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Friday, February 19, 2010

Discovering Vermeulen

Visiting Dutch composer Rob Zuidam delivered the first of three public lectures at Harvard on Thursday afternoon. Zuidam (b. 1964) holds the distinction of being Harvard's "Erasmus Visiting Professor" for the Spring of 2010. The Erasmus Lectures are dedicated to the History and Civilization of the Netherlands and Flanders, and funded by a generous endowment. I already know of Zuidam from hearing some of his music in the 90s when his "Three Mechanisms" was performed at Tanglewood. Since then he has composed four operas.

From Room 2 of the music building (directly adjacent to the composer's office), Zuidam chose for the subject of his first Erasmus lecture a rather obscure Dutch composer from the 20th century. The talk was about a composer who is still rarely heard outside of his native country today, and who was virtually ignored for most of his career within Holland as well. His name was Matthijs Vermeulen (not to be confused with the famous Grand Prix motorcycle racing champ, Chris Vermeulen).

Matthijs Vermeulen
(1888-1967) was by all accounts a maverick. He was known for his sharp tongue and outspokenness as a music critic (his primary source of income). He famously yelled "Long live Sousa" after a performance at the Concertgebouw of a piece by Cornelius Dopper - a rather conventional Dutch composer. Vermeulen didn't like music that derived from the Germanic tradition, and he was no fan of Sousa. To make matters worse, much of the audience thought he was shouting the name of a socialist revolutionary who had a attempted to bring down the Dutch government a few days prior. Vermeulen was banned from attending future concerts by the management of the Concertgebouw.

His Second Symphony (page two of the score is shown below) is without a doubt his best-known work.

Vermeulen composed this symphony in 1920. The piece has a complex main theme with no particular tonal center, which is constructed from large interval jumps and a mixture of chromatic/whole-tone interval structures. The theme goes through an elaborate development process which Vermeulen may have honed from his study of the Dutch polyphonic composers. Underneath the relentless counterpoint and thematic development, the Second Symphony pounds away in tone-clusters and a battery of non-pitched percussion instruments. It's very reminiscent of Edgard Varèse - although Vermeulen most definitely came upon his unique stylistic bent quite independently.

The maverick aspect of Vermeulen's career is not unlike that of Charles Ives in America. Vermeulen didn't get along with Mengelberg, the omni-present and all-powerful Music Director of the Concertgebow Orchestra. He frequently hammered the conductor in his published music criticism, and this rift probably resulted in his orchestral music being ignored by conductors for decades - at least in the cultural capital of Amsterdam. Although his Second Symphony was composed in 1920, it did not receive a reading until 1953 at what was said to be a flawed performance. Vermeulen himself first heard this work in 1956 - a full 36 years after he wrote it.

Vermeulen lived in near abject poverty with his family, and had to leave Amsterdam for a journalism position near Paris. In France, he lived in self-imposed exile for decades. His music was largely ignored both in Holland and abroad. His vision of what 20th century music composition should be was in sharp contrast to both the prevailing Stravinsky-inspired neo-classicism and those who adhered to Schoenberg's 12-tone school compositional process. Vermeulen had in fact invented his own musical language which only he was able to converse in. Somehow he found the means to survive in his own self-invented bubble without falling victim to the effects of bitterness, anger, or dejection.

Eventually Vermeulen returned from France to the Netherlands. Toward the end of his life the Dutch took a second look at his music, and Vermeulen ultimately received more frequent performances of his work. Although recordings have finally been made of most of Vermeulen's work, according to Rob Zuidam's comment in the Q&A session following the talk, "it does not travel well." It's not easy to obtain his CDs outside of Holland, and I suspect the only way most of us will be able to hear this music performed live is to travel to the Netherlands.

Even today, the Concertgebouw Orchestra rarely performs Vermeulen, and his name does not appear on the walls of the Concertgebouw concert hall along with the better-known Dutch composers of his generation. In fact, in the great city of Amsterdam where virtually every composer has a street named after them (see my link to "Composer-Streets" below), Vermeulen is conspicuously absent from the map (although there is a street in his name in Amersfoort in the Province of Utrecht).

Vermeulen was never part, and probably never will be, a member of the Dutch musical establishment.

In 1967 Vermeulen died in Laren, a small and idyllic town in the province of North Holland (which I have visited many times).

(The photo on the right is from the
collection of Odilia Vermeulen in Laren)

We look forward to Rob Zuidam's additional presentations about contemporary Dutch music at Harvard's "Erasmus Visiting Professor" lecture series. If you can't make it in person, the text of the lectures will be posted on Zuidam's website (link below).

The two remaining lectures in the series are scheduled for March 11th and April 10th, 2010 at 5:15 PM. It's free and open to all.