Theo Verbey (1959 – 2019) created euphonic music following strict mathematical principles

22 Oct 2019

Written by: Guido van Oorschot

Translated by: Mike Wilcox

Published in: De Volkskrant

“There was a remarkable paradox about the Dutch composer, Theo Verbey: he wrote music according to the strictest mathematical principles but his audience simply heard beautiful sound. It has been announced that Verbey died on 13 October at the age of 60, three days after the Dutch premiere of his orchestral work, After the Great War. He had been ill for some time and his funeral was held in private.

Verbey was not considered a prodigy although he did write his first piece at the age of seven. He studied music theory followed by composition at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague under Jan van Vlijmen and Peter Schat. Verbey shot to fame in 1993 when the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and its chief conductor, Riccardo Chailly, programmed a student work of his, a sumptuously coloured orchestration of Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata Op. 1.

And there we have the second paradox around Theo Verbey: critics were generally respectful in their praise of his compositions but kept their rave reviews for when he used his skills in instrumentation to make other people’s music shine. In 2009, he supplied a masterly completion to Igor Stravinsky’s Les Noces, or at least to the forgotten ‘folksy’ version of this village wedding piece, which includes the use of the pianola and cimbalom and which Stravinsky himself left unfinished.

In his early years, Verbey was in step with his composer colleagues. He wrote pieces for specialist groups such as the Nieuw Ensemble and the Asko Ensemble. His music sounded clear and was always balanced; and he never shunned beautiful melody. He increasingly often used fractal mathematics, with recurring numerical relationships similar in every detail. “It sounds hugely complex”, wrote de Volkskrant [newspaper] about Verbey’s Fractal Symphony in 2005 – only to go on to compare the composer to an architect who, after unfathomable hocus-pocus, finally ends up with a little farmhouse.

Mild-mannered Verbey was not the man to complain about such teasing. He was admired for what he could do and had no lack of work. Just a few short weeks ago, he delivered the score of what now appears to have been his last work, the orchestral piece Ariadne. This fact will give a melancholy feel to its world premiere by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on 30 January.”