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Reputations are strange things. A sour word and all hope of respectability is gone. Composers can be relegated to the dust-heap by the words, informed or not, of a journalistic pundit or semi-scholar. It has taken a hundred years for Lisztís reputation to rise to a tolerable degree and the situation is similar for Charles Alkan. Bernard van Dierenís reputation was simultaneously damaged by early criticism and overzealous praise. His reputation has not yet recovered.

What is one to make of someone about whom this was said:

It is not easy to put on record convincingly in written words one's memories, vivid though they be, of one of the most remarkable artistic personalities of this or of any other age, without seeming fulsome, or to exaggerate in the eyes of those who know nothing of him. For I have no hesitation in saying that such was Bernard van Dieren's intellectual and artistic greatness, so vast the scope and grasp of his prodigious intellect, so profound his knowledge in the most widely diversified and disparate fields, that to find others of his order one has to go to such superhuman men of the Renaissance as Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo Buonarroti. (K.S. Sorabji, ≥Bernard van Dieren,≤ in Mi Contra Fa, p. 149).

Actually, nothing can be made of it, unless we know the music and can have something solid upon which to base our estimations.

Listeners are also informed of the difficulty of hearing van Dierenís voice:

Be warned, van Dieren's music is not of that 'conventional' lyric mainstream - no pastoral singer he. His works, especially the earlier ones, are often marked out by polyphonic complexity...The music is difficult and there is little or nothing of the populist circus about it....his music is of an extraordinary quality in its self confidence and its sense of address only to those who have the steely will to listen over the top of the total absence of any evidence that the composer will curry favour with the listener. (Rob Barnett, Review of ≥Bernard van Dieren COLLECTION,≤ Classical Music on the Web,

What is the difficulty? Perhaps this suggestion will enlighten:

He was an esoteric composer, embracing many different styles, accomplishing extraordinary feats of technical virtuosity, extremely, complex, highly sophisticated and artistic. In fact, one might almost say that there was too much of the artist in him. He was one of those rare examples of a composer where the artist almost stifles the musician. His idealism was such that no sort of practical issue ever seemed to affect the size or scope of his works, with the result that many of them are so complex that they can never hope to receive more than an occasional hearing. (Edward Lockspeiser, ≥Mixed Gallery,≤British Music of Our Time, ed. A.L. Bacharach, p. 197. Published 1946.)

Can it be so hard for a composer to be understood? I donít think so. Generally having a framework of approach assists in solving such issues.

There is a dichotomy in Bernard van Dierenís creative output. I believe that this has a large influence upon the placement of Van Dieren and also that this dichotomy has a serious impact upon his compositional results. Both of these issues present problems for the listener. Either side of the dichotomy has also resulted in negative criticism. But once examined the dichotomy is seen to be false, the listener is likely to be relieved and a great deal of negative criticism is answered.

The Great War is the dividing line and prior to it Van Dierenís music was expressionistic, emotionally charged and evidently strongly Germanic. Thereafter, there was a change and his music took an utterly different direction; a direction that is however somewhat difficult to describe and is without a distinctive catch phrase. This contrast can be discerned in two of his most significant works for piano: The Six Sketches and the Variations. A comparison of these two works will be fruitful for our understanding of Van Dierenís purportedly enigmatic qualities.

Bernard van Dieren did not write a large body of solo piano music, but the Six Sketches must be considered the summit of his achievement. Further, they are one of the most striking contributions to the repertoire of expressionistic manner. Written in 1910 and 1911, though published in 1921, these compositions are as advanced as any works of the time, comparing well with the works of Schoenberg and Busoni. Indeed, the writer Leslie East suggests that the Sketches had an impact on Busoniís compositional manner. (1)

Because of the integration of thematic material between the pieces, they are surely intended to be performed as a set. The first striking feature is a notational one. Van Dieren uses a device associated with Busoni (the Second Sonatina) and later Leo Ornstein and Larry Sitsky, where notes are deemed natural on the page unless they are modified by an accidental. This means that no natural signs are used and the tradition of accidentals applying though a bar is not maintained. Simple though it sounds, it is actually difficult to read at first. But the effect is of a less cluttered score.

The second is the very obvious systematic and thoroughgoing use of cells of musical intervals as the basis of the composition. (2) Busoniís Second Sonatina is designed in this fashion. It is likely that such notions were in the air at the turn of the century, for they have their source too in the works of Brahms, where his use of cells in the violin sonatas, for example, is very extensive. Motivic cells provide a sense of integration as the harmonic palette widened and tonality eventually disintegrated.

The third striking feature is the great virtuosity of the piano writing without recourse to mere superficial brilliance. The difficulties (of hand crossing, density of texture, interweaving of voices, subtitles of voicings) are all motivated by very pure conceptions of musical form and melodic direction. Van Dieren was also a great believer in counterpoint.

But it should be noted that WHAT van Dieren believed to be contrapuntal is not quite the norm. Not merely simultaneous melodies going on for extended periods of time, but gestures rather. Now a movement this way, now a flourish that, all surrounded by some other event. Bernard van Dieren may have espoused a doctrine of long term melodies in contrapuntal array, but for these works under consideration this is simply not the case.

Van Dieren gives a clue to his conception in his book Down Among the Dead Men:

Few things demand more concentrated attention than accurate listening to a complex contrapuntal phrase. No one can follow several melodic lines simultaneously with anything like the completeness that ear and brain permit for a single melody...In any effort to listen contrapuntally, one has to expend most of one's energies in an admittedly exhausting process of rapid elimination and substitution. The total of one's impressions, in fact, depends on the alertness with which one can sustain this constantly changing accommodation and ceaseless readjustment of focus. Bernard van Dieren, Down Among the Dead Men, p. 189.

