Haarlem’s musical treasure

The cathedral

Just a 15-minute train ride from boisterous and cosmopolitan Amsterdam lies the charming city of Haarlem (which incidentally gave its name to Nieuw Haarlem in the northern part of Manhattan Island back in 1658). Its skyline has been dominated by the imposing Grote Kerk (or Sint-Bavokerk) cathedral, a Protestant church situated on the city’s central market square.

The organ

The organ situated inside the church (known as the Christiaan Müller organ) is considered as one of the world’s most important organs. Built by the Amsterdam organ builder Christian Müller between 1735 and 1738, it was the largest organ in the world by the time of its completion with 60 voices and 32-feet pedal-towers.

Such has been the instrument’s reputation that even Herman Melville mentioned it in his classic novel Moby-Dick (1851) when describing the inside of a whale’s mouth:

“Seeing all these colonnades of bone so methodically ranged about, would you not think you were inside of the great Haarlem organ, and gazing upon its thousand pipes”

Many important musicians and composers have played the Christiaan Müller organ over the centuries including Mendelssohn, Händel, as well as the 10-year old Mozart who visited Haarlem in 1766 in order to play the renowned organ.

The concerts

Having been modified a number of times over the course of the past centuries, the organ underwent a major renovation between 1959 and 1961. Today regular organ concerts together with several special events are being held in the Grote Kerk in order to give the opportunity to the public to listen to the unique sound of this celebrated organ.

Although I have visited Haarlem in the past, it was only recently that I had the chance to attend one of these concerts. Listening to the sound of this spectacular instrument filling up the vast space of the cathedral’s interior was quite a special experience. And it was only made possible through the masterful  playing of Haarlem’s city ​​organists Jos van der Kooy and Anton Pauw, who treated the audience to an excellent program including works by J.S. Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, Max Reger, and Hendrik Andriessen.

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