Matthijs Vermeulen (1888-1967)
Symphony No. 1 'Symphonia carminum' (1914)
Orchestra: Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor: Roelof van Driesten
Matthijs Vermeulen was a Dutch composer and writer on music. Having been recognized for many years chiefly for his literary qualities, Vermeulen is now regarded as a composer of international significance and as the most important symphonist of the Netherlands.
Vermeulen's earliest composition, the First Symphony, is in some passages reminiscent of Debussy, Diepenbrock, Bruckner and Mahler, four of his great models. In this work bursting with youthful élan - which according to the composer 'plays on the boundary between the 19th and 20th centuries, when the great shadow [World War I] had not yet fallen' - Vermeulen had already left behind traditional harmony. The freely handled part-writing repeatedly leads to complex chords, while conventional cadences are virtually absent. Modality does, however, play a major role, as in the anti-war songs of a few years later. The transition from diatonic thinking to an integral chromatic concept came, at the age of 30, in the First Cello Sonata, and it was consolidated in the Second Symphony ('Prélude a la nouvelle journée'), which dates from the expectant atmosphere of the postwar years. Revolutionary with respect to melody, harmony, form and instrumentation, the piece confirmed Vermeulen's personal style, coupling overwhelming power and vitality with tenderness and lyricism. Extended passages are of a density and energetic pulse encountered in little other 20th-century music, while organic transitions to simpler, open textures, which radiate contemplative rest, are equally striking.
Although significant developments occurred during the course of his output and works differ appreciably in character and structure, a number of basic principles remained the same: primacy of melody in all parts, equality of voices, no regulation in the succession of notes, and 'unlimited chord formation'. Vermeulen regarded melody as the representation in sound of a person, as the expression of emotion. Polymelody, i.e. the interaction of several independent melodies (in his symphonies mostly three to six and occasionally even eight or nine, in his chamber music two to four) acquired the significance of a reflection of an ideal society in which freedom, equality and fraternity prevail. General aspects of Vermeulen's melodic writing are a commonly vocal character, the preference for asymmetrical and long-spanned phrasing, varied repeats of interval patterns, the prevalence of small intervals, a tendency to chromatic completion (combining a minor 2nd in one direction with a major 2nd in the opposite direction is a common device), rhythmic variation (frequently, in melodies with a slow tempo each beat has a different sub-division from the last) and the avoidance of regular metric division (floating rhythm). Despite an overall atonality, many times a melody is spun around a focal pitch, upon which it begins and ends. Such perpetually circling movement and gradual unfolding gives an insistent, often oriental flavour to the music, while the regular use of ostinatos and fixed or slowly moving 'harmonic fields' adds to the mesmerizing effect, as does, in the symphonies, the richness of orchestration. Unusual timbral combinations are evident, while the melodies are frequently given special colour through being played in parallel intervals or chords, much in the manner of Debussy. Another notable feature of Vermeulen's music is differentiated application of canonic technique, most frequently in the String Trio and Symphony no.3, in which in particular shows how a step-by-step shortening of the distance between dux and comes is applied to build up to a climax.