break with previous customs and traditions and cast about for new forms of expression, the variation art form found a fertile ground.

It is, therefore, not surprising that a musical genius such as Jan Pieterz Sweelinck employed this new art in his daily work, earning him the title, "Phoenix of organ playing". The dead organs and dying art of playing them rose under his fingers from their ashes.

Jan Pieterz, who took his mother's family name, Sweelinck, undoubtedly received his initial training from his father, Peter Swybertszoon, organist of the Old Church at Amsterdam. After his father's death in 1573 Jan Pieterz, then only eleven years old, continued his studies with Jan Willesz Lossy at Haarlem. [31] There he received a vocal training, for Lossy was not an organist but a singer. [32] The title, Meester van het Quelen" (Master of Singing), consistently applied to Sweelinck by his contemporaries, seems to indicate as much. It would not be surprising that the entry in the account book of the Old Church of 1585: "Given to master Jan for singing in the Church on order of the city fathers", [33] refers to none other than Jan Pieterz Sweelinck. Freed from organist duties, trained as a singer, he was well-qualified to lead the congregation, as precentor, in the singing of "Dathenus' Psalms". W.R. Talsma contends that singing was the foundation of Sweelincks instrumental music. He writes. "When a man is 'Inspired' [34] in all forms and aspects of life, to play an instrument is a mere transposing of that experience by means of certain technical skills"., [35], [36] It would appear that Sweelinck was mainly self-taught when it came to organ playing.

According to his former pupil and future friend, Cornelius Plemp, Sweelinck became the organist of the Old Church in 1578, at the age of fifteen? [37]The following year the Amsterdam churches went over to the Reformation, and Jan Pieterz became a civil servant, organist of a denomination with a singular musical source, the Genevan Psalter.

The Prince of Music

From all the sources of that time it becomes abundantly clear that the psalms were central in Sweelinck's musical life. [38] As a matter of fact it is often only the psalms and their use which are mentioned in references to him. Here are some of them.

"Here lies, who put to music David's royal word,
And made it to resound in Zion, in Holland it was heard.

"For psalms and prayers the organ is rightly used." [40]

"In the evening I am always present in the church to hear the master play a psalm." [41]

"He, as a lyre singer, flowered for 44 years among the zealous temple servants. [42]

"They (father and son) followed David's harp. "


"Thou dost divide in Sweelincks noble sway The Psalm in clever hast. First this and then that way, That knowing ears are honestly amazed. [44]

"... may this noble work of Kind David soften the hearts of the rulers." [45]

"The first-rate compositions he has published, in particular the Music on the Tunes of David's Psalms, as they are sung in the Reformed churches, give ample proof of the musical spirit with which he was blessed." [46]

"He was an eminent organist not equalled anywhere. For that reason he was held in high esteem by the lovers of music, but especially by the common people his fellowmen." [47]

The Organist Maker

The importance of Sweelinck in the history of organ music does not lie in his Toccatas and Fantasias, great as they may be, but in the application of the variation technique to the Genevan Psalter. It removed the opposition the Protestants had to organs and organ playing. That opposition had been necessary to clear the air and purify the prevailing bad taste and ignorance. When the playing was ennobled, and its practitioners became noble artisans, all ecclesiastical objections were silenced. The dichotomy between sacred and profane disappeared, for the organ no longer gave an "uncertain sound." [48] The former "barbarian" with his "wanton song" had become "the master, who gracefully played a psalm on various stops", and the "Superstitious Mary motets" were replaced by "sober, edifying pieces." Sweelinck's musical activities were so new and startling that students flocked to Amsterdam to be instructed by the master. Dutch city councils sent their aspiring organists to him to learn the art of variations. The Germans came in droves; Jacob Schutz (Praetorius), Heinrich Scheidemann, Samuel Scheidt, Paul Seifert, Melchior Schildt, etc. Their number was so great that Sweelinck was dubbed "the German organist-maker ." [49]

"The influence of Sweelinck's setting of chorales. .. has been more strongly felt that that of any of his other types of compositions on succeeding generations of church musicians. They (originated and) stand side by side with those of Scheidt, Buxtehude, Walther, Bach, and Brahms as monuments of organ music." [50]

The event from which they evolved, although not officially ecclesiastical yet imbued with its spirit, is threefold: the psalms, the organ, and Jan Pieterz Sweelinck


[1] Quoted by R. Talsma, Het Orgel, vol. 61, p. 232.

[2] See Gen. 2:7 In the "inspiration" of the first Adam our inspirations are included. In the "expiration" of the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our expirations are included. Between these boundaries - creation and cross - lies the life of man.

[3] Quoted by R Mehrtens, Kerk and Muziek, p. 41.

[4] Ibid, p. 35.

