Tristan Keuris

Tristan Keuris


• 1946 1996


Tristan Keuris was an accomplished composer who resisted many of the musical fashions of the later 20th century, instead writing in a style more inspired by the late Romantics. Along with Otto Ketting he was one of the chief contributors to the modern Dutch classical repertoire.

Keuris was born in Amersfoort, the Netherlands, and began playing flute, recorder and piano all before he turned ten. Soon after he began composing, and was so productive that by the age of thirteen he had an opus count of more than 40, including two symphonies. At this point still largely self-taught in composition, Keuris finally began studying at an Amersfoort music school in 1960, where he took theory lessons with Jan van Vlijmen and composition with Ton Hartsuiker, a fan of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique.

Although he was expelled from high school due to his large number of absences, Keuris was still able to attend the Utrecht Conservatory and study with Ton de Leeuw, another serialist. Although Keuris did delve heavily into these techniques and even wrote some pieces inspired by serialism, including his 1967 compositionKwartet for orchestra, in the end he largely rejected the trend, preferring to concentrate on his other influences such as Mahler and Stravinsky. However, serial music did clearly inform his compositional style, and he had much to say about the subject, calling the twelve-tone technique “a wonderful tool… but the first good dodecaphonic piece has yet to be written” and also stating that he is not “against atonality, but I don’t know how to build large-scale pieces with it.” In taking this view he distinguished himself from many of his contemporaries, including several of his teachers.

After graduating from the Utrecht Conservatory in 1969 with the Composition Prize, Keuris remained at the school as a professor. In the next few years he continued developing his own compositional voice, often flitting wildly between styles and genres. HisChoral Music I (1969) bore a heavy tonal influence, while Saxofoonkwartet was what Keuris himself described as “a wild piece… intentionally ugly and rough,” and marked a deliberate attempt to distance himself from his teachers.

However it was not until 1974 that Keuris completed his Sinfonia for orchestra , which would be his breakthrough composition. Ironically he described it as a “rather weak piece,” and although many critics seemed to partially agree with him, audiences warmly welcomed the work. TheSinfonia, which won the Matthijs Vermuelen prize in 1975, was largely tonal and accessible, rejecting the prevailing avant garde movement and positioned Keuris as a staunch neo-Romantic. In doing so it directly addressed one of the primary sources of cognitive dissonance in 20th century composers: the tension between making their music accessible and making it modern. InSinfonia and many of his later work, Keuris demonstrated a unique way of reconciling these two extremes, never explicitly rejecting any of the possible options but rather creating a unique synthesis with equal respect for the 19th and 20th century traditions.

The success brought about from Sinfonia resulted in a slew of new appointments and compositions, with increasingly international commissions including ones from the Houston Symphony Orchestra and the BBC. In 1974 Keuris began teaching music theory and composition (which he enjoyed equally) in Groningen and three years later in Hilversum. In the 1980s he accepted full-time positions at the prestigious Conservatories in both Utrecht and Amsterdam, which he would hold until his death.

Meanwhile, his opus count continued to grow, including the work Capriccio (1980), scored for twelve winds and double bass and commissioned by the Johan Wagenaar Foundation, and two works commissioned by the Nieuw Ensemble,Piano Concerto and Eight Miniatures. In 1981 Keuris was honoured with a commission to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the world-renowned Concertgebouw Orchestra, for which he composedMovements, stating the goal of the work was “to let the orchestra sound as ‘natural’ as possible.” The Concertgebouw Orchestra played this piece, along with Keuris’ Piano Concerto (1980) the following year in a tour of the U.S., after which he was awarded the City of Hilversum Culture Prize.

In 1991 Keuris was chosen to represent the Netherlands in the Rassegna Europea di Musica Contemporanea, a Europe-wide survey of classical composers. Keuris’ entry,Antologia, would go on to be premiered posthumously by the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2008, and released on the live recording Horizon 3, which featured works by other Dutch composers Mayke Nas, Michel van der Aa and Otto Ketting. Interestingly, Keuris at first expressed disappointment with the piece, an unfortunate habit he seemed perennially predisposed to. Speaking of his 1989 pieceIntermezzi, which received overwhelmingly positive reviews, Keuris once said, “Rarely have I worked on a piece with such distaste only later to find it so delightful.”

Symphony in D (1995) continued in Keuris’ convention of giving his works classically-inspired titles, a practice which irritated many of his contemporaries who were interested in making a clean break with the past. As the title suggests, the piece was, in terms of form and texture, very traditional in nature. Written during the illness which would claim his life just one year later, Symphony in D still shows no evidence of a decline in his mental facilities, and can be ranked among his masterpieces.

Throughout his career, Keuris seemed unafraid of what, to many of his contemporaries, was the ultimate offense: being unoriginal. Instead his priority was always just to create the highest quality music possible, and do it in the way that he knew best. The composer at one point stated that he “imitated a number of people, and I did it consciously. Anything I thought was beautiful, I wanted to be able to do myself – and that’s still true.” Along the way, he was able to (perhaps unintentionally) create some of the most accessible and unique music to come from 20th century Holland.

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