Hans Kox turned 86 this week. Once celebrated at the Concertgebouw, he lives now in near oblivion.
John Borstlap, a friend and soulmate takes up his cause:
Kox’s career with its extreme ups and downs reflects the cultural climate of Holland from the 1950s on. Born in 1930, he made a brilliant career in his twenties, receiving many commissions and being performed by orchestras, including the Concertgebouw Orchestra under conductors like Van Beinum and Eugen Jochum. He quickly was the most important young composer of the Netherlands, and on a level with someone like Benjamin Britten.
While often using modern means, he always wanted to use them in an expressive way, and this has been the reason that in the sixties, with the emergence of ‘hard core modernism’ (which I would call ‘sonic art’ and dada), he was attacked by the composers who felt themselves representing an avantgarde, so different from Kox who got part of a classical establishment when only in his thirties – in that time, Kox was a more expressionist Benjamin Britten type, with strong roots in tradition, in spite of disruptive dissonance. These modernist composers however, formed a group, calling themselves the Nutcrackers, making lots of publicity noise, among other things by disrupting (with heckling) a concert of the Concertgebouw Orchestra because the programming did not present Stockhausen, Maderna, Boulez, Xenakis etc.
Although Kox always had a success with players and audiences, tastemakers (programmers at orchestras and concert venues, and music critics) soon felt under the spell of rhetorical ideologies and began to defend the avantgarde, who did not have any success at all in concert practice. The Dutch avantgarde consisted of Peter Schat, Reinbert de Leeuw (composing before he became a conductor), Misha Mengelberg, Jan van Vlijmen, Otto Ketting, Louis Andriessen, Konrad Boehmer. Except Ketting and Boehmer, they also formed the ‘Nutcrackers’ rebellious action group of angry young men. At the time Kox’ reputation was very solid, even while distancing himself from the noise made by the crackers; Kox never was a polemicist or someone who liked to extensively talk or write about his intentions: he wants to write good music and that is that. But Peter Schat wrote very often in the media and got much attention.
In 1974 Kox’ opera ‘Dorian Gray’, based upon Wilde’s book, was premiered at the National Netherlands Opera, shortly after he had been appointed Artistic Executive of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. While successful with audiences – the opera was taken-up again twice in the following seasons – it was strongly attacked by two critics who had given themselves the role of defending the avantgarde in Holland: Hans Heg in De Volkskrant and Hans Reichenfeld in the NRC, these were (and still are) the two most important newspapers in the country. The language was so rude, that something of a scandal erupted, with the Composers Guild organizing a special meeting to discuss this attack, and to think of something that could be done (nothing came out of it). Main complaints: eclectic, derivative, bad, pretentious, a dragon, only clichees, no drama, says nothing, no style, no personality, the thing fell flat on its own foul beak (!), embarrassing, yawningly boring, irrelevant – in short: not contributing to modern music. The work was not disqualified with real arguments but simply attacked in hate: it HAD to go down, whatever the National Opera was thinking themselves and whatever success it had with audiences. But the succes was also a result of the music being rooted in traditional dynamics without (let it be stressed) copying them, it sounds like a mixture of Berg, Britten and Stravinsky (roughly indicated), and is effective and expressive: the singers do really SING, either in arioso or in parlando. If the piece were performed nowadays, nobody would have any complaints and just enjoy the work. Kox was shocked about the attacks and withdrew from his post at the Concertgebouw, knowing that he had become a ‘barrier’ to ‘avantgarde programming’ at the orchestra. There was much publicity about modern music in those days and in the seventies the Concertgebouw Orchestra began indeed to perform international avantgarde music like Boulez and Maderna.
