The Orpheus of Amsterdam by Ken Myers

The Orpheus of Amsterdam

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, one of the most celebrated composers in undivided Western Christendom was Josquin des Prez, who died 500 years ago this year. Conductor Peter Phillips has recently argued that Josquin is a giant among composers because "he mastered all the techniques of his time, turned them into something better, and then passed them on to the next generation of composers, who were all influenced by him."

This year is also an anniversary year for another composer who had a significant influence on subsequent generations. Even less well known than Josquin, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck died 400 years ago this year. Born in 1562 in Deventer, a city in a province now part of the Netherlands, Sweelinck succeeded his father as the organist in Amsterdam's Oude Kerk in 1577. The Old Church is aptly named, as its founding dates to about 1213. That such a prestigious congregation would select a 15-year-old as its organist is testimony to his talent, which blossomed over the years under somewhat constricted circumstances.

The year after young Sweelinck first took over as the church's organist, the Calvinist Synod of Dordrecht called for the removal of all organs from churches. Not only was the instrument not to be used during the austere liturgy—which also prohibited the use of choirs—but the playing of organ preludes prior to the services was to be replaced by readings from the Bible. This produced a conflict between church and state, and it proved fortunate in this case that the organs were owned by the municipal government, not by the congregations.


Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He also serves as music director at All Saints Anglican Church in Ivy, Virginia. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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