I’m always immensely encouraged to meet a fellow young musician who is learning, or desires to learn, how to play the organ. When I mention my interest in the “king of instruments” to friends who aren’t familiar with Reformed worship, they usually respond, “Oh, really? I thought that was a lost art.” I have to admit that organists may have been a dying breed in the recent past, but from the many encouraging conversations I’ve had with other young people, it seems that organ-playing is once again on the rise. And while I’m not about to argue that the pipe organ is the only instrument worthy of the worship of God (or that instruments are an essential part of worship at all, for that matter), I can only hope this renewed interest points to a renaissance of other elements of historic Reformed worship as well.
That’s why I was thrilled to discover the videos and website of Gert van Hoef, a virtuosic 18-year-old Dutch organist. His bio page notes that he was introduced to the organ at the age of thirteen, but had no formal musical training until 2008. To everyone’s surprise, he quickly began winning an incredible number of young organist competitions, and his YouTube videos went viral—well, at least as viral as recordings of Dutch psalm improvisations and classical organ music can get.
As far as I know, Gert is now in college and planning to attend conservatory after he graduates. He serves (or served) as organist for the Reformed Church of Voorthuizen. Since that is the Hervormde Kerk as opposed to the Gereformeerde Kerk, however, it may be Reformed in name only.
One of the most important characteristics of a good musician, which Gert clearly has, is the ability to put one’s whole heart into the music. This aspect comes out especially well in his renditions of Dutch Psalter improvisations. Today’s Featured Recording is his improvisation on Genevan/Dutch Psalm 79, based on W. H. Zwart. Interestingly enough, this tune appeared in the red 1934 CRC Psalter Hymnal as “Thy Land, O God, the Heathen Have Invaded,” but it was sadly omitted from the blue 1959/1976 edition. I recorded my own piano improvisation on Psalm 79 including this gorgeous tune a few months ago, though of course Gert’s rendition is better in every way.
It ought to be mentioned that Psalm 79 is a particularly poignant lament calling for the restoration of God’s people to the Promised Land—analogous perhaps to the tribulation the New Testament church faces in this world. In a powerful climax the psalmist cries:
Do not remember against us our former iniquities;
let your compassion come speedily to meet us,
for we are brought very low.
Help us, O God of our salvation,
for the glory of your name;
deliver us, and atone for our sins,
for your name’s sake!
–Psalm 79:8, 9 (ESV)
Then in confidence he declares, “But we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise” (v. 13). The promise of restoration gives hope to God’s afflicted people, no matter how great the trials they face.
Now, here’s Gert van Hoef rendering Genevan Psalm 79 in the Dorpskerk in Voorthuizen. (Watch for a pretty funny blooper around the 6:45 mark.) For your added enjoyment, I’ve included the English lyrics of this psalm setting below the video.
Thy land, O Lord, the heathen have invaded;
Thy holy heritage they have degraded.
Jerusalem, the temple and its altars
Are ruthlessly defiled by the assaulters.
Thy land in ruin lies,
And cries for vengeance rise
To heaven for all this evil.
Our foes have given to beast
And vulture, for a feast,
The bodies of Thy people.
Recall no more the sins we have committed,
But may they all in pity be remitted.
O Lord, make haste; O may Thy mercy tender
Now strength and help unto Thy people render!
To us salvation show
In all our grief and woe,
O God, forsake us never!
Free from the tyrant’s chain,
Purge from all sin and stain,
For Thy Name’s sake deliver.
Incline Thine ear to all in bondage sighing;
Those doomed to death, on Thee alone relying,
Preserve, O God! Lift by Thy mighty power
The awful scourge of this relentless hour.
O Lord, our foes restrain,
Avenge Thy servants slain,
Thou Lord of all creation.
By those within Thy fold
Thy Name will be extolled,
Through every generation.