Interview in Choir and Organ 2014 (Chris Bragg)

Sietze de Vries has carved an impressive profile as one of the leading European organists of his generation. Following prizes in 15 national and international competitions, De Vries is one of the few able to ‘live the dream’: enjoy an impressive performing career without any regular church or teaching position. Perhaps best known for his astounding skill as an improviser in historic styles, De Vries is an outspoken champion of improvisation as a fundamental aspect of music education, of historic organs as sources of inspiration and of the Geneva Psalter as its 450-year old grip on Dutch church culture begins to loosen.

If one accepts the premise that the best early 21st century organists are defined by their understanding of the instrument as much as the music then De Vries is surely a man of his era. “You have musicians for whom the music is of primary importance and the instrument on which they play is almost co-incidental. Even when I was young I considered the technical aspects of the organ, who made it and when, to be at least as important. We came to live in Groningen when I was 11 and I knew all about the historic organs in the area from books. The first thing I did was to get on my bike and visit them all! Their sound, their appearance, the old churches; they all played a role in my development and they became, literally, a part of my character. An historic organ is at least as important a teacher as your teacher!” Growing up in a relatively pious reformed culture had both its advantages and disadvantages, “the Geneva Psalter was sung almost exclusively which meant that I got to know it very quickly. On the other hand Jan Zwart and Feike Asma [populist organist/composers in the Dutch reformed tradition] were my great heroes until I was 14 or 15 and I learned what good music was.” Already a self-confessed ‘organ-freak’, De Vries attended his local conservatory in Groningen where he received his lessons from Wim van Beek on the famous Schnitger/Hinsz/Ahrend organ of the Martinikerk, an organ with which De Vries has also become closely associated through his countless performances and recordings. At the same time, he took advantage of the opportunity to study improvisation with the late Jan Jongepier. “I was exceptionally lucky. Jongepier and Klaas Bolt were the two organists in the Netherlands who would improvise on an organ and you knew instinctively that they understood how to present it optimally rather than just use it to show off their own ability.” Jongepier was to leave a profound impression on De Vries which would prove crucial in his philosophy. “He made me realise that playing literature and improvising were one and the same thing. He taught me to improvise in a key, in a time signature, to study what Bach, Krebs, Franck did and try to do the same things. In other words, to discover the craft.”

Sietze de Vries’s passion for the ‘craft’ of improvisation is infectious but, he believes, traditional musical education has become an enormous obstacle to creating spontaneous music. “When we teach children, we are too obsessed with establishing the link between the dot on the paper and pressing the right key instead of learning to imitate by ear. In the 19th century, so many methods were written in order to teach people to do technically difficult things as quickly as possible, the inner ear meantime being completely neglected. Learning to improvise is just like learning to speak a language; as an adult you can learn to speak great Japanese but it will never be as good as a native speaker. If you learn Japanese as a child alongside your own language, it might. There are professional organists who can’t even play a melody back to you and yet you can teach any child of six of seven years old to harmonise a melody with three chords! The barrier between fingers and inner ear has become huge.” As De Vries points out, improvisation in the 18th century was the norm rather than the exception. “Look at the foreword Bach writes to the Orgelbüchlein – these are examples of how to play a chorale prelude – the standard was incredibly high. Of course there are things which you can’t improvise; Weckmann’s incredible canons or Bach’s double and triple fugues but you can come very close.” De Vries’s almost miraculous ability to improvise in the styles of the 17th and 18th centuries on organs of that period has its roots in the instruments of the ‘Organ Garden of Europe’ as the province of Groningen is often called. But does he only improvise in earlier styles? What about when faced with a 19th century organ? “Oh, I love playing those organs too but it’s not my daily bread as it were. I almost have an aversion to the French Romantic improvisation style; it is so often cited as the way to improvise and there a few people who can do it really well but mostly, if you analyse what’s going on, there is a lot of hot air, make believe, theatre and virtuosity with rapid changes of colour to keep the listener interested. Even the Haarlem competition [which De Vries won in 2002] has become infected with this dogma; it must be new, it must be creative, it must be personal – all important of course but not the be all and end all. For me it’s much more interesting to be faced with a single manual meantone organ with a 4 octave compass and to improvise something beautiful in two voices. That’s a real challenge.”

