Muziekkring Obrecht – the first ever Dutch ensemble for medieval & Renaissance music (Kees Otten part 2)

Muziekkring Obrecht c.1959

Recorder pioneer Kees Otten (see this blog post) had his finger in many musical pies. He first played medieval music in 1948, was a jazz musician, taught Frans Brüggen (on which topic there will be a future post) and formed two ground-breaking early music groups.

In 1952, he established the first Dutch group for medieval and Renaissance music: the Muziekkring Obrecht (Obrecht Music Circle).  The ensemble performed largely unknown repertoire – ultimately consisting of 600 numbers from the Ars Antiqua to the early baroque – and played very unfamiliar instruments too.

The core group consisted of three married couples: Joannes Collette (fiddle, gamba, lute), Folly Collette (soprano); Hans van den Hombergh (portative organ), Antoinette van den Hombergh (fiddle); Kees Otten (recorder) and Marijke Ferguson (small harp and recorder). A further group of eight singers and instrumentalists could be drafted in, depending on the works to be performed.

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In the beginning, according to Hans van den Hombergh (who mostly conducted the ensemble), there were only quiet combinations of wind instruments, fiddles and harp, and the pieces were often less than a minute long, so that the audience couldn’t nod off. The initial emphasis was on variety of timbre and style.

Van den Hombergh goes on to say that it was only much later that they began to perform larger works and to appreciate the raucous sounds that could be made by cornetti and trombones. They even borrowed the serpent from the Gemeente museum in the Hague!

How it all started

Marijke Ferguson, who had recently married Otten, in 1950, remembers exactly when they decided to set up a specialized ensemble:

In 1951 Kees and I heard a concert in the [Amsterdam] Concertgebouw given by the Brussels-based Pro Musica Antiqua, led by the American, Safford Cape. [Started in 1933, this was the first group in the world dedicated to playing medieval and Renaissance music.]

Here is Safford Cape conducting Pro Musica Antiqua in 1951

There and then we decided we should also do something similar, which involved playing different instruments.

The process of finding exactly the right combination of sounds took a lot of time … We had the example of Safford Cape, of course, and knew the records of Noah Greenberg’s New York Pro Musica, but we really just had to work it out for ourselves. Joannes [Collette] was much further advanced in using early instruments than we were. He had a copy of a recorder, made by a German instrument maker. A copy, at a time when such things just didn’t exist!

Kees really had a great affection for the Netherlandish School. He kept coming back to Dufay … Very early on, he was also deeply involved in the music of the [Harmonice Musices] Odhecaton.

At that stage, everything was new to us and he selected all the music and prepared the instrumentation.

Although Otten had formally studied the clarinet at a conservatory (see here), he was a self-taught expert in the field of early music. According to Marijke Ferguson, he was an avid reader, particularly of German musicological publications, and quickly amassed a large library of scores and reference works, which he could use as source material.

Back in the 1950s, before the advent of photo-copiers, and when performing editions of early music were scarce, all the music for the players of Muziekkring Obrecht had to be written out by hand. I recently saw the individual part-books for this group, and they must have taken ages to make.

From 1952 to 1961, Muziekkring Obrecht gave many concerts, mostly in Holland, with occasional trips to Belgium and Germany. They also performed on TV and made several long series of thematic programmes for Dutch radio.

Muziekkring Obrecht produced only one record, an EP for Telefunken’s “Das Alte Werk” made in around 1959, with music by John Dunstable, Dufay, Obrecht and Josquin des Prez. Here’s the full band (soprano, sopranino and descant recorder, fiddle, gamba, portative organ and rattle) in

Jacob Obrecht’s “Rompeltier”

On the ease with which the ensemble mastered this repertoire, Otten noted:

My familiarity with improvising [in jazz] probably helped me to perform early music successfully. That certain looseness wasn’t something that you often saw, at the time, in other early music groups. Most of them were overtaken by a sort of stiffness when they played … the old composers – that was something that just didn’t happen to me.

The break-up

Partly as a result of the divorce between Otten and Marijke Ferguson, and various other circumstances, the ensemble just fell apart. Otten returned briefly to jazz, Joannes Collette set up the new early music department in the conservatory in Maastricht, and Hans van den Hombergh became a choir and opera conductor. Antoinette van den Hombergh gave up her medieval fiddle and continued to play the baroque violin in the Leonhardt Consort, which she’d been doing since the mid 1950s.

Marijke Ferguson started to teach the small harp and, in common with Folly Collette, was much occupied with her young children. She was later to become a pioneer in her own right, exploring yet earlier repertoire with her own group, Studio Laren, which she established in 1965.

In 1963 Otten began another ensemble, Syntagma Musicum, with his new wife, the recorder player and harpsichordist Barbara Miedema, of which more another time.

Thanks are due to Marijke Ferguson, Marina Klunder (Kees Otten’s widow), and to Jolande van der Klis for her excellent Oude muziek in Nederland which has been a valuable source in writing this post. The English translation of various quotes is my own.

Also of interest

Kees Otten, Dutch recorder pioneer

Frans Brüggen: the early years (1942–1959), with his teacher Kees Otten   

The Leonhardt Consort: the early days – with recorder pioneer Kees Otten  

Gustav Leonhardt & Martin Skowroneck – Making harpsichord history

Syntagma Musicum, the internationally famous Dutch early music group founded by Kees Otten

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