A talented radical who became a masterful traditionalist

30 Oct 2019

Written by: Bas van Putten

Translated by: Mike Wilcox

Published in: De Groene Amsterdammer

“Composer Theo Verbey was a talented radical who became a masterful traditionalist, one of the greatest craftsmen Dutch music has ever known

“Theo Verbey was rightly heralded in the 1980s as one of the most talented young Dutch composers. His earliest pieces, including Aura (1985) and Inversie (1987) for ensemble, and Expulsie (1988-1990) for large ensemble, were as rigorous as their titles, music Boulez-like in its inaccessible complexity. Restless, modernistic, highly intellectual art produced by a young man bent on knowing how many balls he could keep in the air, with the ecstatic melancholy of a capacity on the border of imagination. In the third and fourth movements of Expulsie, you hear that brain piling up layered, multi-part harmonic sections, an incredible experience for those hearing it. He talked about fractals, mathematical principles of structure in self-replicating figures of sound. Early photographs of Verbey show an introverted nerd turning away from the camera.

He grew tired of this cold discipline in the 1990s. There was too much culture in him for him to ignore the past. He decided “to write more simply”. The gestures in Expulsie are already becoming more traditional and, in Triade (1991), the old triad appears on parade. In later pieces, Verbey did indeed become more traditional, a composer of ‘normal’ orchestral works and solo concertos. Nonetheless, more appears to have remained from the past than his critics, and perhaps even he himself, realised. There was no sudden change of style. The nervous density remained, the mathematics of a DNA rooted in euphony. Fractal Symphony and the Fractal Variations for string orchestra appeared in 2004 and 2005. From then on, his enormous knowledge of the entire history of music could be heard in his orchestral works; he embraced that history in his transcriptions as well. His orchestral arrangement of Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata Op. 1 became well-known, featured by conductor Riccardo Chailly on concert programmes all over the world and recorded by him for Decca Records. Verbey also transcribed Bach, Berg, Mussorgsky, Scriabin, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky.

And, 21 years ago, I had to interview this wizard. Acquaintances assured me that he did not wear his heart on his sleeve. I learned something of the bouts of depression he had suffered from. He turned out, though, to be a great person to interview who, in an extraordinarily restrained way, was open about the struggle with his life and his place in the world. Someone else might have gone on and on without actually revealing anything; Verbey gave a detailed explanation why he preferred keeping the door locked. “There are lots of things in your life that you should keep to yourself. I’ve gone through difficult periods, and there’s something comforting in being able to share your troubles with someone who nods understandingly and confirms how awful it all was. For me, though, it’s never so interesting to listen to other people; I’ve no desire to join in with this ‘human-interest’ fad.”

That was all; now on to the art. I have seldom heard someone give such a precise and conscientious account of themselves. Together we went through the complex score of his orchestral piece, Alliage (1997). Proud, imploring music of a faultless kind, unstoppable in its rhythmical compulsion, that few Dutch composers had in them. Surging with life, as restrained as its maker, not the sort of art that burps or tells smutty jokes.

He worked on it for five years. He fell ill after the first sketches and was out of action for a long time. When he recovered, he couldn’t identify himself in the original inception any longer. So he started anew, a courageous act in view of the size and density of the piece. “I’m not fanatical about my own music so I don’t find it difficult to look at my own notes from a distance. I couldn’t have said that a few years ago, but now I really like that distance.”

What an extraordinarily pleasant, cultured person he was. So pleasant that you tended not to notice those harsh pronouncements of his about Stockhausen’s personality, Mahler’s exhibitionism, the megalomania of Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School, with what he considered its public lie, the “idea of progress as an historical necessity”, the belief in which he had lost.
I think he just found it hard to deal with bragging. “I do realise that we have to go further, but the good thing is that we can go in any direction. And also more particularly, because over the last years I’ve started to see serialism as an interesting footnote to the achievements of the Second Viennese School, and that actually it’s only now that a healthy situation has come about, namely that you no longer know what you should be about.”

This was how he continued to be himself at a constantly high level in the vacuum of a post-historical musical age, anchored in the omnipotence of his craft, “letting himself be carried along a little by the wind”, sublimating his deepest emotions in that beautiful, unshakeable order. I still know nothing about him, and that is as it should be. An artist should only exist in his work. In a short YouTube film about his beautiful Traurig wie der Tod for choir and orchestra (2015), parts of which are very traditional, Verbey says: “I think it could be really important at the moment to step back in time and give some thought to how we now relate to the world from the relative peace and prosperity of the Netherlands, while the chaos all around us just becomes greater.” Four years later, the soft-voiced master quietly bade life farewell. What a terrible loss for art and for his family and friends.”