Church musician Sietze de Vries never understood that “…after Christ went back to heaven is does not matter anymore…”.
Ten statements by a man who is committed to absolute quality.
En route to Sietze’s house we pass through small towns, such as Sebaldeburen and Gaarkeuken. The bridge operator takes his time to let the boats get through. Sietze lives in Niezijl, on the west side of Groningen. His house is a decommissioned church building, where he often played as organist of the Gereformeerde Kerk vrijgemaakt. The name plate on the outside of his house display the first music notes of Bach’s ”Dritter Teil der Clavierübung”. The former sanctuary is his workshop. A one manual pipe organ (built in 1907) is located on the balcony. Organbuilder Edskes will soon expand this instrument with a second keyboard. Parts of a British organ by Hill from 1890 are laying on the main floor. De Vries is rebuilding this organ on the other side of the room. He has plans for a harpsichord and a reed organ with full pedal. The former sanctuary is becoming an exceptional music studio to be used by an exceptional musician.
De Vries often visits the Martinikerk in the city Groningen.
1. The Martinikerk is a marvellous place in the most wonderful organ province in the world.
„Absolutely. There is an unbelievable patrimony of great organs. And not only that: you can also play these organs, whether it is in Zeerijp or Leens. People here are hospitable to guests. For me, the Martinikerk is number one – one of the greatest organs in Europe. I am travelling a lot, but every time I return, I am amazed because of the rich sound pectrum of this instrument. Every stop is beautiful, I can’t mention anything negative about it. And I am hoping the I will be considered when Wim van Beek (the current organist) will retire.”
2. I do improvise in all styles, except in the style of Feike Asma.
„That’s an interesting one. My key word is: quality. As a child I improvised in this style. But when I developed further, I discovered that there are more and better styles. It is not my style anymore. I love many different styles of music, but I have a preference for the Baroque style. Many organists improvise in romantic or modern style. In the Netherlands we have very capable organists in Gerben Mourik and Hayo Boerema. Organists in France, Germany and the USA improvise mostly in the style of Dupré. Here in the Netherlands we have beautiful 18th century organs, but only a few organists can improvise in a fitting style. In addition to my preference, it is also opportunity driven.”
3. Improvising is a skill that everyone can learn.
„I have an apathy for organists that say: when I am in a good mood, when I feel the Holy Spirit, then it will happen. Everyone can learn to improvise. Compare for example how children learn to speak: children learn this at young age already. Similarly you can learn to harmonize a tune. There is a system of three chords and if you know these, you can harmonize nine out of ten tunes. A child can learn this system in two weeks. Based on this basic knowledge you can develop your musical language further. How does one develop a musical idea or thought? That is what improvisation is about.”
4. At some time I plan to write an accompaniment book for the 150 Genevan Tunes.
„That is very unlikely, for two reasons. I always improvise during the worship services. I don’t like to compose, I don’t like the work of composing. You’re thinking the whole time: what am I making? That is very, very time consuming. Secondly, there are many other composers who can write wonderful compositions. I am thinking about Margreeth C. de Jong and Dick Sanderman, who each have reached an exceptional high level of composing. You could compare their style easily with some great composers.”
5. If I receive an invitation to sing with the Roder Jongenskoor (Roden Boys Choir) in the television show Nederland Zingt, I will certainly accept that invitation.
„Haha, how did you know that I received such an invitation? We just finished the recording. My initial response to the invitation was: I will never participate. At the same time the choir, of which I am the accompanist: This is great advertising, we will certainly participate. Now I had a problem. I did some calling and emailing, and I found an alternative. I will accompany the choir, but I don’t want to be visible on TV, and my name will not be mentioned in the credits. I don’t want to be connected to musical production of this (inferior) quality.”
6. A church musician is serving the entire congregation - and therefore honours a request from a young member to play Christian contemporary music.
