Reinbert de Leeuw turned seventy-five last September, but back in May the VPRO honoured him with three full-length broadcasts on Radio 4. Together with Aad van Nieuwkerk, I made a selection from his finest recordings of a.o. Kagel, Ustvolskaya and Louis Andriessen, about which I also let him speak. A real Reinbert festival and its own magazine followed in September.
The magazine not only highlighted him as a teacher and inspiration, but also gave an insight into his biggest annoyances (slow-moving motorists) and his eating habits (sandwich with sprinkles). In the NTR ZaterdagMatinee of 1 February De Leeuw conducts the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in the world premiere of his new orchestral work Der nächtliche Wanderer. The programme also includes the world premiere of Raving of Willem Boogman and Monumentum pro Gesualdo By Stravinsky.
Reinbert de Leeuw, as a pianist back in the 1960s, broke a lance for such diverse composers as Charles Ives, Erik Satie and Karlheinz Stockhausen, but gradually started conducting as well. Not because he needed a Pultmeister wanted to become one, but out of a conviction that mainstream orchestras neglected post-1900 music. Directing lessons he never took.
When he started programming the Rondom series in 1972, he regularly took up the baton himself, in ensemble pieces by the likes of Ligeti, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. He also increasingly conducted the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, and around 1974 the Schönberg Ensemble was formed, which merged into the Asko|Schönberg in 2009. Thus, De Leeuw became the nestor of the renowned Dutch ensemble culture.
Initially, De Leeuw also emphatically profiled himself as a composer, first in chamber music pieces such as Music for Piano I and II and Drei Positionen per violino, later also in ensemble pieces such as Hymns and Chorals, the opera composed jointly with Louis Andriessen, Misha Mengelberg, Peter Schat and Jan van Vlijmen Reconstruction and the orchestral work Abschied. With this large-scale piece for giant orchestra, he seemed to put a definitive end to his career as a composer in 1974. In his own words, he was too much of an admirer of other people's music to develop his own voice that met his high standards.
But blood runs where it cannot go, as after this De Leeuw composed the opera together with Jan van Vlijmen Axel, he wrote an etude for string quartet and made arrangements of pieces by Mahler, Zemlinsky and Janáček, among others. In 2003, he astonished friend and foe alike with his Schubert- and Schumann-inspired song cycle Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, dedicated to his muse Barbara Sukowa. It was to be expected that he would take the orchestra in hand again after this.
It was equally obvious that De Leeuw, in his Der nächtliche Wanderer would push the boundaries of the possible. After his years of working with luminaries such as Gubaidoelina, Ligeti and Messiaen he owed it to his honour to create something "that wasn't already there". The piece lasts almost an hour and is set for a hundred-piece symphony orchestra, also calls for a Fernorchester behind the stage and also uses sound recordings of a string orchestra, an accordion and a reciter. The latter recites Hölderlin's poem of the same name.
Not only did De Leeuw draw his poetic inspiration from Romanticism, he also links up with the past musically: Richard Wagner's last piano work runs like a thread through his composition. It is played at the end by an accordion, the instrument he used earlier for an arrangement of the Piano Sonata 1.X.1905 by Leoš Janáček. Galina Ustvolskaya's violin sonata is equally understated and is also quoted verbatim by the orchestra.
That the notes of others feature prominently in almost all his compositions is a striking constant in De Leeuw's oeuvre. In an unpublished interview, he said of this: 'For once, I find it easier to focus on something existing than to start from scratch.' This attitude is not doing him any favours, as evidenced by the international success of his cycle Im wunderschönen Monat Mai. It remains to be seen whether also Der nächtliche Wanderer will embark on a triumphant tour of stages after its first performance.
In March 2014, my biography was published 'Reinbert de Leeuw, man or melody', at Leporello Publishers in Amstelveen. If you buy it via this link, you support at no extra cost the Concertzender, for which I provide the monthly programme Panorama the Lion make. All press about the book can be found at my blog site.