Organ Building and Restorations in the Netherlands
November 3, 2019
FRITS ELSHOUT –––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Organ Building and Restorations in the Netherlands
Frits Elshout, recently-retired Director of Flentrop Orgelbouw in the Netherlands, discusses his experience leading one of the most important firms for organ building and restoration of modern times in this interview with Vox Humana Associate Editor Bruce Shull.
Frits, thank you for agreeing to share some of your experiences with us. What first drew you to the organ and organ building?
From my very youth onward, something about the organ took hold of me. As a child, I was always paying attention in the church when the organ was playing. A member of our church was an organ builder, and I thought that was wonderful. But I have always been also interested in music — in sound. When I was just tall enough that I could reach up to the harmonium with my hands, I would push a key down and I would pump and would hear a tone — and I thought it was very nice; I discovered when I played two or three keys together, it would give a certain sound. My mother would say, “Just try a different one” because it would drive her crazy. I was always drawn like a magnet to touch the keys of that reed organ. I always wanted to play things, imitating what I heard. I think I was in kindergarten — I had never had any organ lessons, but I could play a chorale.
Whenever there was an organ or music or manuals I always needed to touch them. I was a member of a large family, so there was not enough money for lessons when I was very young, but when I was nine years old, we moved from Utrecht to The Hague. It was there that I got my first organ lessons and the organ teacher really taught me the first principles of good playing and music. So, I had some organ lessons for quite a few years. It was not always successful, because I was (as many boys are) not very diligent in practicing. The problem I had was, that I could memorize the pieces I had to play so quickly that I would not look at the book anymore. Today’s way of teaching is way different and my situation would probably have been approached more as an opportunity instead of a problem, creating a win-win situation. That was not the case there. But I couldn’t help it and I would be playing away during lessons and the teacher all of a sudden would say, “Stop. Where are you now in the score?” I had no idea.
Then, when I was 15, our entire family moved to Los Angeles, California. The problem there was that even if my parents wanted to give us some musical education, all the money they had, which was not an awful lot, went into sending us to a private Christian school because the quality of the education in the public schools there was so poor. When I think back, it was actually one of the luckiest moments in my life because it was a school where music was an important element of the education. So, I joined the school choir, where I sang one hour every day. We had a very good music teacher who was very eager to pass on some of his knowledge. He was very much into high-quality music and singing. So, all of a sudden, a new world of repertoire and sound opened up for me — much broader than just the organ. I learned the value of the word “vocality.” We sang Schubert, Bach, Handel, Brahms – the whole thing. We even sang some contemporary things. He really taught us how to sing, how to use our voices and how to listen to each other and to bring everything together. When I look back, I think that’s one of the most beautiful things that ever happened to me.
How did you get your start at Flentrop?
After my senior year and graduation, we moved from Los Angeles to Kalamazoo, Michigan. That’s where I started my college education. Not knowing exactly what I wanted at that age (I was only 17 when I graduated), I went to college for two years. I studied to become a teacher, more in technical courses and so on. I even did some technical drawing and other things of that sort.
I was always working with my hands too. I completely rebuilt the engine of my car with the help of a friend. During my study, I met Erik Verkade, the son of a well-known Dutch merchant. Erik (he was born and raised in Zaandam) and I became friends and he was the first one who sensed that education was not really my calling. He was the first one who ever said to me “I believe organ building would really be something for you.” I said, “Well yeah, maybe, but I have no idea how I can become an organ builder.” He mentioned Flentrop, which I knew of (the company name was well known in Holland). In the meantime, because of my interest in organ music, I bought all the records of E. Power Biggs. I also bought the complete organ works of J.S. Bach by Walter Kraft and the complete works of Buxtehude. I listened to them all the time. In my eyes, Flentrop was a famous organ builder, so I thought there would be no chance that I would ever work there as, at that time I didn’t know that much about organ building. Erik said, “You never know. My father is coming here to visit me in a couple of weeks and he knows Mr. Flentrop personally, because they’re both in Rotary in Zaandam and are friends. I’ll introduce you to him.” His father even came to visit us at our house and met my parents. We had a nice conversation about many things. He just wanted to get an idea of what kind of person I was and what kind of family I came from. At the end, he looked at me and said, “You know, if I were you, I would write a letter to Dirk Flentrop and you can mention my name in it as a reference. I will be seeing him in a couple of weeks anyway and if he asks me, then I will tell him my opinion. You never know what might happen.”
