Programme notes for De Nederlandse Opera (1999).
Writing to Vermeer
Every Dutch history book tells us that the year 1672 was the Year of Disaster. France, England, and the
German bishoprics of Münster and Cologne declared war against the Dutch and conquered large parts of
the country. The dikes were breached, and the Prince of Orange retreated behind the water defence line
around the western province of Holland. Trade and industry came to a standstill. The country was
irredeemable, its government was desperate, and the people lost their senses. The so-called 'Eerste
Stadhouderloze Tijdperk' (the 'First Stadtholderless Era') began in 1651, when the States General resolved
not to appoint a successor to Stadtholder William II and subsequently passed a law against the appointment
of another member of the House of Orange as a stadtholder. It was brought to an abrupt end when the enraged
mob in The Hague lynched the statesman who had skilfully steered the Republic through this period, Johan
de Witt, and his brother Cornelis.
No more than ten miles away, the painter Johannes Vermeer was working away in his house near Delft's
Grote Markt market square, producing carefully balanced compositions that betrayed nothing of the political
turmoil surrounding him. The domestic scenes, of which no more than thirty are still extant, portray a cosy
peace and tranquility, intimate indoor scenes, symbolic domesticity, all illuminated by a cool, almost
ethereal springtime luminescence that is a far cry from the glowing and disturbing avant-garde ochre hues
and ominous shadows found in the work of Vermeer's contemporary, Rembrandt. Insofar as Vermeer's paintings
have a dramatic dimension, it is a spiritual one, and the viewer might well wonder what it is that the
letters, which appear in his paintings time and again like a leitmotif, actually say.
Director Peter Greenaway, who has pursued his obsession with the written word in his films, used this
reflective question as the starting point for Writing to Vermeer. His libretto
is based on nothing more than a series of fictitious letters addressed to Johannes Vermeer from three women:
Vermeer's wife Catharina Bolnes, his mother-in-law Maria Thins, and the young model Saskia a fictional
character created by Greenaway himself.
Writing to Vermeer is an opera without drama, in stark contrast to Rosa, the last of
Greenaway's opera collaborations with Louis Andriessen, in which Greenaway stacked up the most extravagant
visions. Writing to Vermeer is not even about a two-way correspondence. The narrative is kept to the
bare minimum: Saskia the model is summoned back to Dordrecht by her father in order to be married off, and
at the end of the opera she returns to her true love in Delft. The tone of the letters, however, is dominated
by small, domestic events.
'Initially, Greenaway envisioned the opera as a small-scale work, almost a chamber piece', the composer
Louis Andriessen explains. 'I then suggested that it might be possible to make the piece more large-scale
while still retaining a sense of intimacy. We could provide 'windows' that break into the domesticity and
serenity of Vermeer's home life, and thus allow the viewer to see what was really going on in the world at
the time, in the same way the painter Lucio Fontana slashes his canvasses with a knife. This did not
necessarily have to be violent, but that often turned out to be the case.'
At these points Andriessen's music is also 'slashed', by an electronic soundtrack realizcd by the young
composer Michel van der Aa.
Andriessen alludes to music by other composers in Writing to Vermeer, as he does in
almost all his compositions. The temporal proportions and the tempi of the six scenes are modelled on a
picec by John Cage, the Six melodies for violin and piano dating from 1950. 'When I first saw the
libretto I was immediately struck by its formal coherecnce,' Andriessen explains. 'The Cage work also has
six sections of approximately the same length, all based on the same material, and there is no dramatic
Andriessen noticed that the six sections of the composition by Cage are based on the temporal ratios
7:7:8:8:6:8. He imitated this temporal arrangement, but multiplied the durations by a factor of nine.
'Then you're practically done,' Andriessen jokes. 'And the rest is just
a question of filling in. As Rodin said: "That sculpture has been locked away in there for a long time.
You've just got to chip away at it and then it appears."' .
This method of working is nothing new
for Andriessen. For example, the first part of De Materie paraphrases a Bach prelude, and the last
section of De Trilogie van de Laatste Dag (The Trilogy of the Last Day) is a 'blow-up' of the Danse
macabre by Saint-Saëns. These constructions are an homage that the listener does not perceive
whatsoever. Andriessen only refers to Cage's music in an audibly perceptible way when he quotes the opening
of the Six melodies at the start of Writing to Vermeer.
During the composition proccss, Andriessen decided to incorporate another Cage structure by subdividing
the third and fourth scene into two times eight little sections, which is an outline derived from the
Sixteen dances, another piece by Cage dating from 1950.
