State patronage for new music in contemporary Holland


(Text of a lecture, held on the conference organized by the Royal Dutch Society for Music History at the University of Amsterdam in November 2010)


Ladies and gentlemen,

In the European past, there was a tradition, a practice, where composers formed a natural part of a network of interrelated exchange, which was reflected in the various funding relationships with church, royal courts and nobility. In those times, there was not much difference between the aims of patrons and those of the composers. In the modern world since the Enlightenment these ties gradually became looser, which offered the opportunity to develop more individual and more daring deviations from traditional practices, until in the last century the composer got divorced from the central performance culture and created a mental space all of his own which was, for musicians, audiences and individual patrons, difficult to penetrate. This gradual change of the relationship between the individual composer and his audience had a strong impact upon the funding of his work: as individual patrons became more rare and more sceptical, the state became the patron of new music, and committees with experts were set-up to make the necessary selections.

The development of modernism since the 2nd world war created the situation, that the composer got financially dependent upon the state and for performances, upon specialised ensembles. But the breach of new music from the central performance culture had a great effect upon its survival. It is important to realize, that both in France and Germany, in spite of all the ravages of war, a cultural consciousness had survived which lend importance to the creation of art as a focus of the country’s cultural identity, which was supposed to have a benign influence upon society as a whole, slowly dripping into the lower levels of the cultural pyramid.

In the Netherlands however, a very different cultural climate had developed. After the glories of 17th century painting, the arts gradually moved towards the margins of the country’s cultural consciousness; in spite of occasional individual achievements, the overall climate can not be called to have been very stimulating for artistic creation. But in the sixties of the last century, a sudden surge of new music activity, born from the need among young composers to find a connection with new movements in Germany and France, i.e. with the then current musical modernism, led to a kind of revolution, with demonstrations, provocative concerts, manifests, ideological pamflets and articles, and a sharp critique of the central performance culture where these new trends were not accepted. Also, campaigning for state funding of new music led to the establishment of the Fonds voor de Scheppende Toonkunst, or the Fund for Creative Composition, which was supposed to solve the problem that in Holland there never had been a tradition of patronage for new music and thus, composers had to seek employment in other jobs to pay their bills and try to compose in their free time.

Now here, I would like to say something about cultural identity of the Netherlands in relation to the arts and specifically, to music. Of course it will be a generalization, but I can assure you that any cultured man or woman, living for some years in Holland, will be able to confirm its general outlines. The Netherlands were born from a liberation war from a superpower, in this case Spain. Being a rich territory and ideally situated at the crossroads of trade traffic networks, it had enough of being bullied and exploited by much bigger and much more ambitious countries, which sported all kinds of ideological cults around monarchs, religions, power spheres and war campaigns. These cults were, to a great extent, reflected in the arts of which the churches and the courts were the main patrons. In the first period of wealth and freedom of the Netherlands, the flowering of painting is especially unusual in its subject matter: it is mostly daily life, the real world, which the viewer could see framed and often elevated to a higher level. Also religious scenes were furnished with people and sights which could be recognized from real life experience, as can be seen from the local Jewish types Rembrandt used for his bible scenes, settled immigrants from Spain and Portugal, who kept to their customs and dress codes. In other words: the subject matter of normal, real life, and not the pretentious historical and allegorical traditions of other European countries were popular, and this idea of the free, wealthy burger, who kept to his real, physical world and who would not be impressed by wild ideologies which only could make a mess of the hard-won orderliness in the towns filled with small, individual houses and canals, this became the fundament of how the Dutchman began to understand himself. Being a young country, also the idea of youth as something with a worth of its own, in contrast with the general notion of youth as immaturity, as a stage to leave behind as soon as possible, became part of Holland’s self-image; there are various travel diaries from past centuries by foreigners who were utterly perplexed by the rude and uncouth behavior of children and teenagers in these lands, jumping around like chimpanzees and looked-upon by their parents with an approving smile. This was not just a lack of civilization, it was an expression of individualist freedom, a liberation from authoritarian rules as were common in those pretentious, dangerous neighbouring countries.

