Theo Verbey Foundation launched online: ‘A composer is primarily a songwriter’

On 13 October 2019 the Dutch composer Theo Verbey (1959-2019) died prematurely, after a long history of depression. Barely one and a half years later the Theo Verbey Foundation will be launched, on Tuesday 12 January 2021 at 3 pm Central European Time. The event can be attended online via the recently renewed website

Some board members and a former colleague of Theo Verbey will present the plans of the foundation and discuss the meaning of Verbey’s work. Martín Alvarez, master student cello at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, will play fragments from Verbey’s Five Pieces for Violoncello Solo (2006).

The aim of the Theo Verbey Foundation is to keep his legacy alive by organizing concerts, stimulating scientific research into his work, and perhaps even initiate a Theo Verbey Composition prize for students.

A welcome inititative, for Verbey’s music is far too seldom heard these days.

In 2015 he composed Traurig wie der Tod, an extensive choral-orchestral song cycle for Netherlands Radio Choir and Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, commissioned by the radio series De vrijdag van Vredenburg. I interviewed him prior to the premiere, for an article in Dutch. Here’s my English translation.

Theo Verbey on Traurig wie der Tod: ‘A composer is primarily a songwriter’
Amsterdam, 22 May 2015

The Dutch composer Theo Verbey (Delft 1959) writes music with a sumptuous beauty of sound, in which the achievements of centuries of musical tradition resound. He made a name for himself with works such as Triad (1991) for orchestra and Expulsion (1988) for large ensemble, and with orchestrations of pieces by composers such as Modest Mussorgsky and Alban Berg. For the final concert of the radio concert series De Vrijdag van Vredenburg he wrote Traurig Wie der Tod, for the Netherlands Radio Choir and Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. It was will be premiered on Friday 29 May in TivoliVredenburg. Six questions to Theo Verbey.

In the annual brochure of the series your new work is announced as ‘Elysium’, why did you change the title?

I had been planning to compose a piece of considerable length for large choir and orchestra for some years, envisioning a ‘large space in sound’. The opportunity to realize my plans arose when programmer Astrid in ‘t Veld asked me to write a piece for the Netherlands Radio Choir and Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.

Originally I had the title Elysium in mind, named for the Greek god’s residence in the hereafter. I had already made a number of sketches, but when I was ready to turn my ideas into music in the summer of 2014, I was confronted by several disconcerting events. The health of my mother was deteriorating, and on 17 July 2014 the MH17 of Malaysia Airlines crashed, killing its entire crew and all its passengers. Shaken, I decided to throw away my sketches and begin anew.

For Elysium I had had a number Latin and German texts in mind, from various classical poets, including Virgil and Goethe. However, I did not get around to a setting – the verses I had selected turned out to be unsuitable for a musical form, due to their complicated style and choice of words. The poems by Hans Bethge I have now chosen are direct and accessible.

How did you decide on Bethge?

The search for suitable poetry took a lot of time and effort. The choice of texts is very important, because for me a composer is primarily a songwriter, also within the context of classical music. So the verses must dovetail with my vision of the final result, otherwise there would be no point in composing. At some point I had placed all the volumes of German poetry from my bookcase side by side, and Bethge stood out.

I had acquired his collection The Chinese Flute [German-language reinterpretations of ancient Chinese poems, 1907] long ago in an antiquarian music store. His poems are characterised by simple imagery, but above all by sombre content. The final selection was relatively simple, as was determining the order of the poems. I chose five of them, which fit within the set-up of a continuous cycle; the actual composition process took approximately half a year.

What form did you give the five songs?

Each song has its own character, which originates from the text and is reflected in a separate motif and key. Sorrow is eulogized in each instance from a different perspective. In the first song, ‘Mond und Menschen’ (Moon and people) nature is presented as stable and unchanging, while human beings are confused and restless. Towards the end the music accelerates, leading into a first orchestral interlude.

The next song, ‘Die Einsame’(The lonely one), is about the sorrow and pain of someone who is separated from her loved one. After an orchestral eruption, the third song, ‘Ein junger Dichter denkt an die Geliebte’(A young poet thinks of his beloved), is reduced to just one stanza, in a highly contrasting idiom.

After another orchestral break follows the fourth song, ‘Verzweiflung’ (Despair). This mirrors the second and describes the sadness of boredom in seclusion. It is immediately followed by the final song, ‘Das Los des Menschen’ (Man’s fate), about the uniqueness of human existence. It is like a sigh of the wind and results in a decayed hill on which weeds grow. Both lyrics and music reflect the first song.

Thus the cycle has the structure of a palindrome: ABCBA, the end is a recurrence of the beginning. It appeals to me how Bethge puts time – which only flows in one direction – into perspective. When composing a cycle, the use of a circular form is an obvious choice, of course. I chose not only the poems themselves, but also their order according to this principle.

The palindrome returns in the musical style as well, for I want to match form and content. The first song references the achievements of the twentieth century, after which we modulate back in jolts to the 19th century, to eventually end up in an archaic, early eighteenth-century musical style. Then the route is taken in the opposite direction.

By the way, for me ‘style’ simply refers to common characteristics determined by time and place, such as the German Baroque, French Impressionism or the English Renaissance. I would not want to imply individual composers lacked a personal style.

The victims of MH17 all perished; can ‘Traurig wie der Tod’ be seen as a requiem?

No, I would not dream of appropriating the grief of the bereaved. However I do try to articulate certain aspects of our times, such as the combination of mere chance with criminal behaviour. In the case of MH17: a random flight falls prey to the immoral behaviour of soldiers and administrators. Another aspect I address is the slippage towards very large differences in civilisation and human manners.

And how is the health of your mother now?

I’d rather keep that to myself.

What do you hope to bring about in the listener?

There is no such thing as the, of course. The only one who understands all the intentions I put into the piece is myself. But naturally I hope that Traurig wie der Tod will give the listener a meaningful experience.

Underneath is the video of the online launch of the Theo Verbey Foundation

Liked my post? Show your appreciation with a gift PayPal, or direct money transfer to my bank account: T. Derks, Amsterdam, NL82 INGB 0004 2616 94.
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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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