Fascination is the key to quality

Organ building: the technique behind playing organs English text Nederlandse tekst

May 2009; May 2016

Eager to learn on organs

Quickly after I started practicing organ playing in the church of Saint Boniface in Alphen aan den Rijn, my curiousity brought me to alternating the organ study with discovering the internals of the instrument. It caused my fascination for the technique and history of the pipe organ to grow and it has led to a rather thorough knowlegde and understanding of the working of pipe organs. When I was fifteen years of age, on the advice of my teacher Janhans Mathlener I bought the well-known Dutch book 'Orgelbouwkunde' from Oosterhof and Bouman. In 1981, I wrote my first technical-historical report. When in 1984 the organ consultant for the restoration of the organ in Saint-Boniface did not show up, I took over that job.

Until recently, I was not involved in practical jobs concerning building or maintaining organs, because: well, how to start with that? But my frequent visits to organs, repairing defects, tuning and the reading of many books and magazines gave me a good understanding of both the technical and the historical aspects of an organ. This came in handy when I brought on behalf of the Cuypers Society to court a case in which we opposed the request for a monument permit to change the organ in the Grote Kerk in Gorinchem (I worked this out in the overview of my work for the Cuypers Society elsewhere on this website (in Dutch)).

Acquiring knowledge on organ building

I have pleasant contacts with several organ builders and organ consultants. In 2009 I met, via organist Johnny Verbeken of 'our' Stevens-organ in the church of Our Lady of the Snows in Borgerhout, Romy Casteels, director of the then 187 year old organ builder Orgelbouw Jos Stevens in Duffel (between Mechelen, Antwerp and Lier in Belgium). Since 2010, with interruptions, he teaches me every now and then the tricks of the trade. Since 2016, I assist him during maintenance jobs. He likes to share his knowledge, but I am self-conceited enough to disagree every now and then with his approach …

Among other things, I worked on the cleaning and harmonisation of a reed stop: the Voix Humaine … I am busy with it on the photo to the right. A good hearing but above all a good physical insight and a kind of scientific attitude to keep asking what is caused by what make it a lot easier.

As said, every now and then since spring 2016 I work for Jos Stevens Organbuilders in Duffel (Belgium). The maintenance on the 84 stop Stevens organ of the Saint-Rombouts Cathedral in Mechelen is very interesting, it is not only an impressive instrument but it also contains fascinating technique like the electro-mechanic combination action, which has to be kept working. Furthermore, I tuned all 20 (!) reeds, including the impressive Bombarde 32'.

Rens Swart Orgelbouw

In 2011 I established the Rens Swart Orgelbouw company. Under this umbrella activities are undertaken in The Netherlands and Flandres (Belgium) on organ building and organ consulting, based on an experience of more than 35 year as an organist and a thorough technical and historical knowledge of organs. I work on the maintenance of several organs and give advice. For example, in the church where I grew up, the Saint-Boniface in Alphen aan den Rijn, I adviced on the installation of a choir organ near the new liturgical centre: I adviced to install a small choir organ along with a central console which enables the main organ in the west end of the church to be played from the central space, a solution rather unfamiliar (and sometimes even condemned) in The Netherlands. Furthermore, I do research into the technical status quo and historical development of several organs, resulting in the same kind of thorough reports as you are used to from Swartvast. Sometimes the closing of a church is the occasion.

I recently repaired the bellow chests of an organ, which requires a very good understanding of the inner workings of such an instrument. Furthermore, I completely dismantled two organs to save and rebuild them.

See the own website of Rens Swart Orgelbouw, which however is more compact than this personal website.

Cuypersgenootschap and organ building

Under a separate menu (see the left) I have extensively described how I was involved in the Cuypersgenootschap (Cuypers Society), an association for the conservation of nineteenth- and twentieth-century cultural heritage in The Netherlands. We primarily undertook conservation and protection actions for architecture and interiors, including filing lawsuits, but I managed also some organ protection actions and lawsuits. During these I had to use my expertise both in organ building and history as well as in monument conservation law in such a way that I won both at the Court of Justice and the High Court of State. Exciting!

As editor-in-chief of the Cuypersbulletin I also wrote some articles. Very interesting (as far as you may say so from your own products …) is the critical analysis of the discrepancy between the way one in the organ world is dealing with, or is regarding, historic organs, compared with the way this is done in the architecture history. Too often during restorations one aims at going back to the 'original', destroying valuable historical material that date from later additions. See this page (sorry, only in Dutch).

> Next page: repairs on a bellow chest and other organ parts

Rens is bij Jos Stevens bezig met het intoneren van een Voix Humaine tongwerk

At Jos Stevens I am busy with the cleaning and harmonisation of the short resonator reed stop Voix Humaine. A good hearing but above all a good physical insight and a kind of scientific attitude to keep asking what is caused by what make it a lot easier.

Soms (of eigenlijk vaak) is het nogal een klus om bij bepaalde onderdelen te komen

An organ is a complex machine and not all parts are easy to reach. Lucky that I am not fat.

Balancerend op de wand van de zwelkast van het grote Stevens-orgel in de Sint-Romboutskathedraal in Mechelen

A place not visited often. In general it is impossible to walk on the roof of a swell box. But on its wooden walls that's marginally possible. This is on the roof of the large Stevens organ in Saint Rombout cathedral in Mechelen. Along the wall of this large gothic church the largest wooden pipes of the Prestant 16' are placed, which seems to date from Van Peteghem.

Kind regards,
Rens Swart