Rob Zuidam: 'the Five'

Peter Schat underwent a completely different development, compared to the other composers of ‘the Five‘*. Having freed himself of the stranglehold of strict serialism, he soon discovered that he could not compose music without a solid theoretical basis. Inspired by Arnold Schönberg’s final words on his deathbed : “Harmonie, Harmonie,Harmonie…”, he developed a system which he called the Toneclock. The Toneclock attempts to construct a harmonic language out of the twelve steps of the chromatic scale, extracting twelve different sorts of triads from them, which can be manipulated by different scales, or modes. Peter Schat calls them ‘hours’, and of course there are twelve of them as well. I could easily spend an hour and a half extrapolating on the merits of the Toneclock, because it indeed is a wonderful system, with which one can create the most extravagant and beautiful melodies and chords. But one might argue, that one can make beautiful music with virtually every tone system.  Peter Schat saw a direct line running from Jean-Philippe Rameau‘s Traité de l‘Harmonie, through Schönberg‘s dodecaphonic theories, to his Toneclock. The problem however, with the triads generated by the Toneclock, is that its individual notes lack the specific functions that are attached to those of the tonal triad : tonic, third, and dominant. If this tonal triad is inversed, these functions pleasantly move along. A person who does not have a clue about musical theory, and what is a II-V-I-cadence, is still able to experience the progression that is taking place in these chords and will say : “Ah, there, on that third sound, we are back home again.” This person would never be able to tell what time it was, by listening at the Toneclock. Peter Schat did certainly manage however, to create some very nice music utilizing his Toneclock-system, as for example several sections of his large scale orchestral work De Hemel, (the Heaven) will demonstrate, which he composed in 1990. One might add to that though, that this is not as much to the credit of his Toneclock, as that it is to his unmistakable gift as a composer. Overall, it seems that this desire to theorize, and his inclination to blindly follow the craftsmanship and automatisms that were handed to him by his tone-system, more got in the way of him, than that it helped him. And also, this blind faith in theoretical rules, was in such a stark contrast with his exuberant personality. I believe the most interesting music he composed, music that still has an edge and a sense of urgency, was made in the period where he was still searching and developing his system, as for example in To You, on a text by Adrian Mitchell.

Peter Schat initially was the most ardent and adamant advocate of the ideals and aesthetics of the Second Viennese School, amongst the composers of ‘the Five’. Of this group, he was also the most unequivocal admirer of Che Guevara and the ideals of the communist revolution in Cuba. He was also the one who barged in to the Concertgebouw with a megaphone, urging Bernard Haitink, nowadays conductor emeritus with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to step down into the hall and to participate in a public discussion. In short, he was their spokesman.

Later on in his life, Peter Schat would become the most vehement and ferocious opponent of serialist music, which he deemed as viable as the former DDR, the German People’s Republic. Though a progression of insight in general seems to be a laudable, if not an utmost necessary element in the development of one’s points of view, Peter Schat would somehow always end up with the most drastic and radical standpoint, at either end of the scale. With regard to serialism for example, I could agree with him up to a certain extend, but I do think that Boulez’ Pli selon pli is a masterpiece, regardless of the validity of the ideas that are behind it. According to Schat, such a thing was not possible.

It is therefore not easy to find anybody who had anything to do with Peter Schat, who did not somehow end up in a major quarrel with him, before he passed away in 2003. I think I belong to these few people, but that might very well be because I never really had much to do with him. We simply lived in the same neighbourhood in Amsterdam, and would occasionally bump in to each other when we went out for a stroll and had nice, pleasant conversations.

With his fellow-composers of ‘the Five’ he got in an embrouillage decades ago, not long after they had produced the opera Reconstructie, on which they collaborated, together with the authors Harry Mulisch and Hugo Claus, for the Holland Festival in 1969. Twenty years later, Peter Schat wrote about this project in retrospect:

“In the performance, a number of ‘theatreworkers’ erected a statue of Che Guevara of twelve meters high, a difficultlabour, which at the premiere almost ended in a catastrophe. The statue thus formed the backbone of the performance. The verbal spine was formed by the alphabet, and the story was based on Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Don Juan, in our story America, the imperialist, was called to account for his actions by the Stone Guest, Guevara, the revolutionary. Meanwhile his servant Leporello, in our story Erasmus, the doubtful Dutch intellectual, was watching the events quivering with fear. The exploited Third World was given the female roles : Cuba, Bolivia. Thus we had Erasmus, the prophet of tolerance, put on stage as a collaborator to imperialism - an infamous Leninist agitpropaganda trick, of which I am still deeply ashamed. And, different from the sage Mozart, who had the stage filled with people at the end, babbling about the morale of the story; with us, with a revolutionary difference, all that remained was the Stone Guest, the God of Revenge. Armed with a machinegun, staring over the battlefield where at that moment all of the singers, dancers, and actors were lying down as corpses. In this way we left him behind on the retina of the spectators. The orchestra played one long sustained tone, that gradually grew louder to the maximum over the course of three minutes. A final bang, and then: blackout. About this ending, where as always everything depended upon, we had had the strongest of discussions for weeks, leading to nothing. On the very last moment, at the pre-dress rehearsal, two composers came up with this single tone, and by that point there already was no way back. The discussion was about scene Z, Zingen of Zwijgen (singing or silence). The smallest possible majority voted finally in favor of Zwijgen. In favour of this single tone, and against the melody - I have always seen this as a fundamental choice, a historic moment, a divergence of paths. And as a mistake. Because in this way, our (musical) revolution stranded in a onetone-state. A sharper depiction of the deadly gloom of the oneparty-state, presented as a triumph, has never again been put on stage, I think. It went down very well. Nobody saw it for what it really was, indeed they were stone-blind.”

