Antwerpse Kathedraalconcerten vzw

The history of the main organ of Antwerp Cathedral

The history of the main organ of Antwerp Cathedral takes us back to the beginning of the fifteenth century. The first accounts of the church wardens recall that an organist named Jan Van Lare received payment in 1433 for repairs to an organ. It is reasonable to assume therefore that the cathedral already possessed a pipe organ at that time and perhaps even earlier. There are no further details available about this instrument.

In 1449 Adriaen Pieterszoon of Delft built an entirely new organ. This instrument was rebuilt in 1453 by Adam van Elen of Maastricht. Lieven (Sweyss) of Cologne subsequently carried out repairs in 1469. The instrument was fully overhauled in 1477 by Jan De Bukele. New pipes were installed as well as new bellows. In 1488 Adriaen Pieterszoon sold the organ to the church of Saint Jacob in Antwerp.

In 1491-92 Jan De Bukele built an entirely new instrument for the sum of 210 Brabant pounds. In addition he was granted an annuity of 4 pounds per annum, up to the time he died in 1504. Smaller repairs were carried occasionally during the years that followed. In 1518 an organ builder named Anthonis Mors was paid 15 pounds for the installation of new bellows. This intervention had become a necessity since rats had "ravaged the bellows and bitten them into pieces ..." The rodents in question evidently had a healthy appetite as, some four years later, the bellows again had to be replaced.
In 1533 fire broke out in the Cathedral, largely destroying the interior of the edifice. The great late-gothic organ of Jan De Bukele also went up in flames. In 1557 the renowned organ builder Gielis Brebos was commissioned to build a new organ.This young organ builder, who hailed from Lier near Antwerp, was to become one of the most important organ builders in the southern part of the Netherlands. Having spent a certain time in Antwerp he subsequently moved to Spain where, at the behest of king Filips II,  he built four organs in the famous monastory of El Escurial. His sons continued as organ builders in Spain and they built a number of noteworthy instruments.

In 1566 the Iconoclasm brought on new disasters. The Iconoclastic fury resulted in the destruction of not only numerous statues but also of the great pipe organ. Many Calvinists took offence to organs. In their view of things pipe organs were deemed to distract the faithful from their prayers. The periodical "Antwerps Chronyckje" describes the events at that time "they destroyed and obliterated the beautiful hymnals as well as three magnificent organs; and the children ran through the streets blowing on organ pipes which they traded with one another as toys ..."




In his account "De Bello Belgico" a Jesuit father named Strada explains how the great organ met its fate: "Others climbed on ladders and tore down the great organ which was truly a magnificent work or art".

The church wardens did not sit idly by and in 1567 the renowned organ builder Gielis Brebos was again commissioned to build a new organ for the sum of 237 pounds. The instrument was initially destined for the church of "Our Lady on the Dijle" in Malines. Antwerp paid an additional 150 pounds for a separate pedal organ with six independent stops. The new instrument was completed at Easter in 1568. It was an accomplishment of particular interest as it was the first organ in the Netherlands to be built having an independent pedal division containing six ranks, considered very extensive at that time. The organ was located above the choir gallery at the South end.

The Iconoclastic fury again erupted in 1581 and in August of that year the protestants took possession of the Cathedral. They carried out a fundamental clearance of "those idolatrous images" and other art treasures which the iconoclasts had left intact in 1566. This time however the organ was spared thanks to the intervention of Servaes Van der Meulen. The latter was organist during the time that the Calvinists were in power. Catholic worship was again restored four years later. It is from that time onwards that reference is made to Ruckers, the Antwerp family of harpsichord builders, as organ tuners (1591-1642).

The organ was entirely refurbished during the period of 1654-1660. The interior of the instrument was renewed by Pieter Lanoy. The organ chest and front were built by the famous sculptor Pieter Verbrugghen the elder, according to a design made by the famous painter Erasmus Quellin. The overall cost was 2.043 guilders. During that period the organ chest also had a choir organ which was set up in front of the main organ chest. In 1834 the latter was relocated to the present-day neo-gothic organ gallery. This time the organ was erected without the choir organ and the main organ chest was enlarged to span the full breadth of the nave.

In 1891, true to the changing design concepts of the 19th century, the whole interior of the organ was rebuilt by Pierre Schyven, an organ builder from Brussels. This organ had four manuals and pedal, with a total of 90 ranks and 5.777 pipes. It has remained virtually unaltered up to this day.

Other than these great organs, there existed a number of smaller organs at various times and in various locations. They were owned by the fraternities of e.g. the chapel of the Holy Sacrament, and the chapel of Our Lady. There was also an organ at one stage located above the choir stalls.

The historical data were taken from the book "The organs and the organists of Our Lady's Church in Antwerp, from 1500 to 1650" by Dr. Guido Persoons (Brussels, 1981)


(below,  a sketch showing the principal build-up of a classical mechanical pipe organ)
(source: etching from  "L'art du facteur d'orgue"  by Dom Bédos de Celles, 18° century)