(the lack of) musical life in Utrecht 1800-1830

My hometown, Utrecht, is arguably one of the cultural marvels of Netherlands. But this has not always been the case. While working on an article about the conductor and composer Johann Hermann Kufferath (1797-1864), my friend Mirjam & I discovered that, at the beginning of the 19th century, there was a nadir in Utrecht’s musical life. The overall Dutch music scene of the period 1800-1830 was interesting, because well-known musical figures lived in Amsterdam and The Hague. But not in Utrecht. This blog post explores four possible reasons for this gap in fairly recent Dutch music history.

The city of Utrecht is without a doubt a vibrant city, with a history that had an international influence. In addition to being a university town, the city boasts of a rich musical history and it serves as a home to artists of all stripes. The aesthetic beauty of the city coupled with the myriads of artists, poets, writers and musicians therein makes the city to possess a unique artistic spirit (Weickgenant, 2010). Utrecht has several musical venues and also acts as a host to many music festivals such as the Utrecht Early Music Festival, Le Guess Who? and Trance Energy. Furthermore, Utrecht is home to TivoliVredenburg, one of the grandest music venues in Netherlands.

There are many highlights in the musical history of Utrecht during the 17th and 18th centuries. Think for example of the blind composer Jacob van Eyck (c. 1590- 1657), who became carillon player of the Dom Tower of Utrecht in 1625. He possessed laudable knowledge in acoustics which was praised by famous scientists like René Descartes and Isaac Beeckman; hence other bell players often came to study with him. Van Eyck is most known for his composition Der Fluyten Lust-hof (The Flute’s Garden of Delights, or The Flute’s Pleasure Garden), the largest work for a solo wind instrument in European history. In 1730, famous Baroque composer George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) composed his Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate; a sacred choral composition in two parts, written to celebrate the Treaty of Utrecht. And in 1766, on April 21st, the then 10-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was in the city of Utrecht. He practised on the harpsichord in the dance hall of the later Schiller Theater in the Minrebroederstraat and gave a concert at the Vredenburg (Eisen, 1991). It has often been proposed that he composed KV33 there and then.

The aforementioned musical achievements notwithstanding, around the year 1830, other cities in the Netherlands, such as The Hague and Amsterdam became more famous for their music as compared to Utrecht. In The Hague, for example, lived and worked Johannes Joseph Herman Verhulst (1816-1891) who was a pupil of Mendelssohn. The composer was a well-known musical figure in the 19th century, often giving performances in royal courts and conducting orchestras. After a period in Leipzig, where he conducted Orchestra Euterpe and composed his Symphony in E, it was nobody less than King William II who urged him to return to The Hague.

In Amsterdam lived and worked another significant musical figure, Johannes Bernardus van Bree (1801-1857). Van Bree is seen as one of the most prominent Dutch composers from the first half of the nineteenth century. His works were mentioned with appreciation at home and abroad. At the time of the Belgian Revolt in 1830, he wrote some patriotic songs that earned him the title of ‘national composer’. Although a few of his compositions have stood the test of time and his music has quickly fallen into oblivion after his death, Van Bree wrote several overtures and symphonies, a violin concerto in E major, choral works (including the Missa in A flat major from 1834), the operas Sappho (1834, text Jacob van Lennep) and Le Bandit (1835), the singing game Take note (1826), string quartets, piano works, and a curious Allegro for four string quartets, that got its premiere by members of the Caecilia orchestra in in 1845 and is nowadays regularly on the orchestra programs as well. Van Bree’s works are partly oriented on the German school of Spohr and Mendelssohn, and partly on the lighter French style of Boeldeld and Adam.

As for Utrecht at the beginning of the 19th century, the academic functions of the city began to overshadow the city’s musical purpose. As such, there is a dearth of information about the musical history of Utrecht particularly between 1800-1830. In various publications devoted to aspects of Utrecht’s cultural life in the nineteenth century, Utrecht is described as a boring city, with about 50,000 inhabitants, full of stiffness, godliness and inertia. What we do know is that there were (at least) three amateur music companies: the “Collegium Musicum Ultratrajectum” (CMU), the “Muziekcorps van de dienstdoende schutterij” (aka “Music Corps of the duty guardian”) whose main task was to supervise the repayment of the watch and the “Utrechts Studenten Concert” (USC), which was founded in 1823. And in 1829, the Utrecht branch of the Maatschappij tot Bevordering der Toonkunst (MBT, “Society for the promotion of art”) was established as well. The backlog could have been due to the absence of professional orchestras to which authoritative masters were associated, as was the case throughout the Netherlands. (The professional symphony orchestras were not present until the end of the nineteenth century.)

