Petrus van Oecklen can with confidence be called an exceptional organ builder. During the course of his lifetime he was extremely successful, unafraid of pioneering commercial or musical adventure, and of a perseverant nature
He was born in Breda on 15th August 1792. His father Cornelis worked principally as a clockmaker but who also dabbled with the maintenance of carillons and organs. His companion, or mentor in his organ activities was the now virtually unknown organ builder Christiaanen (sometimes referred to as Christianus), who is documented as being a "master organ maker". Although Cornelis worked mainly on the restoration and repair of organs, he did manage to construct several beautiful instruments of his own, such as the still extant organ at Oud-Beijerland.
The success of this instrument earned him the contract to build an organ in the Dutch Reformed Church at Strijen in 1837. However, he died on 29th August of that year, so the instrument was completed by his son Petrus. In fact, this was actually Petrus's second organ for he had delivered his first to the Dutch Reformed Church at Assen a few years before.
Between his early years and the construction of these two organs lies the important year of 1810 when he made one of the most important decisions of his life: he moved from Breda to Groningen, which was a big step for a young man who had just reached his eighteenth birthday. In addition Petrus, a Roman Catholic, found himself in the strangely Protestant north, where Catholic enclaves were only to be found in the largest cities. Doubtless Petrus made this move already with a certainty of gaining a sufficient means of employment in Groningen of which we have no record. It's more than likely, however, that he had already been appointed the Carilloneur of the Martinikerk tower in Groningen as there could be no doubt of his experience in this field, having been the Municipal Carilloneur of Breda since his sixteenth year. It is also probable that he had already secured a position as an organ builder's apprentice. There were two possible firms, that of Heinrich Hermann Freitag, a former apprentice of Albertus Anthoni Hinsz, who with Frans Caspar Schnitger Jr had taken over his business upon his death, and which on Freitag's death in 1811 was continued by his son Eberhard Freitag and Johannes Wilhelmus Timpe, who died in 1837.
Whatever the facts might be, it is certain that he quickly managed to win himself a place in the musical life of the city of Groningen. He made the transition from apprentice to independent organ builder in 1819 with the delivery of his first organ to the Dutch Reformed Church at Assen. It is also noteworthy that the term of "musical instrument maker" is often referred to regarding him, implying that he occupied himself with musical instruments other than with the organ alone. It is also known that as a musician he was competent on the piano, carillon, violoncello and contrabass as well as on the organ.
His personal life was equally successful. On 30th June 1825 he married Joanna Maria Theresia Auwerda. They were to have six children, among them Cornelis Aldegundis and Antonius, who would continue their father's flourishing company after his death. The family's large house still stands in Harendermolen.
In addition to his occupational activities, Petrus van Oecklen gathered various people around him who occupied important positions in the life of Groningen, and whose influence was most useful in gaining him further contracts...... and there were a lot of contracts, mainly because this was a moment in time when many churches in smaller villages were commissioning new organs, sometimes to replace a harmonium. The nobility often played an important role in arranging these commissions: they were not only wealthy, but they were also active as church trustees.
In this connection it was Jonkheer (Squire) SamuŽl Wolther Trip who was particularly important. He was an influential Groninger nobleman who was also a proficient amateur organist. Over the course of time he would become a kind of "ambassador" for the work of Petrus van Oecklen, and was responsible for gaining him many contracts. It was often Trip as well who would inaugurate the new instruments at their dedication services. There is no doubt then that Petrus would have cherished the friendship that grew between them over the years.
Petrus van Oecklen should also be remembered as one of the first organ builders who developed as certain degree of mass production methods into the craft. For many parts were absolutely uniform and were constructed according to a completely standardised procedures. Even the design of the casework became so uniform that they looked almost identical. Generally the whole organ would sit on the front of the gallery, usually in two tiers, Hoofdwerk with Bovenwerk above. The Pedaal would normally be placed behind, with the bellows positioned behind the upper manual. The console would be placed on one side. The two instruments at Saaxumhuizen and Usquert are good examples of this kind.
It should be said that both in quantity and quality Petrus van Oecklen belongs amongst the best Dutch organ builders of the 19th century. Although his work, just like that of many of his contemporaries was either ignored or looked down upon during the 20th century, since all attention was focused on the Barock period of organ construction. Now, with the benefit of time, as we move further away from the period in which he lived, his work is finally receiving the attention and admiration it deserves. His instruments have now proven their quality and durability during the last 150 years, and the sound also offers much for the ear to appreciate. Special mention should be given to Van Oecklen's Viola di Gamba, one of the specialities of the house, which in its day was highly praised, and which is once more commanding considerable attention amongst players and lovers of the organ.
If you're visiting the Netherlands, do go and check some of these instruments out, you won't be disappointed.
With best wishes,