The Great Organ at Laurenskerk in Alkmaar, (Holland)


Blaise will do what cats will do,

Play with ball, play with shoe,

Tear the paper from my walls,

Never come when I call,

But when its time for his tea,

It’s he who comes in search of me.

In 1969 Lee Marvin stared, alongside a young Clint Eastwood, in a hilarious film called ‘Paint your Wagon’ and sang, in inverted commas, these lines,

Wheels are made for rollin’

Mules are made to pack,

I’ve never seen a sight that didn’t look better looking back.

The title of the song was ‘Wandering Star’ and it is the opinion of many who know me, including my big sister, that I was born under such a star, she always accused me of having ‘wheels on’.

As a spotted face teenager I was posted to Laarbruch in West Germany. Laarbruch was very close to the Dutch border, a new world had just opened up for me. I noticed that many of my fellow roommates had hung a sort of calendar chart above their beds and when I asked what they were, I was told ‘Repat Charts’ (repatriation charts). They were ticking off the days until they could return home, how odd, I thought, I was buoyed with excitement at being here, everything was so new and fresh, this was Europe and must be explored.

Cycling had been very much part of my life since childhood so on arrival at my new camp I went off in search of the PTI (physical training instructor), to ask if I could have a road bike on loan and if they had any inter-services competitions coming up that I could take part in? I was fitted out with a decent bike, from the Nuffield Trust, well the RAF did buy a lot of BMC vehicles. I found cyclist few and far between in this part of Germany, the odd commuter, so I was drawn more and moreover the border and into Holland where cycling was a national sport. I soon found myself in the company of a local cycle club and my week now comprised of five days at work, two days at play, along with the odd training evening when we went out and pulled the legs off one another. Sadly my new Dutch cycling friends spoke far better English than I, so the only words I was able to pick up were those you would not wish to use in polite company.

A German Ford, estate car came up for sale, a fellow airman who was returning home and needed to sell quickly, an estate would serve me well as a camper-van, to enable me to buy it my beautiful little Velocette would have to go. With my petrol coupons and the sale of my duty-free cigarette coupons, Europe would now become my Oyster. Every spare hour I had was spent travelling or planning to travel. It had become something of an obsession.

One day I fond myself in the company of John King, like me recently posted onto the camp, and whether as a volunteer or press-ganged I never did find out, but he played the organ at our church services. John had a little card, given to accomplished organists, you could show as proof that you had passed your organ driving test, well you get the idea. He said he had wanted to visit and play the world-famous Laurenskerk organ at the Grote Kirk in Alkmaar.

There are two organs, the smaller one, called the “Koororgel” (choir organ), was built in 1511 by Jan van Covelens and is built against the North wall of the church. It is the oldest playable organ in the Netherlands.

The larger organ at the west end of the church is one of the most famous, organs in the world. It was built by Jacobus Cletus van Hagerbeer, finished in 1645. The magnificent casework, which unusually stretches from floor to vault and makes the organ part of the architecture of the church, was designed Jacob ve Campen, a leading architect of the time. The enormous canvas shutters were painted by Caesar van Everdingen. The organ itself was rebuilt in 1723 by Frans Caspar Schnitger. He left the casework much as it was, but created an organ in the North German style within the old case. He reused much of the old fluework, but all the mixtures and reeds were new. The organ has not been changed much since then, and it is rare that 90 percent of the original material, pipework, action, soundboards, case, survives. As such it is not only one of the most beautiful but one of the most important organs anywhere on the planet.

John and I travel in my van over to Alkmaar the following weekend.

I was now seated, more or less in the middle of this magnificent church whose ceiling ascended so high above one’s head, it seemed to carry your eye all the way up to heaven. As for the organ, it dominates and demands your full attention. John, along with the resident organist, had climbed up into the organ and orchestra balcony, he was now seated behind a staircase of keyboards and above a bank of foot peddles. When he struck the opening cords of Toccata and Fugue in D minor the whole church building came to life, I can still hear that big D minor cord even today it was so overwhelming. This for me was the start of another of life’s great journeys, my introduction into the world of organ music, a love that has never left me. Strangely enough, I went to a recital here in St. Andrews only last summer and was speaking with the tutor that greeted me on my arrival, I mentioned I had heard the great organ at Laurenskerk in Alkmaar, and he told me he had trained there, it really is a small world.

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