Saturday, November 30, 2013

Why Are There so Few Famous Dutch Composers?


I know little about classical music, but I have no problem listing, off the top of my head, German composers (Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Brahms, Mozart,...), French composers (Berlioz, Ravel, Messiaen, ...), British composers (Britten, Dowland, Elgar, maybe Handel counts again, ...), Italian composers (Verdi, Puccini, Corelli, Vivaldi, ...), American composers (Copland, Gershwin, Glass,...) and so forth.

But I can't name a single Dutch composer.

Here's Wikipedia's list, and I'll be damned if there's a single name I recognize.

It's strange, because there are so many famous Dutch people in other walks of life: scientists (Leeuwenhoek, Huygens, de Waal,...), mathematicians (de Bruijn, Lenstra,...), artists (Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer,...), and so forth.

Where are all the great Dutch composers hiding? Or am I just that ignorant?

15 comments:

Roger said...

Some thoughts from the web...

http://mcmvanbree.com/dutchperspective/why-are-there-no-famous-dutch-composers

but no obvious answers. Great question.

1e8435d2-60c5-11e2-8da8-000bcdca4d7a said...

I think it may have to do with the Calvinist attitude toward music. English composition went into a decline under Cromwell, didn’t it? And then it took a long time for English composers to rise to the top.

MNb said...

Excellent question and being a Dutchman myself I don't know the answer. One possibly related point is that Dutch folk music is unimaginative compared to the folk music of other countries.
As for Calvinism I don't really buy it. Protestant Dutchies have been composing music to the Psalms for several centuries:

http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christelijke_liedbundels

Randy said...

I can't help with the composers, but if there's a list of famous Dutch painters, I have to ensure Piet Mondrian is on it. I just love what he did. He was doing 8-bit art before there were bits. I saw a fascinating 2002 show of his work at the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth, "Path to Abstraction", which showed the progression of his work through two decades.

grasshopper said...

The Marsellaise is of French origin, the Polonaise is from Poland. I guess there is just no Hollandaise source.

Garkbit said...

My first thought was "What about Ockeghem?" but apparently he counts as Belgian and he was even born in a French-speaking region, despite his Flemish-sounding name.

George said...

It does seem an anomaly, but the population of Holland is less than 1/3 that of Germany, France, the UK, Italy, or the US. Based solely on this, there should be 1/3 the number of composers (and also a huge number of composers from India and China) ...

ahannaasmi said...

George: The reason there are not that many famous composers in Western classical music from India and China is easy to explain: those two countries have their own extensive and long-living tradition of classical music, so budding musicians are much more likely to follow that tradition than a foreign one. I guess similar things would hold for countries like Iran.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

Although we would like to think that classical music is universal, it is not. It originated in central Europe and touched some countries in the periphery. Britain doesn't have a great classical music tradition. Germany does. Holland remained outside. And so did Sweden. There are hardly any Swedish classical music composers. And so did Bulgaria and Greece. We are talking about schools of music which flourished in certain parts of Europe but not in others. Other parts had their own musical tradition.

ahannaasmi said...

As Takis pointed out, "classical music" means very different things in different parts of the world. In most Indian languages, for example, the equivalent term refers to the various Indian schools (there being at least two main classical traditions: Carnatic and Hindustani).

Nullifidian said...

There are many great Dutch composers, but they're undervalued outside of the Netherlands because of cultural biases from around the time the classical canon was being formulated in the 19th century. At that time, the only "great composers" anybody cared to admit to the club were German/Austrian, French, and Italian. If you asked around among educated circles in late 19th century America and England, it would have been an article of faith that there were no great Russian composers either, despite the existence of Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, etc. The reason we now recognize them as a part of the canon is largely due to influence of the Soviets, who had a vested interest in co-opting and promoting them, just as they co-opted the "Golden Age" of Russian writers. Despite our own best intentions, the West's cultural landscape is often shaped far more than we notice by ideological enemies. Likewise, the writers and composers whose names survived Fascism are either those who made nice with the fascists (Respighi, Richard Strauss, Orff, Hindemith, etc.) or who enjoyed an excellent international reputation before the rise of fascism (Mann, Schoenberg, Lorca, de Falla, etc.). But few people these days listen to Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco or read Franz Werfel.

The tl;dr (too late!) is basically that the classical canon is thing rooted in a particular culture and time and that chance and the vagaries of politics have as much to do with who was admitted.

After the early 20th century, we stopped being interested in creating canons of Great Composers, so I'm not sure if there are any working today whose names would be instantly recognizable to everyone. Still, there are many worthy Dutch composers from every era. Three of the most famous contemporary ones are the minimalists Louis Andriessen and Simeon ten Holt (I recommend ten Holt's Canto Ostinato very highly) and the microtonal composer Ton de Leeuw. In the late-Romantic era, I enjoy Jan van Gilse, and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck was the best composer of the very large group of Dutch Baroque composers. If you're interested in Dutch art music, I recommend just picking an era that suits your taste and find which composers were active then. There will undoubtedly be some in every era.

Anonymous 768304 said...

While there's much to what Nullifidian says about cultural biases and their influence on who gets recognized or ignored, it doesn't explain the stark absence of Dutch composers from the classical music pantheon. Finland, Norway, and Sweden were every bit as peripheral as the Netherlands to the Western European art music tradition. Yet these regions gave us the great composers Jean Sibelius, Edvard Grieg, and Carl Nielsen, respectively. Perhaps the call of painting was too great to ignore for the artistically-inclined Dutch?

Michael De Sapio said...

Nielsen was Danish, not Swedish. Johan Helmich Roman was a significant Swedish composer of the Baroque, and in the Classical era Joseph Martin Kraus (although German-born) worked at the Swedish court of Gustav III).

Michael De Sapio said...

Willem de Fesch was a notable Dutch Baroque composer. And let's not forget Beethoven has a "van" in front of his name for a reason: he had a Dutch grandfather!
During the Renaissance there was an important school of "Nederlandish" composers (perhaps they would be better considered Flemish or Belgian rather than Dutch).

cry wolf, cry said...

Polonaise does not originate from Poland 😂