On 14 March 1735, the city fathers of Haarlem decided to commission a new organ for the Grote Kerk (literally the Great Church), “which should correspond to some degree to the size and beauty of the same church”. The old main organ, which had done service for almost 300 years from the north wall of the chancel, was in a state of disrepair. The new organ was to be erected at the west end after removal of the great stained glass window. The very same day, negotiations commenced with organ builder Christian Müller and sculptor Jan van Logteren of Amsterdam, and on 30 April their proposals were approved by the mayor of Haarlem. At any one time, six or seven craftsmen worked on the organ, and in some periods (1735-36 for example) as many as nine or ten. In September 1738, the new instrument was approved by the organists Gerardus Havingha (from the Grote Kerk in Alkmaar) and Henricus Radeker (city organist of Haarlem), who played at the inaugural service on 14 September 1738.
The reputation of the organ spread quickly; it became an object of great interest, and recitals proved to be a considerable attraction. Foreign travellers, including Handel and Mozart, visited Haarlem in order to play the instrument. Leopold Mozart wrote in exalted terms to Salzburg, after the 10-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus had played for an hour, describing the "famous great organ in Haarlem" as "an excellent, beautiful instrument with 68 stops, all pipes being made of tin, as wood does not last in this damp country".
The Müller organ remained almost unaltered for more than 125 years. But musical taste changed, some musical instruments went out of fashion, others took their place, and instruments such as the organ were altered where possible. In 1866, the Bavo organ required thorough revision. The bellows and chests leaked, the action was badly worn, and many pipes were damaged. The Town Council wished to renovate the organ technically and mechanically, and to adapt it to the requirements of contemporary taste, reflected in a preference for powerful basses, mild upper work and a stable sound. The Utrecht builder C.F.G. Witte described the sound of the organ thus: “the voicing of the principal pipes can be said to be generally weak, especially in the bass octaves. On the other hand, the voicing of the reeds is strong and cutting so that the former are overshadowed by the latter. Also, the pedal is too weak.” The tonal improvements envisaged by Witte were achieved by altering the winding, increasing the pressure and adapting the voicing of the flues and reeds accordingly. Witte also made a number of alterations to the stoplist.
In 1904, the organ was renovated once more by Maarschalkerweerd of Utrecht. Significantly, the winding was again altered: the twelve original wedge-shaped bellows by Müller were replaced by three large, manually operated reservoirs. The pedal action was converted to a pneumatic system.
In 1959-1961, the Bavo organ was rebuilt by the Danish company of Marcussen & Søn. Considerable loss of wind in the chests had caused the pressure to drop, producing a weak sound and causing the pedal to fail in the full organ.
Important changes by Marcussen included:
- reconstruction of Müller's stoplist and the addition of two new Mixtures
- a modern winding on a lower pressure
- new balanced mechanical action
- new keyboards
- overhaul and modernisation of the chests
- repainting and gilding of the case
It is interesting to note that the costs of the technical work on the instrument itself were less than the renovation, painting and gilding of the case.
On 3 July 1961, the restored organ was inaugurated in a festive concert by the two city organists, Albert de Klerk and Piet Kee.
In recent years, Flentrop of Zaandam has carried out a certain amount of revoicing, aimed to recreate the original tonal quality of the instrument.
Since 1800, the organ has been owned by the town council, which also appoints the municipal organists. At present these are Jos van der Kooy (recitalist) and Anton Pauw (church organist).
The organ can be heard during the municipal organ recitals, organised by the town council and held mid-May to mid-October on Tuesday evenings from 20.15-21.15 hours. In July and August there are extra recitals on Thursday afternoons from 16.00-17.00 hours. The recitals are given by the Haarlem municipal organists and renowned players from the Netherlands and abroad. In accordance with a long tradition, admission is free of charge.
Excursions to the organ are held regularly. Information is available from the town council (see also contact).