„I agree that a church musician should be at the service of the entire congregation. But I struggle deeply with Christian contemporary music . Church music has its place in the tradition of many centuries. The church it en route: coming from somewhere and going somewhere. Most Christian contemporary music does not want to be part of a tradition. Christian contemporary music songs have a short shelf-life. It is music focused on the present, but hardly considers the future. Children are learning songs that are obsolete in a few years. Is that the legacy what we want to give them, for the rest of their lives? What is your identity as a church? The church should think about the long-term. I don’t have any problem with different instruments or different music in the church. We can definitely add to the tradition, as long as it is an enrichment. But Christian contemporary music means: what do we like now, today? Christian contemporary music means: following today’s trends. That does not fit in with the church.”
7. Church music associations such as the VGK en VOGG have organized excellent events, but the influence in the church services is limited.
„These church music associations are important. But… do you know what the issue is? Only people that take their role as church musician serious. The associations are supporting musicians who are motivated and dedicated. Most of the people who should be a member, they can’t connect with. It is a result of the policy of the church councils. Many councils communicate: if you can hold two keys down on the keyboard, you can play on Sunday. The organists are not the problem, but the church councils, when they allow people at the organ bench who should not be allowed to play. And then they say: Yes, you know, we have limited resources. However, the council is in charge of those resources themselves . As long as the church council does not put pressure on better quality of the music in the church, the church musicians associations are preaching to the choir. The current status is miserable. Why do the preachers not preach about the matter that in the old Testament music was a top priority in Israel’s worship, but does that mean that after Christ went back to heaven is does not matter anymore? We are talking about objective quality, and that belongs also to God.”
8. Organists are sufficiently compensated.
„In the Netherlands it is bad when it comes to compensation. Sometimes the request comes, please play for us, but we can only pay for your travel expenses. That is ridiculous. In the USA the compensation starts with 1,000 dollars to play an organ concert. Here we need to be happy with 200 Euro, and the larger organ concert series are not much better. And the church music in the Netherlands is also not professional enough. Every congregation should have one professionally educated musician. Someone who looks at the liturgy with the pastors, motivates people, teaches new musicians and organizes the choirs. A paid position for, let’s say, two to three days a week. That can be a church musicians base income, which can be complimented with a practice. In my case I am fully compensated by activities outside the church. For a church musician a peculiar situation to be in.
9. I linked to Antoine Bodar at my website, because…
„…because I am a fan of this man. I saw him for the first time when he was in a TV discussion program. He explained something to the other people around the table – all people with little or no knowledge about the church, and only know stories about abuse (by the church). And then Bodar comments: Listen, the church is the bride of Christ, who is perfect. The bride is represented by people who make mistakes. What appeals to me in his comment is: „This is what we stand for, this is who we are.” And not that anxious: „Check us out, we are also interesting.”
10. Making music together with my wife is the most wonderful thing in this job.
„I can certainly attest to that. My wife Sonja has received her musical as organist education in South Africa. She has the responsibility for the education of the boys and girls of the Rhoder Koorschool (Choir school at Rhoden) and she conducts the girls choir. We are working together often, also during the performances. Both of us are passionate about the musical development of the next generation.”
About Sietze de Vries
Sietze de Vries (1973) received his musical education from the organists Wim van Beek, Jan Jongepier en Jos van der Kooy. He obtained his bachelor degree at the Concertvatory in Groningen and his masters degree at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague (performance/improvisation). At the university in Alkmaar he graduated as church musician at the “Bevoegdheidsverklaring I” level.
From 1987 to 2002 De Vries received 15 prizes and awards. The highlight was the first prize at the International Improvisation Competition Haarlem in 2002. In addition to a concert practice De Vries operates a music studio, through which he transfers his ideas regarding improvisation. He gives master classes en lectures in Europe and in North America. He is visiting professor at the Collegedale University (TN) and he is teacher at the Organ Summer School of McGills University in Montreal (QC). De Vries is the resident accompanist of the Roder Jongenskoor, that performs in Anglican style. He has played on several cd’s en dvd’s.
For Elementary Schools he has developed a special program with text books and a field trip. This project is called ”Pijpen zoeken met Piet Prestant” (Hunting Pipes with Pete Principal).
Translated by Frank Ezinga