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From September until June, the SCA sings gregorian Vespers every Sunday at 5 PM. There is, probably, no other parish church in the world where Gregorian chant offices are sung with such regularity as by the Schola Cantorum Amsterdam in Amsterdam’s St. Nicholas Basilica.
The Schola Cantorum Amsterdam (SCA) was established in 1959 as the Gregorian chant choir for the University of Amsterdam’s Roman Catholic student community.
The Schola comprises a men’s choir and a women’s choir, alternating the weekly vespers. The women are directed by Laine Tabora, the men by Rens Tienstra.
The SCA’s founder and conductor until December 1993 was Wim van Gerven. Wim van Gerven was himself an accomplished tenor and, for many years, a member of the Netherlands Chamber Choir while it was under the direction of Felix de Nobel. Wim passed away on All Saints Day in 2008. The picture below was taken during the last service Wim sang and conducted – the Easter vespers of 2007. The service took place in the chapel of the hospital where Wim was convalescing from a fall.
History – the early years
In its early years – the socially turbulent 1960’s – the SCA sang the mass propers in the weekly mass held for the University’s students by university RC chaplains in a chapel of the Ignatius College – a Jesuit-run secondary school just a stone’s throw from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.
The SCA’s history is strongly interwoven with the changes and discussion surrounding the church’s future preceding, during and following Vatican II – the Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church opened under Pope John XXIII in 1962 and closed under Pope Paul VI in 1965.
The world’s bishops faced tremendous challenges driven by political, social, economic, and technical change. Some of these bishops sought changes in church structure and practice to address those challenges. The most organised of these was a group of Dutch and German bishops known as the Rhine Bishops.
An important influence in the Dutch debate were the University of Amsterdam RC chaplains and Jesuit priests Jan van Kilsdonk and Huub Oosterhuis – two men particularly influential in the search for new and effective liturgical forms in the Netherlands. Oosterhuis – since 1969 expelled from the Jesuit community, married with children and a national figurehead in the ecumenical community – is still active today in the University RC student community (since extended to a broader public), albeit independently of the local diocese.
The student masses with exclusively Gregorian chant in the early years of the SCA began to alternate with masses in the Dutch language with modern musical accompaniment of formulas and hymns.
From 1963-1967 Wim van Gerven gave musical direction to both the Gregorian chant choir and the choir performing the new rite. The influence of the experiments in new forms of liturgy in the University Roman Catholic community was considerable. The services attracted many visitors from other parts of the Netherlands – even from abroad – looking for inspiration to weave into their own local RC community services.
The weekly alternation of Latin and new rite services became confusing and Van Kilsdonk and Oosterhuis decided to abandon the Latin rite with its Gregorian chant and opt solely for the new Dutch language rite. Van Gerven – confronted with choosing for Gregorian chant or to continue conducting only for the Dutch services – chose resolutely for Gregorian chant.
History – A chant choir in search of a home
The choir – now superfluous in its old community – went in search of a new community and found a welcome in the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in the Kalverstraat in the center of Amsterdam – a very traditional community with little sympathy for many of the new-fangled ideas being generated by Vatican II.
From 1967-1978 the Schola Cantorum Amsterdam (as it became known) sang the weekly mass, although, with the passing of the years some friction developed as not all priests were able or willing to sing the Latin prefaces.
It should also be noted that the steadfast refusal of the choir members at that time to wear choir robes or other suitable choral dress – they sang in their jeans, street and hippy attire – wasn’t conducive to a harmonious atmosphere either. The Schola was a mixed bag of left wing radicals, reactionaries and others with a single bonding passion – singing Gregorian chant. And they were led by a man – Wim van Gerven – with a total devotion to preserving Gregorian chant in its proper liturgical context.
The Schola packed their Antiphonaries and Graduals and moved to a Franciscan community church, St. Anthony of Padua, on the outside edge of the Jordaan neighbourhood – still in an old part of Amsterdam but definitely less accessible.
