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February 10, 2014

Classical Music in The Netherlands (1) - 17th & 18th centuries

The 17th century was the Golden Age of Dutch culture. Painting and literature flourished. But where was the music?

The answer is: psalms, psalms, psalms... There is no Dutch Bach; in fact, most composers active in the Netherlands in this period were immigrants from Germany. There was only one native-born composer of international standing in these two centuries: Sweelinck. What caused this musical desert?

In order to flourish in the pre-modern age, music needed to be sponsored. In most other European countries that is what happened, either by the church or by the court. But in the Netherlands, these two were both negative factors.

In the first place, the court - this was absent: for in an age of monarchies, the Netherlands was a republic (the Republic of the Seven United Provinces, 1581-1795). It was in fact a confederation governed by a federal government, the States-General. The appointed head of state was the "Stadtholder," who also commanded the army. In practice, for this function the princes of Orange of the House of Orange-Nassau were chosen. This led confusingly to a sort of de facto hereditary head of state (in 1747, the position became also officially a hereditary one), but the Princes of Orange remained subservient to the States-General (who could anytime fire them, or refuse an appointment). It will be clear from the above that this was not a situation where a large court culture with its own composers and orchestra as in Paris, Vienna or even Stockholm could develop. This only changed somewhat at the marriage of Stadtholder Willem IV with Princess Anne (1709-59) from the English House of Hanover in 1734 - Princess Anne was musically gifted and had been a pupil of Handel. The music she introduced to the House of Orange was institutionalized by her son Willem V who employed the first official Dutch court composer. As there was no vital Dutch musical tradition, this was the German Christian Ernst Graf. He was in function when the family Mozart visited The Hague in 1765. (This visit itself demonstrates that the musical situation had improved somewhat, as the Mozarts apparently considered The Hague important enough to include in their itinerary).

[Princess Anne of Hanover]

Compared to the meagre situation at the "court," it was even worse with the church. The dominant Calvinist religion frowned on all music during church services except unaccompanied communal singing - even the organ was not welcome (it only came back to the church after a prolonged "organ struggle")! Thus when the Dutch cities converted en masse to Calvinism in 1570, the rich musical tradition of the Catholic church was lost - in northern Germany, Lutheranism at least sponsored music during church services and thus made the success of Bach possible. Dutch churches contained magnificent organs, but these were played only before and after services, or for public concerts on weekdays. Organ players were in the service of the municipality, as was also the case with Sweelinck who worked for the city of Amsterdam. Thus the two classical forms of musical patronage, court and church, were lacking in the Netherlands. The possibilities for professional musicians were severely limited and Holland knew no flourishing musical life. The music that was played was "home music," songs or short instrumental pieces, and this music mainly came from abroad.

Who were the composers in this musically difficult period?

[Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck]
  • Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562 – 1621). This Amsterdam organist and composer straddled the end of the Renaissance and beginning of the Baroque. He was one of the first major keyboard composers of Europe, and his work as a teacher helped establish the north German organ tradition. Sweelinck was the last great polyphonist and known as "the Orpheus of Amsterdam." His pupils include  B. J. Praetorius jr., S. Scheidt and H. Scheidemann. But Sweelinck did not manage to establish his own "school" in the anti-musical Netherlands. Sweelinck wrote about 70 keyboard pieces and 250 vocal works. Sweelinck was his whole life employed as organist in Amsterdam; he was also famous as an improvisor. His complete works are available on CD – the keyboard works for example played by Ton Koopman.
    [Sweelinck, Keyboard Music, played by Ton Koopman on Philips]
  • Jacob van Eyck (ca. 1590-1657) was a carillon player, organist, recorder virtuoso and composer. His most important work was Der Fluyten Lust-hof (The Flute's Garden of Delights, 1644-1656), a collection of 140 melodies, each with a number of variations, for solo soprano recorder. There are folk songs, dance tunes and church works. As carillon player, Van Eyck worked with the brothers François & Pierre Hemony, immigrants from France, who were internationally renowned bell founders based in Amsterdam.
    [Jacob van Eyck, Der Fluyten Lust-hof, played by Erik Bosgraaf, Brilliant Classics]
  • Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687) was scientist, writer, composer and diplomat. He was secretary to the Stadtholders of Orange and knew the great thinkers and artists of his time, such as René Descartes and John Donne. As composer he wrote small, intimate pieces (mainly songs); he is also known for a treatise on the organ. He played the lute, theorbo, viola da gamba and the harpsichord and left about 800 compositions. He was the father of the natural scientist and mathematician Christiaan Huygens.
  • Anthoni van Noordt (ca. 1619 – 1675) was a Dutch composer and organist, a disciple of Sweelinck. His Tabulatuur-boeck van psalmen en fantasyen (Amsterdam, 1659) contains ten psalms with variations and six fugal fantasies. His work displays great contrapuntal mastery.
  • David Petersen (ca. 1650-1737) was a violinist and composer of north German origin active in the Netherlands. Around 1680, he moved to Amsterdam, where he worked for the rest of his life. Besides a great number of songs in Dutch composed between 1694 and 1715, he is in the first place known for his collection of twelve sonatas for violin and basso continuo published in 1683 entitled "Speelstukken." It is the only Dutch publication of its type in this period. Inspiration came probably from north German composers as Johann Jakob Walther.
    [David petersen, Speelstukken, played by Manfredo Kraemer and The Rare Fruits Council on Astree]
  • Johannes Schenck (1660 - after 1720) was born in Amsterdam from German parents and became an internationally famous virtuoso viola da gamba player. Except compositions for his own instrument, he also wrote the first Dutch opera (1686, on a text in Dutch): Venus, Ceres and Bacchus - when the gods quarrel and Ceres (deity of food) and Bacchus (deity of wine) refuse to cooperate with Venus, humans decide to engage in a "sex strike" for "love cannot exist without food or wine." In 1696 Schenck moves to the court of Düsseldorf, where he remained until his death. He continued publishing his music in Amsterdam with the famous publisher Estienne Roger - we have several opus numbers with gamba music, music for violin and trio sonatas.
    [Scherzi Musicali Op 6 for Viola da gamba played by Bettina Hoffmann on Dynamic]
  • Willem de Fesch (1687 - 1761) was a virtuoso Dutch violone player and composer. He studied with Karl Rosier in Germany, and after working in Amsterdam between 1710 and 1725, pursued his career in Antwerp and London. He played the violone in Handel's orchestra and also conducted at Marylebone Gardens. He wrote solo and trio sonatas, concertos, and also two oratorios. His style was influenced by Vivaldi and Handel.
  • [Concerto Op 10 included in Baroque Concerto from The Netherlands by Musica Ad Rhenum on NM Classics; and Solo & Trio Sonatas by Ensemble d'Auvergne on Globe]
  • Count Unico Willem van Wassenaer (1692 - 1766) was a Dutch diplomat and composer. His most important surviving compositions are the "Concerti Armonici," which until 1980 had been misattributed to the Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. As the scion of a wealthy and distinguished family, the count did not publish the concertos under his own name. The style is Italian and close to that of Locatelli (who, by the way, spent the last years of his life in Amsterdam). These concertos formed the basis for Pulcinella by Stravinsky, who still considered them as composed by Pergolesi. Count Unico Willem van Wassenaer also composed three recorder sonatas.
    [Van Wassenaer, 6 Concerti Armonici by Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Ensemble on Apex]
  • Johan Nicolaas Lentz (ca. 1719 - 1782) was another Dutch composer of German origin. He was active in Rotterdam, where he also married the daughter of a local wine seller. He himself seems to have been active in the wine business as well. Just a few works have come down to us, among them two harpsichord concertos.
    [Lentz, Two Harpsichord Concertos  (with Six Symphonies by Heinsius) played by the Orchestra Van Wassenaer on BIS]
  • Pieter Hellendaal (1721 – 1799) was an Anglo-Dutch composer and violinist. At age 30, he migrated to England where he stayed the rest of his life. He is the best composer of Dutch origin of the 18th century. Typically, he had trouble finding a good position in music-barren Holland. Among his freelance assignments was a concert for Stadtholder Willem IV and his musically-minded English wife Anne, and it may have been the Princess who gave him the idea that England offered better career chances for an ambitious musician. He first established himself as a successful composer and violinist in London, where he also worked with Handel. In 1862 he moved to Cambridge where he settled down for the rest of his life. Besides violin and cello sonatas as well as solo works for harpsichord, his most important compositions are the six Concerto Grossi of 1758. Hellendaal wrote in the late Italian Baroque style.
    [Hellendael, 6 Concerti Grossi by European Community Baroque on Channel Classics]
  • Christian Ernst Graf (1723-1804) was a German Kapellmeister and composer. From 1762, he worked as official court composer for William V, Prince of Orange, in The Hague. Graf has left us several symphonies, violin sonatas, string quartets, trio sonatas and quintets for flute and strings, as well as piano works. One of his last and major works was the Easter cantata "Der Tod Jesu," dating from 1802. He also wrote a musical text book on harmony. His song "Laat ons juichen Batavieren" was used by Mozart for his variations KV 24.
    [Graf, Symphony in D Op 14.1 included in Crowning Glory - Symphonies from the 18th Century Court of Orange in The Hague, played by The New Dutch Academy conducted by Simon Murphy on Pentatone Classics]
  • Joseph Schmitt (1734-1791) was a Dutch composer, director and music pedagogue of German origin. After studying with Carl Friedrich Abel, he entered the clergy as a musical priest. In the early 1770s, Schmitt moved to Amsterdam. He quickly established himself in the city, becoming music director at the Felix Meritis society, where he worked for the next two decades. He also set up his own music publishing firm. Schmitt was the most important figure in Dutch musical life in the second half of the 18th century. His compositions are influenced by his teacher Abel, the Bach sons and the Mannheim school; they are sparkling and full of energy. Not for nothing has he been called the "Dutch Haydn." Schmitt played a pioneering role in the realisation of the Holland's first purpose built concert hall, the Felix Meritis. The hall opened in 1788 with Schmitt conducting the inaugural performance. In the 19th century, the hall became the central point of Dutch music life. Unfortunately, Schmitt has been largely forgotten in the Netherlands, although some of his music has been revived on a recent CD.
    [Schmitt, Early Symphonies and Chamber Music, played by The New Dutch Academy conducted by Simon Murphy on Pentatone Classics]

    [Written with some input from Wikipedia and CD text books]
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