Louis Andriessen obituary

Dutch composer known for the originality of his music as well as his radicalism and engagement in his nation’s cultural life

The composer and teacher Louis Andriessen, who has died aged 82, was widely acknowledged as the most important creative force to emerge from the Netherlands in the second half of the 20th century. This was due to the originality and quality of such compositions as De Staat (1976), Hoketus (1977) and the opera Writing to Vermeer (1999), but also his engagement in political activities that helped bring about democratic changes in the organisation of Dutch culture. Andriessen was a noted teacher of composition and had a worldwide influence on younger composers.

In the 1960s and 70s, the Netherlands was frequently looked on with envy by those from other countries as the perfect place to be if you were a composer, or a performer or a listener, who believed that the music of living artists should be at the centre of a nation’s cultural life.

Yet the appearance of engagingly open-minded attitudes all too easily ascribable to the nature of the Dutch mentality – more likely, say, to venture across barriers between the classical and the popular – could prove misleading. Well into the post-1945 period the Netherlands had more symphony orchestras per million of population than any other country, most of them offering a very traditional repertoire.

It was against this cultural heritage that the generation of Dutch composers emerging during the 60s, with Andriessen prominent among them, developed a reputation for being young firebrands. In 1969 came the premiere of an opera entitled Reconstructie (Reconstruction) that was a collaborative act involving several composers including Reinbert de Leeuw (later well-known as a conductor) and Peter Schat, as well as Andriessen himself.

The radicalism of these musicians is now most frequently recalled via a protest – at a concert on 17 November 1969 in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw concert hall by the hall’s own venerable orchestra, conducted by Bernard Haitink – that claimed that the Concertgebouw Orchestra was “a status-symbol of the ruling elite in our society”. Musically, Andriessen and his colleagues sought greater engagement with contemporary popular music, especially with jazz and free improvisation, as well as with the musical minimalism emerging from the US.

One consequence of Andriessen’s avowedly Marxist stance at this time was his rejection of the symphony orchestra. “At the time,” the composer explained, “we said quite radical things, like orchestras are only important for the capitalists and the record companies. But there was also a musical reason. I was looking for another sound, a sound which had to do both with jazz and the classical avant garde.”

He accordingly favoured smaller ensembles individually tailored to the kind of music he wanted to write, modelled on the groups set up by American minimalists such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass. His involvement in a grass-roots organisation called the Movement for the Renewal of Musical Practice, set up in March 1970, helped to bring about more democratic attitudes to the funding given to musical ensembles in the Netherlands.

Towards the end of his life, Andriessen made peace with the symphony orchestra, and the world that it enshrined, sufficiently to accept a commission from the Concertgebouw Orchestra: Mysteriën (Mysteries, 2013), his first orchestral work in 45 years, was inspired by the 16th-century writer Thomas à Kempis.

This move upset some of the composer’s most ardent champions, but it is common for revolutionaries to appear to come around to the establishment position they had rejected in their youth. And in any case, Andriessen’s own compositional approach had become the dominant one in his country.

Born in Utrecht, the son of Johanna (nee Anschütz), a pianist, and Hendrick Andriessen, he grew up in a family of composers, including his father, who were themselves steeped in the conservative, French-influenced Dutch compositional tradition of the first half of the 20th century.

Following his early training at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, Louis studied with the avant-garde Italian composer Luciano Berio for two years, in Milan and Berlin. It was not, however, until he had shaken off most of these influences and begun to find himself as a composer by putting his music at the service of his newly acquired Marxist position that Andriessen started to write the works for which he is best known.

Two groups founded by him proved excellent outlets. One, De Volharding (Perseverance), played both in street demonstrations and in concert halls. Andriessen’s De Staat (The Republic), which uses texts from Plato’s Republic to make overtly Marxist points about how and why music is made and consumed, deploying a raunchy combination of voices and an ensemble in which brass instruments and electric guitars feature prominently, is typical of his compositions for this outfit.

The other group, Hoketus, was named after the medieval musical technique of dividing a melody between two quickly alternating parts. The piece itself entitled Hoketus, with its idiosyncratic use of pan pipes, is an excellent example of the manner he adopted for this student-based band at The Hague to play.

Performance of Hoketus by Louis Andriessen

By now, Andriessen was already becoming a widely respected teacher; his international influence on composers, both in the Netherlands and further afield – including British figures such as Richard Ayres and Steve Martland, and the American composers of the Bang on a Can group – would soon follow.

Andriessen’s style in the 70s and 80s continued to take the tonal, highly repetitive approach being practised by Reich, Glass and many others and gave it a fresh edge, with greater dissonance and a more strident instrumental sound. For De Stijl (1985) – its title referencing the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, whose strict abstract forms combined with an unlikely enthusiasm for boogie-woogie are both built into Andriessen’s piece – his two ensembles were combined into what the composer termed “the terrifying 21st-century orchestra”.

In De Materie (Matter, 1984-89), which included De Stijl as the third of its four sections, Andriessen topped off his then current manner to brilliant effect in a work that was originally staged by the American designer-director Robert Wilson as a music-theatre piece.

In the 90s, though he also completed a major concert work, Trilogy of the Last Day (1997), Andriessen followed up the logic of the move made with Wilson’s input by composing operas, including several for Netherlands Opera, as well as other kinds of theatrical projects; in his last three decades, his style both mellowed and considerably expanded in its stylistic range. Two operas – Rosa: The Death of a Composer (1994) and Writing to Vermeer (1999) – were collaborations with the British film director Peter Greenaway.

His subsequent operas include La Commedia (2008), based on Dante, which was a collaboration with the American film maker Hal Hartley; for this he won the Grawemeyer award for music composition.

Andriessen also continued to compose for the concert hall, including La Girò for violin and large ensemble (2011). His last opera, Theatre of the World, given its premiere in 2016, was conceived with the German writer Helmut Krausser and is based around the 17th-century polymath Athanasius Kircher. His final composition, May for chorus and orchestra (2019), was written as a tribute to the Dutch recorder player and conductor Frans Brüggen, who died in 2014; it was premiered last December.

Andriessen married Jeanette Yanikian in 1996; she died in 2008. In 2012 he married the violinist Monica Germino, for whom he wrote several works. She survives him.

• Louis Andriessen, composer, born 6 June 1939; died 1 July 2021


Keith Potter

The GuardianTramp

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