There is nothing more enjoyable to read than the account of a not completely successful premiere of a work that later comes to be hailed as a masterpiece. The creation of Louis Andriessen’s Mysteriën (2013) will certainly join the list of works that created a scandal at their premieres; the documentary Imperfect Harmony (Carmen Cobos, 2014) shows clearly that the incompatibility of temperament between Mariss Jansons and Louis Andriessen poisoned the rehearsal process. Both men were, however, more than motivated to make the best of circumstances, Jansons because the work was part of the concert celebrating the 125th anniversary of the founding of ‘his’ Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and Andriessen because Mysteriën had become a deeply personal work.
Louis Andriessen’s relations with the Concertgebouw Orchestra had been difficult for several decades, for he and a number of other composers — Reinbert de Leeuw, Jan van Vlijmen, Misha Mengelberg and Peter Schat — had rebelled against the orchestra’s supposedly conservative and “undemocratic” programming in the 1960s. In November 1969 these Notenkrakers, as they were then known, interrupted a concert being conducted by Haitink with squeaky toys, rattles, a hooter and a megaphone; they were forcibly removed from the concert hall.
Andriessen composed no more music purely for orchestra from that time onwards, simply because he felt that the way that symphony orchestras played did not suit his music. In spite of this the Concertgebouw and the Concertgebouw Orchestra continued to ask him for an orchestral work for many years. He finally gave in to them after he had a dream in which his dead father Hendrik, who himself had composed works for the Concertgebouw Orchestra, urged him finally to do so. Andriessen found his inspiration for the work in a book that his father valued greatly, the De imitatione Christi by Thomas à Kempis (ca. 1380-1470), a book of instructions on how to be a good Christian. Andriessen selected six chapters from it and interpreted them in musical terms, conceiving them as “a series of frescos in the ambulatory of a cloister”.
I. Of (...) the despising of all vanities of the world begins with venial earthly temptations, symbolised by loud and complex tangles of sound with sparkles of tinsel and gilt. This is transformed into serene tranquillity at 2’36”.
II. Of the considering of the misery of mankind is a lament on the troubles to which every human being is subject: sickness, betrayal and hate.
III. In What truth speaks from inside without the noise of words the listener is required to listen carefully: quartertones (pitches between the usual semitones) appear from 11’49” onwards and literally demand his attention.
IV. Of the ordeal of a true lover is not only a song of praise to the overmastering power of love but also a personal homage to Hendrik Andriessen, whose own orchestral song Magna res est amor to a text from De Imitatione Christi is quoted at half tempo.
V. Of the different movements of nature and grace presents two different tempi (movements) simultaneously: the fast tempo of human nature and the slow tempo of divine grace.
VI. Andriessen ends the series in dramatic fashion with a memento mori: Of the meditation on death.
Andriessen: “A final explosion occurs at the very end, like a scream. Immediately afterwards (30’28”) I pretend that nothing has happened, with a splendid long drawn out A major chord”.
It seems paradoxical that this artist and activist can now concern himself with his Catholic heritage. Andriessen: “Thanks to my upbringing I have a natural connection with all that is unfathomable; I think that’s the best way of explaining it. These days I regard religion, art and philosophy as ideas that ferment in the creative spirit of mankind. Politics also play a part in this. When we took to the streets and demonstrated against the war in Vietnam, it was because we wanted a better world”.
Translation: Peter Lockwood