I followed his advice and wrote a letter to Flentrop. I got a letter back saying that, if I wanted to, I could start the first of September and what my wages would be. After a year they would evaluate my performance. That was fine with me. I was at the end of my second year of college and it seemed a good time to take a break to go and work as an apprentice at Flentrop for a year. Everything was decided within a couple of weeks. My parents had always promised us when we initially went to the United States that when we were old enough to take care of ourselves and wanted to go back to Holland, they would not stand in our way. My parents kept their promise. It was difficult for them — I was almost 20 and the first one to leave home. I went back all on my own not knowing exactly how things would work out.
Zaandam was a totally strange area for me — I didn’t know anybody. I went anyway and found a place to stay and worked there for a year. Coming back to Holland was more difficult than I had expected, because I had lived for more than four years in the United States during a very important period in a person’s life (between 15 and 20). Because I think that I had become more of an American, it was difficult for me to adjust again to the Dutch way of life. But I managed to make it to the end of that year.
I had bought a plane ticket that was valid for a year so I could go back to Michigan. The Flentrop people would evaluate whether they wanted to keep me and I would also decide whether I wanted to go on. Due to various circumstances, there was an opening in the pipe shop. So I started working there in 1971. The evaluation talk has yet to take place to this day. They wanted to keep me. Right at that same time I met my future wife, Nellie: even that early stage of our relationship was enough to help keep me there. And then Flentrop gave me a contract and I had the chance to stay. Throughout the years I got the opportunity to do various things at Flentrop and eventually grew into the position of voicer. In addition to making flue pipes, I started making reeds. At that time the Flentrop shop did not make their own reeds, but they ordered them from Giesecke and Stinkens. Somehow, I seem to have been blessed both with good hands and good ears. What was between the ears was probably okay too. That is important, because you can have good ears and hear all things, but you have to know what to do with it musically.
In combination with my education, my interest in music and my eagerness to learn were very helpful in my personal development in the growing process. There was a lot going on in music at that time — going back to historical practices in not only playing but also in building organs after the examples of historical instruments. That combination and the ability to work with my hands together with my education gave me all the equipment that I needed to be able to do what I did and to grow in my position. When I look back, when I entered the Flentrop shop I would have never thought that I would end up as a president. I would have laughed in disbelief if someone had told me that. It was not my ambition. My focus was not at all on making a career, but on the mastering of the craft itself. I think that attitude also has something to do with my character. When things come my way, I don’t walk away from them, I try to pick them up and go for it.
I had the patience to wait for my chances. These chances did come and when they came, I took them with both hands and tried to make the best out of it. It is a very relaxed feeling when I look back because all the things I did in life, also at Flentrop, I have been asked to do — I’ve never had to apply for anything. I’m not saying that when other people do apply for a certain position, that that is wrong, but that it says something about my own attitude in life. The opportunity to become president of Flentrop Orgelbouw was not my first choice, because I realized that it was not an easy task. It would take a lot of my energy away from being active with the instrument itself — in voicing. Because that really had my heart, and it still does. To start from scratch and create something — when something starts to vibrate and becomes an instrument — that process is always very emotional, and it can draw all the energy out of you, but it is something that always has given me a tremendous feeling of satisfaction.
I have always had a tremendous hunger to grow and to keep listening to new developments and to try to judge and evaluate them. I tried not to listen too much to people who say, “Well that is the way we have always done it.” It is good to try new things and to try to follow new developments. Basically, I still want to learn. To lean back and float along on your routine is deadly, I think.
