Andriessen said he wanted to use ‘a lot of instruments that you don’t have in an orchestra’
Louis Andriessen – perhaps the leading Dutch composer since the death of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck in the 17th century and an embodiment of the international avant-garde since the 1960s – has died aged 82.
A famously gentle man and beloved teacher, Andriessen (pronounced an-DREE-sen) regularly wrote music that was loud, hard and fierce. Critic Ivan Hewlett wrote in the Daily Telegraph in 2002: “A typical Andriessen ensemble will have banks of saxophones and brass, electric guitars, drum kit and synthesisers all shouting in jagged unison.” A piece called “Workers Union” (1975) was scored for “any loud-sounding group of instruments”.
The Guardian arts writer John O’Mahony called Andriessen the most “omnivorous” of contemporary composers. “His early works were strictly serialist in the manner of Boulez or Stockhausen, then in the 1970s he made a somersault from modernism to post-modernism, adopting a style that was much closer to the minimalism of Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley. Along the way, he has devoured many other sub-genres, from musique concrete to electronic, to jazz and rock. However, the best Andriessen pieces are a highly personal, aggressive combination of all his influences.”
At times, Andriessen’s music reflected his sardonic wit. His The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven for Promenade Orchestra and Ice Cream Bell both delighted and enraged audiences at its 1970 premiere. After the early 1970s, he refused to write for orchestra and retained only certain instruments from the traditional ensemble alongside electric guitars, electric basses and congas.
“I’m very sceptical about the orchestra,” he told The New York Times in 2010. “I think the problem is not only the mentality of the orchestras themselves, and the public. It’s also the fact that the sound I want is so different from what the orchestra does. There is an administrator at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam who is always asking me to write, and I always say to him: ‘Who knows? But when I compose a piece, I want to compose it as I hear the music. And that would mean having to send half the orchestra away and adding a lot of instruments that you don’t have in an orchestra’.”
Andriessen gained worldwide attention after the 1976 premiere of De Staat, his bright, insistently static setting of a section of Plato’s Republic, scored for instrumental ensemble and four female voices. With his longish pageboy haircut, wags described him at the time as looking like “an angry member of Abba”. His subsequent following was due in large part to recordings sponsored by the Dutch government that were sent to radio stations around the world at no cost.
Ed Harsh, one of many then-young American composers inspired by Andriessen’s work, went to Yale in 1987 to study with him.
“For the last 40 years, there has been a prevailing mentality of ‘forget the past’,” Harsh told The Times in 1996. “Andriessen is a modernist but his way is to establish what he calls a polemic with the past. He’s interested in the structure and spirit of the past but he turns it inside out. Like a popcorn kernel, it’s suddenly something else.”
Louis Joseph Andriessen was born in Utrecht on 6 June, 1939, into one of Holland’s most illustrious musical families. His mother, Johanna Justina Anschutz, was a pianist, and his father, Hendrik Andriessen, was an organist, conductor and composer.
It was Andriessen’s brother Jurriaan who won first fame in the US after a work he composed as a student at Tanglewood, Berkshire Symphony (1949), so impressed choreographer George Balanchine that he created a ballet set to the score. Jurriaan brought home jazz and blues recordings from the US for young Louis, who remembered him as not a brother but “an archangel”.
After studies with composer Luciano Berio in Italy, Andriessen settled in Amsterdam, where he would spend the rest of his life. He had a 40-year relationship with guitarist Jeanette Yanikian, whom he married 12 years before her death in 2008. They shared an apartment above one of the city’s canals.
“If I am working on a piece, I compose every day, for four to five hours on average,” Andriessen once said. “When I am composing, everything, even drinking coffee, happens according to plan.”
He later married the violinist Monica Germino. She is his only survivor. “I make sure that I don’t spoil the world with children,” he said in 2004.
In New York, Andriessen held a composer’s chair at Carnegie Hall and he was awarded the composer of the year award by Musical America in 2010. He won the 2011 Grawemeyer award for music composition for his opera La Commedia and in 2016 was awarded the Kravis prize for new music, which included the commission of his orchestral work Agamemnon for the New York Philharmonic.
He worked with director Peter Greenaway on a film, M Is for Man, Music, Mozart (1991), and two operas, Rosa: The Death of a Composer (1994) and Writing to Vermeer (1999). Many of his musical works were released on the Nonesuch label.
Like the American expatriate composer Frederic Rzewski, who predeceased him by less than a week, Andriessen did not like to be called a “Marxist composer”.
He said in 2002: “I am not a political composer, I am just a composer who sometimes writes on political things.”
He added: “It is important to realise that I don’t want to work in one direction; life is far too unpredictable for that. Your experiences are always surprising: people die, people get diseases, people fall in love. So I keep an open mind.”
Louis Andriessen, composer, born 6 June,1939, died 1 July 2021
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