From that time on the Schola chose to devote itself to singing the offices – particularly vespers and, on major feast days, matins. No more headaches and arguments with uncooperative priests with little sympathy for the Latin rite. The Schola now established itself as an independent entity that would determine its own course.
After a short stay with the Franciscans (1978-1981) the Schola moved to a more central location on the Prinsengracht – the St. Willibrord-within-the-walls, a church slated for closure and demolition but squatted by a small but active community determined to rescue the 19th century neoclassical building. The Schola was welcome as it was able to give the building a liturgical purpose with its weekly vesper service and occasional matins and compline services. Also welcome was the Schola’s ability to pay a modest rent to help in the church’s upkeep.
The Schola entered a very fruitful musical period during its stay on the Prinsengracht. For several years running it maintained a rigorous schedule of Sunday vespers, Wednesday evening compline services (after rehearsal), matins on every major feast day and a full Holy Week program with three Tenebrae matin and lauds services (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday), the Improperia and Adoration of the Cross on Good Friday and an extensive Easter Vigil that included the twelve classical readings and tracts.
Many Schola members then slept for a few hours on the floor in the parish hall before singing Easter matins early the following morning. Solemn Easter vespers concluded this exhausting but, for many, exhilarating week.
Friction between conductor Wim van Gerven and the church’s board, as well as the declining physical condition of the church (pieces of plaster were falling from the ceiling during vespers) led the Schola to look for another home. They found a welcome in January 1993 in the St. Nicholas Church immediately opposite Amsterdam’s central train station – an ideal location.
This building – also earlier slated for closure and demolition, and also rescued by a fanatical group of parishioners – had gained historical monument status. Restoration plans (full restoration of the church concluded in 2001) were also being made at the time by the local diocese to give the building a central role in the city’s Roman Catholic community.
Wim van Gerven left the Schola after an unfortunate internal dispute at the end of 1993. The direction of the Schola was then taken over by Eugeen Liven d’Abelardo – a choir member at the time – who led the Schola for a decade until his departure at the end of 2003. In January 2004 the Schola appointed Jerry Korsmit as conductor. Jerry was succeeded by Marcel Zijlstra in September 2008.
In September 2006 a new – and for many surprising – initiative was taken. A female chant choir was established to share the weekly vespers responsibilities. There were too few men to ensure sufficient and qualitively good voices on a weekly basis. It was thought that the choir would be more attractive for new singers if the weekly responsibility for singing vespers was reduced to once every two weeks. In 2008 the new female choir took on their share of the vespers routine. Jerry Korsmit conducted the women until December 2012. The two choirs now generally share the responsibilty for singing the vespers – the men one week, the women the following week. Until February 2020 both choirs were conducted by Marcel Zijlstra.
The Schola today
There is, probably, no other parish church in the world where Gregorian chant offices are sung with such regularity as by the Schola Cantorum Amsterdam in Amsterdam’s St. Nicholas Church. The future of Gregorian chant is a precarious one in the Netherlands and in many other parts of Western Europe.
Today the Schola Cantorum Amsterdam retains its independent identity and continues to sing offices (weekly vespers and occasionally matins – and very occasionally compline). Its schedule of services depends on those held by the local St. Nicholas community and that of the music foundation of the church.
The Schola’s sole source of income are the donations by a faithful core of benefactors. Schola members pay an annual contribution of 300 Euros which helps to pay the conductor a modest honorarium.
New singers are welcome
Are you interested in singing Gregorian chant with the Schola Cantorum Amsterdam? We welcome new singers, male and female and of any or no faith! As long as you like what we do.
If you’ve got some choral experience and a decent voice – and the dedication to sing regularly and rehearse weekly – then you are more than welcome to join us. the men rehearse Wednesdays from 8:30 to 10 pm in the St. Nicholas Basilica. The women rehearse on Wednesdays from 6.30 to 8 pm. Our season runs from the beginning of September to sometime in June.
Drop by and listen to our vespers service on a Sunday and introduce yourself to one of the singers or the conductor. Or send an email to the address at the “Contact” page.