Jan van Gilse (1881-1944)

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  • Donemus Jan van Gilse 10"" vinyl release of the 1970's with the funeral march from Thijl

'People with such strong moral values as Jan van Gilse are rare. To hold his name in high regard is the duty of all who knew him personally as well as of those who were fortunate enough to have been able to work with him.’ (Dr. P van Noorden [ps. Dr. Eberhard Rebling], De Waarheid, 11 August 1945.)

The composer of the Dutch operatic masterpiece sine qua non Thijl (1938-1940) only received recognition in 1976, a full 37 years after his tragic death in World War II, when that opera was first performed. During his life very little of his output made it to print, even though Van Gilse had a kick-start as a composer, with a number of large scale pieces including four symphonies having been performed in such important venues as the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. Following a devastating review in 1915 his career as a composer came to a halt and he settled for a career as a conductor and manager (as early as 1911 he had founded the Association of Dutch Composers). While his creative impulse became less prolific, the quality and originality of his compositions deepened. Other than his colleagues Julius Röntgen or Cornelis Dopper Van Gilse eventually developed into a truly contemporary composer. He started out with Brahms and Bruckner (Symphony 1) and from there he progressed to Richard Strauss and Mahler (Sulamith, ‘Symphony Nr. 2’). In ‘Symphony Nr. 3’ he submerses into Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and the ‘Siegfried Idyl’ after which his time in Rome signals the beginning of the great letting go of such clear examples. He starts incorporating un-French impressionist accents in his music, along with vague East-European influences…

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As a conductor in Utrecht he programmed conservatively, yet his notes reveal that he listened with interest to Schönberg, Stravinsky, Honegger and Milhaud. Imitating them however is no longer an option. Starting with ‘Nonet’ from 1917 he develops a highly individual contemporary idiom. The culmination of this development followed during 1940, shortly after the German invasion, when he completes the large scale opera in three acts, Thijl. Not only his own development culminates into this opera but also the entire history of Dutch opera finds its apex in it. However, just as van Gilse never heard his 1911 opera Helga von Stavern, he would also never hear Thijl performed. After the German invasion he went into the resistance and he died in 1944. It was almost by miracle that his scores were rescued. Thijl was posthumously premiered in concert in 1976, followed by a scenic performance in the context of the Holland Festival in 1980. Helga von Stavern  remains unperformed to date, apart from the ‘Verwandlungsmusik’ and the finale that were performed in the Concertgebouw in 1915 under Van Gilse. On May 29 2016 401NederlandseOperas brought the world premiere of Helga’s act three monologue ‘Ist es denn wahr? in the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo during 401Concerts 3. Soprano Jolien De Gendt sang Helga accompanied from the piano by Pieter Dhoore. Ann Vancoillie was the violin soloist in the subsequent ‘Verwandlungsmusik’. The recordings are available from the 401Concerts 3 download programme.

Text: René Seghers
Sources: Manuscript scores Helga von Stavern (1911), Thijl (1940); Jan van Gilse archives Nederlands Muziek Instituut; Krantenartikelen Helga von Stavern 1911-1915; Ada van Gilse-Hooijer, Pijper contra Van Gilse. Een rumoerige periode uit het Utrechtse muziekleven, Utrecht, A.W. Bruna en Zn., 1963; Hans van Dijk, Jan van Gilse, Strijder en idealist, Uitgeverij Frits Knuf, 1988; Hans van Dijk (red.): Memoires Jan van Gilse, 1917-1922. Zutphen, Walburg Pers, 2003; TBooklets various cd releases NM Classics, CPO; Correspondence with John Smit, musicoloog.
Partners: Nederlands Muziek Instituut, Kröller-Müller Museum

