Who was Louis Andriessen and was he one of the best Dutch composers ever?
When Louis Andriessen died at the age of 82 in 2021 the Netherlands lost one of its most important and idiosyncratic composers, writes Tom Stewart
At the podium of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Bernard Haitink raised his baton to begin the evening’s performance.
But before the orchestra could play the first notes of Quantz’s patrician G major Flute Concerto, a band of young composers that included a 30-year-old Louis Andriessen began blowing whistles, shaking rattles and throwing about copies of a pamphlet that attacked the elitism of Dutch cultural institutions.
Confusingly, the same characters had intervened a few months earlier at the Dutch premiere of Stockhausen’s Stimmung, an hour-long miasma of sound scored for six amplified singers, held in the same hall. The objection on that occasion wasn’t that the music was too experimental, but that its composer didn’t welcome the participation of audience members inspired to contribute their own vocal effects. As the professionals left the stage, Andriessen shouted at the crowd: ‘Shame on you, Amsterdam! Are you proud of yourselves?’ The year was 1969 – there was something in the air.
Who was Louis Andriessen?
Andriessen died in July 2021 at the age of 82. In its obituary, Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant described him as the Netherlands’ most important composer since Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, a 16th-century proto-Bach.
Andriessen’s bright and hard-edged sound throws the brassy glaze of big band jazz over the piercing sonorities and rhythmic volatility of Stravinsky, and calls on texts by writers from Plato to the present. The label ‘minimalist’ doesn’t tend to sit well with the composers whose music it is used to describe – Andriessen was no exception – but it is a useful way into the shuddering, bouncing energy of his pared-back scores, which have anti-establishment politics never far from their surface and sometimes bursting right through it.
Missing, however, are the psychedelic haze of the California desert, the greyscale glow of New York and the reverential trances of Eastern European ‘holy minimalists’ like Górecki and Arvo Pärt. Andriessen was put off by the ‘commercial’ sound of American minimalist music and had no time for its ‘cosmic nonsense’ either. From Workers Union (1975), for ‘any ensemble of loud instruments’, to the opera Writing to Vermeer (1999), which looks out from the painter’s translucent, domestic canvases into the turmoil of his period’s politics, this is music with sweat dripping from its brow.
Andriessen’s distinctive sound is partly due to his idiosyncratic combinations of instruments. ‘I don’t think there’s much life left in forms like the symphony orchestra and string quartet,’ he said. ‘At least not for me, and at least not for composers I like.’
The ‘street orchestra’ Orkest de Volharding was established in 1972 to perform Andriessen’s De Volharding (‘Perseverance’), scored for flute, three saxophones, three trumpets, three trombones, horn, double bass and piano – note the absence of percussion, which Andriessen once described as ‘the real dictator’ and ‘a kind of disease’. Before it disbanded in 2006, Orkest de Volharding gave the premiere of more than 300 works written for its assertive, unpretentious and distinctively Dutch sound.
Some musicians tired of the 20th century’s hypersaturation turned to minimalism, others to music of the distant past. Andriessen, too, experimented with forms and techniques, liberated by the early music movement, most notably in Hoketus (1976) which passes material between two independent groups in the manner of the medieval compositional practice of that name. Like De Volharding, Hoketus lived on in the ensemble of the same name created to perform it, which stayed together until the late 1980s.
Despite his objections, drums and cymbals of all kinds do feature in Andriessen’s work, and his attitude to the orchestra appeared to soften over time. In his career’s middle decades came scores with instrumentation reminiscent of a standard orchestral line-up, though with curious omissions and augmentations.
For instance, De Tijd (‘Time’) from 1982 involves six flutes, two alto flutes, three clarinets, contrabass clarinet, six trumpets, Hammond organ, two harps, a small string section with no violas, and two bass guitars. From a programming perspective, such a big and non-standard ensemble presents a long list of expensive practical problems. That these were overcome again and again, particularly in the Netherlands, is testament to a different era of new music economics and a hunger for Andriessen’s nonconformist soundworld.
Like many postwar composers searching for a new way forward, Andriessen was unexcited by European high modernism or the emotional overload of the late Romantic era. Despite his time studying with archetypal eclecticist Luciano Berio and love of composers like Ravel, Milhaud and Stravinsky, Andriessen’s ears were turned elsewhere.
Unsurprisingly, given Andriessen’s establishment beginnings – his devoutly Catholic father Hendrik, also a composer, was director of the Royal Conservatory of the Hague – his early music follows the strict 12-tone course laid down for composers of the 1950s and ’60s. ‘It was totally forbidden to write tonal music,’ he told one interviewer. ‘I was listening more to big bands, and of course to Ravel and Bartók. But it was when I heard the music of my generation in the US that I learnt to combine the things.’
Since the demise of Hoketus and Orkest de Volharding, the ensemble most closely associated with Andriessen’s music has been an American one. Bang on a Can started life as a collective of three composers: Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe.
The group included the two-piano version of De Staat in the inaugural 1987 Bang on a Can Marathon and went on to develop a close friendship with the composer that saw them, in their later guise as the Bang on a Can All-Stars, record Hoketus, De Staat and Hout (‘Wood’).
Andriessen’s sound lives on in the All-Stars’ tough, uncompromising playing and the music of the Bang on a Can composers, as well as those he taught in Amsterdam and The Hague. Best known in the UK is Steve Martland, whose commitment to left-wing politics and high-energy music was a close match for that of his teacher.
In one critique of American minimalism, Andriessen argued that ‘one of the problems of the little [note] group of Steve Reich and Phil Glass is that you have long forms but not large forms, and I think one of the most important developments of the 19th century was to think in large forms for large ensembles.’
Largest of all Andriessen’s forms are his four operas, which belong to the later period of his career. On the whole, they have a more reflective feel, and are also set apart by their creeping preoccupation with death.
La Commedia, first performed in 2008, begins its retelling of Dante’s journey from the underworld with a crew of doomed, angry sailors, but within an hour we’re up in paradise, on the same euphoric mountaintops as someone like Richard Strauss, only now with a drum kit and bass guitar. Theatre of the World (2016), Andriessen’s final stage work, is another tale of tested faith, much like Writing to Vermeer and Hadewijch (1998). The exception is Rosa – a Horse Drama, an absurdist piece from 1994 set amid the viscera of a Uruguayan abattoir.
In the epilogue to La Commedia, a children’s chorus interrupts the blissful reverie of Dante’s text with a puckish warning in earthy Dutch. ‘These are all our notes for you,’ they sing; ‘if you don’t understand them, the Last Judgement won’t make sense either.’ The sense of right and wrong that courses through Andriessen’s music is grounded in Marxist politics, not Christian theology, but he was, above all else, a composer of conviction.
Main image © jmv from New Westminster, BC, Canada, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons