" Mysteriën "

For Orchestra

Boosey & Hawkes


03/11/2013 : Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. Par le Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, dir. Mariss Jansons.

Louis Andriessen discusses his new orchestral work, combining spiritual and wordly reflections, premiered by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on 3 November.

Your new orchestral work, Mysteriën, grew from the devotional writings of Thomas a Kempis. How did you first come across his texts?

It was thanks to my father who had a copy of Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. Kempis lived most of his life in a monastery in Zwolle, not far from Utrecht where I grew up, and his writings were important to my father who set them in a number of songs. One in particular I remember hearing in the house as a small child and this has found its way into Mysteriën, at half speed as if a glimpse of a distant memory.

A mystical side to your music, as also heard in Hadewych or De Tijd, offers a complete contrast to your punchy, motoric style. Where do you draw your spiritual roots?
My family upbringing was interesting and unusual in that it combined traditional Catholic principles with a more liberal, artistic world. To illustrate this interface, when my father played an organ improvisation after Mass in Utrecht, many of the believers got up and left, while another crowd of music-lovers arrived at the church to listen. In terms of my own music, the spiritual and serene was always there as a strand, but it had to take a back seat when I was protesting against the classical music establishment, writing for outdoor musicians such as De Volharding – smooth and beautiful music just wouldn’t have worked then.

Do you view the philosophical aspect of Thomas a Kempis as more important than the Christian?

For me, philosophy, mysticism or theatre are all things that stimulate creativity and merge to become rather close – whether their manifestations be Hamlet, Medea or the conception of God. So the ideas in Thomas a Kempis’s book can sit happily alongside not only St Augustine, but also secular writers I’ve drawn upon such as Plato and Lao Tse. I see the six sections of Mysteriën as a sequence of similarly-proportioned frescoes, in a religious setting but depicting worldly scenes even to the point of the painter including the guys who built the church and commissioned the art.

How have you structured Mysteriën?

Each movement is headed by an inscription drawn from Thomas a Kempis’s chapter headings and offers a musical interpretation of the title. The first looks at the vanities of the world, with colliding musical lines illustrating how busy we all think we are. The second examines the misery of mankind with a litany of hocketing broken chords. The third is a central plea for silence exploring “what truth speaks from inside without the noise of words”, while the next reveals the ordeal of a true lover, drawing upon my father’s song. Then a movement pits slow brass against fast strings, reflecting Thomas a Kempis’s perceived contradiction between the natural instinct to do bad things and the God-given gift of grace. The final sixth movement, opening with a sad trumpet lamentation on death, provides something of a cathartic epilogue.

Commissioned for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, does this mean peace has finally broken out? Around 1960 you were protesting against the Concertgebouw’s orchestral programming!
I still have my views on the current cultural-political scene and the repertoire that is programmed, but the time seemed right to compose for the Concertgebouw. Joel Fried, the orchestra’s artistic director, was insistent over three years that he wanted a piece for the 125th anniversary of the hall and the orchestra. I started thinking about the orchestra’s complicated relationship with earlier generations of Dutch composers, including Diepenbrock and Vermeulen as well as my father, and how musical life was controlled by conductors such as Mengelberg.  Some years ago a novel by Erik Menkveld appeared about Diepenbrock and Vermeulen titled Im grossen Schweigen (The Grand Silence), named after Diepenbrock’s Nietzsche song setting. This seemed to tie things together for me and offer a way forward. I imagined my father’s voice saying: “Louis, go ahead and write the piece”.

The work employs, surprisingly, a largely traditional symphony orchestra.

Yes, this isn’t my normal ‘terrifying 21st century orchestra’, but the Concertgebouw was flexible saying there was a core of 26 musicians and I could use 8 or 9 extra instruments. This convinced me that I could write a piece aware of the orchestra’s tradition but remaining true to myself. I’ve employed an orchestra with half a string section plus extra colours from soprano sax, low clarinets, three harps – one of which is detuned – two pianos, and plate chimes.

The Concertgebouw concert celebrates the hall’s 125 years, a period that spans from Richard Strauss to your own premiere. How do you as a composer view this orchestral journey?

A lot of the late Romantic repertoire doesn’t grab me. It is only from about 1912 that I reconnect and understand things again. There remain big challenges for orchestras. Some are always the same, such as economic crises and how the state withdraws from the funding of the arts – there isn’t a real difference in that respect between the gangsters of the 1930s and those of today. I hope for a future with adventurous orchestras, not afraid of musical experiments.
Interviewed by David Allenby, 2013


" La Commedia "


Editions Boosey & Hawkes

Young prodigy from a musical family - his father Hendrik and his brother Juriaan were also composers - Louis Andriessen studied with Kees Van Baaren, at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague where he obtained the first prize in composition in 1962. He continued his studies until 1964 with Luciano Berio in Milan and Berlin.

Back in Holland, he rapidly became a major figure in the music of his country with his compositions and by interpreting his own works and those of other composers. He founded two successive sets, De Volharding (1972) and Hoketus (1976). Socially engaged, teaching composition at the Royal Conservatory, he contributes to a profound renewal of Dutch music.

After experimenting with serialism, Andriessen's music moves away from the avant-garde of the 1950s, to refer more to jazz, to Stravinsky, his great model, rhythmic work of the repetitive U.S.A. and return to harmony or consonant polytonal.

He works on various projects such as multi-disciplinary theater piece "De Materie", created with Robert Wilson for the Netherlands Opera, but also with Peter Greenaway, the film "M Is for Man, Music, Mozart" and the theatrical adaptation of "Rosa: Death of a Composer" and "Writing to Vermeer", created in 1994 and 1999 at the Netherlands Opera. He also works on the film "The New Math(s)" (2000) American director Hal Hartley.

His recent orders include "La Commedia" an opera based on texts by Dante, created by the Netherlands Opera at the Holland Festival in June 2008, and "The Hague Hacking" for two pianos and large ensemble,created by the Labèque sisters and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen in January 2009.

Louis Andriessen celebrates his 70th anniversary in 2009.

His works are published by Boosey & Hawkes

Sources: Boosey & Hawkes, wikipedia, IRCAM (trans. NM)


For one evening, the Theatre Carre in Amsterdam embodies Purgatoire Asko Ensemble / Schoenberg, led by Reinbert de Leeuw, play the music of Louis Andriessen while the Travailleurs go about their business preparing souls for their eventual transfer to heaven. Like any self-respecting "multinational", Purgatoire has numerous video screens on which he keeps an eye on human folly. Tonight, Purgatoire is moving toward two particular days in Amsterdam.

Synopsis (on stage)

Part I - La Ville de Dis, or Le Navire des imbeciles

The work opens with a Latin text from the first pages of "Das Narrenschiff" followed by a work of 16th century "The Guild of the Blue Barge". Beatrice appears and says she asked Virgil if she could assist Dante in his quest to eternity.

Two men in a boat on the way to Dis, the City of flames in Hell. They see two mad women screaming on the roofs of the burning towers and someone walking on water. Dante decides "I was convinced she was sent from heaven."

Part II - Récit de L 'enfer

Dante tells a funny story about one of the elder devils, who shows him the way. This Malacoda gives Dante an escort of ten devils who have no fear. A curious musical marche is heard as they plod through Hell.

Part III - Lucifer

A long instrumental introduction brings us one of the deepest horrors of hell. The chorus describes Lucifer, who finally appears. He is jealous because God created mankind in His own image. He screams his strong desire for revenge and his joy.

Part IV - Le jardin des délices

Dante meets his dead friend Casella, a musician who sings one of Dante's sublime sonnets. Dante sings a song about a terrifying serpent that is chased by huge birds, and it is then helped to cross the river Lethe's when he sees a procession of great beauty. Dante is hit by a car and dies. The chorus sings a text from "Song of Songs" dedicated to the Bride of Lebanon.

Part V -La lumière éternelle

A light of music, coming from who knows where, is interrupted,by a choir of careless children singing a text of the Requiem. Beatrice describes this light as that of love. Under a starry sky, the two women soloists join together. Dante sings the celestial bodies and the music of the spheres before being interrupted by Cacciaguida, who complains of the Florentines. The choir and Beatrice sing the eternal light that conquers all sorrow.

Synopsis (on screen)

1) La Cité Dis (or Le Navire des imbéciles)

The terrifying orchestra of the 21st century, known as the "Guild" is playing in the streets of Amsterdam. At the end of the day, after sharing their winnings, musicians go to their favorite bar, Le Navire des imbéciles, where Lucifer, a local businessman with fraudulent political ambitions, is at the forefront.

Meanwhile, the two young activists arrive in town to distribute political leaflets during the visit of the famous Beatrice. Dante, an Italian TV reporter, prepares his story to film this important event.

Maria is saddened to see her friend Lucia allowing herself to be seduced by the young tattooed cornist Farfarello, who took her to Le Navire des imbéciles.

In the bar, the musicians of the "Guild" get drunk, dance, argue, fight and try to seduce each others wives and girlfriends. A fierce battle breaks out between Calcabrina and Libbicocco.

2) l'histoire venant d'enfer

musicians wake up on a beach outside the city. Lucia is with them, lost and anxious. Maria follows them. Calcabrina Farfarella resents having brought the girl with them. Alinchino chooses the music for the day while Graffiacane practices his cello. Lucia and Maria are fighting.

3) Lucifer

The musicians go to work, but Libbicocco fights with the police who end up arresting all of them including Lucia, who was surveying the scene, fascinated. Maria waits outside the police station while Lucifer pays the bail for their release and tells them of his new plans to overthrow the government in paradise. Meanwhile, Beatrice arrives at the hotel and Dante prepares his film report.

4) Le jardin des délices terrestres

Freed from prison, the musicians drift to the canals of Amsterdam to reflect on their transgressions. Malacoda has his own boat and tries to reconcile with Calcabrina. Dante films his reportage and Beatrice appears on the balcony of the hotel facing the crowd. Dante,is amongst the crowd and alsothe musicians, is so moved by the presence of Beatrice that he forgets the traffic on the road. Dante is hit by the Beatrice's limousine and dies.

5) Lumiére éternelle

The musicians are driven from the city. Maria Lucia and follows them. Beatrice leaves for the airport. Lucifer complains about the state of affairs in Florence and gives us his advice. A crowd of children go in and out and warn that even if we don't know what is happening, they do.

During this time, Les Travailleurs de Purgatoire receive instructions from their superiors to transfer a soul, who has finished his period of penance,to Paradise.

(*) The Guild is inspired by two sources: a hilarious group of devils coming from the "L'Enfer" of Dante (listed and described in the second part of the Commedia), and a musical ensemble that Louis Andriessen has often "threatened" to create at least to play the music that a normal orchestra could not interpret. He calls this set "the terrifying orchestra of the twenty-first century".

(trans. NM)