That is, through the years, how my life was at Flentrop. At a certain point, when Hans Steketee stepped down in 1998, I became Vice President. Cees van Oostenbrugge became President. Cees died very suddenly — much sooner than I and anyone else had hoped or expected. All of a sudden I had to take over. That was a very difficult period for me. From a human perspective, it was a very lonely position. Everyone was looking to me for decisions. My words were judged differently because they apparently had taken on a different importance. One of the first things I did was to appoint Erik Winkel as my deputy. He was still very young, but he was very capable and I thought that he would be the one to assist me, and in due time, to succeed me. For me that was clear already. It was not so clear to him and for some others, but sometimes ideas need time to ripen.
From your perspective, what are some of the highlights in the history of the Flentrop company?
There have been numerous moments. The first major restoration where I was involved was with the final voicing of the Müller organ in Beverwijk in the early 80’s.
Not too long after that we did some major re-voicing of the Haarlem St. Bavo organ. That happened in two phases. The first phase was still under the responsibility of Klaas Bolt (organist at St. Bavo from 1952 until 1990). I remember re-voicing about seven or eight of the stops that really bothered him and he was very happy with the result. And later we were commissioned to do the entire Hoofdwerk and the whole Rugwerk in the first phase. Then the difference between what had been done and the unchanged Oberwerk and the Pedaal became so evident that the rest was commissioned too after some years. Having been able to completely go through that organ and bring it, I think, more into the direction it should be, was very rewarding. Marcussen, with all the good things they did, very much had tried to make it a Marcussen organ, and it had sounded like a Marcussen organ. And now, I think it is more in the historic direction. Now it again sounds coherently like a single unit, and I find it very special that I had the opportunity to do that. As a child, I have been in that church and looked at that organ. If somebody had told me then that someday I would work on that organ, I would not have believed it.
Alkmaar — the big Schnitger organ, and also the smaller instrument have been major moments in my organ building life — the Schnitger in 1987 and the Van Covelens organ that was done 13 years later.
And then, last but not least St. Katharinen in Hamburg. There are many other smaller jobs that I also enjoyed. I think I have been lucky that we have been involved in so many important restorations. Also, in the years after Hamburg, we did the reconstruction of the Hinsz organ in Harlingen, and then after that Bolsward, also a Hinsz organ. All these projects were very rewarding, very nice and we learned a lot every time.
I think that it is very important to say this: one is very lucky to have the opportunity to actually work on these historic instruments from various periods. There is so much I learned from it. All this information somehow settles down in your system and there come moments that you are able to implement what you have gained over the years. It is like in many other artistic professions that the years and the experience bring something extra. You need to have patience. You have to know that you need time to let things develop. Slowly but surely, it grows. It’s like wanting to have a wine that is only one year old and you expect it to taste like it is ten years old — that doesn’t work. I believe that, especially in the profession of organbuilding, you should not be too eager to be successful, to grow and to make a career too quickly, because then you are not going to be a good organ builder. You have to be able to take the time to digest all this information, all the different influences. That is probably one of the most important things. When I look back I think it went at the right pace for me — not too quickly.
To what extent have antique instruments that you have encountered informed your organ building concepts?
This influence has been very important for me. Not only the organs, but there were some important people that played a key role. Klaas Bolt, for instance, was not only a good musician, but he also had a good ear. He could somehow make clear to people what inspired him and what did not. Not only Klaas but also other people — Jan Jongepier and another very well-known advisor in the Dutch organ culture — Mr. Wiersma. These people had good ears and had a tremendous frame of reference. They taught and helped to shape my musical intuition. That is something that you have to develop — intuition for quality and to learn what is essential and what is not. Also playing these historic instruments is very important and experiencing what happens when you play them along with looking at all the details. You experience things that you very often did not experience in the same way in a new organ (in the neo-Baroque tradition, for instance). I am not saying that there are no good neo-Baroque organs, but there is something special in these historic instruments that makes me curious. What is it, and how do we get to that? Then of course there are always the self-proclaimed organ experts who seem to know what it is all about and have all sorts of theories. But I have learned not to blindly follow and trust the theories and doctrines of others, but to dig into it myself.
