Jan Garrit Overduin (1943–2023)

Jan was born 12 May 1943 in the small Dutch city of Franeker, which was under Nazi occupation at the time. He was one of fourteen(!) children born to Jakobus and Willemken Overduin. Jakobus, who came from a long line of church ministers, was called in 1955 to minister to the Free Reformed Church in St. Thomas, Ontario, and the entire family emigrated to Canada at that time. A year later, at age 13, Jan was known locally as “Canada's youngest church organist.”

I knew him primarily as an organist, so I shall focus on that aspect of his life. Fascinating details about his own family of five, and about his many other activities, can be found in an excellent online obituary.

He studied organ with Peter Hurford at the University of Western Ontario, where he became a Master of Music. He won the Healey Willan Prize in 1963, and in 1969 he received a Canada Council grant to study with Marie-Claire Alain and Jean Langlais in Paris. In 1970 he won a prize at the Flanders International Organ Competition in Belgium, and another in 1973 at the St. Alban’s International Organ Competition. He toured in Europe more than fifteen times, and also toured in Taiwan. At the invitation of his longtime friend Barrie Cabena, he served as Professor of Music at Wilfrid Laurier University (Waterloo, Ontario) beginning in 1978 and continuing until 2003, when he stepped down as Chair of the Organ and Church Music Department.

Jan released six CDs in collaboration with trumpeter Erik Schultz and recorder player Matthew Jones, and recorded a solo album on the historic Riepp organ (1766) in the Ottobeuren Monastery near Munich. He published two books, Improvisation for Organists (1998) and Bach’s Kunst der Fuge (2001).

He founded the Niagara Chamber Choir, and conducted the Menno Singers and Mennonite Mass Choir for many years. He served as director of music at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in Kitchener, Ontario, and also at First United Church in Waterloo. His multimedia recital “Quest for Discovery” at First United in 2007 drew large audiences.

I first encountered his name when I saw an article he'd written about organ works that had been composed for two performers. I too had been interested in organ duets, so we pooled our information. This eventually led to the one time in my life where I had a major role in a recital of music: Jan and I presented a concert of music for four hands and four feet at the Benton Street Baptist Church in Waterloo on 21 October 2000.

When I had finished drafting my multimedia composition Fantasia Apocalyptica at the end of 2016, I showed him the score, and he immediately understood the goals I had been trying to achieve with that music. He began to send me video recordings of individual chapters, about once per week, as he was trying the pieces on different organs. I learned several months later that he had once been the organist in a major presentation of Franz Schmidt's wonderful (but rarely performed) oratorio Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln—which, like my Fantasia, is closely based on the Biblical Book of Revelation.

Thus it was natural for me to ask him to present the world premiere of my composition, and I was extremely pleased that he agreed enthusiastically to undertake this difficult task. (I had not taken any pains to make the piece easy to play!)

During the summer of 2017 he journeyed to the charming city of Piteå, in northern Sweden, where I'd scheduled the premiere to be performed on the magnificent new Woehl organ at Studio Acusticum. (The Woehl organ, expressly designed for 21st-century music, was a perfect fit for my composition. Some of the videos Jan made during that practice session can be viewed below.) And his performance, in January of 2018, was unquestionably the greatest highlight of my life.

The next step, of course, was to have a premiere in America, and his home church in Waterloo was the natural venue for that. We scheduled it for November. But suddenly, at the beginning of March, he suffered a massive stroke, which totally paralyzed his left side. His family and friends provided amazing support, and he fought valiantly to recover his ability to play. Miraculously, that concert took place without a hitch.

His Final Project

Just about a month before Jan was hit by the aggressive form of leukemia that unexpectedly cut his life short, he began to prepare a series of brief “video primers” about Fantasia Apocalyptica, typically three minutes each. He was a born teacher, always happy to bring the joys of music to more and more people. Thus he put together some short tutorials so that others could readily understand the unique aspects of this 21st-century work.

He was unfortunately unable to complete the series, but I'm sure that he wanted these little gems to be seen by many viewers as possible. Therefore I've collected them below.

The main concept underlying Fantasia Apocalyptica is to follow the Biblical text almost word by word, and to translate its literary idioms into musical idioms. Jan's first “primer” therefore illustrates some of the simplest correspondences between words and music: to open; to play a trumpet; black and white; etc. (time: 3:26)

Primer #2, similarly, illustrates words such as “fear”, “faith”, “not”. (time: 2:22)

Primer #3 is about “faith” and “patience”. (time: 2:14)

I couldn't find any video called Primer #4. But I suspect that he intended this one to fill that position; it's about the key word “hear”. (time: 3:40)

Primer #5 explains, among other things, words like “amen” (the opposite of “not”); “to knock” (to “rap”); and harps. [Here he makes the reasonable but incorrect assumption that “sacred harp” in my score refers to the human voice. But I was thinking of shape note singing, a particular style of music for which the Sacred Harp Hymnal is the standard reference.] (time: 4:02)

Primer #6 is about a very common theme,“to overcome”. (time: 3:33)

Primer #7 is about “God”. (time: 4:03)

And #8 is about “the Beast” (anti-God). (time: 2:49)

Earlier Videos from 2023

Before starting to make those primers, Jan had looked through his collection of recordings, and selected several short excerpts from various chapters of the book of Revelation. He usually chose them from recordings he'd made on the Kney organ at Waterloo's First United Church, a beloved instrument whose acquisition he had shepherded many years before. But then he often added his recordings of the same selections as performed on other instruments, such as the Woehl organ in Sweden.

I shall present them in order by chapter and verse. First, Chapter 10, verses 1–4, an angel between sea and land. (time: 2:25)

First, Chapter 10, verses 5–7, the seventh trumpet will come soon (time: 2:01)

Next, Chapter 10, verses 8–11, the sweet and sour little scroll (time: 1:56)

Chapter 12, verses 13–18, woman flees the dragon, who is vanquished. (time: 1:48)

Chapter 18, verses 1–6, Babylon is fallen. Here Jan is playing the famous Van Hagerbeer organ (1634) at the Pieterskerk in Leiden. Its meantone toning is incompatible with most 21st-century music; but it works well in the context of Revelation 18! (time: 4:06))

Chapter 19, verses 20–21, death of the beast and the false prophet. (We're back in Waterloo for this.) (time: 1:39)

Chapter 21, verses 1–4, the New Jerusalem. (And now we're back in the Pieterskerk.) (time: 3:01)

Besides those excerpts, Jan also prepared new videos with the music and texts of several complete chapters. Here is Chapter 8, featuring the first four trumpets. (time: 4:52)

Chapter 11, the seventh trumpet and the open temple, played both in Waterloo and in Sweden. (time: 7:56)

Chapter 12, the woman and the dragon, played both on the organ in my Stanford home and in Sweden. (time: 6:26)

Chapter 20, the thousand years, played both in Leiden and in Sweden. (time: 8:07)

Here's a fun video about chimes and other percussion effects that complement the pipes. (time: 4:28)

Jan shared my love of Borodin's music. This video discusses the ways in which my Fantasia pays homage to Alexander Borodin. (time: 3:51)

His First Video from Sweden

Finally, I close this tribute by posting the brief recording that Jan sent to me in the summer of 2017, when he was just beginning to acquaint himself with the Woehl orgen in Piteå. (time: 1:58)

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