‘Pure harmony’ at Alkmaar / Tuning and temperament in The Netherlands in the 17th and 18th centuries by Ibo Ortgies and Frank van Wijk

by Ibo Ortgies and Frank van Wijk | Het ORGEL | Year 99 | (2003) | Issue 3

Ibo Ortgies and Frank van Wijk ‘Pure harmony’ at Alkmaar / Tuning and temperament in The Netherlands in the 17th and 18th centuries
Het ORGEL 99 (2003), nr. 3, 12-36 [summary]

The main organ in the Laurenskerk at Alkmaar has been known as one of the first organs in The Netherlands and Northern Germany to be tuned in equal temperament. The hypothesis that organ builder Frans Caspar Schnitger tuned the organ in this modern way as early as 1725, however, turns out to be incorrect; Schnitger used the standard temperament of those days, which means that the organ had a traditional meantone temperament with pure thirds. This fact is corroborated by the history of the pitch of organs; by the history of music, which shows that organs were used in combination with other instrument, making it obligatory for the organist to transpose every now and then; and by the fact that the meantone temperament was the standard temperament to the Northern German organ building tradition to which Schnitger belonged.
The Alkmaar organ was built in 1646 by the organ builders Van Hagerbeer. It had split sharps and unusual compasses; this enabled the organist to transpose a psalm up a whole tone without problems, and without violating the possibilities of the meantone temperament.
In the early 1720s, organist Gerhardus Havingha began to propagate the transformation of the Alkmaar organ into a Northern German instrument. He published about this plan extensively. Jacob Wognum and Aeneas E. Veldcamps, who both preferred the Dutch organ building tradition, protested. The texts of the three men were published in 1727 and form together the written evidence of what has become to be known as the ‘Alkmaar organ battle’. 
The arguments of Havingha, Wognum and Veldcamps have been confused and misinterpreted later. It turns out that Havingha wasn’t the advocate of equal tempered organs that he has been said to be; he described the meantone temperament of the Alkmaar organ before Schnitger worked on it, calling it, as was common in those days, ‘pure harmony’, and he used these same words as well in the examination report of 1725. Veldcamps referred to that report, and confirmed that the organ was tuned just like any other Dutch organ, with the consent of Havingha: the instrument had meantone temperament, with ‘eight pure thirds’.
Havingha had suggested a different temperament for the Schnitger organ at Zwolle (1721). This fact also played a role in the ‘Alkmaar organ battle’. The discussion in Zwolle, however, aimed at finding a solution for the specific situation in this city, where the instruments with which the organ had to play had a different pitch.
The discussion on temperament in Alkmaar and in Holland focused generally on stringed keyboard instruments . Organs were given equal temperament only much later. As for the Alkmaar organ, historical sources indicate clearly that the instrument was given equal temperament in 1765, when organ builder Pieter Müller, on the initiative of organist Michelet, was contracted to give the organ ‘another temperament’. Later documents show that Müller was not quite successful at this: organ builder Strumphler had to adjust the temperament in 1781.