Why are there no famous Dutch composers?

Today’s news of Jaap van Zweden’s appointment to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra as the next music director made me remember a thought I had the other day.

Last Monday I heard a piece by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen at the CSO’s MusicNOW concert. Andriessen is arguably the Netherlands’ best known contemporary composer, but other than Andriessen and Van Bree, I really don’t know any Dutch composers.

Why are there no famous Dutch composers in the likes of Beethoven (even though his name has a “van” in there), Mozart, Verdi, and Ravel? In all facets of classical music—great orchestras, great conductors, and great soloists—the Dutch have and have had a strong representation. But what about composing?

Finland had its Sibelius, Norway its Grieg, and even Belgium had Franck. But I don’t know any Dutch composer that would be part of a non-Dutch orchestra’s regular programming. I don’t think there is or was a lack of interest in classical music in the country either, and I know Mahler liked the Netherlands, he befriended Concertgebouw conductor Willem Mengelberg, and apparently even Mozart traveled through the country.

Of course, most famous classical music composers hail from central Europe; even Spain does not have an abundance of well-known composers. Classical music is, of course, geographically very much confined to particular regions, but the Dutch are historically involved in almost anything: in painting we have brought forth Rembrandt and Van Gogh, in philosophy we have brought forth Spinoza and Hugo Grotius, and even in literature, limited very much by language, we have brought forth Multatuli and Harry Mulisch. Heck, we even founded New York!

The answer might be frightfully simple, but, going from history, I think it’s odd there is no universally-known Dutch composer.

6 thoughts on “Why are there no famous Dutch composers?”

  1. Sweelinck in the 16th and 17th centuries is the closest the Dutch came to international musical renown. You could say that he started to lay the ground that J.S. Bach eventually trod. But it was slow going up until the 20th century.The Dutch didn’t pioneer opera like the Italians did, and it was German kapellmeisters who set up the paths music would eventually follow. But Sweelinck was a source of inspiration for many Germans, as was Jacob Clemens non Papa. Maybe like many of us Dutchmen Dutch composers have been content to follow the rules and not make history-creating waves.

    • I don’t understand why the following two Dutch composers are not usually mentioned. Johannes Verhulst was a good friend of the great German romantic composer Robert Schumann. Robert Schumann REPEATEDLY PRAISED Verhulst’s music in his musical journal. Verhulst was in fact a bit of an innovator. Then there is the great Dutch barogue composer, Wilhelm Unico van Wassenaer. He is a genuinely great and original barogue composer. If you don’t know about those Dutch composers check them out. You’ll be very surprised. Funny thing about the Dutch. They have greatness right underneath their noses, but they just don’t know about it for some strange reason. Furthermore, The Netherlands is one of the tiniest nations in the world, but musically it is one of the very largest. The Amsterdam Concertgebouw, for example, is reputed to be THE BEST orchestra in the whole world. Contemporary Dutch composers play a major role in contemporary music.

  2. Thanks for the background, Marc! It seems the Dutch are good at laying foundations (New Amsterdam, Sweelinck etc.) on which others can build.

    I found some more info on Beethoven’s “van”, which, in fact, actually stems from Brabant. Even better!

    Beethoven’s father, according to Wikipedia, came from Brabant, albeit the current Flemish part of Brabant. Some other Web site states:

    “In the hamlet of Relst lived ancestors of Ludwig van Beethoven. Josyne van Vlasselaer, wife of Aert van Beethoven, was prosecuted for witchcraft and condemned to be burned at the stake. In 1595 she was horribly tortured and burned alive in Brussel.”

    And apparently, Henry III, Duke of Brabant was a composer himself. According to Grove:

    “While the four surviving works by Henri are not distinguished by their originality, they are technically fluent.”

    There you have proof of the tendency to follow rules and not make history-creating waves…

  3. A project on Dutch music history left me frusterated that they did’t break more rules or create more waves. I appreciated this article, relieved that it isnt just a testament to my research skills. I did however find articles relating back to Ducth influence on sacred music of the Renaissance. I’m not sure if the source was biased, but the author had a lot to say for the Dutch. What interested me was his explination for the lack of distinguished musicians; he wrote that musical education in (what I take to be) the 16th century was focused around patronage, meaning that the Dutch were at a disadvantage due to their lack of nobility. Aspiring Dutch musicians would have to travel far and be extremely talented to be recognised, while they were also too isolated from European society to be knowlegdable in the common methods.
    If anyone asks, I will still blame it on the typical Dutch stereotype of mediocrity, its less of a mouthful.

  4. Interesting post. Here’s some initial (probably wrong) ideas on why there have been no famous Dutch composers…

    *Calvinism has been a powerful force in Dutch society since the 16th century – and is generally hostile to music – particularly in church. Many ‘great’ composers of the classical period were Catholics, or lived in Catholic societies…

    *Wealthy royal courts have often been patrons of classical composition – the Dutch, like the English, have not had a wealthy, powerful court driving cultural production for centuries, if ever…

    *Nationalism was an inspiration for many of the 19th century ‘greats’ – e.g. German nationalism – Beethoven(?), Wagner – also 19th/20th century composers from smaller European nations – e.g. Sibelius in Finland. This music arose as part of a process of constructing a national culture and identity for relatively ‘new’ (and threatened) nations. The Dutch nation, on the other hand, was ‘constructed’ earlier – 16th/17th century – which is, arguably, the period when its musical creativity was strongest. However, many Dutch songs were written in French or Italian at this time, suggesting that music was not central to the production of a national culture.

    *Certain cites have been crucibles of great music, often at times of cultural stress and creativity – think Vienna late 19th century, early 20th century – Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern – Amsterdam’s cultural zenith, it could be argued, was in the 17th century…

  5. My take is that that many things influence the musical achievements of a country/region. According to Manynard Solomon’s bio of Beethoven, there were estimated to be over 6k piano students in Vienna alone..excess wealth had something to do with fostering creating this flowering of musical talent. Without sponsors, even for Beethoven, his output may have not be great as he may have had to take up a full time position. He never did. Other factors seem to me to be some elements within the culture, even geography. Dare I say there is German music and then there is the rest, which overall doesn’t reach the same level of complexity, beauty, and refined art. It has always facinating to wonder why the English, for example had mostly second tier composers, (can’t count Handel), when both England and Germany followed a similar course of developent in the last four centuries. In the case of the Dutch it maybe that there weren’t sufficient cultural factors driving their musical development, like a large noble class that supported music. Perhaps its just a matter larger populations, but certainly the regions like Bohemia and Moravia, which were the birthplaces of a number of Czech, Slovak, and ethnic German composers can’t be easily explained except to say that these regions were dominated by the German cultural influences.

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