This set has been in currency since 1994 (there is another of the Vermeulen
chamber music CV39-41) . It is a monument not only to Vermeulen's music but
also to the great work of the Donemus Foundation, the Vermeulen Estate and
the enlightened support of the Nederlands Government. The Apennine spine
of the set is the septet of symphonies running 1912-1965. All but No 5 are
in a single movement; the fifth is in three. In the foothills are three extracts
from his own The Flying Dutchman (1930) and the song for soprano and
orchestra La Veille (1917 arr 1932).
The recordings are from Dutch Radio. Some, though not all, may be familiar
from LP issues. They date between 1977 and 1984 with one of The Flying
Dutchman pieces from 1994.
Vermeulen was the classic outsider. Gifted both as a composer and as an author,
he did not pull his punches with the musical establishment of Holland and
he quickly alienated Willem Mengelberg and the management of the Concertgebouw.
His character was perhaps rather akin to that of British composers Joseph
Holbrooke and Havergal Brian, both doughty critic-authors as well as
individualistic and ambitious musicians. Paul Rapoport's book Opus Est grouped
Vermeulen with Brian, Pettersson and Holmboe amongst others. Vermeulens
self-imposed exile in France was to last twenty five years and left its legacy
in the French titles of seven of the nine scores here.
The music except in the first symphony and the Flying Dutchman music is complex
and in the words of Otto Ketting polymelodic. It has more in
common with Pettersson and Brian than with Holmboe. I would also mention
Karl Amadeus Hartmann as another reference point although Vermeulen's building
block tunes seem simpler than Hartmann's.
Symphony No 1 Symphonia Carminum (1912-14) 26:03 Rotterdam
PO/Roelof van Driesten rec 1985
A symphony of songs indeed. It starts with a memorably heroic brass fanfare
(which reappears momentarily at the end) and passes through great washes
of string sound in character with the Vaughan Williams symphonies 4-6. The
more heroic moments could have served as a pattern for Miklós
Rózsa's and John Williams' film music. There are also extensive rural
passages all of which sound more Scandinavian than Germanic although there
is a flavour of Mahler in the martial elements. Incredibly, given the high-riding
confidence of the piece, this was Vermeulen's first work of any type. It
is a sunny work, bursting with pre-Great War idealism and reaches across
several borders to shake hands with equally happy works such as Peterson-Berger's
second symphony. The first decent performance had to wait fifty years until
Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw introduced the work to Amsterdam. Why
does Haitink not play the work now?
Symphony No 2 Prélude à la Nouvelle Journée
(1919-20) 19:30 Rotterdam PO/Otto Ketting rec 1978
The great divide of the 1914-18 war separates this from its predecessor.
It is a prelude to a new day - yes - but that day is one marked by waking
nightmares and only the vaguest tatters and shreds of hope for the future.
A side drum clatters over a funereal and minatory theme. This must have been
a concert performance complete with close range cough (from the conductor?).
The last ten minutes chart increasingly raucous bugle call and alla marcia
territory. The music is rather Stravinskian at times like the chillier
reaches of Petrushka and Le Sacre.
Symphony No 3 Thrène et Péan (1921-22) 20:34
Hague PO/Ferdinand Leitner rec 1977
The title helpfully summarises the mood of the music. The first section is
a lamenting hymn presumably over the still fresh battlefields of Europe.
This music reminded me of the pictures of post-barrage battlefields turned
into seas of mud with shattered and blasted trees punctuating the scenery
and the festoons of barbed wire marking the tortured landscape. The music
has a drained, meandering and uncertain feeling. Very gradually a paean emerges
- savage and gory rather than positive and again with a few recollections
of middle period Stravinsky. The work peters out rather than ending in any
positively conventional sense. Some low tape hiss is (just) noticeable on
this recording as it is with the last two Flying Dutchman pieces
The Flying Dutchman (1930) Symphonic Prologue
7:51 Amsterdam PO/Anton Kersjes rec 1984
Kersjes may well be known to dedicated tape and British music collectors
for his 1980s performance with the same orchestra of Bernard van Dieren's
Chinese Symphony. This prologue was written for an outdoor spectacular
to words by Martinus Nijhoff complete with Philips amplification. The style
is marginally more relaxed - less aggressive - than the second and third
symphonies. Vermeulen is fond of insistent heartbeat drum ostinati and these
he uses with a string theme, predicting Bernard Herrmann, to create a pessimistic
atmosphere which is transformed into an almost Brahmsian calm.
The Flying Dutchman (1930) Passacaille et Cortège
Netherlands Ballet Orch/Otto Ketting rec 1994
A quiet raindrop ostinato on harp provides a gentle motive force like a similar
long-sustained figure in Bax's Spring Fire symphony or in Sibelius' Nightride
and Sunrise. The style is Debussyan. Over it erupt various brass figures
sometimes jaunty, sometimes threatening, sometimes heroic. The music becomes
increasingly "gothick" as befits its subject but moves into a resplendently
triumphant march-like hymn. This would make an excellent accessible introduction
to Vermeulen's work.
The Flying Dutchman (1930) Interlude 4:25
Utrecht SO/Otto Ketting rec 1983
This staid monastic reflection accompanies the Easter festivities of Boniface.
This is not a distant stone throw from Hovhaness and Arvo Part's Cantus.
