Gaudeamus at 75: younger than ever

Seventy-five years ago Walter Maas opened the doors of his Villa Gaudeamus in Bilthoven for living composers. – A thank you to the Netherlands for having survived the war in hiding as a German Jew. In 2020 the Gaudeamus Music Week has developed into an internationally renowned festival, attracting composers from all over the world. The jubilee was to be celebrated grandly, but Corona threw a spanner in the works.

Or did it…?

The opening concert on 9 September was a feast of surprises, culminating in Hans van Koolwijk’s balloon symphony. On his instructions, musicians sent deflating balloons with whistles attached flying off into the hall of TivoliVredenburg. This not only created enchanting images, but also produced a shrill cacophony of sounds, which nevertheless – or precisely because of that – created a festive atmosphere. Until Sunday, September 13th, there is still a lot to be heard and seen, both online and offline.

At the request of Gaudeamus I looked back on my own experiences with the festival, for the programme book of 9 September.

Poor relation

For a long time contemporary music was a poor relation in the Netherlands. Although international greats such as Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Arnold Schönberg conducted the Concertgebouw Orchestra in their own works, the audience was generally served up classical and romantic music. Even during my studies in musicology at the University of Amsterdam (1992-1996) the emphasis was still on the well-known ‘masters’.

The cause of new music was – and is – often advocated by idiosyncratic types boasting a strong dose of idealism. For example, only one of my university teachers discussed living composers, and years earlier Daniel Ruyneman (1886-1963) was a lone voice in the wilderness. Starting out as a sailor and only later becoming a composer, he shocked the audience with radical pieces in 1918. Such as Hieroglyphs, written for the exceptional line-up of three flutes, celesta, harp, piano, cup bells, two mandolins and two guitars. Whoever said that ensemble culture started in the 1960s?

Compelling personality

Ruyneman initiated one progressive concert series after another and brought composers like Bartók, Messiaen and Stravinsky to our country even before World War II. He found a kindred spirit in the violinist and conductor Elie Poslavsky (1922-2002), who presented countless Dutch and world premieres with his The Hague Ensemble for New Music from the mid-fifties onward. Most appealing to the imagination is Walter Maas (1909-1992), however, who starte from 1945 organized concerts in Villa Gaudeamus.

I have never known Maas personally, but what I gather from lore he was someone with a compelling personality and an iron perseverance. Initially his programming was rather conservative, but thanks to advocates such as Poslavsky, Ton de Leeuw and Henk Stam he took a more progressive course. Already in 1951 Else Kraus performed Schoenberg’s complete piano repertoire, and soon electronic music followed track. Stockhausen made a deep impression in 1956 with a presentation of his Gesang der Jünglinge. Thanks to the young composers’ competition and Maas’s generous invitation policy, Gaudeamus gained international fame.


Gradually the organization grew into an inescapable factor in the world of new music. When towards the end of the 80’s I developed a craving for new sounds from my background in pop music, Gaudeamus inevitably crossed my path. Soon the annual Music Week became a permanent fixture in my concert schedule.

To be honest, I must admit that this gradually began to feel a bit like a chore. Instead of a cross-section of the multifaceted range of contemporary composing, Gaudeamus mainly offered an overwhelming selection of atonal, mostly serial compositions. The elaborate, but drab pieces did not appeal to my imagination. The average concertgoer also felt but moderately addressed and more and more the concerts attracted only a select group of insiders.

New Mozart

Luckily there was Henk Heuvelmans (1954). Already when he became a staff member in 1981 he concluded that Gaudeamus was ‘not really a flashy event’. When, ten years later, he became director, he speeded up the refurbishment of the organization. He installed a shadow jury and introduced music installations in the hope of making the festival broader and more diverse. The programme books became more colourful and accessible as well. Yet it took until the beginning of the 21st century before there really was a new élan.

This was partly due to the move to the brand new Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam in 2005. The ultramodern building with its wide views over the IJ turned out to be the ideal setting to present the latest notes of younger generations. Participants in the competition were housed in surrounding hotels and escorted by Heuvelmans with fatherly enthusiasm. In charming English with a Brabantian lilt he welcomed composers, musicians and audience: ‘Perhaps you will hear the new Mozart this year! His disarming presentation was diametrically opposed to the heavy seriousness Gaudeamus had adopted before, and gradually the hall filled up again.

Pre concert talk with Ivan Vukosavljevic, Aart Strootman, Chaz Underriner, Ethan Braun & Sky Macklay 6 September 2017 (c) Herre Vermeer


I myself enjoyed my introductions on Foyerdeck 1, interviewing such diverse up-and-coming talents as Huang Ruo, Lu Wang and Reza Namavar. This all gained momentum when Gaudeamus moved to Utrecht in 2011. Together with programmer Martijn Buser (1980), Heuvelmans rapidly developed new formulas, involving just about all the concert halls and churches in Utrecht.

Gaudeamus now offers a sample of music installations, open air productions, symposia, mini-concerts, courses, composer portraits, presentations and introductions, some of which I was happy to take care of. A real find was the idea to link participants in the competition to an ensemble for which – and with whom – they write a new composition in just one week’s time.

In the year 2020, the Gaudeamus Music Week is buzzing like never before. Even corona has not had a disastrous impact. I would like to leave aside how many ‘Mozarts’ have risen in the meantime, but the rich and varied in off- and online programming creates acute choice stress. At 75, the organization is younger than ever: Gaudeamus is the place to be!

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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