Lex van Delden
(Alexander Zwaap; 10th September 1919 – 1st July 1988)
Born Alexander Zwaap in Amsterdam (the Netherlands) on 10th September 1919 the only child of Wolf Zwaap, a school-teacher, and his wife Sara Olivier, Lex van Delden took piano-lessons from an early age – first from Martha Zwaga and later from the celebrated pianist, Cor de Groot. He started composing at the age of eleven, when he set poems by Guido Gezelle to music since a long illness prevented him from playing the piano. He remained self-taught as a composer. Despite his artistic promise and interests (by the age of fourteen, for instance, he was accompanying the famous German Expressionist dancer/choreographer, Gertrud Leistikow, and he also moved in the circle of one of Holland’s foremost composers of the time, Sem Dresden) he enrolled at the University of Amsterdam in 1938 to study medicine. However, in 1940 the Germans invaded the Netherlands and in 1942, being a Jew, he was forced to interrupt his studies – irrevocably, as it turned out, because his hopes of becoming a neuro-surgeon were dashed during World War II due to an exploding carbide lamp, which virtually blinded him in his left eye while in hiding. Presently he joined the underground students’ resistance movement and after the war was commended for his bravery by both the President of the United States of America and the Supreme Command of the Allied Forces. In 1953 the name he had assumed since the Liberation in 1945 (Lex van Delden – a derivation from the name he used in the resistance) was officially approved.
Still a student, he made his début as a composer in 1940 with the song cycle L’amour (1939; for soprano, flute, clarinet and string trio), written at the request of the young composer/conductor Nico Richter, who was in charge of the students’ orchestra. The war over, having lost nearly his entire family in the Holocaust, he almost immediately found his way into Dutch cultural life, partially through contacts he had made as a member of the resistance movement – initially as the resident composer/musical director of the first post-war Dutch ballet group, “Op Vrije Voeten” (“On Liberated Feet”), which later evolved into the “Scapino Ballet Company”, and from 1947 as the music editor of the daily, originally underground, newspaper “Het Parool” (until 1982).
The first of his works to attract wide attention was Rubáiyát (nine quatrains by Omar Khayyám in Edward FitzGerald’s English translation, 1948; for chorus with soprano and tenor solos, 2 pianos and percussion), awarded the prestigious Music Prize of the City of Amsterdam in 1948. This unexpected success was soon to be confirmed by two First Prizes, awarded by the Northern California Harpists’ Association, for his Harp Concerto (1951/’52), in 1953, and Impromptu (1955; for harp solo), in 1956. Throughout the ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties Lex van Delden became one of the most widely heard Dutch composers of his generation, and a large number of his pieces were commissioned (by the Dutch government, the City of Amsterdam, Dutch radio and others) and enjoyed acclaimed performances by the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra under such renowned conductors as George Szell, Charles Münch, Eduard van Beinum, Eugen Jochum, Willem van Otterloo and Bernard Haitink, and by numerous other prominent ensembles and soloists. He was made a Knight of the royal Order of Oranje-Nassau (1972), and received the Freedom of the City of Amsterdam (1982), where he died on 1st July 1988.
Many of Van Delden’s compositions form an expression of his deeply felt social concern, such as In Memoriam (1953; for orchestra), which was written in the aftermath of the great flood disaster of 1953 in the Netherlands, Belgium and England, the oratorio The Bird of Freedom (1955), which is an emotional cry against slavery, the radiophonic oratorio Icarus (1962), which questions the usefulness of space travel, or Canto della Guerra (after Erasmus, 1967; for chorus and orchestra), which is a strong condemnation of war. A few of his works have biblical themes, notably Judith (1950; a dance score for flute, clarinet, piano and string trio) and Adonijah’s Death (1986; for male chorus and symphonic wind band).
His social commitment was equally borne out by his readiness to hold several administrative posts, including the presidency of the Society of Dutch Composers (GeNeCo) and the chairmanship of the Dutch Performing Right Organisation (Buma/Stemra). He also sat on the Board of the International Society for Contemporary Music (I.S.C.M.) and was a member of the Dutch Committee of the International Music Council (Unesco).
in the continuing validity of tonality in the broadest sense of the term and preferred to obey his own spontaneous creative impulses, fashioning his ideas into a uniquely personal idiom, rather than following the various musical trends of the day. He loved working closely with performers, too, utilising to the full the peculiarities and possibilities specific to the instruments as well as meeting the wishes and demands of the players. If he felt at all consciously influenced by any predecessors, it was perhaps by such old Dutch Masters as J. Pzn. Sweelinck, whose solid constructivism certainly contributed to his own highly developed grasp of form. The composer Matthijs Vermeulen once described his orchestral palette as ‘ochreous, granular and bronze-like, applied in manifold minutely varied gradations, almost as if improvised, un-premeditated, extempore’. Another fellow-composer, Jan Mul, pointed out that Van Delden’s music bears witness of an idealistic will to live, no doubt a poignant consequence of his traumatic wartime experiences. In all his works clarity reigns – profoundly dramatic episodes alternate with intensely lyrical passages, sometimes unmistakably evocative of the ecstatic cantorial chant in the synagogue, yet the aim is never to overwhelm the listener, but instead to try and reach out and achieve an unforced communication with the audience.
Most of his pre-war and wartime works, some thirty in total, were destroyed by the bombing of Nijmegen in 1944, and the bulk of his approximately 125 surviving compositions was written after the war, extending over all spheres of music except opera and church music, i.a. (in addition to the pieces already mentioned): Piccolo Concerto, for 12 wind instruments, timpani, percussion and piano, orchestral works such as Musica Sinfonica, Bafadis and Trittico, 8 symphonies (No. I: The River – May 1940, for soprano, chorus and orchestra, No. II: Sinfonia Giocosa, No. III: Facets, No. VII: Sinfonia Concertante, for 11 wind instruments); concertos for flute, harp, percussion, piano, trumpet, violin, 2 oboes, 2 soprano-saxophones, 3 trombones (Piccola Musica Concertata), 2 string orchestras, electronic organ and for violin, viola and double-bass; 3 oratorios (i.a. Anthropolis) and many other choral pieces (i.a. Partita Piccola, for chorus a cappella, and Animal Suite, for male chorus and wind band); chamber music, including works for piano solo and for violin and piano, 3 string quartets, a string quintet, a string sextet, 2 piano trios, a saxophone quartet (Tomba), a brass quintet, 2 sextets (i.a. Sestetto per Gemelli), a nonet and several works for harp (solo or in various combinations: i.a. Catena di Miniature, for flute and harp, and Musica Notturna a Cinque, for 4 violoncellos and harp); songs (i.a. Three Sonnets by Shakespeare and The Good Death); music for ballet (i.a. Time and Tide) and for the theatre (i.a. Macbeth and Lucifer).
LEX VAN DELDEN JR.