The Office and Duty of the Organist - by Dr. K.Deddens

A Brief Biography

The following is taken with permission, from Clarion Vol. 23, No. 8, and 9 (1974)

This address was delivered at the annual meeting of the "Landelijk Verband van Gereformeerde Koren, Corpsen en Musici", held at Amersfoort on Nov. 25, 1972. It was published in De Reformatie in Jan. 1973. [Translated from De Reformatie by S. VanderPloeg ]



Up the stairs without a runner
Climbs he to the gallery.
Then begins, once he is seated,
Softly his soliloquy.
'Take a look at the first prelude,
Seven triplets in a row;
Here I'll use the sesquialtra,
There a flute should nicely go.'


With the psalm, in proper rhythm,
Utter chaos reigns below.
It's too fast that way already,
Yet much faster it must go.
And his offertory playing
Could have been much better, too.
Through that tootling one hears barely
That the neighbour says, 'Thank you.'


So he tries to solve his problems.
'Tis already time to start . . .;
Softly he begins his prelude,
Left hand has the solo part;
In a pair of worn-out sneakers,
On the pedal, feet are on the go;
Now and then he plays a few notes
On the manual below.


If per chance he plays a wrong note
('As the hart . . .' a child can play),
Heads are shaken in feigned pity:
'T was a proper mess today.
A hundred times it may be perfect;
If it's hundred-'n'-one, watch out.
That the plaints are then forthcoming
Oh so quickly, there's no doubt.


To the brothers and the sisters
His endeavours are not known.
'Let him have his fun,' they're saying,
And they add, 'To each his own.'
If you judge by what you're hearing,
He's not very good, you know.
It's too loud, too soft he's playing,
Much too fast or much too slow.


Down the stairs without a runner
Wearily he makes his way.
Even though he sometimes grumbles,
There's no doubt he loves to play.
If it's Bach he plays or, worse still,
Feike Asma or Jan Zwart,
Once he's seated at the organ
He plays it with all his heart. (1)

Those who meditate about the organist and his task are involuntarily tempted to quote from the copious poetry written about the office and duty of the organist. It is difficult not to do this for the nature of the man's profession is such that one is almost automatically inclined to speak and write about him in verse.

The title of this essay, however, is taken from a very prosaic book which, to be precise, was published 278 years ago by Reynier van Doesburg, bookseller on the Fish Market at Rotterdam. I mean that beautiful little book The Office and Duties of Elders and Deacons, written by Jacobus Koelman, minister of the gospel. (2)

We all have become quite familiar with the term "office and duty" through magazine titles, but mostly through the Morning Song of which the first line reads, "That we our office and our duty, Lord".(3) Let it be said beforehand that when we speak about the "office" of the organist we do not give it the pregnant meaning which Koelman gives this word. We are not dealing with a special office in Christ's church, even though others in certain liturgical circles think differently. (4) We are speaking about the organist's office as being synonymous with his duty.


The first point to be considered, in our opinion, is the organist and his faith. It has already been sixty years since Dr. A. Kuyper's well-known and oft-quoted book, Onze Eeredienst, was published. Kuyper was fond of quoting the 50th Psalm, which speaks of Zion as "the perfection of beauty". "So high stood the Temple for beauty in Israel", writes Kuyper, "that when Solomon had to build the temple and was unable to find an architect in all Israel who could give form to this beauty, he did not say: 'Then we must sacrifice this beauty, for it must be a Jew who is going to do the work.' No, he went to the heathens and found in Hiram a man who could build it to the aesthetic and artistic requirements. It was this heathen builder who created the temple. That Solomon, in so doing, did not kick over the traces, but stayed in line with God's ordinances becomes clear from the lay-out and furniture of the Tabernacle. Then it is the Spirit of God Himself who gives Bezaleel and Aholiab artistic integrity and an eye for beauty and who to the smallest detail had the parts and the tools of the tabernacle constructed according to the law of aesthetics." (5)

Kuyper's conclusion is that there can be no objection against engaging an architect from outside our circle, if no suitable church architect can be found among the brethren.

