Inspiration should be shared

Monarke organ in Maastricht Koepelkerk perfectly suits mentality of monastic order.

The Koepelkerk in Maastricht, also known as the Heilig Hart van Jezuskerk, has had its own Johannus hybrid Monarke organ for a few months. “When an internationally renowned organist heard that the church was getting a 32-foot organ, he almost went through the roof.”

Jozeph van der Leegte and his wife are closely involved with the day-to-day affairs of the Koepelkerk in Maastricht. Before his retirement, he was ‘a simple engineer and business economist’, as he puts it, but after his retirement he had no intention to lead a life of inactivity. “I’m 88 years old, and I still work at least 88 hours per week for the Koepelkerk. My wife is especially fascinated by the building. From the outside, it’s a massive, somber mass of stone, but from inside it’s so remarkably beautiful.”

The family Van der Leegte often serve the local Catholic community as a team. They produce the parish newsletter, publish articles about the activities within the church, plan the services and musical performances, announce the officiating priests and help with the financial bookkeeping.

Sold for one Euro

Around 10 years ago, the Koepelkerk was sold to the parish of Maastricht for one Euro. Naturally, there’s a story behind that, and the story goes like this: Almost 100 years ago, a group of friars commissioned a design for a church that they could use as a chapel. But the building was a bit larger than necessary, and it was only finished in 1953. When the friars’ primary school was disbanded, and eventually the friars themselves died off, the Koepelkerk was left behind as a stone orphan. No one was using the chapel for prayers, so what was to be done with it?

The parish of Maastricht was interested in the house of God, and after brief negotiations it was able to take over the church for a symbolic amount. With its fine art and unique architecture, according to Van der Leegte the parish now possesses the most beautiful church in all of Limburg. “The ironic thing is: we’re the poorest parish and the richest at the same time. We’re rich because of this beautiful building, but we’re poor due to the high maintenance costs it requires.”

Van der Leegte is not exaggerating: over the past few years, the parish has invested more than half a million Euros in a thorough restauration. The chapel was modernised, the glass windows were replaced with stained glass, the wall mural by artist Henri Jonas was cleaned and the crucifixion scene featuring John and Mary in a dark niche near the ceiling is now attractively lit. “Yes, the church is truly a beauty in every detail. The chapel is in high demand for modern weddings and funerals.”

Criticism of the design

The Koepelkerk is less well-known among tourists due to the competition with the St. Servatius basilica. But according to Koepelkerk administrator Willem Wolters, it may also be due to the location. “We’re in the centre of the city, right behind the station, but we’re not in the main flow of traffic. And initially there was a lot of criticism about the design. The church was built in the Amsterdam Style, a bit of art deco combined with other 20th-century Dutch styles. Designing and building in concrete was unique in that period, but if you ask me they did an excellent job. When construction began in 1921, a lot of people complained that they didn’t think it looked anything at all like a church. But since the monastic order had issued the commission, construction went ahead anyway. The architects were close to many young artists in Limburg at the time, such as Henri Jonas, Charles Eyck and Marianne van der Heijden, and they offered them plenty of opportunities. And the architects’ perseverance has stood the test of time: today the Koepelkerk is a national monument.”

Hagia Sophia

According to Van der Leegte, the Koepelkerk is ‘a miniature version of the Hagia Sophia’ in Istanbul. “It does resemble it a bit. It’s a large octagon with a dome on top, without columns. The church does have side alcoves, but they are all inside the same large space. It’s also unique in that our church houses the world’s largest collection of religious art from Limburg.”

Fortunately, people come to the church for more than just the art, says Van der Leegte. “Limburg has experienced its share of secularisation, of course, but every Sunday we still have more than 100 people who attend the eucharist service. Every week, we have a different liturgical theme. One week, a Gregorian choir will sing from the gallery, while the next week we might have a choir from Germany or Belgium on the stage next to the organ. We like to keep it diverse.”

Largest organ in the south of the Netherlands

The organ that Van der Leegte refers to is a hybrid instrument that Johannus recently delivered. The original pipe organ that has stood in the church since 1956 has been enriched with extra stops, giving it a total of 55 registers and a third manual. “We now have the largest organ in the south of the country”, says Van der Leegte with pride. “And it has a 32-footer. I still don’t know exactly what that means, but when I told a top international organist who plays here regularly that we were getting a 32-footer, he almost went through the roof. He could barely believe it.”

With the hybrid Monarke organ, not only does the Koepelkerk possess a larger instrument, but according to Van der Leegte the church now has an organ with “the best imaginable sound reproduction ever.” And he knows what he’s talking about, because he spent most of his career working at the sound reproduction department at Philips. “I worked on the development of the first high-fidelity record player arm, which provided the best reproduction of the music at that time. When you do work like that, you have to have some understanding of sound. When I heard a Johannus organ for the first time, I immediately knew that those organs were miles ahead of the competition.”

Van der Leegte adds that for the past five years or so, you can barely hear the difference between a Johannus electronic organ and a pipe organ. When he visited Ede together with the former chief organist of the St. Servatius Basilica and former organ teacher at the Conservatory of music of Maastricht to discuss the options for a new organ, the musician was a bit skeptical about the hybrid concept. “You can’t just turn a pipe organ into an electronic organ! But once he had heard the Johannus sound, he was converted. He said something like: we have to accept that the technological innovations of the 21st century make it possible to compete with the quality of historic pipe organs. The problem that many people have with electronic organs, is that they are using the instruments from 40 years ago as material for comparison. And then I understand what they’re talking about. But as soon as they listen to a Monarke, they don’t even realise that they’re listening to an electronic organ.”

Broader reach

According to Wolters, the quality of the sound has some extra benefits for the Koepelkerk. “Since the organ has a much broader reach, it can support both classical and modern music well. Where the organ had mainly played a role in the background before, we now advise choirs to give the organ a more prominent role in the music or to use it in combination with a harmony. That results in innovative musical combinations that many people react to with enthusiasm.”

Wolters explains that some foreign organists had visited the Koepelkerk especially for the new Monarke organ. “They were very elated about the sound quality. What most appeals to me is how the sound really fills the space. With the original organ, the sound clearly came from one corner of the space. The dispersion is much better now.”

According to Wolters, organists can put more variation into their music with the hybrid organ. “On our own organ, we chose for a French-romantic orientation, but the instrument can also play all sorts of other sound palettes, such as baroque or historic. That polyphonic nature suits our church well. The monastic order that founded our building was strongly convinced that we are obliged to share our inspiration. With this hybrid organ, we can continue in that tradition. It’s not built exclusively for a select group of people, but is rather intended to appeal to the widest possible audience. The Monarke organ is for everyone.”