Of Dutch composers, Dutch guitarists, and Dutch guitars
In anticipation of his first and (so far) only trip to the Netherlands, my father wrote:
"What must I do to prepare to meet the 16 million people of this nation? It's a small country nearly 20% of it water and half of it below sea level, the size of Connecticut and Massachusetts combined, or less than twice the size of New Jersey, and probably less than half the size of Texas. [Texas is 16.5 times larger than the Netherlands!] Are there even 21 million Dutch speakers in the world? No wonder most Dutch people speak four languages, usually Dutch, English, German, and French --- in that order of fluency."
ABN AMRO - the largest networked bank. Shell - the energy giant. KLM - the airlines. Phillips. These companies are Dutch but international.
The Netherlands pioneered the legalisation of prostitution and euthanasia. Amsterdam is the gay capital of Europe.
When you think of Holland you think of tulips, Amsterdam, coffee shops, clogs, canals, bicycles, cheese. Oh yes, and don't forget the great artists: Vermeer, Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Mondriaan, and Van Gogh.
The Golden Age for Holland was the 17th century where trade flourished. Amsterdam grew out of the "dam" on the Amstel river which became a trading exchange point. Just create a barrier and you capitalise on the buy and sell.
With all this art and architecture, history and trade, what became of music?
Name me one Dutch composer, I asked when I was thinking about moving here.
Sweelinck, someone replied.
In 2003, I had never heard of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. He lived during the Golden Age. Google "Sweelinck" and you can read all about him in Wikipedia. He lived and died a long, long time ago.
Why can any tourist name a handful of Dutch painters but not a single Dutch composer?
That question led me to form several hypotheses:
1- Music outside the church is considered hedonist while art is not. In a religious country like Holland, music can be played and enjoyed safely in the privacy of one's home but not flaunted elsewhere. Certainly there was no royal court or patronage to support composers.
2- The Dutch consider "gezelligheid" to be the nirvana of their existence. It's another name for "cosy existence." To be at home, sharing the warmth and familiarity with family, near relatives and old friends --- that is what a Dutch person strives for. There was no need to travel abroad, like Mozart did. Thus fame did not travel abroad. Thus no one outside of the Netherlands has heard of Dutch musicians.
3- We know of famous composers from other countries not only because they had travelled but their music had been performed elsewhere. Other than Sweelinck who influenced German Baroque music and the living composer Louis Andriessen who travelled to the US, I can't say I have heard of other Dutch composers.
So where are the Dutch composers? Why aren't they household names? Why haven't we heard music written by Dutch composers outside of the Netherlands?
I met a Dutch guitarist in 2001. I asked him these questions -- why, why, why? Are Dutch composers too comfortable in their gezellig homes to travel abroad? Don't they actively promote their music to get them performed outside the country? Don't Dutch musicians want to play music of Dutch composers?
The Dutch guitarist had no answers for me. Instead, he introduced me to his Dutch guitar, an incredibly loud acoustic guitar built for the concert stage, by the Dutch luthier Jeroen Hilhorst who only makes six such beautiful guitars a year. Just like Segovia who brought the classical guitar to the concert stage, Hilhorst made the guitar an equal partner with the grand piano.
Until the concert guitar, it was impossible to hear the guitar with the piano without amplification. Indeed, it has made a huge difference to our piano guitar duo performances. [And I suppose other duo's have to use early instruments such as the fortepiano or harpsichord to play with the modern guitar or the modern piano with an amplified classical guitar.]
Who has heard the Dutch concert guitar? Thankfully, you don't have to be in the Netherlands to have heard the Hilhorst guitar in concert. The American violin guitar Duo46 uses a Hilhorst guitar and earlier this year they played at the Kennedy Center which broadcasted it live on podcast. Duo46 comes to Amsterdam once a year, not just for the Dutch guitar, the Dutch guitarist, or Dutch composers, but for all these other wonderful things that this small country has to offer.
And the music of Dutch composers? Three have written for my piano guitar duo. How will audiences outside of the Netherlands get to hear us play music of Dutch composers?
23 August 2007
Anne Ku lives in a house built by the Dutch National Water Board about a hundred years ago while it was digging out the canal next to it. She has yet to master the complicated Dutch language and still struggles with the windy weather.