Joey Roukens honours J.P. Sweelinck: ‘He may well be the greatest Dutch composer ever’

Four hundred years ago, on 16 October 1621 to be precise, the organist, harpsichordist and composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck died in Amsterdam. Musicians from all over Europe flocked to the Dutch capital to hear the ‘Orpheus of Amsterdam’, and through his students, his influence reached as far as Johann Sebastian Bach.

To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Sweelinck’s demise, Joey Roukens composed a tribute, Vertekende Fantasie for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, that will be premiered on 29 October. It is his fourth commission from the orchestra, and I interviewed the composer for their magazine Preludium.

‘It is a great privilege to write for a top ensemble like the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’, says Joey Roukens (1982). ‘It gives a feeling of recognition that they have faith in me. Even though it’s my fourth commission, it remains challenging.’ However, it has become slightly less daunting over time, he acknowledges: ‘I no longer feel obliged to take into account what they like or dislike. With Out of Control, my first commission eleven years ago, I still thought I had to connect to the orchestra’s great Mahler tradition. As I get older, I worry less about the reputation of the performers or the repertoire they are renowned for. The RCO can handle anything, even if something is relatively far removed from them stylistically.

Connection to Sweelinck

Sweelinck is not the first composer that springs to mind when thinking of Roukens, yet the idea of a tribute did not come out of the blue, he explains. ‘Sweelinck runs like a small thread through my works. There is a Sweelinck quote in my string quartet Visions at Sea, about the maritime past of the Netherlands. There are also references to his music in my Percussion Concerto and in the more recent Angeli for female voices and cellos. I regularly play his keyboard works at the piano and it just so happens that artistic assistant Mark van Dongen of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra lives just around the corner from me. During incidental meetings in the street I told him about my love for Sweelinck.’

So when the idea of a tribute arose, the link with Roukens was obvious. The composer immediately seized upon the idea: ‘I found it a nice commission, but also a rather difficult one. For how can one, as a contemporary composer, honour such a specific predecessor from the 16th/17th century in a meaningful way? For me, Sweelinck is perhaps the greatest composer the Netherlands has ever produced. In any case, he is the most important Dutch composer of keyboard music. Via his pupils Scheidt and Scheidemann there is a direct line of influence through to Bach.’ Sweelinck’s vocal music attracts him slightly less, though: ‘The Cantiones Sacrae are splendid, but they are still entirely in the polyphonic tradition of the Renaissance, while his keyboard works already point forward to the Baroque.’

Artful structures from indifferent themes

He got to know Sweelinck’s music from the renowned Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, an English collection of 16th and 17th century keyboard music. ‘As a teenager I borrowed the book from the library and when I played it through on the piano I found one Toccata (SwWV 296) by a certain J.P. Sweelinck among all those pieces, mostly by English composers. It immediately appealed to me. The piece lasts only about five minutes but is typical of his keyboard style; I still often play it during my daily piano playing sessions. I especially love his Fantasies and Variations. It is music of enormous beauty and inventiveness, which, although built on English and Italian influences, still has its own unique character.’

Roukens once told me he did not consider himself a great melodist. This partly explains his affinity with Sweelinck, he says: ‘In that respect I find him fascinating, because his melodies – or rather his themes – are often not terribly captivating or distinctive in themselves. What makes his music interesting is how he subjects a simple theme to all kinds of contrapuntal techniques and figurations and creates a beautiful structure out of it. You can see this especially in the Fantasies, of which I have analysed several. These usually consist of just one, often unremarkable theme, which he artfully transforms into larger structures.’

Joey Roukens: ‘Vertekende Fantasie is Sweelinck seen through contemporary glasses.’

Distorted Fantasie

His love for Sweelinck’s Fantasies is reflected in the title Vertekende Fantasie (‘Distorted Fantasy’). Does this perhaps refer to one specific piece? ‘Yes, it does, the Fantasy SwWV 259 in Dorian mode, in which he once more creates an imposing structure from a rather “neutral” basic theme. I wanted to compose something in which the spirit of Sweelinck resounds, not a piece with one small quotation that has nothing to do with the rest. That’s how I came up with the idea of taking Sweelinck’s language as a starting point, but seen through contemporary glasses.’

‘My composition oscillates between the language of Sweelinck and my own. It’s a bit like hearing Sweelinck as in a dream – strangely distorted, surrealistically skewed. Somewhat comparable to how Berio approached Schubert’s music in Rendering. Sweelinck is never far away, but there is hardly a bar in which his notes sound completely original.’

Estranging and surrealist

How has he proceeded? ‘I always start the composition process by running my hands over the piano keys. However, since this time the rough basic material already existed, I started improvising over it. My piece starts and ends serene and meditative, just like most of Sweelinck’s works. But there are also great contrasts, moments of climax build-up and a transition to an intermediate section that is energetic and strongly rhythmic.’

‘These elements are characteristic of my style, but only came into use long after Sweelinck’s time. I briefly considered adding the organ, but in the end I thought it more interesting to use instruments that one would not readily associate with Sweelinck, such as piano, celesta, harp and percussion. That increases the estranging and surrealistic effect. In any case I have searched for more unusual colours and timbres in my orchestration.’

In 2017, at the request of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, he also composed a tribute to Leonard Bernstein, Boundless. In an interview at the time, he said he had had to discard quite a bit of material because it remained too close to Bernstein’s style. Did this problem occur again? ‘No, this time I had to delete considerably less. Precisely because Sweelinck’s music is so far removed from mine in terms of time and style, it was easier to honour him.’

The difficulty lay rather in finding the right concept, he says. ‘Although I will always be a slow writer, once I had found the right entrance, composing went smoothly.’

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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