Kox, whose music is serious, was considered ‘pretentious’ while the Nutcracker music was so much more playful, like Schat’s ‘To you’ with indeterminate noises and gigantic hummingtops, specially built for the occasion – the time of the hippies, Amsterdam ‘happenings’, etc. In the seventies Kox’ reputation sank dramatically, and in the eighties he seems to have disappeared: hardly any performances or commissions. Konrad Boehmer has confirmed that the attacks in the media by Reichenfeld and Heg were a political way of settling scores: to get Kox out of the way, especially since he had been appointed at the most important orchestra of the country which, in the eyes of the avantgarde, had been neglecting modernism already for so long. According to Boehmer, Hans Heg “…. was the mouthpiece of the people who wanted to take over power in the ‘modern music scene’; in this way Hans Kox was, in an unspoken process, declared dead. If you don’t have a place abroad, you are dead indeed.” It was all political, and typical of a country where there is not much space – small country – and where there is a strongly conformist tendency.
In the nineties however, with the erosion of the stronger modernist ideologies, Kox got rediscovered and began to get performances and commissions again. Gradually, Kox’ music returned to music life, his Anne Frank Cantata became an important item on the annual commemoration ceremonies of WW II. Kox was asked to take-on a teaching post at the Conservatory in Utrecht, where his collegue Joep Straesser, a moderate and mediocre modernist composer, did everything he could to make Kox feel that he should not be there teaching young people – just a personal obsession of jealousy but with the avantgarde ideology in the background and used as an instrument of defamation. His other collegue, Tristan Keuris, a very successful composer in spite of his rather tonal style, was also very critical of Kox, for being too oldfashioned. Kox wore a jacket and a butterfly while Keuris sported jeans, a wildly anarchic hairdo and demonstrated his artistic independence by chain-smoking. A student of Kox who did not adhere to the avantgarde norms when he did his final exam, caused a scandal by writing expressive music, which led to protests from Kox’ collegues which was supported by the director Ton Hartsuyker who was a loud advocate of ‘renewal’ and ‘avantgarde’, so the result was that Kox left the conservatory. And so on and so forth…. but Kox wrote a couple of big cantatas which were performed and had a strong success with audiences, in a style reminiscent of Britten and Shostakovich but more dissonant and irregular. Of course this cemented his negative reputation in the modern music establishment. His violin concertos were audience successes (3rd: in 1993, releasd on CD). In 1998 many performances of Kox’ music, even an entire festival by the Netherlands Philharmonic, which was very successful… I was there and I was very impressed by the quality and variety of the music. He continued to write symphonies which were performed with success, under David Porcelijn and Jaap van Zweden. The Concertgebouw Orchestra performed his music in 2005, also there was a symphony played by the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and positive reviews: the music finally seemed to have ‘arrived’ and ‘understood’. Sporadically, there were orchestral performances abroad in Scotland and Australia by David Porcelijn.
Gradually interest dissipated again in the last years, and nowadays it is silent again around Kox, with only a handful of chamber concerts occasionally in unimportant venues, by dedicated players and a small but loyal audience. What happened? Over the last years, government subsidy cuts have created havoc in Dutch music life, with the result that contemporary music has hardly any venue of importance left, orchestras no longer want to spend expensive rehearsel time on complex new music like Kox’, and the Dutch ‘new music scene’ has spread into a delta of insignificant and amateurisch small-scale fiddling-around where pop, world music and quasi-hip set the tone. The national Fund for the Performing Arts only funds this un-serious noise, including amateur student commissions, and that means that serious new music has no longer interest and commissions.