Tickets 401Concerts 3 for sale via ticketlink

Jan Pieter Hendrik van Gilse (11 May 1881, Rotterdam – 8 September 1944, Oegstgeest) was the son of journalist and later parliament member Mr. Jan Albert van Gilse and Maria Auguste Hockelman. The youth of Jan Jr. and his three older sisters was rather traumatic, wrote the later composer in his memoirs.  His father was never at home and his mother lacked any empathy of sorts. Fortunately for Jan Rotterdam at least had a lively musical scene. Although his parents had no professional training, his mother played piano and his father occasionally sang baritone songs. Jan’s piano lessons weren’t very successful though, because of a 'gift' that would also cause him troubles further on in life: he had an unbendable character. He was not on the same wavelength as his teacher, which resulted in physical confrontations, states the Van Gilse biography of Hans van Dijk. Van Gilse’s diaries onwards are one long litany: his college years were a disaster, classmates bullied him after they discovered he was secretly composing music and so on. When Jan decided to embark on a career as a conductor when he was 15 years old, he found to his own surprise that his parents fully supported him. Jan was brought to the conservatory in Cologne where director Franz Wüllner (composition) and Artur Klesser (theory) where his most important teachers. Those fruitful days ended when Wüllner passed away in 1902 and Jan found himself next to some students who were gossiping about the affair of one of the teachers with a female pupil.  As a consequence the three gossiping students were expelled from the conservatory along with Jan (the lover of the teacher remained!). Jan’s father went with him to speak with the teacher, but when the teacher made his father wait too long after Jan’s taste his opening words were: ‘You are a piece of trash.’ That was the end of Jan’s days in Cologne, but perhaps he was the better for it, since he was then accepted in Berlin where the famous Engelbert Humperdinck took him under his wings, who is said to have had a high regard of Jan. Humperdinck’s positive opinion is not hard to understand given that Van Gilse had then already established quite a name for himself. His career as a composer had started as early as 1896 with a few trifle piano compositions, but in 1899 he already progressed to a major orchestral song, ‘Water lilies’. This was followed by ‘Concert Overture’ (1901), ‘Symphony Nr. 1’ (1901), the symphonic cantata Sulamith (1902), ‘Symphony Nr. 2’ (1903) and the oratorio Lebensmesse (1904).


Jan van Gilse: ‘Concertouverture’ (opening section)
Radio Symfonie Orkest o.l.v. Jacques van Steen


Jan van Gilse: Symfonie Nr. 1 (adagio)
Nederlands Symfonie Orkest o.l.v David Porcelijn
(2007 CD CPO 777 349-2)


Jan van Gilse: Sulamith (middle section)
RFO, GOK, Anne Marie Dur, Hein Meens, Henk Smit - Jean Fournet

In these works he assimilated the orchestration techniques of Brahms, Bruckner, Richard Strauss, Humperdinck himself and then also Mahler. Van Gilse’s Second Symphony was performed in The Concertgebouw by Willem Mengelberg himself, which instantly made him the crown prince among young Dutch composers.



Jan van Gilse: Symfonie Nr. 2 (Intermezzo)
Nederlands Symfonie Orkest o.l.v David Porcelijn
(2007 CD CPO 777 349-2)

Following his Berlin years Van Gilse became repetitor and conductor at the Stadttheater Bremen, where he completed his Third Symphony ‘Erhebung’ in 1907. The work was premiered in 1908 in Munich, and was also the vehicle for Van Gilse’s debut as a conductor in The Concertgebouw Amsterdam. This performance resulted in the appointment of the prestigious German ‘Michael Beer Preis’, which included an allowance for two years of working in Rome (which is why it was called ‘the German Prix de Rome’).


Jan van Gilse: Symfonie Nr. 3 (Finale)
AIle Asszony (sopraan), Nederlands Symfonie Orkest o.l.v David Porcelijn
(2009 CD CPO 775 518-2)

Unfortunately, Rome was no longer the centre of the musical world by then, and Van Gilse passed his time by visiting the local opera house, conceiving his Fourth Symphony and from 1910 onwards also working on the libretto of his Marxist-Wagnerian opera, Helga von Stavern.


Jan van Gilse: Symfonie Nr. 4 (3d movement)
Nederlands Symfonie Orkest o.l.v David Porcelijn

In 1911 he and Peter van Anrooy, Alphons Diepenbrock, Abraham Loman jr., Simon van Milligen, Dirk Schäfer, Johan Wagenaar and Bernard Zweers also founded the Association of Dutch Composers (GeNeCo), which by 1913 resulted in the erection of the Dutch copyright association BUMA.

Helga von Stavern

In May 1911 Van Gilse and his wife Ada exchanged Rome for Munich, where Jan continues to work on Helga von Stavern (An excerpt of which can be heard in the video trailer here presented of 401Concerts 3). His former colleague from Bremen, conductor Egon Pollak shows great doubts over the libretto, but is eventually so swept away by the music that he offers to produce the piano-vocal score as a labour of love. In 1912 Van Gilse’s ‘Lebensmesse’ proves a triumph in Germany and the Netherlands, his first son is born and on August 18 he completes the composition of Helga von Stavern.