I have a very sad memory related to a performance of my McGonagall-Lieder in 2002 at the Concertgebouw. Lucy Shelton was singing in the recital hall, the ASKO-Ensemble was playing and I believe it was Frank Ollu who was conducting on that occasion. On the back row, on the one far corner, sat Reinbert de Leeuw. And on the same row, but on the other far end, Peter Schat was located. I seated myself exactly in the middle of the two, afraid that if I were to be sitting closer to either one of them, I might insult the other. They did not even cast one glance at each other for the entire concert. But one of them came up to me after the performance, and the other called me up the following day. Both of them asked me at a certain point: “So, and what did he have to say?”

One of the benefits of coming from a small country, is that it is much easier to oversee the ebb and flood of generations of composers, the effervescence with which they wash ashore, and the calm resignation with which they recede, while the next wave is already building up. A composer such as Willem Pijper (1894-1947), who was very much en vogue in the 1930’s and praised for his innovation and revitalization of the musical life in the Netherlands with elements and flavours derived from tango and cakewalk, was regarded in a rather different perspective twenty years after his death: "Soon", predicted the composers of the Nutcrackers-action, "Pijper’s name will be notated on the illustrious longlist of his forgotten predecessors and contemporaries.” Or:"Ultimately, his music is a sad mismash of bitonality, mixed tone-colours and habanera-rhythms," as it was concisely summarized at Pijper's Birthday-Centennial by composer Tristan Keuris (1946-1996), who in his turn could be seen as the heir to Matthijs Vermeulen's exuberant melodic vein, though with a more benign temperament.

One does not need to be a certified psychiatrist, to recognize a generation conflict in the drastic actions undertaken by ‘the Five’ on this Novembernight in 1969. And at the same time, one simply has to use his ears, to understand that these actions were propelled by an unusual aggregation of talent. The effects these actions caused, brought forth a beneficial change in the musical climate. But, as recent studies have shown, the climate is always subjected to changes. The recent financial thunderstorm that has ravaged the world, will no doubt have its impact on the musical climate, both here in the US as well as in the Netherlands. First, we should fence ourselves from the bad weather, and try to secure what is most dear and valuable to us. And after the wind has calmed down, it is up to both composers and musicians to fill the world again with beautiful and wondrous music.

To conclude, a few words about the symphony orchestra. Because from what I have described before, one might draw the conclusion that the future of modern music is with the ensembles, and not with the orchestra. Such is not the case, at least not to my personal opinion. I still love the orchestra, if only because it is the biggest band in town. It is true though, that it is difficult to communicate with over sixty people in just a 20-minute coffee break. And what has struck me on numerous occasions, is that it are often people who I also recognize from the ensembles, who come up to me, before or after orchestra-rehearsals, to ask me what I want them to do, in a particular spot in the score. It is not that the other musicians are too shy, but it is that difference in mentality which I was referring to before: a desire to make things as good as possible, the understanding that composers and performers share the same goal. And ultimately, the future of the orchestra itself also depends on how it relates to contemporary music. Because if the orchestra were to abandon new music altogether, it would cease to be a living symphonic organism, and from thereon become a sonic museum.


©Rob Zuidam 2010

the complete page can be read at: Erasmus


On the Monday evening concert of the 17th of November 1969, just when conductor Bernard Haitink had lifted up his arms for the first downbeat of the Concerto for Flute by the 18th-century composer Joachim Quantz, the intense and silent concentration that got hold over the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, was suddenly disrupted by alarming noises emanating from the foyer and the hallways. Sounds of whistles, drums, rattles, toy clicking frogs and a sporadic klaxon baffled the soloist Hubert Barwahser and prompted Bernard Haitink to slowly lower his arms again, a gesture that displayed a genuine sadness, which was tangible for the audience. When Haitink turned around to see what was the cause of this turmoil, he saw a group of about forty activists storming into the hall, performing what they proclaimed to be their ‘Notenkrakers-Suite’, the Nutcracker- Suite. The word ‘noot’ in Dutch means both ‘note’ and ‘nut’. The group was led by five composers: Peter Schat, Louis Andriessen, Reinbert de Leeuw, Misha Mengelberg and Jan van Vlijmen.