These subsections last as long as the corresponding sections of the Six melodies. The sparse
instrumental accompaniment is punctuated by silences that reflect Cage's idiom, and Andriessen also paid
tribute to Cage by using an aleatoric composition technique: 'I even went out and bought two dice, because I
really wanted to perform the act of throwing them,' Andriessen says. 'I had a list with eight segments of
music and eight rests of different durations, and then I just threw the dice and saw what came out.'
However, Andriessen did allow himself the freedom to transpose his little 'chunks' to any pitch level he
'The decision to incorporate the structure
of the Sixteen dances in this way was a result
of Andriessen's adoption of a mirror form
for the music, a reference to the mirrors and windows in Vermeer's paintings. The point of reflection is at
the exact centre of the work, between the third and the fourth scene. At this pivotal point, the music turns
back on itself, but with a certain dcgree of flexibility. Andriessen elaborates: 'Palindromic forms are a
very old compositional technique. You already come across them in the work of fifteenth- and
sixteenth-century composers such as Josquin and Ockeghem, and Schoenberg has taken it
further in the twentieth century. However, I think that strict retrograde, where all the notes return in
reverse order, rarely works well: it is not recognizable for the listener. 'That is why
I decided not to apply the retrogression so strictly: I always made sure that the notes
return in recognizable groups or motifs. The sequence of these little groups is reversed, so
it is more a structural reflection than a literal mirror image.'
Andriessen is anything but rigid in his interpretation of the notion of 'reflection'. Each scene opens
with an instrumental overture, a reference to the sinfonia of the Baroque era. The fourth scene is the
exception because it sits at the 'point of reflection', but the overture returns at the start of the fifth
and the sixth scene.
More importantly, the music of the second 'reflected' half undergoes a gradual dramatic transformation.
'That was the biggest experiment for me,' Andriessen says. 'In the first three scenes, the female characters
barely react to the interruptions, but then the melodies become much more chromatic than the content of the
text might actually suggest. The intention is that you begin to sense that the women are in fact rather
involved with the world around them, and that the fears and concerns we all share begin to resonate in their
singing. In other words, the reflection primarily applies to the purely musical material, but not to the
emotional content of that same material. There is a certain degree of contradiction between the
non-developmental stasis in the music of Cage and the dramatization of the music. This antithesis is in fact
the area that has preoccupied me for twenty years, ever since De Tijd.'
There are no vocal parts for men in Writing to Vermeer the three female soloists are flanked
by children's voices and a female choir so the music generally occupies the higher registers.
Andriessen: 'Now and again there is a resounding bass note that is one of my fetishes but the
parts using the bass register are, on the whole, fairly modest. I have attempted to make the instrumentation
what I call a 'Polaroid snapshot of a Baroque orchestra'. I sought the advice of Monica Germino, a Bartók
violinist, as well as the Baroque violinist Lucy van Dael. That was extremely useful. I came to the conclusion
that I could achieve the sound I wanted by using modern string instruments, but it required the use of certain Baroque playing
techniques, for example a lot of bow, extended phrasing, a minimum of articulation and no vibrato. It should
sound like the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, but then not quite.'
Andriessen coloured the basic sound of the bowed strings with, primarily, string instruments that are
played in a different way: two pianos, two harps, two guitars and a cimbalom. There is also a small wind
section and some percussion.
Alongside Cage there is a second composer whose spectre haunts the music of Writing
to Vermeer, the Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621). It was Greenaway who brought him
to Andriessen's attention, by referring to Sweelinck's variations on Mein junges Leben hat ein End.
Andriessen was surprised to discover that he had already unconsciously used the melody a fairly simple
descending line at the opening of the first scene. Ths prompted him to incorporate other melodies
that Sweelinck had used: the second scene, for example, opens with Ick voer al over Rhijn, the tune of
Est-ce Mars appears in the third scene, followed by the Pavana hispanica in the fourth scene,
and there is a little dance based on the melody of Malle Sijmen at the beginning of the fifth scene.
All these little tunes have, of course, been thoroughly 'Andriessened'. The melody
of Mein junges Leben and the pulsating introduction that the composer has added to Ick voer al over
Rhijn function as important leitmotifs in the opera.
When composing the vocal parts, Andriessen allowed himself to be led by the text to a large
extent: 'The text might not be very expressive, but it is an important guideline for rhythm and tempo. There
is not a system as such, but there is a continuous polemical relationship with the tradition of diatonic
music. Although l do not think it is audibly perceptible from the music, I did often think about Ravel when
I was writing this opera. He is the best example if you are striving to dress simple ideas in a beautiful
and refined way. By far the most important motivation for writing the music in the way I did was my love
for Vermeer's paintings. That is what it is all about, and if you do your very best then perhaps you can succeed in
creating something, albeit an approximation, that is just as beautiful as those paintings.'
(Translation: Andrew May)
See also my Louis Andriessen cartoon
© Frits van der Waa 2007