But Holland needs a ‘grand old man’ of music and that has become Louis Andriessen, who has managed to get performed abroad, although it has to be admitted that the type of audience which likes his music is NOT the classical music audience but the people who have pop in their ears and like to feel that they do something cultural by attending concerts with this oldfashioned sixties-hip, which I personally find a perfect example of kitsch and very outdated – in the wrong way. The students coming to Andriessen to be instructed in his personal brand of antibourgeois kitsch are often, typically, angry young women from the American Mid-West who have some axes to grind with the classical world of music. Kox wrote and writes for the central performance culture, and the Netherlands could indeed have their grand old man, but they don’t see it. (Louis Andriessen got a commission to celebrate the recent jubilee of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, but it ended in disaster, Janssons not liking the piece at all, the players not liking their parts at all, and Andriessen angry because his anti-bourgeois teenage message referring to High Culture of past ages in sixties garb, was ‘not understood’.) If people had been more tolerant, pluralist, less ideological and more musical at the time, Kox could have florished and could have made the leap abroad, instead of all the subsidies who supported Andriessen with, for instance, a whole weekend festival in London which fell flat but which was paid for by the ‘bourgeois’ Dutch tax payer. Most of the money went into these flop music events instead of to the real talents of the country. I once spoke with the promotion manager of the national new music publisher Donemus, who travelled around the world to ‘sell’ Dutch new music to festivals, ensembles and orchestras (with lots of subsidy of course), and he admitted that this music had internationally a bad name – so, even in international new music circles, the Dutch variety did not find a welcoming ear – and why? It was exactly the ‘established’ avantgarde music, as advocated by the Nutcrackers, which was taken along in the little briefcase. This man never took Kox’s scores with him. Meanwhile, this much-subsidized publishing house has entirely collapsed, when a hughe financial scandal came to light – a story in itself – and subsidies completely cut. The core of the business was rescued by a courageous employee who now runs Donemus as an independent, non-subsidy business, and successfully so – because of not being influenced by ideology but looking at the market.
So: up and down, up and down again, and now Kox is a very old man with a very large oeuvre, locked-up in a populist small country with a cultural scene that does not like the real, serious stuff, and which struggles with ever decreasing funding. In short: contemporary music life has more or less dried-up and only the central performance culture is still walking, if only on one leg. For Kox’ s work, there are no longer any perspectives in The Netherlands.
Once, I myself had to take this national music fund into court to get paid for a commission by an excellent ensemble, and I won and lost in the same time: I was proven right in my claims that I was treated abyssmally badly, that it completely failed to meet the minimum requirements of professional care, but the court found that the fund did NOT have to pay me, for mysterious reasons. I took the case into the Supreme Court in an appeal procedure, and this court simply retroactively changed a deadline for sending-in documents with unrefutable assessments by a.o. Roger Scruton, as to protect the fund from rightful claims. In this way, music life in Holland is run. Fortunately, I no longer need Holland for my work, having my performances and commissions abroad (in June: premiere by the Hong Kong Phil under Jaap van Zweden, October: UK premiere of my String Trio in King’s Place, London, and something coming-up in Vienna), and I hope to make a name for myself outside Holland also to be able to do something for the music of Hans Kox which I consider of great value and an important contribution – especially because he demonstrated that a 20C composer can be entirely modern without rejecting the tradition, quite an achievement.
In general, Kox’ career reflects the gradual erosion of the musical landscape in Holland towards the desert which is its condition nowadays. His initial entirely deserved reputation was broken by ‘avantgarde’ and its advocates, he was the ‘enemy of progress’, he was rediscovered, and forgotten again – and where are we now? Dutch music life has turned into a desert and of those avantgardists nothing has remained, and institutions for new music have sunk to an embarrassing amateurisch level. Kox has been one of the maybe 3 or 4 really greatly talented composers of the Netherlands, and has paid a hughe price for his individualism. But I am convinced that much of his music will survive somewhere in the future, in spite of the extreme narrow-mindedness of a small and populist country. Mind you, in England for instance, there always has been space for more traditionalist composers, in spite of Birtwistle etc. In France, there was Dutilleux in spite of PB, and nowadays Bacri, Beffa and Connesson. In Holland, that has not been possible.
This story is interesting because it shows what happens when modernism is strongly supported by the state. There was much subsidy for new music from the seventies onwards, which gave the ‘avantgarde’ the freedom to play-act the revolutionary game, against the bourgeoisie but with its money, so: completely fake. And they tried their best to cut down the colleague who was so much more talented then they were, and who never did them any harm.