This self-image as a small, but free and individualist, materialist and rather immature country was internalized and survived to this day. Holland is not a country of phantasy, dreams, great passions and ambitions, but of a small-scale, orderly life, where all you see is all you get, where most of the creativity is channelled in organizational skills and material cleverness, and where the inner life is kept carefully indoors. To atone for the wealth, individualism and materialism, the Calvinistic group cult of guilt, sobriety and predestination formed a perfect balance so that one could have it both ways. This group instinct went into modern state bureaucracy which is, in the Netherlands, developed to a level of differentiation and regulation which would have made Soviet-Regimes envious. For the calvinistic mind, music, that is: art music as a high art, is a seduction for not being under theological control, and therefore in the churches only functioning as an accompaniment to the psalms or a pleasant ornament to the service; for the tradesman, it cannot be measured, weight, and produced and sold as spices, weapons and slaves can. The absence of a court culture completes the picture of a kleinbürgerliche society where music is not a serious occupation.

When modernism was introduced in Holland in the sixties of the last century, it was welcomed with open arms by young composers, since it combined a couple of factors which perfectly fitted into the Dutch internalized self-image: it was materialistic, without the romantic idealism of things sublime and aspirational; it required organizational skills; it cultivated the utmost individualism which answered a need to break away from a suffocating social environment; it was strongly anti-traditional and thus, anti-authoritarian. But it could not be traded; and this led to much effort to convince the government that it had a social responsibility to support these young contemporary composers which were totally ignored by the central performance culture. So, eventually in the early eighties the Fonds voor de Scheppende Toonkunst was installed and the constellation of Dutch new music reached its completion: new Dutch music began to be paid for generously so that it became totally independent from the performance culture and could develop a performing circuit of its own in the form of new music ensembles, also funded by the state so that low audience attendance would not negatively influence performance and production.

The Dutch calvinistic element of group control found excellent expression in the structure of the fund: composers of modernist music and programmers of modernist ensembles formed the selection committees, so that the nature of new music could be carefully steered into the direction of which the committee members were the main representatives. There was not a specified artistic programme, or a stilistic guideline laid down as in the former Soviet Union, but a consensus, quickly forming within the new music circuit, made sure that the momentum of musical progress was not lost, by selecting the right composers to be paid for their work.

From this period onwards, many composers developed a type of music in which all the mentioned Dutch characteristics were explored, finding its culmination in the works of Louis Andriessen. Of course there was a certain variety within the subsidized new music, but the boundaries could be detected where composers, who did not feel loyal to modernism and Andriessen-like stilistic elements, were rejected by the selection committees.

It must be said that the presence of a special government funding system for new music is a great thing. It created a community where the ideals of modern music could florisch undisturbed by an indifferent world. But it also had unintended side effects which threw the problems of new music in general, and especially its funding problems, in relief.

To be able to grasp this, we should have a closer look into the structure of the system. The fund worked with 2 forms of funding. First, there was the funding of commissions from music life, i.e. ensembles or solo musicians who wanted a composer to specially write a piece for them. Second, there was a system of stipends, ranging from short term stipends to salaries for longer periods of a couple of years, for which composing plans had to be provided for approval. For both forms of funding, applications had to be assessed: not every application could be honored, and a selection had to be made. For the stipends, only the composer had to apply; for the commissions, the composer as well as a performing body could apply, and in practice this type of application was a combined one. The fund worked with 2 advisory boards of each 3 people, consisting of a composer, a musicologist or someone with comparable qualifications like a music journalist or radio programmer, and a performer related to one of the new music ensembles. Central in the assessment procedure was the notion of artistic quality, which could only be registered on the basis of former works by the composer concerned, since the work relating to the application did not as yet exist. Also factors of laboriousness and performance chances were considered. If the committees advised positively, for assessing the figure of the grant a sophisticated list of possible fees was used, sporting various parameters like duration in minutes and instruments to be used, and thus giving the impression of precise monitoring and definition – although the factors of artistic quality and laboriousness which are very vague and subjective, gave total freedom to the evaluation process. For the long-term stipends, a detailed working plan had to be provided by the applicant composer, which was supposed to make sure that the money would indeed be invested in a correct structure of creative realisation.