Finally, in these works there is a very peculiar mood and inner spirituality that is quite different from the expressionism of Schoenberg, the theosophical occultism of Scriabin, or even the mysticism of Busoni. Keeping in mind that the turn of the century through to the 1920s was rife with esoteric activities (The Golden Dawn, Anthroposophy, Theosophy, Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, etc, etc) it is still difficult to place Van Dierenís nature. He is not a mere magical aficionado nor a fringe occultist. It is not unusual for people to have commented upon Van Dierenís remarkable personality, often in terms of the Magus.

After the Great War, as so many creators jettisoned the apparatus and ideals of the previous generation (perhaps out of horror at what that generationís ideas had wrought) Van Dierenís work shifted from the Germanic expressionist to something else. Neither an English pastoralist, nor a folksong aficionado, Van Dieren is sometimes cited as an Italianate composer, seeking the sun-drenched wisdom of the Mediterranean culture. In this he would follow Goethe, Liszt (who lived long in Rome), Nietzsche and Busoni. The thick fogs of the Wagnerian north had become unbearable. Those metaphors are supposed to have musical significations.

Now this may be true and there is much to suggest its rightness. Yet Van Dierenís music hardly seems Italianate in any meaningful fashion. Clearly, the Mediterranean was a vague ideal and not a series of compositional prescriptions. How did those ideals manifest themselves?

The Variations are a further example of Van Dierenís compositional greatness. Yet, on the surface the atmosphere seems cool and the effect calming; this in spite of variations of fantastic vehemence and virtuosity.

What are these cameos variations upon? A brief listening to the theme will not provide a distinct and striking melody, nor obvious harmonic substructure. The music seems rather to wander within a tiny gamut of chromaticism. The sliding and shifting seems almost aimless and if performed slackly might remind us a little too much of the cocktail pianistís limp chromaticisms.

The subsequent variations are hardly more likely to clarify the situation. What is Van Dieren varying and how is he doing it? Without some framework the listener might be lost.

But consider the Sketches: They are based on small cells of ideas, freely manipulated, cross-referenced and contrasted. The cells are actually obvious because of their intervallic pungency and rigour of use. They are intended to help organize the structure, therefore they are clearly audible.

In the Variations, I suggest, Van Dieren is making use of the exact same devices but within a sliding, though tonal, framework and for a completely different purpose. The cells here are manipulated in different ways, not to clarify, but to obscure their genesis. They are operating as hints, suggestions and references to tonality, either to support it, or more usually to undercut it; to Ďcontradict ití as Hans Keller would have said. The cells are never the same, indeed might be hardly recognizable as the same.

The cells are also designed to have the same effect melodically. Not to clarify melody, but to diffuse it, to shatter it; spread it across the piano and to make the combined events a hocket: like the medieval method. These cells combine to form the whole web of sound, which is itself the íover-melodyí.

The listener must step back from the music and hear not the separate events, but rather the entire combination of ideas and processes. Eventually, these will coalesce into the melodic harmonic sweep that seems to have been Van Dierenís ultimate goal.

This is not music for the background, nor for listening while in the car. It is music to investigate, contemplate and ponder. I fear this alone makes the music unusual...

Why did Van Dieren make the shift from expressionist to this rather ill-defined something else (and I have purposefully left it ill defined)?

There are many cases of advanced composers in the pre-Great War years who later turned away from their excesses. Leo Ornstein felt he had reached the uttermost limits beyond which lay madness, Schoenberg turned towards the 12 tone system to give order to his ravings, Stravinsky never returned to the Rite of Springís potent violence. The composers of the Russian avant-garde turned towards folksong, neoclassicism or educational music. In America many composers, like Ruth Crawford Seeger and George Antheil, retreated to folksong or film style music. Thus the withdrawal from creative extremism was not merely a political or even cultural phenomena since it is found in such divergent political and cultural situations, but must represent some profound spiritual meaning. Perhaps Ornsteinís comment is the most germane.

There is a very peculiar feature of Van Dierenís music which must be noted: the harmonic structure is almost uneven and requires careful shaping rhythmically and sonically to work effectively. To merely play Ďin timeí is to do do damage to the movement only implied by the notation. The pianist is required to use subtle changes of tempo to prepare and depart from chords and even within chords balance the pitches for careful voicings. At all times certain notes must be emphasized in order to bring out upper harmonics and clarify voice leading, though never with a hard touch or an accent. Van Dierenís sense of the piano was decidedly old-fashioned: not a percussion instrument, but a singing instrument. It is also likely that his sense of time was not of the modern metronomic variety, but of the older, flexible and to our ears, extreme old-fashioned, style.

Further, as Denis ApIvor has pointed out Van Dieren was not a composer for the piano, but much more significantly a composer for the quartet. Yet, in the Sketches and Variations, Bernard Van Dieren has created impressive keyboard music that deserves recognition.
March 2004 © Gordon Rumson


I would like to thank Kenneth Derus and Adrian Corleonis for their assistance in obtaining rare scores. Also, special thanks to Denis ApIvor for his insights into the music provided to me in tape recorded letters. I am also grateful to Ronald Stevenson for his advice given in a telephone conversation.

End Notes

(1)Leslie East, ĎBusoni and van Dierení, Soundings, Vol. V (1975).

(2) East discusses the use of cells extensively and compares it with Busoniís Sonatina.

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