‘Essential to my way of composing is the notion that music is always about other music. (…) This attitude makes one constantly shift one’s interests. I don’t relate to composers who only ever search in one direction, such as Schoenberg. I feel more akin to the all-rounders: the Purcells and the Stravinskys, who have a broader field of inspiration: stealing something on the right here, borrowing something on the left there.’
Thus Louis Andriessen (1939) once described his attitude towards composing. He found inspiration in sources as diverse as minimalism and jazz, and developed a percussive style based on contrasting musical blocks. His high-energy De Staat (1976) has become a modern classic. The often aggressive brass sound is described as ‘typical Andriessen’, and became known as the ‘Hague School’ when his students at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague adopted his style.
Andriessen however also incorporated lyricism, as for example in the ethereal second movement of his opera De Materie (1987). And although he once dismissed the symphony orchestra as a reactionary institution, in 2015 he composed Mysteries for the 125th anniversary of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
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On 5 December 2020 the Orchestra of the 18th Century and Cappella Amsterdam premiered May in Concertgebouw Amsterdam. Most likely this in memoriam for his former friend Frans Brüggen (1934-2014) will be Andriessen’s last new composition. He’s been suffering from Alzheimer for some time now, as his wife Monica Germino recently disclosed to the Dutch press. ‘It would be unrealistic to remain silent about it’, she said. ‘I don’t want to keep it secret, Alzheimer is a cruel disease.’
The premiere of May was part of the radio series NTRZaterdagMatinee, and streamed live. It showed that at 81, even suffering from a debilitating disease, Andriessen hasn’t lost any of his musical prowess. He created a haunting setting of some 80 verses from this epic poem Herman Gorter wrote in 1888, in an English translation by Paul Vincent.
Daniel Reuss, chief conductor of Cappella Amsterdam, realized an intense and moving performance. Sadly there wasn’t an audience in the hall to witness this historic moment.
A solo recorder (Lucie Horsch) evokes the spirit of Frans Brüggen with immensely virtuoso flourishes. After a few bars however, the soloist stops and remains silent for the rest of the piece. A simple, yet evocative reference to how dearly Brüggen is missed by both Andriessen and the members of the Orchestra of the 18th Century he founded in 1981.
May seems to have sprung from Andriessen’s more lyrical inclinations. The choir’s celestial harmonies may be spiked with spicy dissonances, but the overall sound is euphonious. The hushed atmosphere is interspersed with riotous trumpets, pounding piano and timpani, and the square rhythms so characteristic for Andriessen. The familiar references to jazz and minimal music are lacking, though.
The piece breathes an atmosphere of Arcadian quietude, with even some hints of Gregorian chant in the choir. A solo soprano sings a heartbreakingly poignant tune, a glockenspiel spills out a memento mori, tubular bells solemnly evoke a death toll. After some twenty minutes Daniel Reuss gently creates a fade-out, the sound of singers and musicians gradually dying away into nothingness.
With May Louis Andriessen has written an impressive swan song if ever there was one. Hopefully he is satisfied himself, too. He couldn’t be present in person, but Monica Germino assured the press she would watch the live stream together with her husband.
As it happens, on Sunday 6 December yet another piece of his will be performed and streamed live from Concertgebouw, Tapdance, composed in 2014, the year Frans Brüggen died. That very year Andriessen celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday and for this occasion he wrote the percussion concerto Tapdance. This will be played and streamed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and percussionist Dominique Vleeshouwers. This piece does include the saxophones, electric bass guitar and drum kit so typical of Andriessen; the strings are exhorted to play without vibrato.
Tapdance is an exhilarating work, in which the solo percussionist imitates the clicks of a tap dancer, employs rythmical patterns from charleston, plays a boisterous toccata and produces tremoli of eighth triplets. In Andriessen’s own words this creates ‘a haunting memory of the slow jazz blues of the fifties and sixties, referring in particular to the music of Horace Silver’.
The trajectory of the piece moves from energy to melancholy. It’s a kind of homage to Milhaud’s Percussion Concerto, where positive energy is gradually obscured by sadness and despair. One can imagine this might well be an apt reflection of Andriessen’s current state of mind.
Postscript 2021: Louis Andriessen passed away on 1 July 2021 and was buried at Zorgvlied cemetery Amsterdam on 8 July.