Van Gilse believed that Pollak would easily realize a performance in Frankfurt on the wings of his connections there, but the director of the opera house rejected the very idea with a mere glance at the libretto. Interested publishers also decided not to publish it after having read the text. This is in hindsight hardly surprising. Just as Gerard von Brucken Fock’s opera Jozal (composed 1910-1912), Helga von Stavern is another veritable attempt to create an intellectual-moralist opera. Von Brucken Fock’s work was morally-religious, Van Gilse’s opera was by design a politically-economical opera. It can hardly be a coincidence that two such anti-dramatic, wholly intellectual subject emerged simultaneously from the minds of two Dutch composers. For better or worse, such a thing was and is probably as exclusive to the Netherlands as Peking opera is to China. After the director of the Munich opera advised Van Gilse to let the opera rest for a while and then rework the libretto, he shelved it until November 28, 1915. Then he performed the ‘Verwandlungsmusik’ and the subsequent finale of the opera in a concert in the Concertgebouw, dedicated to his own music and conducted by himself.


Jan van Gilse:Lebensmesse (finale)
(2013 Vredenburg utrecht, Radio Filharmonisch orkest, Heidi Melton (s), Gerhild Romberger (a), Roman Sadnik (t) o.l.v Markus Stenz.)

Matthijs Vermeulen

This concert should have been the precursor to a glorious continuation of his career as a composer and perhaps open the doors to a full performance of Helga von Stavern, but the result was quite the opposite, not to say ‘devastating’. After all the praise and success that had earned him the position of runner up among Dutch composers, Matthijs Vermeulen now published a review that was so negative that it crushed the reputation of Van Gilse completely. Vermeulen, critic, and, it should be mentioned, the only revolutionary composer that Brahms, Bruckner and Mendelssohn-loving Holland then had, labelled Van Gilse a slavish copyist of German values. That he pretended to be a Dutch composer while he set a truly Dutch subject as the Lady of Stavern on a German libretto was something that Vermeulen considered a sell-out of Dutch cultural value. Worse yet, Van Gilse had composed three famous poems by Tagore on a German text, where there was a splendid Dutch translation by Frederik van Eeden.


Jan van Gilse: Gitanjali Nr. 1 'Der Schlaf, der auf Kindesauge ruht'
Brigitte Hahn (soprano), Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra o.l.v. Hartmut Haenchen
(2001 Dutch Radio).

This very personal attack immediately ended Van Gilse’s career as a composer. He had the bad luck that his German education and his late romantic soul were coloured by the music of a nation that was feared at the outset of World War I. His predilection for German texts and his noted opinion regarding the limitations of the Dutch language made Vermeulen dub him a cultural traitor. Although performed, his earlier compositions were largely unprinted and they could therefore not find their way to the concert stages. 


Jan van Gilse: Nonet (fragment)
Viotta Ensemble (CD NM Classics)

Following Vermeulen’s review they were hardly ever performed. Van Gilse saw himself forced to resort to plan B in order to survive. In 1917 he became conductor of the Utrecht’s City orchestra and president of the BUMA Copyrights Association..

The polemic with Willem Pijper

Where new works following 1915 could count on Matthijs Vermeulen in De Telegraaf, his Utrecht years brought him a new sworn enemy in the person of another revolutionary composer/critic that had appeared on the Dutch musical horizon, the more French oriented Willem Pijper. His very personal attacks on Van Gilse in Het Utrecht’s Dagblad made van Gilse’s position impossible by 1922, when the conductor demanded from his board that Pijper would be barred from attending his concerts. When his demand wasn’t met, Van Gilse resigned, tired and defeated. This tragic controversy with tremendous personal consequences for Van Gilse came to the light only in 1963, when his wife Ada published the notorious book ‘Pijper contra Van Gilse’, which posthumously crashed Pijper’s reputation as a person of human being and a critic. Ever since Van Gilse is seen as the ultimate victim and Pijper as the Machiavellian evil genius. If perhaps this was just a shade too negative as well, the wrath on Pijper must have tasted like mead to Van Gilse’s widow.  


Following his leave in Utrecht Van Gilse’s ‘Fifth Symphony’ remained unfinished. A post as conductor in Holland was no longer an option given his powerful enemies among the press.