Hans Steketee also played an important role. He knew and had a good gut feeling for sound, what was interesting and what was not, in that way you influence each other, and you create a healthy judgment. Taste is something that you have to develop so that you learn what you want to hear. And then you also have to learn throughout the years if what you want to hear is in line (in this case) with these pipe scales and with these pipes, and whether your expectations are realistic. Through experience you find out things, for instance, these pipes cannot give the sound I expect, but they can, however produce something else. You also develop a certain intuition that, when you hold a pipe in your hand, you just know what it can give. If you have a bottle that can hold a liter, you know that a liter can go into that bottle; but if you are trying to put 1-½ liters into that bottle, it is not going to work. But in voicing, with the various styles of organs and different scales, you must also learn that this bottle may only be half full when it could hold up to a liter. And to know where the boundaries are — that is experience. And it is also very important, that at crucial moments in the creative process you have people who come in fresh and listen and are able to give good and objective comments. Not “I like this” or I don’t like this” but who can sit down and play and make clear to you, “This here is beautiful; but over here something is still missing.” Not everyone who gives comments is capable of giving good feedback. It is a learning process and you always have to stay open-minded for good comments. You have to learn to weigh criticism. The people that criticize you are not your enemies! You need people who dare to comment on your work to your face. If various people independently from each other give the same comment, you have to do something with it. And then you have to judge for yourself – what am I going to do with this?
It is very important when you start with the whole process of voicing to keep moving. In the beginning, when you are searching, you can go in various directions. First create the big line and then step back and fill in the details, and not the other way around. That is something I had to learn too. I had the tendency to stay at one point; this pipe is not doing what I would like, so just leave it alone for a while and go on. Fill in the picture a little more and then step back and then things very often will fall into place. A weekend as a time-out is sometimes very good too! You come in again fresh on Monday morning and you find it is not as bad as you thought when you left. And that is how it grows. Never make major adjustments at the end of a day or week when you are tired. You also have to learn when to stop. There comes a point when you have worked through the entire organ that the things you do are not going to improve it anymore, but on the contrary, there is the danger to spoil it.
I have heard people say, “You know, it doesn’t have to all be so perfect,” That is true in a certain way, but when you say that because you can’t get it any better, then it is an excuse. That’s not the way it works. But the thing I learned from Klaas Bolt — make your decisions when you play. Those are the right decisions. And if there is something that does not disturb you while playing, just leave it alone for now. Only take out what musically disturbs you.
What, for you, makes a good organ?
I think an organ needs to be in agreement with itself. A healthy layout is essential. The organbuilder must therefore always be in control. Architects need to know their position. If the focus is too much on visual matters, the possibility for it to fail to become a convincing musical instrument is looming. Tracker action in combination with slider-chests is essential in creating an organic entity that creates a natural tie between the player and the instrument.
A good organ must be able to inspire you for a longer period of time. If, after 10 minutes of playing you are tired of it, or if you don’t know what to play anymore, then something is not right. I think a good organ has a sound that has a certain “looseness” to it. The Dutch word is “vanzelfsprekend”, which means, it comes naturally. But when a pipe is forced and the sound is pushed, it makes you tired of it quickly. Sometimes you need a little more energy, but always, and especially in the higher ranges, the sound should not become too tight. It should somehow always be open, like the voice of a good singer. Then it comes together, especially when there is a good unity and balance in the fundamentals and the high tones. It’s like a good orchestra where everything falls into place. Every stop has something to say on its own. It is not a good organ when you have to draw ten stops in order to make it interesting. When the single stops are boring or don’t really have anything to say, it is not a good organ; if, for instance, the Principal 8' is not interesting to listen to by itself, I usually don’t have to hear the rest anymore. But, that’s also my personal opinion.
How has Flentrop been able to maintain high quality in their work over the years while enduring an ever-changing work force and the changing visions of the numerous directors of the company?
One of the first aspects I would like to mention is the fact that under the leadership of D.A. Flentrop, a strong awareness for organbuilding ethics was developed. This so-called “Flentrop-DNA” is deeply rooted in the company. Although there have been quite a few directors, they all came from within the company. No one was appointed that did not have a long-standing work experience in the company. Hans Steketee was Vice Director under D.A. Flentrop for many years before becoming Director. The same can be said about Cees van Oostenbrugge, Erik Winkel, and me. One of the results, as I see it, is a very strong team spirit. The separation between the administration and personnel was never too big.