Now one could perhaps think that Kuyper is of the same opinion with regard to organists. One could reason: the task of the organist is an artistic one; if we cannot find one among the brethren who meets our standards, we hire one from outside our circle.

Under no circumstances does Kuyper wish to go in that direction. He selects organists from among the brethren for in the worshipservice not only beauty, but above all holiness plays an important role. (6)

This holiness comes first. The worship-service is a matter of the communion of saints. "It would be improper," writes D.W.L. Milo in Zangers and Speellieden, "to give this direction in the hands of an unbeliever who only works in the field of art and who could not lead the singers entrusted to him in the area of faith. The choir-master would be a stumbling block to his chorister and could conceivably keep them from the holy encounter." (7)

A few more quotations from Milo, for in our opinion he makes meritorious remarks on the subject. "Even when the organist is a confessing member of his church, he can only do his work properly if he has a rich life in faith. Isolation behind curtains for many years can lead to an 'ivory-tower culture'. (8) When the organist literally as well as figuratively looks down on the congregation - they sang fairly well today; they do not know this tune; they like this minister, he has removed himself from the congregation and has become a wandering sheep. It is precisely the artistic type also through lack of understanding on the part of the congregation - who runs the risk of losing himself in subjectivism. It is therefore dangerous to put an organist behind curtains. It harms his experiencing of the communion of saints. It is beneficial for an organist to sit from time to time among the brethren so that he can sing along. It is, however, not enough to see to it that the spiritual growth of the organist does not lag behind. The organist above all needs to have a rich life of faith and be an active churchmember. His playing 'according to the Word' is prophesying. Not only should he know the metrical psalter for the most part by heart and possess a great knowledge of scripture, but also have a feeling for the content and spiritual value of churchsong and make this feeling correctly known to others. His playing is not sufficient if it merely avoids all giving of offence. It must edify positively and contribute to God's honour and the congregation's salvation. Now without promoting the organist to special officebearer we should insist that he be spiritually healthy and capable of growth in that respect. Organists with a derelict life of faith, indifference towards the sacraments, or chronic irresolution, cannot be chief-musicians." (9)


That organ-playing is related to prophecy, Jan Zwart already told the Reformed people in 1934. He spoke of "prophesying during the worship service, before and after the sermon, in a language the people understand" (quoted by Prof. Dr. K. Schilder in De Reformatie, Feb. 23, 1934). At Zwart's death he came back to this. Then Schilder wrote, "What our forefathers in not even circuitous ways concluded from I Cor. XII (namely that also from the organ bench the neighbour has to be edified), that Jan Zwart felt burning within him and how he was consumed by that fire!" (10)

A year later, during the unveiling of Zwart's tombstone, Prof. Schilder said: "His life's work was to prophesy from the organ bench, and when we say that we give true expression to what motivated this man." (11)

In a commemoration address (1947) K.S. called Jan Zwart a confessor who did not wish to push prophecy aside. He ended with: "To those people for whom the language of art was foreign, and who had their own Christian faith content, he spoke in his own language; art's norms were obeyed and the church's 'credo' was honoured. He who is able to do that has done a great thing." (12)

There is thus a clear connection between organ playing and prophecy. The organist who understands his task well will confess his faith in his organ playing and so contributes to the edification, that is, to the building up, of the congregation.


First we saw that an organist has to be a believer, if he is to do his task in the worship service properly.

Although his spiritual disposition comes first, it can never replace the artistic know-how. Faith, indispensable as it may be, does not make a person a capable organist; talents for and skills in organ playing must go with it. When the tabernacle was built, God Himself filled men with His Spirit so that they could think of designs (Ex. 31:3, 4). There follows for added emphasis: "and I have given to able men ability" (31:6). Chronicles, in dealing with the singers, speaks about people "who were trained in singing to the Lord" (1 Chr. 25:7) The word "skilful" is even used in this context.

From this it becomes clear that we should not be satisfied with a minimum, but should strive for the maximum (the optimum). Our rule should be: our best is not really good enough, for Christ holds the demand of perfection before us.

