Robert Adlington on Reinbert de Leeuw: ‘His “canon” was quite unlike anyone else’s’

Grave of Reinbert de Leeuw on Zorgvliet, 21 February 2020

Reinbert de Leeuw died on 14 February 2020, and was buried in Amsterdam exactly a week later, after a worthy tribute in  Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. He had chosen the music for his farewell himself, with Asko|Schönberg performing Berceuse élégiaque by Ferruccio Busoni and the Netherlands Chamber Choir singing Entflieht auf leichten Kähnen by Anton Webern.

On film the packed hall witnessed an intense performance of the last movement of Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps by the violinist Vera Beths with Reinbert himself at the piano. The memorial ceremony ended with Reinbert conducting the finale of Schönberg’s Gurrelieder, the close-up of his ecstatic abandon triggering a heartfelt standing ovation. – Reinbert’s last.

His demise did not go unnoticed internationally either. The British site Slipped Disc commemorated Reinbert on the day of his passing and the New York Times published an obituary on 21 February, the day of his burial.

Photo of Robert Adlington

Robert Adlington

The British musicologist Robert Adlington studied Dutch musical life intensely, dedicating two books to it. Louis Andriessen: De Staat (Landmarks in Music Since 1950) appeared in 2004. Nine years later, in 2013, he zoomed in on the ‘roaring sixties’ in Composing Dissent: Avant-garde Music in 1960s Amsterdam. Robert was kind enough to share his thoughts on Reinbert in a personal obituary, which I feel honoured to publicize on my blog. Thanks Robert!


‘RdL’: this was my shorthand, peppering my note-taking as I immersed myself in the archives and literature on Dutch music of the ‘roerige jaren zestig’. These initials surfaced in a remarkable variety of contexts: RdL as pianist and conductor, for sure – playing keyboards in the ‘Politiek demonstratief experimenteel’ concert of May 1968; directing one of the ensembles in Reconstructie – but also RdL as critic (in De Gids and the crisply provocative Muzikale Anarchie), RdL as composer (his Hymns and Chorals perhaps the strongest of any of the works composed by the ‘Notenkrakers’ in 1970), and above all, RdL as lead strategist for the new ‘ensemblecultuur’.

Oddly, given the central role he played in my research, I never met RdL. We had arranged an interview, for which I made a special trip to Amsterdam, but his agent cancelled the same morning. I decided not to follow up; I knew already at this stage that my history would not be able to cast him in a uniformly positive light. And he undoubtedly had better things to do than to respond – yet again – to impertinent questions about an unhelpfully mythologised past.

But I vividly recall three landmark performances, landmarks for me anyway. My first RdL concert: Louis Andriessen’s De materie in London, 1994. Attending as a group with student friends, this performance symbolised the aching gap, as we then saw it, between new music performance culture in the Netherlands and the UK. The gap could be summed up in a single word – commitment – and it was underlined by RdL’s podium technique, utterly undemonstrative, yet eliciting playing (from the combined Asko and Schönberg forces) of quite fearsome power and accuracy. In the Netherlands, it seemed, new music was taken seriously.

Then: 2002 at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, and the most transcendently exquisite Ligeti I have ever heard. I had bought a ticket to hear De Staat, cancelled from 11 September the previous year. But marvellous though that was, it was Ligeti’s Double Concerto that sticks in the memory, each of the work’s gradated transitions and moments of quiet revelation realised with carefully weighted perfection. And another symbol of Dutch difference: refined Ligeti and rowdy Andriessen sitting side-by-side on a concert programme, disregarding perceptions of incongruity or ‘bad taste’. RdL certainly had blindspots of his own, but if he stood accused of exercising too much power over Dutch new music culture, his ‘canon’ was at least quite unlike anyone else’s.

And the last time I saw RdL, in Rotterdam in 2017, playing Liszt’s Via Crucis with the Nederlands Kamerkoor. I had never before heard the piece, though knew it had long been championed by RdL, and quickly came to realise that this was to be RdL’s Via Crucis as much as Liszt’s. Hunched low over the keys, as if exploring entirely new physical and psychological territory, this was less performance, more private confessional, to which the audience had unexpectedly been granted admission. It reminded me anew of how much RdL’s contribution – for good, and (it will be argued) for ill – arose from a complete devotion to the music in which he believed.

Nothing could ever be more important.


About theaderks

Thea Derks is a Dutch music journalist, who studied musicology at Amsterdam University. She' specialized in contemporary music and always has an eye open for women composers. In 2014 she wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw and in 2018 she published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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