New Destinations, New Identifications: A Dutch Pianist Setting Sail to the World of American Music

[Ed. Note: Two months ago we ran a provocative essay by American pianist Jeremy Denk in which he somewhat cheekily suggested that comtemporary American composers should take more cues from Haydn. So it was wonderfully topsy-turvy to subsequently read this essay by Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat who describes finding the harmonic language and color palette of Haydn limited and overly common and instead finds his greatest pleasure in contemporary American music. – FJO]

When the Holland-America Line was established in 1873, Dutch emigrants had a chance to board a ship carrying them to new territories, new adventures, and new explorations. Although this event dates back nearly a century and a half, the deep-rooted bonds between the United States of America and The Netherlands were established even earlier, when the Dutch bought Manhattan in 1626. Nowadays, New Amsterdam is called New York, and The Netherlands have shrunk in size to one of the smallest countries in the world, in contrast to the United States. But a new kind of Holland-America Line transports me: my personal ship is the music of Charles Ives, John Adams and Frederic Rzewski. These composers set sail with me from Holland and have revealed new territories and explorations: their American worlds of sound, emotion, and identification.

Having felt an immediate and natural affinity with more harmony-oriented composers such as Ravel and Debussy from my first piano lessons at the age of seven, I had a harder time as a youngster figuring out the reasons for the generally-accepted genius of earlier European composers such as Mozart and Haydn. Their color palette seemed for me, as a child of the twentieth century, limited to major and minor, and their triadic language seemed overly common. As a result, from my first year at high school, my attention was drawn instead to the jazz sounds of Bill Evans, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett. Those musicians seemed to combine ideal worlds for me: the advanced harmonic climate of French impressionists and Bartók, mixed with a rhythmic drive surpassing even the best beats in pop music. It was a rhythm that was so recognizable for me and seemed so representative of the fast, digital age in which I live.

So I consulted harmony theory books during a summer break from high school. I was convinced that my lack of hearing the originality of the great early masters was a result of not having much knowledge of harmony. Why were the plain chords, melodies and progressions in early classical music perceived as so striking by many people, and why did the music of those jazz musicians sound so different? Admittedly, I had a hard time understanding free-jazz oriented works, but they fascinated me nonetheless. Reading various books, trying to find an answer to these questions through learning about harmony, one paragraph at the end of one treatise quite changed the course of my life. It was a chapter in Nedly Elstak’s Practical Jazz Theory, Book IV on twelve-tone music and serialism, which described the works of Schoenberg and Webern.

The experience of seeing the complex aggregates of notes actually written in a physical score was a thrill. Although my questions about the early classics were not yet answered fully, I sensed that I could identify strongly with the twelve-tone music of the composers of the Second Viennese School. I experienced the paradox of a deeply emotional sound world that was structured and held together by strictly rationalist principles. It felt similar to life in which there is always a struggle between feeling and reasoning. The harmonies and silences in the works of composers such as Webern and Berg struck and touched me, while at the same time their melodic lines were, in my perception, much more intense than I had ever heard in any other music. I was sure that much free jazz was derived from the same principles, and this seemed confirmed by Chick Corea, who told me once in a conversation that he had been inspired by those works also, notably Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata.

I soon decided to study music professionally, as I wanted to discover much more of the world of twentieth-century piano music. So I went on studying works by the great serialists: Boulez, Stockhausen, and others. I listened less to jazz as those new sound worlds took all my attention. However, in my third year of conservatory studies, I felt that some contemporary music, despite its ingenuity, had lost its immediate relationship with daily life. In the meantime I had discovered that early classical music actually had an unusually spot-on balance between its formal structures and its reflection of the extra-musical world. A new musical blow was to come soon at that time, caused by two simultaneous events: reading a chapter in David Burge’s book Twentieth-Century Piano Music, in which some excerpts from Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated! were quoted, and a gift from my piano teacher, the score of Charles Ives’s Three-Page Sonata.

In both works, I found exactly those elements I had started to miss during the years of studying modernist works: direct emotion and rhythm. I will never forget the impact caused by just the sight of the first variation of Rzewski’s work: a completely abstract and seemingly rationalist, Webern-like version of the highly charged emotional opening theme. Two worlds seemed to conflict with each other, yet blended so naturally, causing a strange but moving alienation of the original theme. In the Ives score I saw an enormous exploration of harmony, coming across as a musical outburst of a very passionate personality, combined with a love for ragtime and other vernacular music. In this repertoire, all my musical interests seemed to come together at once.

The discovery of those works led quite immediately to new decisions for me. I wanted to find and work with an important specialist in American repertoire, to explore this new sound world more thoroughly. With a scholarship, I soon left for Chicago (luckily the Holland-America Line ships have been replaced by faster airplanes) to study with the renowned and highly-inspiring pianist Ursula Oppens for almost a year. During my stay, I discovered many more works and composers whose works formed an ideal bridge for me between classical music, modern music, and jazz, such as John Adams, William Bolcom, and John Harbison. In Adams’s works, I found that the combination of very colorful and expressive harmonies with relentless, almost inhuman pulses create musical tensions which were hardly known to me in European music. Two invitations to the Tanglewood Music Center over two consecutive years further broadened my knowledge of American repertoire and gave me the opportunity to work with some fantastic composers of different generations.

Now, a few years later, alongside the more traditional canon of masterworks, American repertoire forms a large part of my concert repertoire. Being a European musician, American repertoire is, in my opinion, exceptional in its open attitude towards the integration of other musical styles. Instead of excluding elements from the classical tradition, it embraces them and makes those influences an integral part of its highly original language. Triadic harmonies and tonality can go hand in hand with serial principles, and dissonances sound stronger than ever, as they do not exclude a simultaneous use of consonances which were long forbidden in European contemporary music. Where this openness has only lately started to trickle slowly through the creative minds of the European musical establishment, it seems to have been a characteristic element of American repertoire from the beginning. As a result, I experience American music generally speaking as exceptionally rich in expression, and rich in its emotional color.

As a pianist, playing the virtuosic works of composers such as Ives, Adams, or Rzewski feels like physically encompassing the world. European classical composers such as Mozart and Haydn generally conveyed their messages through small musical gestures, charged with important rhetorical values; a diversity of American pianistic masterpieces seem to have an expanded communicative impact on present-day ears by the use of the full keyboard range, big chords, exceptional lengths, and orchestral ways of writing, filling the heavens with their sounds

Additionally, while European classical and especially romantic music often appears to have a predilection for sombreness and an unresolved darkness of feeling, much American music seems driven by an omnipresent inner energy to survive and ultimately to prevail. This does not mean that one is necessarily better or more interesting than the other; I just think their dual existence enriches our possibility both as a listener and as a musician to identify ourselves and find inspiration and consolation within these sounds. And there is still a lot more to discover and explore in the world of musical America, so I hope to continue to travel along my personal Holland-America Line for a long time to come.

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Ralph van Raat

Pianist and musicologist Ralph van Raat appears as a recitalist and as a soloist with orchestras in Europe, the Middle-East, Asia and in the United States. His discography includes two CDs of American repertoire for Naxos—with whom he has been an exclusive recording artist since 2006: The Complete Piano Music of John Adams and the 60-minute variation work The People United Will Never Be Defeated by Frederic Rzewski.