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Louis Andriessen, Influential, Iconoclastic Dutch Composer, Dies At Age 82

Composer Louis Andriessen
Francesca Patella
Nonesuch Records
Composer Louis Andriessen

Louis Andriessen, the most widely acclaimed Dutch composer of his generation, died on Thursday, July 1, in a care home in Weesp, North Holland. His death was confirmed by Boosey & Hawkes, his publisher. He was 82 years old. No cause of death was given, but as reported in The Guardian in Dec., 2019, Andriessen was suffering from dementia, though he continued to improvise daily at his piano.

Celebrated for his eclecticism, Andriessen devised his own bold brand of minimalist-influenced music. He embraced the pulsating repetitions of his contemporaries Philip Glass and Steve Reich, but also wove elements derived from Igor Stravinsky's music, big band jazz, popular styles and the rigid tenets of serialism into his compositions.

"In the early 50s, [there was] no way that you could write tonal music – totally forbidden," Andriessen explained in a 2017 interview conducted for Leiden University. "You had to write like Schoenberg or Webern. And I did that, and I'm very happy I did it, because I learned a lot about sound and about the organization of pitches and harmonies."

Andriessen early on asserted connections between music and politics. In his radical younger days, he backed up his thoughts and words with action. In 1969, Andriessen and other musicians disrupted a symphony concert at Amsterdam's storied Concertgebouwmusic hall, protesting what they viewed as a temple to the elite class and the moribund state of music programming. The incident, known as the "Nutcracker Action," served as a wake-up call for artistic life in the Netherlands. Thereafter, Andriessen shunned the idea of the symphony orchestra playing a role in his music.

Still, it wouldn't be long before Andriessen and his compositions were celebrated by those same institutions. His breakthrough piece, De Staat, based on Plato's The Republic and scored for singers, winds, strings and electric guitars, received its world premiere at the Concertgebouw in 1976. "I wrote De Staat as a contribution to the debate about the relation of music to politics," Andriessen wrote in 1994. "Many composers view the act of composing as, somehow, above social conditioning. I contest that."

Louis Andriessen was born into a musical family on June 6, 1939, in the Dutch city of Utrecht. His mother gave him his first piano lessons. His father, Hendrik Andriessen, was an organist and composer who held positions at conservatories in Amsterdam and The Hague, where the family moved when Louis was 10. Uncle Willemwas also a composer, as were Andriessen's brothers, Jurriaan and Caecilia.

Jurriaan landed in the United States on a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in 1949, and returned with a stack of jazz albums, which Louis Andriessen said changed his life. The jazz influence is heard almost everywhere in the composer's music, including the string quartet Facing Death, inspired by Miles Davis and written for Kronos Quartet, and in the syncopated rhythms of Workers Union, scored for what Andriessen called "any loud-sounding group of instruments."

After winning the composition prize from the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, where he graduated in 1962, Andriessen studied in Italy and Berlin with Luciano Berio, a leading avant-garde composer. Back in the Netherlands, Andriessen wrote music in protest of the Vietnam War and in 1972 founded his own ensemble, De Volharding ("Perseverance"), which he described as a kind of "left-wing street orchestra, almost like a little big band," comprising saxophones, brass, bass and piano.

Andriessen's music, and its ideological structures, weren't always easy to digest. Anthony Tommasini, writingin The New York Times about the U.S. premiere of De Materie ("Matter") at a Lincoln Center festival of the composer's music in 2004, remarked, "The work is too thematically convoluted to have much philosophical impact." Guy Rickards, writing in Gramophone magazine, noted that "Louis Andriessen may have embraced minimalism as the fundamental feature of his mature musical language, but his personal brand of it is not for the faint-hearted. There is little trace of the laid-back, hypnotic gentleness of the likes of Adams, Glass or Reich and some may find Andriessen's no-holds-barred grab-you-by-the-throat directness off-putting. Others will find it exhilarating, as do I."

Andriessen wrote in a wide range of idioms, including orchestra and chamber works, songs, choral pieces, music for brass band and solo works for piano, bassoon, organ, harpsichord, violin, oboe, percussion and trumpet. Perhaps most visible were his collaborative theatre works and operas, which adapted an eclectic array of texts. For De Materie, a genre-resistant theater work created with Robert Wilson for the Netherlands Opera, Andriessen incorporates documents pertaining to 17th-century shipbuilding, a decree on Dutch independence from Spain, the diary of Marie Curie and the straight-lined art of painter Piet Mondrian. Near the work's end, as staged in 2016 at New York's Park Avenue Armory, a flock of 100 sheep joined the cast.

La Commedia, a film opera in five parts, drew upon Dante and the Old Testament. For ROSA The Death of a Composer and Writing to Vermeer, Andriessen looked to film director Peter Greenaway for his librettos. His final opera, Theatre of the World, premiered at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2016, explored the life of the 17th-century scholar Athanasius Kircher by way of children's songs, jazz and Baroque musical styles.

While many of his pieces incorporated the brash and energetic sensibilities of rock and pop, Andriessen said he was no fan of popular music. (He did, however, admit to owning a Janet Jackson poster.) "Pop music is for children," he told an interviewer at Florida State University in 2017. "The problem with pop music is that they have no idea about measures, except 4/4. I think I'm a little bored by the harmony also. All the time, only triads. ... I didn't like The Beatles, your mother likes that, you see." Asked about his own brand of composing, Andriessen answered, "My style is to use what I can to write the music I want to listen to."

Education was another focus of Andriessen's career, beginning in 1973 when he took up a post at The Hague's Royal Conservatory, where his father had once been the director. His pupils are among today's most celebrated composers, including Missy Mazzoli, Michel van der Aa, Graham Fitkin and David Lang—the last a co-founder of the new music collective Bang on a Can, a group that fell under Andriessen's spell beginning in the 1980s. He also lectured widely in the United States at Yale, Princeton and New York State University at Buffalo.

Among his many public recognitions are the 1959 Gaudeamus International Composers Award, the 1977 UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers prize and the 2011 Grawemeyer Award for music. In 2016, Andriessen, who famously had spurned the orchestral world early in his career, was named the recipient of the Marie-Josée Kravis Prize for New Music at the New York Philharmonic, an event marked by several concerts and a new commission, Agamemnon, premiered in 2018.

Andriessen's last major work, May, was a tribute to his friend, the conductor and Baroque recorder player Frans Brüggen, who died in 2014. The piece, scored for chorus and orchestra with texts by Herman Gorter, contains images of springtime, but also of sleep, ending in a kind of funeral procession. "The music takes on something important, something stately," Andriessen told his publisher. May received its world premiere on Dec. 5, 2019, at the Concertgebouw—the hall empty because of the pandemic.

In a reviewof that performance for The Guardian, Fiona Maddocks summed up the composer's legacy. "Andriessen, a towering international figure, has always come up with radical solutions, freely mixing jazz, minimalism, electronics," Maddocks wrote. "His influence on composers of the next generation, including many in Britain, is vast."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.