John Borstlap: a revival of classicism
John Borstlap is one of the first composers who successfully tried, after the period when modernism was dominant, 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. ‘Classicism’ in the vision of John Borstlap is a term embracing many different styles and approaches and not one single way of interpretation; it is a progressive idea in the way Antiquity offered comparable ideas for Renaissance culture, and comparable with the ‘new classicist movement’ in contemporary architecture which is increasingly seen as a way towards a sustainable and aesthetically better way of creating the human environment.
Is the idea of a new classicism compatible with modern times? As JB says himself: ‘What I am doing is comparable with what the architect Léon Krier is doing in architecture and urban planning: reviving older, humanist traditions for the present and the future. This is not something conservative, but in contrary a very modern theme and typical of this century when restoration of the best of the past and connecting with nature have become important subjects, because we have seen the destructive side of unthinking, one-sided modernity. It’s entirely modern 21C music, already pioneering with current civilisational themes since the seventies: back to nature and human nature, that is: tonality and humanist values. And it’s produced from endurable sources, and is itself very durable… it does not exhaust the listening experience after one performance but will enrich the experience with every time it is played.’
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. A thorough exploration of the operas of Richard Strauss and of Schönberg’s First Chamber Symphony opened the way to a more classicist handling of expression, tonality and structure, even going-back to the Viennese classicism of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
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 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, poet 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. 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.
On the back of the success of Feierliche Abendmusik, a second violin concerto: Dreamscape Voyage, was written in 2020-2021, as a shared commission by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, a first première performed by the Hong Kong Philharmonic in November 2022 with soloist Jing Wang, also under Jaap van Zweden. This second concerto, in one movement, was inspired by Chinese silk painting and poetry from the Tang dynasty. The music does not attempt at ‘Chinese style’ but tries to capture something of the fleeting but precise nature of Chinese ancient painting in a Western musical language. The focus is not on virtuosity but on the expressive and lyrical qualities of the violin – this instrument closest to the human voice – in relation to the many colours of the symphony orchestra.
For scores, please contact:
Donemus Publishing BV
2280 GB Rijswijk
Tel: + 31 (0) 70 89 17 996
Director: Davo van Peursen
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Manager New Titles, Rentals/Sales: Aleksandra Markovic Ph.D.
* * * * *