Was an application rejected, the applicant could enter an appeal procedure, ask for the assessment details of the advisory board, and try to argue against the advice. Since the general board of the fund, who had to decide about appeals, in practice almost never saw any reason to disagree with its advisory boards, the outcome would be in most cases the same. The then only option open to a rejected composer was taking the fund into court, which was generally shunned since a court of justice looks into the question whether the correct procedure has been followed; in matters of artistic quality, courts do not see themselves sufficiently qualified. In practice, the fund had almost total power over the funding of new music, also because of the absence of comparable funding institutions or foundations.

We can conclude that this type of funding system, which was supposed to free composers to dedicate their time and energies to the creation of music, created something like a mental prison, where the bars consisted of the unwritten norms of the consensus of the new music circuit as represented by the members of the advisory boards. Instead of creating a free space where inspiration could florish, which would have been the original motivation, it created a kind of mild imitation of the former Soviet Union who had its Central Committee to make sure that new music would develop in certain directions. In the Soviet Union the guideline of music for the people was an openly defined government policy; in Holland it was the factor of artistic quality as used by the fund, which could be filled-in according to the consensus of the new music circuit, which determined the boundaries of what was supposed to be relevant and what not. Both means of evaluation rested on flimsy and subjective opinions in terms of personal taste, but they got a centrally-exercised power over funding, and thus over how composers would realise their musical ideas.

Now, we may ask, why would a government install such an elaborate and utterly bureaucratic system for the funding of new music, instead of opting for the obvious, much more practical and simple solution of giving earmarked budgets for commissions and composer-in-residencies to orchestras and ensembles? After all, the creation of music can only florish in a climate of freedom. An answer can be found in the aesthetic position of most new music: it is on the defence, it operates in a more or less seclused circuit, surrounded by indifference. Therefore, a central bullwark defending new music seemed the best way of ensuring its survival. But this solution has also been its weakness. By creating a separate new music circuit, where audience attendance is rather minor, new music in Holland made itself vulnerable to government considerations in which cultural awareness plays no part. From the outside, both from the political sphere and from the position of the central performance culture, new music seems to be – for different reasons – of no importance. And the entwining of interests by placing composers and programmers of new music in the advisory boards, undermined the credibility of the system. In the present climate of government cuts in the Netherlands, art, and especially new art and music, offer an easy prey to the axe, in spite of the relative small figures which are involved – in relation to the national budget.

The installment, in the early eighties, of government funding, was not motivated by an interest in new music but by social considerations, carried by the political left-wing climate of the seventies and later by the general wealth which could easily afford this marginal luxury. Both the indifference of the government to music as a factor defining cultural identity of the nation, and the indifference within the broader, traditional performance practice, added to a general indifference of the broader population to art music, fit in with the typical cultural climate in the Netherlands as it had developed over the centuries.

A tragedy is thus currently unfolding. In its utopian idealism, the funding system had isolated itself from the broader musical world; instead of providing something like a safe haven, it has created a separate, interrelated network of interests, in which music could be funded independently from the hard and often cruel filter of a traditional performance practice; and in its isolation, where composers felt that they had to conform to the artistic consensus of the Dutch new music circuit, it has lost contact with current issues in new music, one of which is a revival of traditionalism, also reflected in new figurative painting and new, classically-orientated architecture. If the Netherlands will continue to turn inward and show their back towards the European integration process, new music will die in this country. If a broader outlook will prevail, the typical Dutch situation for new music will also disappear.

State patronage in the Netherlands of new music will eventually appear to have been a short period of luxury, producing a certain type of typically Dutch music, after which only a European orientation will be an option open to composers in the Netherlands to explore.

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© John Borstlap, 2010


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