Today, Sietze de Vries is a true international figure, with a hectic performing and teaching schedule throughout Europe and also in North America. “I was amazed by the quality of the best organbuilders in the USA. I think it comes from an almost childlike fascination with trying to understand what makes something beautiful. In the Netherlands we take beautiful organs for granted. I remember the first organ I played in the States was John Brombaugh’s instrument in Collegedale, TN (1986). I drew the plenum and couldn’t believe my ears; I thought I was in Hamburg! I began teaching there and gained some good students who later came to study with me in the Netherlands. In America they have fantastic teachers when it comes to playing early music but 90% of what happens in the field of improvisation is based on the French style so it’s nice to be able to take my message to the other side of the Atlantic.” De Vries is now a regular improvisation teacher at the McGill Summer Academy in Montreal. “It’s fantastic, the students are wonderful and you teach them every day for two weeks which means they achieve a lot.”

De Vries’s burgeoning international reputation is at least partly thanks to his impressive ongoing series of CDs for the JSB label, recorded on both historic and modern organs in the Netherlands and elsewhere. Featuring both literature and improvisations, it is the latter on the Genevan melodies which have generated particular admiration, just as they do in his live performances. But is the deeply emotional relationship which Dutch church-goers have with those melodies impossible to understand from an Anglophone perspective? “You have to realise that the genius of Calvin was to collect 120-odd beautiful melodies which can be sung easily by a congregation. This is why the Netherlands became so famous for its congregational singing. Now, for the first time since the Reformation, the tradition of singing these melodies is disappearing fast. But ‘Geneva’ is a treasure chest of fascinating Renaissance material which provides so much inspiration for improvisation.”

Sietze de Vries and I are sitting in his remarkable home, the former Free Reformed Church in Niezijl, a tiny village to the West of Groningen. The church itself has become De Vries’s music room, the like of which most can only dream of. The organ was built in 1906 by a local organbuilder, Marten Eertman, who was also active as a plumber. The impressive 12’ case is based on the local 18th century vernacular but the organ itself, a single manual instrument with 11 stops was less valuable. “The action and the windchest are well-made but the pipework was bought in from a supply house and was of lesser quality”. De Vries decided to take advantage of the potential and has commissioned Bernhardt Edskes to build a new two manual, 17 stop organ in the existing case making use of Eertman’s winding system and windchest. The music room’s remarkable instrumentarium already includes a clavichord by Edskes as well as a harpsichord, two reed organs (including one by John Holt) and, most intriguingly, an 1874 two manual house organ by Thomas Hill. “It was built for a mansion near Liverpool as a gift to the daughter of a banker.” The organ, saved and restored by Dutch organbuilder Feenstra, who specialises in the conservation and re-housing of Victorian English organs, stands in the space once occupied by the pulpit and provides De Vries with a Romantic study organ of the highest quality. His interest in the English organ art was already well established however, thanks to his accompanying of the highly active Roden Boys and Girls Choirs who sing liturgical music in the Anglican tradition, albeit without affiliation to a specific church. Although almost unknown as a performer in the UK, this work brings De Vries regularly to England as the choirs take up residence in the Cathedrals and college chapels during holiday periods. “In the Dutch church music culture we have nothing which approaches the English approach to professionalism. It’s a curious situation; in Holland, churches are less and less interested in quality music whilst people who are interested in the arts tend no longer to have anything to do with the church. I accompany a choir, 70% of whom have no church affiliation but who love singing English liturgical music at a high level.”

Sietze de Vries really is living the dream but is there still an ambition which remains unfulfilled?

The organ in the Martinikerk in Groningen remains the number one for me. Every stop is beautiful. I would love to become organist there when Wim van Beek retires!