There is another aspect that is worth mentioning: One of the most important decisions D.A. Flentrop made at the end of his career was to sell the company to the Flentrop crew (with administration and employees as co-owners). D.A. Flentrop wanted to avoid what he had seen happening too often: The family remains owner and appoints a family member as director, through whom they can influence things and at the same time receive revenues. When a family member does not really have the qualities and vision they should have, a company can go down the drain quickly. There are some sad examples of that.
All the people that worked for Flentrop in key positions were appointed based on specific qualities and with approval of the whole crew and not because of family ties. All of them also have something else in common: they all came to Flentrop because they wanted to work there. There were no headhunters involved. Most of them worked for the company all their life. People celebrating a 40-year anniversary are no exception. Either you are gone within one year because the DNA does not match, or you stay the rest of your life.
In addition, there has always been a strong conviction that knowledge needs to be passed on to the next generation. There never was room for superstars keeping their special secrets to themselves. If someone had these aspirations, the group would correct that very effectively. You either shaped up, or you left. There was a strong “no nonsense mentality”. One example comes to my mind that illustrates it very nicely: we were working in the USA for about 6 weeks; the people were very enthusiastic and we were treated as celebrities. On the day we drove to the airport to go back home, my colleague said from the bottom of his heart: “So, tomorrow we will be normal people again.”
There has always been a healthy mix between “organ nuts” and normal craftsmen.
When leading a company you need to know what is going on outside the company. D.A. Flentrop realized at a certain moment in his career that the movement toward a more historical way of organbuilding was no fad, but a next step in the search for quality. He wholeheartedly supported that, but he never followed the prophets blindly. Neither did his successors. That attitude has always been part of the company philosophy. We have always maintained an independent position with a positive attitude towards new developments, but with a high degree of common sense.
And finally, if you have established a good reputation, you get more interesting projects. Because of that, capable people are even more eager to join your company. This fresh blood coming in keeps the quality level of the crew stable from one generation to the next. That gives a solid foundation to maintain your reputation, which leads again to more interesting projects. The circle is completed.
I am sure that there is more to say, but I leave that to other people who can judge more independently from a distance.
For aspiring young organ builders, what do you look for in potential apprentices or employees when you meet someone? What sorts of things do you expect them to bring to the business?
Well, I think it is very important that people must have musical interests and a love for the organ. It should not just be a machine to them, but something more than that. They need good hands and the ability to work well with tools. They must also have a healthy attitude. The craft is not only made up of interesting things, but also has more boring and uninteresting aspects. In general people from outside have the impression that everything in organbuilding is so nice and interesting and you will be an artist before you know it. But you know, it is hard work. And sometimes also tedious work where patience and perseverance are very important! You have to be able to focus on the final result. It must be someone who is also able to work in a team, because teamwork is so important in organbuilding. Since the main ingredient of quality is diligence, you need someone who is willing to work really hard to reach the goal, also when that means that things need to be done that are not too interesting, but still need to be done well and are essential. As somebody once put it, an artistic performance is in general not the product of inspiration only, but mostly of perspiration. The inspiration is maybe 10%.
If you think, starting out, that working in the pipe shop and washing pipes, for instance, is below your level, then you might as well go away. You have to do it together and you have to be willing to go for it. You have to fight sometimes to get results and you should not be discouraged too easily. Or, on the other hand, there is the danger of being pleased too quickly with your own work and not to be willing to listen and to learn. And of course in an organ company, you don’t need only artists. You also need people, like cabinet-makers, who are just able to make a good piece of work and who are not necessarily “organ nuts.” We are not looking for perfect people, but people who are teachable.
Is there any particular event that stands out as the highlight for you personally?
I think there are more occasions than one that I experienced as a highlight. A very special moment was not so long ago when I received the honorary membership of the Royal College of Music. Prince Charles himself handed that award to me. That was special. Even though I realize that many people who have done many good things that never get rewarded, still the fact that you get this award as recognition for a long and steady performance for the work you have done throughout the years is a wonderful experience. When that happens, it feels really good. It is good that things like that happen at the end of one’s career, in order to keep your feet on the ground.
