The Pilgrims hated the organ, the sound and symbol of papal excess and godlessness.
These Calvinists sang their austere psalms without accompaniment, even without harmony, and would have done so in the fall of 1621 at their first autumn feast in the “New World” four hundred years ago next week.
During the Pilgrims’ sojourn in The Netherlands between 1608 and 1620 they found themselves in a country rich in fabulous organs that offered banquets of colorful sounds and larger combinations of stops capable of tremendous power.
These refugees from English persecution lived in a courtyard near the huge gothic Church of St. Peter’s. The Pieterskerk is known today as the Church of the Pilgrim Fathers, a suspect bit of rebranding aimed at attracting American tourists—reverse-direction pilgrims of the modern age. Those original Pilgrims did not hold their services within its wall since the Dutch authorities forbade their suspect doctrines from being preached publicly. Instead, the foreigner dissenters met in their rooms in the courtyard houses. The Pilgrims left Leiden because they felt it too libertine. History proved them right: the Pieterskerk was deconsecrated in 1971.
The grave of the Pilgrims’ pastor, John Robinson, lies inside the Pieterskerk. Rather than make the voyage across the North Sea to England and then over the Atlantic, he stayed behind in Leiden—and is still there beneath his stone slab. I duly sought out his final earthly resting place in 1990 when I was in Leiden for an organ recital. Robinson’s son, Isaac came to Massachusetts in 1631, six years after his father’s death, where he became an innkeeper. His descendants are now spread across from the United States and Canada, including several surviving Robinsons living not far from where I’m writing this in Ithaca, New York.
The Pieterskerk was consecrated in 121 and thus marks its 900th anniversary this year. When the Pilgrims were in Leiden the church had a large organ already a century old, built in 1512 by the celebrated craftsman Jan van Covelens.
When the Reformation came to The Netherlands in the later sixteenth century, church authorities banished organ music—both solos and hymn accompaniments—from the divine service. The musical result was literally dis-organ-ized: reports of psalm singing in these cavernous spaces describe enormous cacophony proceeding at an extremely slow pace, the cantor and congregation taking big breaths between each long-held melody note. Although singing the same language—Dutch—the hymns of praise seemed to many to emanate from the Tower of Babel.
In wealthy Dutch churches the organs had winged doors that could be pulled shut with ropes before the service so that their glittering pipes would not distract the worshippers down in the church. The colorful Catholic frescos had been whitewashed over, the elaborate altar pieces removed or destroyed. Some organs fell victim to iconoclasm, but not those in Leiden.
At the end of the service and for the weekday entertainment of the wealthy burghers, the doors would open and the organ sound. An instrument that for religious fanatics was a Roman abomination represented for businessmen—some of them speculators in schemes from Old and New World scheme from tulips to tobacco—the most elaborate and expensive technology that embodied of Dutch engineering know-how.
The chaos in congregational song led the Leiden city fathers to spend large sums of money for a new organ finished in 1634. That was the instrument I had journeyed to marvel at in 1990. The instrument rises up three-stories in an ornately case with finely carved details and crowned by an imposing pediment. This paradoxical Parthenon towering above the congregation of a Calvinist church was equipped with giant doors less intended to protect the city’s investment that to shutter it when the clerics demanded. More frequently, the wings remained open. The Leiden organ is powerful, with pipes ranging from twenty-four feet to just a few inches in length: the edifice anchored by enormous sonic gravity and topped by heavenly angelic brilliance. Down below in the church the singing got organ-ized again.
But what of the of the sound of the organ the Pilgrims heard when strolling through the Pieterskerk or perhaps hearing it from beyond the church’s walls?
An instrument from Jan van Covelens survives in the village of Oosthuizen an hour north of Leiden on the A4 freeway. This beautifully preserved treasure was made in 1521 according to an inscription on the case—500 years old in 2021. (It is true that more recent research casts the extent of van Covelens’ work on the Ooshuizen organ, and indeed the date itself, into some doubt; but when marking centennials and their multiples one shouldn’t be oppressed by exactitude.)
The greatest musician and leading organist of the Dutch Golden Age was Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck of Amsterdam; he died 400 years ago in October, a month before the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving. Though Sweelinck remained Catholic, he set all 150 of the Geneva psalms for human voices; two of his keyboard elaborations of these Calvinist melodies also survive.
Sweelinck’s treatment of Psalm 140 heard below on the organ in Oosthuizen moves from stark sobriety to exuberance. The plain, stepwise melody is never ornamented, never prettified. It resounds in the top voice in the first three of the set’s five variations in the top voice, the left hand speeding up its figuration and eventually adding a third voice that ratchets up the level difficulty and the amount of sound produced.
At the fourth variation the melody migrates to the middle of the three voices, the outer parts moving together or separately in pleasing polyphony. The final stanza maintains this arrangement of voices but lets the right hand loose in joyful, ever-faster passage work that culminates in ascending, then descending double thirds in both hands, one after the other. Rather than resist the impetus of art like the Pilgrims, Sweelinck music embraces the joys of human invention as a form of glorification.
The Oosthuizen organ is ardent and clear, yet not without texture, graininess. The machine attains a human quality. This is music that could have been heard in Leiden or perhaps on a journey to not-so-distant Amsterdam by passing Pilgrims. They would have immediately recognized the melody and would have known the words even if not allowed to sing them with the organ:
Deliver me, O Lord, from the evil man; preserve me from the violent man;
Which imagine mischiefs in their heart; continually are they gathered together for war.