For that reason the organist has to be an artist. "The church selects that brother," according to Milo, "who perceives the churchsong correctly and who has developed his skills in order to lead the singing in the best possible manner. No one is born with this ability. Only his talents did the artist receive from His Creator; for the development and use of his gifts he himself is responsible . . . Some of us are born with a fine sense of justice, a warm love for humanity, with leadership qualities, or with an acute religious consciousness. Can these people by virtue of their inborn abilities present themselves as lawyers, ministers of social welfare, officers, or preachers? Neither does an organist become a skilled professional by the bare fact of his musical talents alone. The most musically gifted person would not be accepted by an orchestra, unless he has received a sound training. Even less should such an untrained person be allowed to play during the worship service." (13)


This brings us to the next point: the training of the organist. Regretfully, only a few of our churches have a proper tracker organ. Often we have to be satisfied with a harmonium, sometimes with a piano, or (the less said about them the better) electronics.

Among us professional organists are even rarer than proper church organs. If we have such persons let us treasure them! In the course of time many organists became estranged from the church. Of course, they have themselves to blame, too. Where was their faith when they had to make the choice between a lesser organ within the Reformed church or a better organ without? Such a choice must be made in faith. It remains a sad thing that a man like Jan Zwart became organist of a Lutheran church in Amsterdam. How many of the professional organists, in accepting a position, gave up their church membership or even their faith? At the same time, however, I ask: did the churches always understand the needs or problems of the organist? (I am not talking about money in the first place). Has there often not been misunderstanding or lack of appreciation that made these persons feel isolated from the congregation?

Training then is needed and that training we must appreciate. The organist should not play all kinds of bravura to show off his virtuosity and the congregation should not react too quickly to an effort by the organist to remain "fresh": "All modern stuff, you can keep it!"

Our requirements should not be put on the low side. One does not become an organist in a few years, if previous training is lacking. Where studies have to be undertaken in spare time, one can count on at least five years. Even then it still depends greatly on the talents of the teacher whether or not one will pass a comparative examination.

Do stimulate this study! We live in a time in which the modern media offer us everything in the easiest possible manner. Seated in a comfortable chair all things are within easy reach. You don't have to do anything for it. Our youth has to be stimulated to activity and creativity, especially now that leisure time increases. Let it not happen again that a minister, when he was unable to find an organist in the congregation, was forced to ask an accordionist to take place on the organ bench. The next Sunday the good man had to play with hands and feet already.

Comparative examination are necessary. The organ committee should not select the least poor from among all the poor candidates. They must have the courage to state that no choice could be made and to advise the candidates to study some more. At best only a temporary appointment can be made under such circumstances.

Apart from competent playing of independent organ music, the organist must, above all, be capable of accompanying the congregation. That means: that he must make the psalmtunes his own and know the churchmodes. "Accompanying," writes Rev. H. Hasper, "means to go along with someone. It neither means to run ahead or drag along, nor to follow or to lag behind, but to be where the other is, not to lose him, if necessary to help him along, to escort him and so create a sense of security and peace." Hasper adds that an organist neglects his duty if he, during the singing of the congregation, does something other than accompanying and supporting. (14).


If the church has capable organists in its employ, they must be esteemed, too. That, in the first place, means honouring him. Also the organist is worthy of honour if he does his work well. Does this have to be expressed in money? Here I touch a hot issue. On purpose I left out one of the stanzas of Van Mijderwijk's poem and quote it now in this context.

Renumerations for his service
Are generally quite small
(Or as frequently the case is
Th' organist gets none at all).
For 'it broadens his horizon'.
'Tis a labour-o'-love you know.'
But the worn seat of his trousers
Is but all he's got to show.

Nota bene: this stanza dates from a few decades ago. Since then the standard of living has risen considerably. Salaries of church functionaries have risen. Those of the organist, too?

"It has to be a labour of love," is often the reaction. Sometimes one adds naughtily: "He misses the collection already, too!"