During my farewell speech at my retirement party, I said that some of the golden moments in my career have not been when I was standing in the center of attention, but those where l would go back to the church in the evening with nobody around, and I would sit and play — not because I wanted to please people but I wanted just to be in the midst of the sound and to enjoy it without other people listening. It is hard to explain why, but that is the way it is. You sit there and you can mess around a little bit and you don’t have to worry about making mistakes that other people hear. You just sit down and enjoy the sound.
One time, a lady in Alkmaar who had no musical background whatsoever was cleaning the church. We were working on the small mean-tone Van Covelens organ. The Principal 8’ was finished with its double chorus rank in the treble, and that stop started to make music, and I just played something before coming down for coffee. She came up to me and with a real Amsterdam accent said, “You know sir, I don’t know what you are doing up there, but I have heard this organ before and it never did anything for me. But now, it touches me. I don’t know what it is.” That was a tremendous reward. It made me aware that even lay people who don’t know anything about music have some gut feeling for beauty. When people say, “I don’t know anything about music,” I tell them: "Well don’t say that. You also know if what you hear is worthwhile — yes or no. It resonates in your heart or it doesn’t."
The Flentrop company has carried out a large number of restorations over the years. Are there some particularly important upcoming restoration projects?
Yes, fortunately there are. At the moment we are involved in an important restoration/reconstruction of the 1681 Andreas Schneider organ in Corvey, Germany. This project also involves the making of a new spring-slider chest for the first time in our company history.
We also have a signed contract for the restoration/reconstruction of the organ in Mölln, one of the oldest organs in Germany. The earliest roots are from 1436. Many famous organbuilders have worked on the organ since, Jacob Scherer (1558), Hans Köster (1568) and Stellwagen (1639) and Bünting (1755–1766). The instrument will be reconstructed as Bünting left it in 1766. There are quite a few pipes left from these earlier builders that Bünting reused in his concept.
The big four-manual Schnitger organ in Zwolle will undergo another major restoration. D.A. Flentrop restored the organ in 1953–54, with an amazing result given the knowledge that was available. A few aspects for this upcoming restoration: the pitch will be lowered. In 1950, it was believed that it had to be 490 Hz. Recent research has revealed that it should have been 465 Hz. Many original flue pipes from Schnitger are still there and in good condition, but no shallots or resonators are left from the reeds, only the boots and some blocks. So, a reconstruction of the reeds will be necessary. The spring slider system of D.A. Flentrop will be replaced. Flentrop carefully saved the original sliders in the organ and they will be used again.
You have returned for several projects recently to the ancient process of casting pipe metal on sand. Your experience with this has been formative for our pipemaking and voicing at the Fritts shop and we appreciate very much your enthusiastic sharing of information about this practice. What have you found to be the advantages of this laborious process?
I remember having quite a bit of skepticism when I first read about sand-casting, but I decided to go to Göteborg and find out for myself. When I heard the organ in Göteborg for the first time, I heard something I had never heard in a new organ before — a very pleasant resonance in the sound. It made me wonder if it was related to the sandcasting. Very soon after that we were commissioned to do the reconstruction of the Katharinen in Hamburg, where sand-casting was one of the requirements. The information about this method made available in the publications of the Göteborg Organ Art Center (GOArt) was certainly helpful, but there was much more to be found out before we were able to produce good sheets of metal on a sand bed. Through perseverance we were able to overcome several moments of despair. I very often compare it to learning how to ice-skate. The first time you stand on the ice, you don’t believe that you will ever be able to make it around the rink. After many bumps and scratches you learn how to do it, and afterwards you don’t understand why it was so difficult in the beginning.
I still remember the moment we had the first stop finished. It was the Octave 4’ (100% lead) of the Rückpositive. All my doubts vanished like snow in the sun when I started voicing. The voicing process was so much more effective. The pipes wanted to sound. The speech issues and unmusical hissing were so much less prominent than with pipes cast on cloth. I had the same experience when I voiced the Principal 8’ (89% tin). When these two stops were sounding in the workshop (not an ideal acoustical situation!), it was already so convincing. I never heard this in a new organ before. In general, it has been my experience that pipes made of sand-cast material are easier to voice and they seem to produce a more vibrant sound. Since Hamburg we built two more organs, St. Florian in Austria and the Royal College of Music in London, with sand-cast pipes and have had the same experience.