[5] "Devotio moderna" was a religious movement which stressed spirituality, Bible reading, piety, education, and communal life. (14th -16th century)

[6] Gen. 28:12.

[7] ... the origin of life is sound; it is the voice of God ... that stirs creation in the void!' W. Mellers, Bach and the Dance of God, London, 1980, p. 3

[8] Forword Souter Liedekens.

[9] R. Bennink Jansonius, Geschiedenis van het Kerkgezang, p. 56

[10] J. Calvin, Forward to the Genevan Psalter.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Quoted by J. Zwart, Reformatorische Orgelcultuur, p. 53. (translated S. VanderPloeg)

[13] "The large organ was played ... during a visit of Philips of Bourgandia (1517)" and during the sacrament procession in 1551: "the fathers sang Te Deum and the large organ played along and also throughout the whole mass." Quoted by M.A. Vente, Bouwstene, p. 196.

[14] In Reimerswaal, for instance, the organ was used to play "loff" (praise) on market days.

[15] Quotations compilated from Evert Westra, Uit Sionzalen, p. 37-39.

[16] J. Zwart, Reformatorische Orgelcultuur, p. 34.

[17] Ibid, p. 34.

[18] "do hort man schnetliche und imerlich bullieder und gesang, darnach die huren and puben tantzen." Quoted in Kerk & Muziek, F. Mehrtens, p. 38

[19] G.W. Stewart, Music in Church Worship, p. 230.

[20] C. Huygens, Chebruyk en onghevruyk van t' Orgel, p. 29.

[21] For instance Petrus Bloccius complaint "that prayers were hindered by it!' D.W.L. Milo, Zangers en Speellieden, p. 110.

[22] Quotation from Vaderlandse Kergeschiedenis, C. CanderZee, various places.

[23] Ibid

[24] "Man hat sich aber von 50 Jahren her sehr dir Lieblichkeit, sonderlich in den Niederlanded Mehr, als dieser Orten." Quoted by A. Bouma, Nederland.. Orgelland, p. 38.

[25] Ibid, pg. 40.

[26] The renaissance organ builders applied the ancient principle that man is the measure of all things. Thus the overall design of the organ proceeded from the height of a man for the largest pipe (F). It is also remarkable that the width of that pipe, 116 of its length, conforms to the classical proportion of the human body, body length with the waist measurement. The French word for pipescale is still "taille" (waist).

[27] The new stops included in the organ were imitations of fold instruments particularly suited for ensemble playing, unsuitable for virtuosi display.

[28] Jacob Revius, 1586-1658. Quoted by J. Zwart, p. 143 (translated S. VanderPloeg).

[29] Ibid, pg. 36.

[30] Jacob Revius, quoted by J. Zwart, p. 33.

[31] According to a statement by the organist Jacob van Noort in 1680. He states "that he has heard many times Jan Pieterz ... learned his art from Jan Willemz" Jos de Klerk, Haarlem Muziekleven, p. 24.

[32] "Jan Willemz, from Dordrecht hired on Aug. 7,1568 to sing as tenor" from Haarlem City archives, quoted by Jos de Klerk, ibid.

[33] Quoted by J. Zwart, p. 127.

[34] See paragraph on singing.

[35] W.R. Talsma, Het Orgel, Vol. 61, p. 232.

[36] Praetorius reported that Sweelinck's body "was relaxed and that playing did not appear to take him any effort" in other words his body was relaxed and moved naturally.

[37] Sweelinck must have been an accomplished organist at that time. Church regulation forbade pupils (organ students) to play on the organs of Amsterdam during worship service.

[38] The following compilation is derived from various sources. (Transl. of poems S. VanderPloeg.)

[39] Epitaph of Sweelinck by P.C. Hooft.

[40] J. Revius on hearing Sweelinck play.

[41] Rev. J. Uytenbogaert.

[42] C. Helm in memoriam. of Sweelinck. In it there is an oblique reference to the Psalms.

[43] J. vandenVondel's eulogy.

[44] Eulogy by H. Dullaert for the Sweelinck pupil, Joan Crabbe, organist at Rotterdam, 1660.

[45] Sweelinck speaking in a poem dedicated to Seifort on the publication of his German Psalms.

[46] "Memoryen" of Dr. W. Baudartius, who had a music doctorate from Oxford. According to him Sweelinck's Psalms were his magnus opus.

[47] Master Wassenaer on the death of Sweelinck. Sweelinck was popular, the people "swarmed around him" when he "mounted the steps to the organ loft" to play the organ for the enjoyment and edification of the people."

[48] I Corinthians 14.

[49] Organistenmaker: This title seems to imply that before Sweelinck there was no separate instruction in organ playing and in the second place that Sweelinck had something new to offer.

[50] R.L. Tusler, The Organ Music of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, p. 71.


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