Jan van Gilse: ‘Strijkwartet' (opening section)
Ebony Quartet (CD NM Classics)


Jan van Gilse: 'Trio voor fluit viool & cello' (opening section)
Marieke Schneeman (fluit), Marieke Blankenstijn (viool), Gert Jan Leuverink (viool) (CD NM Classics)

Years followed during which he accepted all sorts of work within and outside of the Netherlands. In 1926 he finally settled in Berlin. There fate once again met up with Van Gilse since he, the man that had been accused of cultural collaboration with the Germans by Vermeulen, was as fervently an anti-nationalist as he was anti-Hitler. Once the Nazis rose to power in 1933 and started their anti-Jewish measurements, he did not want to remain in Germany. It was a big surprise that he then landed a post as director of the Utrecht Conservatory, although his renowned work as director of the BUMA Association may have played a significant role in it. His work for composer’s rights was actually internationally renowned; even Richard Strauss approached him in 1933 asking if he wanted to erect a similar organisation in Germany. Van Gilse renounced, afraid he would only be helping the Nazis with their cultural objectives.



Jan van Gilse: Thijl 'Filips huivert op zijn troon'
1976 Holland Festival, John Bröcheler (Thijl), Marylin Tyler (Neele), Radio Philharmonisch Orkest, Groot Omroep Koor, o.l.v Anton Kersjes

Following Van Dijk’s biography any normal person would by then have succumbed to the mix of threatening political developments and the ongoing musical tensions within the Dutch musical world, but Van Gilse merely found a new basis for composing in his position as director of the Utrecht Conservatory. This was caused by two unexpected occurrences. The first one was a 1937 letter from director/owner of the Dutch Chamber Opera Richard Heuckeroth, whose amateur company played operas in limited orchestrations with an orchestra of six instruments. Heuckeroth asked Van Gilse to write an opera for his company. Van Gilse had learned his lesson with Helga von Stavern and asked Heuckeroth after his ideas regarding the librettist. By chance Heukeroth then approached the Amsterdam based journalist Hendrik Lindt, who himself preferred Nico Richter as the composer. Regardless, Heuckeroth brings Lindt and Van Gilse together, and they click, although the project is abandoned after Van Gilse walks out of the first and only performance of Heukeroth’s company he ever visited (Richter then composed Amorijs on a text by Lindt for Heuckeroth, although it remained unperformed). Meanwhile the idea of another opera stuck with Van Gilse.

In June of that year his choral work ‘Der Kreis des Lebens’ was premiered with much success. The work had been unperformed since 1929. This may have boasted Van Gilse’s confidence and by the end of 1937 he had found a suitable subject in Charles De Koster’s ‘De legende van Uilenspiegel en lamme Goedzak in Vlaanderenland en elders’ (The Legend of Uilenspiegel and the Lame Goodheart in Flanders and elsewhere). Early 1938 he approached Lindt, who drafted a sketch for an opera in four acts. Van Gilse judged that too long, and they settled for three acts. The title was changed from Tijl to Thijl, because Van Gilse liked the look of Thijl better. In the libretto Van Gilse eventually also adjusted Lindt’s modern spelling into the old fashioned one, changing words such as ‘viskoper’ in ‘vischkoper’. Between September and October 8 the prologue was completed. The plan was to produce a through-composed number opera on the models of late Verdi to Puccini and certainly not a Wagnerian drama. For the local flavour Van Gilse studied old Dutch folk songs and even Gregorian models. The cooperation with Lindt proved very fruitful and when in the fall of 1938 plans were announced for the resurrection of a Dutch Opera Ensemble, the composer judged this a good omen: ‘You see, we arrive at the right moment, all the more so because I am convinced that you and I have created a truly ‘national’ opera (please forgive me the word, since it could produce the loathsome shadow of Hitler).’ On March 10 1939 the first act was completed and Van Gilse began with the composition of the second act in high spirits, starting from the impressive march scene at the end of the second act, based on the old Dutch 80-years war resistance song ‘Slaet op den trommele’ (Beat the drums).

Not hampered by any rancour and on his own initiative, he conducted the world premiere of Matthijs Vermeulen’s ‘Third Symphony’ on May 24 1939, seventeen years after the now in deplorable finances residing composer had composed it. After intensive correspondence with Lindt, the second act of Thijl was completed on February 17 1940. The music almost seemed to relieve the tension in the air that was rife with the threatening sounds of war. Enthusiastically Van Gilse reported to Lindt which singers he had in mind: Theo Baylé as Thijl, Betty Rutgers (with Greet Koeman as stand-in) for Nele, Frans Vroons as Fish vendor and Johan Lammen as the ballad singer. Around May they planned a draft reading of the first two acts for friends and journalists, the plan that was interrupted by the German invasion into the Netherlands. The invasion also interrupted the composition of the third act and the epilogue. By November 29 1940 Van Gilse however reported to Lindt: ‘Thijl is finished! I am tremendously happy that I have completed the task to full satisfaction. […] Especially – I believe – the transition music from the third act to the epilogue, a funeral march for the believed-to-be-dead Thijl is very fine.’