Of course, it was a turbulent time. There was the so-called “Belgische kwestie” (the “Belgian issue”), a great dissatisfaction in the southern part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which of course also trickled into music, with poets addressed to King William I, like “Wij willen Willem weg, wilde Willem wijzer worden, willen wij Willem weer!” (roughly translatable as “We want Willem away, only if Willem wanted to be wiser, we want Willem again!”). Even civilians from the Northern Netherlands, including Utrecht, took up the armed forces to defend the kingdom with the desire to thwart Belgium’s commitment to independence. This was followed by the cholera epidemic (in 1832 and 1833), of which Utrecht – with the current unhygienic conditions – was the center. Maybe there was hardly any room for music in Utrecht in times of cholera? A third possible cause in Utrecht was that there was no suitable music hall for a large audience. The City Music Hall in the choir of the St. Mary’s Church only accommodated a few hundred listeners. The ‘hall next to the theater’ on the Vredenburg was even smaller.

However, there were not many citizens who went to war against the Belgians – only a group of students who had never fought before. And the cholera especially affected the poor who did not have any money to go to concerts. So actually only the third reason remains, the lack of a good concert hall. But isn’t that a matter of the chicken and the egg? Had there been good musicians, people would have paid eagerly for concerts and the venue. So, why could nobody break the stalemate? Musicologist Geerten Jan van Dijk (2008) looks for the answer this to this question at the isolation in which Utrecht was situated. According to him, the city was simply too difficult to reach. Gradually, the progressive urbanization and the accompanying expansion of the infrastructure made the city easier to travel. In 1843 the railway line to Amsterdam was completed and in 1845 it was delivered to Arnhem.

Although the faulty infrastructure surely has not helped, it can not be the only reason. Other cities without well-functioning public transport did not have this problem. In addition, it was only in the ’70s and especially in the ’80s of the nineteenth century that urban culture changed as in the 1870s, the railway network began to achieve its completion. And the musical history of Utrecht got back on track with the arrival of Johann Hermann Kufferath (1797-1864), from the ’30s onwards.

Maybe an individual can make a difference and Kufferath was the seed in the soil, which allowed Utrecht’s musical life to flourish again? I find that somehow hard to believe. But fact remains that musical life in Utrecht began to change at the same time as the arrival of Kufferath. The German-born composer in question wrote motets, overtures and cantatas while he acted as the municipal director of music in the city of Utrecht. Under the inspiring influence of Kufferath, many initiatives soon developed that gave Utrecht its name as a ‘city of music’.


The image I published with this article comes from the website of Inter-antiquariaat Mefferdt & De Jonge and shows a view on the Oudegracht in Utrecht at the Stadhuisbrug from the northwest.

We see the road along the Oudegracht in the foreground. On the left the city crane and the houses on the Stadhuisbrug from the house Keijserrijk to the new Empire City Hall and the passage to the Vismarkt and Choorstraat. To the right the houses on the west side of the canal with the Dom Tower behind.

A man with a dressed up monkey on a dog shows his tricks to children and passers-by. A little further on, two men lift a package on a cart. Women along the way sell their fruits and vegetables. The woman on the right swings her finger, are it the students she addresses? On the other side, carriages clatter over the cobblestones.

This lithograph (25.7 x 34.8 cm) was printed by Johannes Paulus Houtman around 1840, and coloured by hand, after the design by Jean François Michel Mourot (1802-1847). In the early 19th century, this famous French lithographer and publisher Desguerrois moved from Brussels to Amsterdam. From 1827 Michel Mourot draws / lithographs prints made on stone at Desguerrois in Amsterdam. Mourot becomes a leading lithographer and concentrates mainly on displaying exceptional topographical, historical events and portraits. Mourot married in Utrecht in 1844 with Aleijda van de Weijer, who had a print shop there and sold painting and drawing materials.


Eén reactie

  1. Hoi Martine, ik heb je artikel even gescand (schande, geen tijd genomen om het helemaal te lezen maar ik moet koken). Ik kan de vraag die je hier stelt niet zomaar beantwoorden maar ik kan er wel naar raaien. Tot 1813 hadden we de Franse bezetting en zodoende economische crisis en laagconjunctuur. Ten tweede was Amsterdam in die tijd ook al de culturele hoofdstad van Nederland; dat kan nadelig gewerkt hebben op het culturele leven in Utrecht. Een buitenlands operagezelschap zou niet zo gauw twee steden aandoen die amper 40 kilometer uit elkaar liggen en bovendien met de trekschuit of postkoets binnen een paar uur aan te reizen waren.

    De belangrijkste reden lijkt me echter de tijdgeest. In de Biedermeiertijd werd muziek nog niet zo religieus bedreven als later in de eeuw, zeker vóór 1830 niet. Wat je toen wel veel had was huismuziek: mensen maakten heel veel muziek in huiselijke kring. Openbare recitals bestonden nauwelijks en kamermuziek werd ook meestal privé genoten. Opera was vaak het pakkie-an van buitenlandse gezelschappen. Concerten hadden vaak een gemengd programma, maar een orkest was toch wel een vereiste. Om in een stad als Utrecht een orkest op te richten moest je net de juiste mensen hebben. Probeer zelf maar eens uit je vrienden en kennissen een compleet symfonieorkest te rekruteren en ook nog te zorgen dat het wat wordt: dat gaat je niet lukken.

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