La Veille (1917 arr 1932) 10:54 Jard van Nes (mezzo)/Utrecht
SO/Otto Ketting rec 1982
An exhausted plodding off-beat pizzicato trudge launches this scena to words
by Francois Porché (1877-1944). The song was written in 1917 and later
arranged for orchestra during Vermeulen's long stay in France. This is the
equivalent of Housman's "soldiers marching ... all to die." and of course
it was written during the height of World War 1. The style is again
impressionistic rising to some martial fury and fierce resentment at 6:30-7:10.
Symphony No 4 Les Victoires (1940-41) 30:25 Hague PO/Ernest
Bour rec 1981
This and its successor are war symphonies with No 4 written in the wake of
Hitler's blitzkrieg conquest of France. Droning and an inexorable drum-beat
launch the work which is strident and discordant as various themes and figures
march independently in a maze and from time to time a tempest of sound.
Simplicity surfaces periodically (e.g. at 4:00, 16:30) but soon the thickets
of sound arise again. The victories in question are the many (wished for)
victories which were needed for the Allies to secure the ultimate victory
over fascism. Straightforwardly victorious themes are not in evidence at
all. The victories are tortuous and painful - not at all joyous - although
the high-screeching strings achieve something close to athletic elation after
19:38 and a Roy Harris like ecstasy floats high (21:10). In the closing bars
Vermeulen affirms all that has gone before with a clamantly desperate air
Symphony No 5 Les Lendemains Chantants (1941-45) 44:12 Omroep
Orch/Roelof van Driesten rec 1983
This is his largest work and is unique among the symphonies in being in three
movements. The title is from a farewell letter written by a leader of the
French Resistance after his torture and prior to his being led to a firing
squad. The sentiment of a singing, blessedly happy future is familiar from
idealistic works such as John Ireland's These Things Shall Be. Vermeulen
is not given to easy singing or at least not after the 1930s. The first
movements surging, torrential and strident lines lighten only
intermittently to open windows on more peaceful landscapes (e.g. CV 37 track
5 - 4:36, 7:03) but soon the monsoon of rippling rushing themes sweeps everything
aside. The second movement opens in very welcome calm with a gently intoned
saxophone solo around which other instruments interlace. Soon however Vermeulen's
insistence on complexity comes to the fore. The final movement presses forward
in much the same way with prominence given to long tunes. The complexity
of this music can be oppressive as well as impressive. Its tragic demeanour
is both universal and overpoweringly personal: His first wife had died in
1944 and one of his sons was killed resisting the Nazi invasion early in
the 1940s. Vermeulen set himself the most exalted of aims. Whether he achieved
them through this symphony and its predecessor I rather doubt. In any event
once he had completed the symphony he abandoned the writing of music for
Symphony No 6 Les Minutes Heureuses (1956-58) 25:44 Rotterdam
PO/Lucas Vis rec 1984
This work was written after the ten year silence. He had returned to Holland
and music criticism after the War. The same decade introduced him to an avalanche
of music he had not been able to hear during his twenty year seclusion in
France. The symphony was premiered in 1960 and its dedication is to the
composer's second wife: Thea Diepenbrock. The title is lifted from Baudelaire's
poem Le Balcon. Vermeulen employs a La-do-re (l'adoré) figure
to denote the adored or beloved in life. The music has the same complexity
we are now used to from the earlier works. Dark dreams float before us. The
saxophone is prominent in the less noisy textures - serenading and meditating.
Simplicity asserts itself occasionally - usually in the quieter sections
(Track 3 18:55, 20:40). A fondness for marches (purposeful and savage) is
clear enough. They often emerge out of quiet and disrupt its peace. Melody
is there but obscure and often twisted out of shape. Sometimes it emerges
gloriously in full flood as in 24:02 and closes the work in a not unclouded
Symphony No 7 Dithyrambes pour les temps à venir
(1963-65) 18:02 Omroep Orch and Radio Chamber Orch/Roelof van Driesten
This, the shortest of the seven, was premiered in Amsterdam in 1967, the
year of the composer's death, and is intended as a song of joy. He was by
the time of the premiere quite deaf. The music was written after a decade
of his retirement to Laren, a period during which he was at last able to
dedicate himself to music. The music sometimes sounds like a giant clock
mechanism. The times to come envisioned here, feared or invoked, are disturbed.
The visions are out of a Bosch painting. Only in the final "sunrise" bars
does a sense of conventional joy emerge.
Recording quality is exceptional. If you are dubious try the first symphony.
The discs are well filled: 74:20, 73:54, 74:37. The only forced compromise
involves splitting the fifth symphony across CDs 2 and 3. However all credit
to Donemus for presenting the works in chronological order across only three
discs. Some low level tape hiss is discernible in some of the recordings
especially when listening with headphones. This does not detract from the
The bilingual (English and French - no Dutch!) documentation by
composer-conductor Otto Ketting in a 64 page booklet is excellent with solid
information, recording history and good photographs (Vermeulen looks strikingly
similar to the young Bax). This is a set too easily lost in the constant
blaze of artist-centred publicity by the major companies. Recommended for
all explorers of 20th century music. If you have enjoyed Frankel, Fricker
or Pettersson then you must hear this music. (c) Robert Barnett
CV36 Symphonies 1-3 Dutchman prelude
CV37 Dutchman 2 extracts, La Veille, Symphony 4 and I Symphony 5
CV38 Symphonies 5 (II and III), 6-7