War, resistance, death

Enthusiastic as in his younger years Van Gilse posted news of the completion of his opera to the leading music magazine ‘De wereld der muziek’ (The World of Music) believing that the national press would take it from there. This proved to be the next bitter disappointment in his life: only one of two regional papers published a brief notice of the fact, and with the German occupation of the Netherlands there could be no more talk of performance. The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra however performed the ‘Funeral music’ from Thijl under Eduard Flipse on April 5 1941 in the Royal Church of Rotterdam.

Further performances were prevented by the fact that Van Gilse refused to join the Chamber of Culture which the Germans had installed. Instead he joined the artist’s resistance. His sons likewise were active in the resistance, and eventually they were killed one after the other by the Germans. Meanwhile librettist Lindt had joined the SS. Following the death of his eldest son, Van Gilse remained mentally broken, and during his second stay in hiding with colleague composer Rudolf Escher in Oegstgeest he was diagnosed with belly cancer. At 10 AM on September 8 Jan van Gilse died under a false name (to protect Escher) after a miserable period of untreated grave illness in the Diaconessen Hospital. He was buried under an alias in grave Nr. 343 at the burial ground of the Green Church in Oegstgeest. Following the war the grave was augmented by a monument in the shape of a deadly wounded soldier whose sword was falling from his one hand, while his other hand upheld a lyre.


Despite the efforts of Ada van Gilse there could be no talk of a performance of Thijl immediately following the war, although both Ada and Lindt have tried their best to achieve this until Ada’s death in 1965. Immediately after the war this may indeed have been understandable, however we have to mention here that the National Dutch Opera and the Holland Festival were in full swing by the mid 1950’s – the problem was clearly that no one cared. The Holland Festival eventually made up for this mistake when they finally premiered Thijl on September 21 1976, in concert performance at the Concertgebouw. No one could believe their ears: a full 37 years after the composition Jan van Gilse proved to have achieved the absolute masterpiece of Dutch opera! The concert performance was followed by scenic performance, once more in the context of the Holland Festival in joint venture with the Dutch National Opera. This resulted in a revival of interest in the then forgotten composer Jan van Gilse. Since then a number of his most important works have been performed and disclosed by means of radio broadcasts (‘Concertouverture’,  Sulamith, Lebensmesse, ‘Variations on a Saint Nicholas Song’, Thijl) or cd’s. Among the latter are his Symphonies 1, 2, 3 & 4 plus the ‘Funeral marches’ from Thijl under David Porcelijn on CPO and the ‘Nonet’, ‘Quartet’ en ‘by the Viotta Ensemble and the Ebony Quartet on the NM Classics cd-label of the Nederlands Muziek Instituut. However, some major Van Gilse’s scores are still waiting for their baptism, among them the music drama Helga von Stavern, one of those mythical works in Dutch operatic history. Then Thijl would of course merit a full performance and integral recording (the 1976 broadcast has only acts 1 and 2). There were also plans to realize this project. Dutch musicologist John Smit was working on a critical edition of the work, and the CPO label was interested in a recording, but lack of funding postponed this project ‘indefinitely’. This is not altogether hard to understand, given that an integral performance of Thijl calls for more than 60 soloists alone, which of course put theatres and concert programmers for a tough challenge.

Download 401Concerts 3 met Helga von Stavern

401COnc3Logo150The recording of our third 401DutchOperas concert in the Kröller-Müller Museum is downloadable via 401Concerts 3. Apart from highlights of Jan van Gilse's Helga von Stavern it also includes highlights from Willem Landré's De roos van Dekama, Daniël de Lange's Lioba, Gerard von Brucken Fock's Jozal, Julius Röntgen's Agnete and De lachende CavalierCornelis Dopper's De blinde van Casteel Cuillé, Jan Brandts Buys’ De kleermakers van Marken (Die Schneider von Schönau) and Richard Hageman's Caponsacchi.

Tickets voor 401Concerts 3 in het Kröller-Müller Museum