This casting method is much more expensive because it is more labor-intensive, but is absolutely worthwhile. It is certainly not true that you cannot make an organ sound good with pipes made of material that is cast on cloth. There are many historic examples of organbuilders who did not cast on sand. But, to me there is certainly a positive difference in favor of sand-casting.
I believe that you and Paul [Fritts], when you were working with me in Hamburg, had that same experience. I am so glad that we were able to share our knowledge with the Fritts shop. That it has been formative for your way of pipe making and voicing is wonderful. I think that the strong ties between our shops made it natural to share as much as possible in both directions. Since the time we spent together in Hamburg and Norway, a strong feeling of mutual recognition and respect has been established — and besides that, also a lifetime friendship. We are all trying to do the same: To grow in our striving to build organs that touch the hearts.
Where do you think the future of organ building is headed? Are we on solid footing and looking to a future that looks bright or with churches not buying so many new organs, how do you see things shaping up in the future?
The organ building craft has survived throughout the centuries, so I don’t think it will disappear. We have had a period where we have built a lot of new organs. I don’t believe it will stay that way — it will slow down. The number of students that are educated to be organists is also declining worldwide. But I don’t believe it will ever disappear. There will always be a desire for good music and good organs. Sometimes I meet young people hearing an organ for the first time. They never went to church, and because there is a lot of bad organ playing in churches, they then don’t have some of the negative associations that others do. They hear the organ for the first time and say, “Wow!” I think we have been very fortunate to have been able to work in a period where there was such a peak and also to have had the opportunity to learn so much. I hope that the knowledge does not go to waste. There is a lot of information that you can write down. But, there is also information that you have to pass on verbally and practically.
This is not in direct answer to your question, but that is also the reason in the last few years that I slowed down a little bit and handed over the leading role to Erik Winkel. I wanted to have the time to spend with the young talented voicers, shoulder to shoulder, to pass the skills along. On location you are able to make visible and audible what you mean. All of this helps to create a good basis for them to go on. It is like learning how to swim. I have taught you this and that, but now I have to throw you into the water and you just swim on your own; you will make it, and I am here to assist you when needed. But you need to have a good foundation. That is very important. In this day and age when labor is becoming more and more expensive, there is tremendous pressure on that element. Young people who are coming in to work for the company already earn quite a salary when they actually know almost nothing. And that has changed over the last 50 years. To a certain extent, everybody should earn a good salary, but if you have to learn and there is pressure on you right away so that you have to perform within a certain period of time — and not being able to find the time to learn any more — that is a problem. That is maybe one of the biggest threats from within.
100 years ago, nobody would have thought that we would have had this revival in organ building as we have experienced. There is always a sort of swing or a sort of wave. But I think this time and age has the advantage that a lot of information is stored and can be made available easily. So people who really want to know will find the things they need. They will have to go their own way and go through their own personal struggle to grasp things, but there is enough information available. Not just on paper, but also word of mouth information that can give one the right leads. Really smart people will find out. That is the way I look at it.
For more than a century, Flentrop Orgelbouw of Zaandam, Holland has built, restored and maintained an amazing number of organs throughout the Netherlands and even worldwide. The company website lists some 425 new organs having been built; of those, 102 have been built in the United States. Frits Elshout took over the directorship in 2008, after having been vice-director since 1998, following the untimely and unanticipated death of Cees van Oostenbrugge. During his tenure, Frits oversaw quite a number of important projects including the monumental reconstruction of the organ for the Katharinenkirche in Hamburg, completed in 2013. His work as a pipe-maker and voicer has shaped the sound of Flentrop organs over four decades. His leadership, skills and vision have kept the company at the forefront of the organ building world. Mr. Elshout recently retired and was awarded an honorary membership in the Royal College of Music, bestowed upon him by Charles, Prince of Wales.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Vox Humana.