I am afraid that in most cases his honorarium is no more than a sort of indemnification for services rendered during the week and then almost exclusively for marriage ceremonies. Sometimes forced, I am told, because no organist would show up otherwise. They simply couldn't always quit early or take half a day off.

One is quick to draw a comparison with the special office bearer, not with the minister but with the elder and deacon. It is said: how much free time do not these men often give to the church and that also is a labour of love. In the first place I wish to point out that everything in the church is a labour of love, in the sense that it must come from and be done in love. It is not possible to pay for all the hours given. Nobody would want that either. But if an elder, in the course of his duties, regularly has taken time off, e.g. as a delegate to all sorts of meetings, it shouldn't happen that he should have to give up all his holidays for that. It must be possible to indemnify him or at least offer to do that.

Furthermore I wish to speak in favour of making it possible for elders and deacons to keep up with the literature pertaining to their office. If they are to prove the spirits, if they are to remain fresh on home visits, in short, if they are to discharge their offices faithfully, they must study. That costs money. This they should not have to pay out of their own pockets.

Let me extend this parallel. We should at least, I believe, enable the organists to keep up with the developments in his field. They should not have to ask for that; it should be offered to them. They want to put their talents at the disposal of the church community. With love. That comes first. But more is needed than time. They must study if they do not want to play the same old tune over and over. For that books are needed, books about music, books about the worship service, also books with music for before, during, and after the service.

It becomes more difficult when we are dealing with professional organists. I would not like to make a rule, but would like to plead for proper renumeration, which does not turn it into just another job, but which shows appreciation for the work done. Will that kill the love? I am not afraid of that. Milo writes in this connection: "Where the organists form the musical conscience of the church, there is no place for wage-slaves or misers, but for churchmembers who vigorously stimulate the church's sacred song. And that not only by virtue of inborn talents, but also by virtue of sound training and costly sacrifices . . . Truly, even if they were paid, the character of the labour of love would not be lost." (15) In a footnote he adds: "Even though the comparison with the Levitical singers and instrumentalists is faulty (for theirs was a spiritual office), it is not superfluous to show how the Levite was honoured according to God's law; the tithes were their rewards for services rendered (Num. 18:31); they were free from other service, for they were on duty day and night (I Chron. 9:33); the people were not to forsake the Levite (Deut. 12:19), and when they did that Nehemiah remonstrated with the officials (Neh. 13:10, 11), for the singers, who did work, had fled each to his field and the house of God was forsaken. Yet . . . no one can deny that they performed a labour of love: the Dutch metrical psalter even speaks of a "burning with zeal for the service of the Lord." (Ps. 134) (16)


[1] Jaap Mijderwijk, quoted in Organist en Eerdiensi, vol. 21, no. 224, p. 1,389.

[2] 't Ampt en Pligten van Ouderlingen en Diakenen, Rotterdam, 1964.

[3] "Dat wij ons ambt en plicht, o Heer,
      getrouw verrichten tot uw eer;
      dat uwe gunst ons werk bekroon';
      uw Geest ons leid', en in ons woon'."

[4] They speak of "installation of organists" or of "cantororganist". See Prof. Dr. G. van der Leeuw, Liturgiek, Nijkerk.

[5] Dr. A. Kuyper, Onze Eeredienst, Kampen, 1911, p. 75.

[6] Ibid., p. 158.

[7] D.W.L. Milo, Zangers en Speellieden, Goes, 1946, p. 216.

[8] In the Netherlands organists often sit on a special gallery above the pulpit and are hidden from view by a curtain. (Transl.)

[9] Milo, op cit., p. 217.

[10] De Reformatie, vol. 17, no. 42, July 16, 1937, p. 341.

[11] Gedenkboek Jan Zwart, p. 239.

[12] De Reformatie, vol. 22, no. 43, Aug. 2, 1947, p. 349.

[13] Milo, op. cit., p. 218.

[14] H. Hasper, Een reformatorisch kerkboek, Leeuwarden, 1941, pp. 140, 141.

[15] Milo, op. cit., p. 218.

[16] Ibid., p. 231 n.