The Face of Johannus, ep.1: Dirk saw Johannus grow to become the global market leader

Published on 02 July 2021

The Face of Johannus, ep.1: Dirk saw Johannus grow to become the global market leader

The wonderful sound of Johannus organs can be heard all over the world, from America to Australia, and from Sweden to South Africa. Every single one of these many thousands of organs was devised, developed and built in the heart of the Netherlands. Through a series of interviews, we’re going to introduce you to the people behind these wonderful organs – the people who, along with their colleagues, make up Johannus. Please allow us to introduce Dirk Koudijs.

He has been employed at Johannus for almost as long as the company has been around. Today, on July 2, 2021, Dirk Koudijs is retiring after 49 years among the organs. “We’ve helped to spread the centuries-old European organ tradition around the world. That’s an accomplishment of which I’m quite proud.”

In 1968, the foundations of Johannus were officially laid at the Prins Willem Hendrikstraat in Ede. However it wasn’t called Johannus then – that name came much later. Dirk Koudijs arrived in 1972, and recalls it as a meager time. “The owner wanted to build church organs, but there was no market for those at that time. Churches had pipe organs, and electric organs simply couldn’t compete. That was the feeling back then.”

As a result of that, Johannus came up with a simple practice organ and a slightly more elaborate living room organ. Dirk: “Those were the Opus 10 and the Opus 20, and they weren’t yet the bestsellers we’d hoped for. Then came the game-changing two-manual Opus 6 with full pedalboard, in two versions. This model was a smash hit. We sold hundreds of them every day at the Messe Frankfurt (the Frankfurt Trade Fair) in Germany. They cost about six thousand guilders each, so you can imagine what that meant for Johannus.”

At the time, Dirk worked as a final tester. “I was turning out about 12 or 13 organs per day. It was hard work – everything was still being assembled by hand. First there was a steel framework, then came the circuit boards, and finally there were dozens of wires that each had to be connected to a key.”

An even greater hit

The five-chip, semi-digital TMS organ – the Opus 220 – came next, and was an even greater hit than the Opus 6. Meanwhile, sales of church organs were also swelling to a crescendo. We fast forward to the year 2000, when Johannus moved to brand new, distinctive premises in Ede, where the company is housed to this day. Dirk had owned the company himself for three years by this stage. He then handed over the reins to Gert van de Weerd, who was the director for many years until he passed the baton to his sons Marco and René. Although Johannus had been through ups and downs, it was gradually getting a foothold across the board globally, eventually becoming one of the market leaders. “If you see your competitors copying the things you make, then you know you’re onto a good thing.”

 

An affordable home organ for everyone

Dirk believes that the success of Johannus comes down to its simple, yet clear mission. “The founder, Mr Johannus Versteegt, wanted every church to be filled with song, and for people to have an affordable full pedal organ at home. We’ve been working steadily towards that for all these years.”

 

Floating organ in the port of Liverpool

Dirk witnessed the international market start to flourish. He traveled the world, voicing Johannus organs up and down the Norwegian fjords, across the vastness of Russia, America, Argentina, Mexico, China, Portugal, Ghana – is there anywhere he hasn’t been? “I have a great memory from sometime in the late 1990s, when the Albert Dock, a 17th century dock in Liverpool, was converted into a shopping center. A local importer asked us to put on a special surprise act for the opening. We’d already come up with something that would be perfect. Years earlier, we’d built a large three-manual organ for a Dutch television program, ‘U zij de glorie’ (‘Thine be the glory’). That organ could accompany congregational singing for large groups without any amplification. We loaded the organ onto a truck along with 80 speakers, and took it to Liverpool. The organ was installed on a gigantic barque moored in the harbor. The speakers were placed in front of the wheelhouse, and a generator was installed in the hold. A female organist in glittering high heels played the Johannus organ while the ship cruised around the harbor, all of the BBC cameras focused on it. She played church music as well as songs by the Beatles. It was fantastic.”

 

Angels can do anything

On looking back over the years of growth and expansion: “It is impressive. We have a very long and rich history with the organ in Europe. If my memory serves me correctly, a side panel of Van Eyck's painting The Lamb of God already depicts an organ with chromatic pipes. There are also singing angels in the painting, giving the painting its title: The Singing Angels. You can’t actually sing along with this organ, but angels can do anything of course. My point is that the painting dates from sometime early in the 15th century. And the history of the organ goes back even further. Starting from the Reformation, by the way, which was also around the same period, organs fell silent on Sundays for more than a century and a half. Organ music was Catholic and therefore no longer allowed. We should consider ourselves lucky that most organs still hung in the church towers at that time. Because church towers belonged to local government and not the churches, most organs fortunately emerged unscathed from the Great Iconoclasm. The number of church organs increased rapidly during the Dutch Golden Age, in the Northern Netherlands and Germany under the leadership of reputable builders such as Schnitger and Silbermann. I am quite proud of the fact that we have contributed in our time to spreading the centuries-old European organ music tradition all around the world. Thanks to our organs, people in African and Asian countries can also experience the emotion associated with this musical tradition. Isn’t that wonderful?”

 

Making way for the next generation

Now that Dirk is leaving the company after almost 50 years, he is certain that the tradition will continue. “I always made sure that everyone knew what I was doing. By continuing to share my knowledge and experience over the years, I’ve made sure that they can do without me. Bertus Lap and Vincent van Os have worked with me for many years, and have now completely taken over the intonation and calculation. I feel absolutely confident about making way for the next generation.”

On behalf of the Johannus team, we would like to thank Dirk for everything he’s done, not only for Johannus but also for his colleagues, past and present. Dirk, we wish you a very happy and enjoyable retirement!