John Borstlap: a revival of classicism


John Borstlap is one of the first composers who successfully tried, after the period of modernism, to restore  pre-modernist European compositional practice, not with the aim to merely copy styles of the past, but to find a personal and thus, new interpretation of the tradition from which they stem. New music which does not deny traditional performance practice, can rejuvenate the repertoire and help keeping the central performance culture alive where only repeating the ‘safe’ repertoire could lead to stagnation and decreasing audience interest.

After early experiments in free atonality, influenced by Schönberg (Trois Préludes, 1969, for piano solo), John Borstlap explored fresh tonal possibilities in the short orchestral piece Invocazione (1972) and a Violin Concerto (1974) after the stimulating encounter with the music of Karol Szymanowski. Piano works such as the introvert, short Sonata (1975), the etherial Avatâra (1980) and the classicist Variations for piano and strings (1981) marked the steps on a path towards a musical language which uses tonality and the classical vocabulary very freely, at times in an organically developed polyphonic structure. In the exquisite songs, Six Chinese Poems (1982), a more lyrical and exotic side of the composer can be heard.

A year at Cambridge University (England) led to three works in which John Borstlap identified even more strongly with pre-modern music: Fantasia (1985) for piano solo, based upon a theme from Franz Liszt’s short piece ‘Unstern’, Paraphrase for ensemble (1985) and the virtuoso Sinfonia for chamber orchestra (1988). In this last work, motivic development in the sense of Schönberg’s concept of ‘developing variation’ covers a stilistic territory reaching from Brahmsian diatonicism to expressionist chromatic dissonance, a fragile combination held in check by a carefully laid-out formal balance and a strong forward direction.

In a sequence of chamber music works, Hyperion’s Dream (1992) for ‘cello and piano, Night Music (1993) for viola and piano, and Capriccio (1994) for violin, horn and piano, John Borstlap combined the intimacy of a psychological narrative with further exploration of symphonic structure and classicism. Capriccio and Hyperion’s Dream were initially conceived as orchestral music, and were indeed worked-out for symphony orchestra in 2002 and 2009 respectively. Hyperion’s Dream became Symphony nr II in the process.

In his String Trio (1996) and String Quartet (‘Traum, Lenz, Verwandlung’, 1997), John Borstlap focused upon the Viennese classical forms, combining classical triadic language with early-20C chromaticism and floating tonality. The resulting musical tapestry, which weaves these different elements together, gives new meaning to the forms associated with early classicism.

For the symphonic poem Psyche (1999), John Borstlap’s point of departure was an unfinished sketch by Wagner of a work based on Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Wagner’s theme is one of four which are developed in a free and complex network of motivic references, occasionally bordering on impressionism and expressionism, but finding repose in a slow apotheosis worthy of its initial inspiration.

The song cycle Rajanigandha (2005-08) was composed, with many interruptions, over a long period, and is based upon love poetry by the Indian author and mystic Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). The seven songs are scored for soprano, flute and piano; a version (of four songs) for soprano and chamber orchestra followed in 2008 (Four Tagore Poems). The richly-ornamented textures, and the combination of goal-directed chromaticism and modal melodic lines give this music a distinct flavour and dreamy quality which does justice to the text.

Borstlap’s opera Flucht nach Kythera (2007) is a short musical monodrama, scored for soprano, chamber choir and chamber orchestra. Here, an expressive and lyrical idiom is applied in a through-composed symphonic texture, carrying the voice in a psychologically varied narrative.

In 2012, a Serenade was finished, a work commissioned by the Jacques Thibaud Ensemble Berlin. In this almost entirely diatonic piece, a more light-hearted tone refers to earlier works in the genre where ‘Spielfreudigkeit’ shows the more accessible side of classicism. The piece is scored for flute, violin, cello and piano.

In the spring of 2013, John Borstlap finished his Symphony nr III, commissioned by the Kammersymphonie Berlin and due to be premiered in 2017-18. In this work, in a more or less classical idiom, the symphonic idea as envisaged at the end of the 18th century is interpreted from a stylistic point of view closer to the beginning of the 20th century, which enlarges the tonal territory while keeping the thematic dialectic intact.

In 2014, the well-known conductor Jaap van Zweden initiated a commission, shared by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra which resulted in Feierliche Abendmusik (Solemn Night Music), successfully premiered in March (Dallas) and June (Hong Kong) 2016 by the mentioned orchestras under Van Zweden. In this meditative work, a collection of interrelated motives unfolds in diverse variations, including a development section, synthesizing both classical and romantic elements.

Summer 2016


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