Louis Andriessen, lionized composer with radical roots, dies at 82
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Louis Andriessen, lionized composer with radical roots, dies at 82
Composer Louis Andriessen, center, acknowledges the audience’s applause after the New York Philharmonic performed his "Agamemnon" at David Geffen Hall in New York, Oct. 5, 2018. Andriessen, who as a young iconoclast disrupted the Dutch classical music scene before becoming one of Europe’s most important postwar composers with a series of large-scale, often brash works, died on Thursday, July 1, 2021, in Weesp, the Netherlands, at his home in a specialized village for people with dementia. He was 82. Hiroyuki Ito/The New York Times.

by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Louis Andriessen, who as a young iconoclast disrupted the Dutch classical music scene before becoming one of Europe’s most important postwar composers with a series of large-scale, often brash works, died Thursday in Weesp, the Netherlands. He was 82.

His death, at his home near Amsterdam in a specialized village for people with dementia, was announced by his music publisher, Boosey & Hawkes.

Andriessen’s musical influences included Stravinsky, bebop and American minimalism, different styles that he often presented in gleeful confrontation. His music was a unique blend of American sounds and European forms, composer Michael Gordon said in a phone interview.

“These pieces are really constructed like big symphonic works, but using the materials of the vernacular,” he said. “The music was the bridge between European formalism and an almost hipster riffing on American jazz and minimalism.”

In the latter part of his career, Andriessen created monumental pieces that probed big ideas. “De Tijd,” meaning time in Dutch, took on that subject. “De Staat,” set to the text of Plato’s “Republic,” was about political organization. “De Materie” (“On Matter”) began with a 17th-century treatise on shipbuilding and ended with excerpts from Marie Curie’s diaries.

He collaborated with filmmaker Peter Greenaway on a movie, “M is for Man, Music, Mozart” (1991), and two operas, “ROSA The Death of a Composer” (1994) and “Writing to Vermeer” (1999). In his book “The Art of Stealing Time,” Andriessen wrote that in Greenaway’s films, “I recognize something of my own work, namely the combination of intellectual material and vulgar directness.”

Opera director Pierre Audi said that each of Andriessen’s works for the stage “could fly away into fantasy and extreme freedom of structure, with collages of different musical idioms.”

“But what characterized them all,” he added, “was an inner architecture. He managed to build operas like cathedrals.”

Andriessen’s early career was fueled by Marxist ideals and the desire to upend traditional practices in classical music. He founded two ensembles in the 1970s. De Volharding (Perseverance) consisted of players who were equally versed in improvised and experimental music, with the idea of giving them greater influence over the musical material they performed. Hoketus, which disbanded in 1987, was named after a medieval technique that splits a single musical line among multiple players.

Andriessen used that technique in “Symphony for Open Strings” (1978), in which musical phrases are painstakingly pieced together from single notes. The players use only open strings, meaning that their left hands, which change the notes on the fingerboard, are rendered useless. It is a way to handicap the very instruments that in traditional symphonic writing receive almost all the expressive material.

In later decades he accepted commissions from major orchestras, including the San Francisco Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, which gave the premiere of his tone poem “Agamemnon” in 2018 during its two-week festival devoted to Andriessen.

In large-scale works his sound was typically strident and bold. His signature orchestration combined beefed-up woodwind and brass along with keyboards, electric guitars and clanging percussion.

Most of all, he liked it loud.

Gordon recalled a rehearsal of one of Andriessen’s orchestral works at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony in Lenox, Massachusetts, in 1994. Andriessen felt that the piece had come out sounding too polite. The musicians said they had trouble finding the notes.

“I would rather you play the wrong note very loud than the right note very soft,” Andriessen responded.

Louis Andriessen was born June 6, 1939, into a Roman Catholic family in Utrecht, the Netherlands. His father, Hendrik Franciscus Andriessen, was a composer and organist who became the director of the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. His mother, Johanna Justina Anschtz, was a pianist. Louis was the youngest of six children, all of whom were musical. (Two brothers also became composers.)

From 1956-1962 he studied composition, music theory and piano at the conservatory, then traveled to Milan and Berlin for advanced studies with Luciano Berio. While studying in The Hague he met guitarist Jeanette Yanikian who became his partner. They married in 1996, and she died in 2008. Andriessen is survived by his second wife, violinist Monica Germino, whom he married in 2012 and for whom he wrote several works.

Beginning in 1966, Andriessen and a group of fellow Dutch musicians pushed for Amsterdam’s storied Concertgebouw Orchestra to engage more vigorously with contemporary music. In 1969, they led what became known as the Nutcracker Action, when activists sabotaged a Concertgebouw performance with frog-shaped metal clickers.

That year he collaborated on an opera, “Reconstructie” (“Reconstruction”), which decries American imperialism as it pulls together various styles, including pop, jazz, Mozart pastiche and a speaking chorus. A weeklong run of sold-out performances of the work forced the Dutch culture minister to defend the spending of taxpayer money to finance what was called anti-American agitprop.

From 1972-76, Andriessen composed “De Staat,” a work that would come to define his combination of intellectual rigor and brash sonic exuberance. In “De Tijd,” he played with the listener’s perception of time by manipulating repetition and silence. The frantic, clanging “De Snelheid” (“Velocity”), composed in the early 1980s, investigated the perception of speed and its relationship to harmony.

In 1985 he completed “De Stijl,” a Mondrian-inspired piece that would become part of the massive stage work “De Materie,” which sets scientific, historical and mystical texts to a powerful score teeming with sonic hues. Reviewing a 2016 production at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan directed by Heiner Goebbels, which featured a flock of live sheep, Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times described it as “colorful, exciting and, during reflective episodes, raptly beautiful.”

As Andriessen’s fame grew, the classical establishment he had once heckled embraced him. Beginning in 1978 he taught composition at the Royal Conservatory. Yale University invited him in 1987 to lecture on theory and composition. The arts faculty of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands appointed him professor in 2004. He held the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall during the 2009-10 season.

Among other honors, he won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Composition in 2011, for “La Commedia,” a polyglot romp through hell anchored in Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” and the 2016 Marie-Jose Kravis Prize for New Music.

One of his last major works, “Theater of the World,” centering on the Jesuit philosopher Athanasius Kircher, received its premiere in Los Angeles in 2016. The music blends children’s songs, Serialism and baroque influences into what The Guardian called a “superb, surreal journey.”

Having developed dementia, Andriessen moved to the village in Weesp for people with memory loss last year. The village, called Hogeweyk, has multiple pianos, and Andriessen would improvise on them for hours.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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