Music publicist Thea Derks is specialized in modern music. Ever since the late 1980s, an annual visit to Gaudeamus has been a “regular item in my concert calendar”. For the program note of the opening concert of the Gaudeamus Muziekweek 2020, we asked her to look back on the Gaudeamus history she experienced.
'Perhaps you will hear the new Mozart this year!'
For a long time, contemporary music in our country was a poor relation. It is true that international celebrities such as Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Arnold Schönberg conducted their own works with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, but in general the audience was served up primarily Classical and Romantic music. Even during my musicology studies at the University of Amsterdam (1992-1996), the emphasis was still on the well-known ‘masters’.
The cause of new music was – and still is – often advocated by idiosyncratic types driven by a hefty dose of idealism. For example, only one of my teachers spoke about living composers, and years earlier Daniel Ruyneman (1886-1963) had been a voice in the wilderness in the Netherlands. Starting out as a sailor and only later becoming a composer, he shocked the public in 1918 with radical works, including Hieroglyphs, written for the highly unusal instrumentation of three flutes, celesta, harp, piano, cupbells, two mandolins and two guitars. Who was it again who stated that ensemble culture began in the 1960s?
Ruyneman initiated one progressive concert series after another, and even before the war had brought composers such as Bartók, Messiaen and Stravinsky to our country. He found a kindred spirit in the violinist and conductor Elie Poslavsky (1922-2002), who performed numerous Dutch and world premieres with his Hague Ensemble for New Music from the 1950s onwards. But the figure who appeals most to the imagination is Walter Maas (1909-1992), who organized concerts in Villa Gaudeamus from 1945 onwards.
I never knew Maas personally, but from witness accounts he emerges as someone with a compelling personality and steely perseverance. Although his programming was initially fairly conservative, thanks to supporters such as Poslavsky, Ton de Leeuw and Henk Stam he soon steered a more progressive course. As early as 1951 Else Kraus performed Schönberg’s complete piano repertoire, and the same era also saw the advent of electronic music. For example, in 1956 Stockhausen made a profound impression with a presentation of his Gesang der Jünglinge. Partly thanks to the composers’ competition and Maas’ generous invitation policy, Gaudeamus gained international fame.
The organization gradually grew to become an inescapable factor in the world of new music. When in the late 1980s from my background in pop music I developed a hunger for new sounds, Gaudeamus inevitably crossed my path. The annual Muziekweek soon became a regular item in my concert calendar.
To be honest I must admit that this gradually started to feel a bit like a chore. Instead of a cross-section of the multiformity of contemporary composing, Gaudeamus offered above all a sea of atonal, mostly serial compositions. These well-wrought but rather grey pieces did not capture my imagination. They also held little appeal for the average concertgoer, and the concerts attracted only a select group of insiders.
Fortunately, Henk Heuvelmans (1954) arrived on the scene. Already when he became a staff member in 1981, he concluded that Gaudeamus was “not really a dazzling event”. When he became director ten years later, he set about revitalizing the organization. By setting up a shadow jury and introducing music installations, he strove to diversify the range. The programme booklets also became more colourful and accessible. Even so it took until the early 21st century for there to be any real sense of new elan.
This was partly thanks to the move to the brand new Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam in 2005. This ultra-modern building with its panoramic views over the IJ turned out to be the ideal setting for presenting the latest music created by younger generations. Participants in the competition were housed in surrounding hotels and guided with paternal enthusiasm by Heuvelmans. In charming English (with a Brabant accent), he welcomed composers, musicians and audience: “Perhaps you will hear the new Mozart this year!” His disarming presentation was at odds with the ponderous seriousness once associated with Gaudeamus, and the halls gradually filled up again.
I personally enjoyed the introductions I gave on Foyerdeck 1, where I was able to interview such diverse up-and-coming talents as Huang Ruo, Lu Wang and Reza Namavar.
‘In 2020 the Muziekweek is more vibrant than ever before.’
Even corona has barely got a grip on it. Leaving aside how many ‘Mozarts’ have emerged in the meantime, with the rich and varied offline and online music offered by the Muziekweek we are somewhat spoilt for choice. At 75, the organization is younger than ever: Gaudeamus is the place to be!