What are the characteristics of Dutch music

V. Classical music

"The best way to escape the ugliness and stupidity of our time is to immerse yourself in immortal music by Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. What a wonderful world of beauty." This is what the Flemish theologian and philosopher once said Max Wildiers. He doesn't name a Dutchman - but it doesn't matter, except for Italy, the rest of the world is ultimately not considered in this quote. But is there anything 'typically Dutch' when it comes to classical music? Country in this field of music in the shadow of its big European neighbors Germany and France, how can it assert itself there and what can it trump?

De Nederlandsche Opera

While the European neighbors had already developed a strong music theater culture, this was a rather exotic affair in the Netherlands. Until well into the 19th century, almost exclusively foreign companies gave performances. It was not until 1890 that the first Dutch-language opera was presented in Amsterdam. The Dutch Wagner Association was the main initiator and took on the pioneering role until the Second World War. In 1946 the Dutch Opera Foundation was founded, which in the following years performed the usual operas by Mozart, Verdi and Puccini, but also new works by local composers such as Hendrik Andriessen and Ton de Leeuw. From 1971 the field of vision was expanded and Monteverdi, Handel or Bartok and Shostakovich were also staged - in the opinion of many, however, the stagings were too old-fashioned and backward. 1986 brought a breath of fresh air when the Nederlandse Opera, now called De Nationale Opera, finally got its own building and no longer had to commute between Stadsschouwburg and the Circustheater in The Hague. In 1988 Pierre Audi was hired as artistic director and his Dutch premiere of Wagner's complete 'Ring des Nibelungen' is legendary. Since then, the Nationale Opera has made a name for itself around the world through numerous other innovative and daring performances of international and, above all, Dutch operas and is known for its endeavor to always merge music and theater as one unit.

Bell nation

Anyone who has ever spent a few hours in a tranquil town in the Netherlands, Belgium or Northern France should have come across a musical specialty: the carillon (nl. 'Beiaard'). The carillon, which is located high up in a tower and can be played via a keyboard, has its origin in the 'Lower Lands'. The brothers François and Pieter Hemony were the first to discover in the 17th century how neatly coordinated bells can be cast and were also the first to be able to put together chromatic instruments. The first carillon was intended for the city of Zutphen. From then on the cities stood in line to have the brothers cast a clean carillon. Over the years they got rich and famous. A total of 51 carillons come from her workshop. They apparently did not teach their apprentices their secret for the clean atmosphere, so that after their death a full two centuries passed before bell founders regained the quality of Hemony bells. The Netherlands is the world's largest carillon nation, there is also the profession of 'stadbeiaardier', the city carillon and you can learn the carillon professionally at three universities. You can listen to the heaviest instrument in the world at carillon concerts in the open spaces of the various cities.

Organ culture

For centuries the 'queen of instruments' has determined the face of the Dutch musical landscape. No country in the world is home to as many historical organs as the Netherlands. Organ builders such as Hendrik Niehoff or the Lampener van Mill family caused a small revolution in organ building around 1530 by adding completely new registers to the organ - such as the flute, third cymbal, quintadena - and reeds such as trumpet or shawm for the first time with full bell length . The function of the pedal and its range have also been expanded. Soon the Dutch organ builders were also called abroad to introduce their new organ style there. After the Reformation, church leader Calvin forbade organ music during mass, but fortunately this did not prevent the organists from playing concerts during festivals, market days or fairs, so that organist and composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck achieved international fame during this time and numerous posterities could leave inspiring organ pieces. The fact that there are still so many historical organs in the Netherlands today is thanks to its late industrialization. Before modernization found its way here and the old organs could be replaced by new organs, people in other European countries had already regretted the same action and recognized the value of historical organ art. The organ movement of the early 20th century blew across from Germany and France: instead of modernization, restoration was the motto. The Dutch organ builders recognized the opportunity, quickly orientated themselves back to the baroque construction and are today successfully exporting their organs all over the world again. An International Organ Improvisation Concours has been held in Haarlem since 1951.

Historical performance practice

Coupled with the recognition of the importance of the historical organs, the "historical performance practice" emerged. The Dutch recorder player Fans Brüggen announced in 1970: “Every note by Mozart that the Concertgebouworkest plays is a lie from A to Z!” Brüggen was of the opinion that classical music should be played as it was originally intended by the composer Instruments from the time and according to the musical ideas and styles of the time. Forerunners in this field were Carel Leeuwen Boomkamp (viola da gamba) and Hans Brandts Buys (harpsichord), who founded Musica Antiqua in 1935, the first professional early music ensemble in the Netherlands. The use of historical instruments made slow progress, however. In 1955, Gustav Leonhardt brought new vigor with the establishment of the Leonhardt Consort. Numerous talents sprang from the group, and from 1968 they re-recorded all Bach cantatas together with Nikolaus Harnoncourt - famous pioneer of historical performance practice. Slowly but surely, early music took a firm place in musical life, and numerous new orchestras and ensembles were founded. Various conservatories have introduced courses in early music and its instruments, and the list of world-famous musicians who have studied there is long. Baroque operas have meanwhile become an established part of the National Opera’s program planning, the Festival of Early Music takes place every year in Utrecht and Monteverdi's “Vespers of Mary” is performed in Leiden. In the meantime, the question of whether strict authenticity is even possible has been the subject of numerous discussions. In the meantime, Frans Brüggen has weakened his statement a little: "Even a Brandenburg concert with Karajan has its good points."


When the first Holland Festival took place in Amsterdam in 1947, the festival landscape in the Netherlands was still quite manageable. Nowadays that can no longer be said. Dozens of festivals for all types of classical music take place every year. There are festivals for chamber music and opera, for organ, for guitar, for amateurs as well as for professionals, for old and new music. Some may be suspicious of the "festivalization" of classical music, but it is clear that a festival, even if it is a "specialized" one, attracts more visitors than individual concerts can. They are an asset to musical life, not only in terms of content, but also geographically, because for a long time now everything has not only happened in the big cities of the Randstad.

Holland Festival

June, Amsterdam
The oldest and most internationally known music festival is the Holland Festival, which has been held annually in Amsterdam since 1947. It brings together all the podium arts: music, opera, theater, dance, film or even multidisciplinary performances. Since the festival has an international focus from the start, the focus is on music that is independent of language barriers, especially on classical, but pop or world music is also heard. Right from the start, the organizers have succeeded in attracting great artists such as Benjamin Britten, Maria Callas and Leonard Bernstein to Amsterdam. It is important to have works that have not yet been performed in the Netherlands and from now on the festival guarantees numerous national or even world premieres. As an established event in politics, the media and the audience with a guarantee of quality, the festival can take artistic risks that would be unthinkable for smaller institutions. For example, under Jo Elsendoorn, artistic director from 1962-77, the anti-American opera 'Reconstructie' premiered at the Holland Festival in 1969 and caused a stir. The local press criticizes it, but the foreign press praises the daring initiative, which they say would not have been possible in any other country - 'Reconstructie' is a great success and sells out night after night. In the 1990s, the festival struggled with declining financial resources and declining visitor numbers. Prins Claus, patron of the Holland Festival, interferes and reminds of the groundbreaking and eclectic character and importance of the festival for art life. Innovation has always been the great strength of the Holland Festival. In 1997, the emphasis was therefore shifted to the theater in order to reach a new, younger audience, but that too had only moderate success. In 2005, Pierre Audi takes over the helm and is back on the old course. Since then, the number of visitors has slowly climbed again from 65,000 (2005) to more than 73,000 in June 2009. An average of 40 productions are performed annually in over 90 performances. The Raad voor Cultuur was also still impressed by the festival and again increased the subsidies to 3,300,000 euros for the period 2009-2012. For the period 2017-2020, the funding amounts to the 3.18 million euros requested by the Holland Festival.

Festival Oude Muziek

End of August / beginning of September, Utrecht
Since 1982, old music from the Middle Ages and Baroque has been celebrated ten days a year in Utrecht. The festival takes on a pioneering role in historical performance practice, because those who do not play historical instruments stand in front of closed doors. Everything that has an international reputation in the early music scene has already been a guest, as artists such as Musica Antiqua Cologne, Gustav Leonhardt and the Huelgas Ensemble testify. Many a composer was rediscovered here, musical styles and periods were brought back into consciousness and old instruments and playing practices were resumed. You won't find a similarly extensive, detailed and high quality festival for Oude Muziek in the rest of the world. Around 60 main concerts, numerous side concerts by young talents, a market, readings and master classes regularly attract 60,000 visitors to Utrecht who listen to the concerts in the city's historic churches. In the meantime, especially under the new director Jan van den Bossche, later periods have also been included, so that Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart are also presented. The theme for 2017 is, in keeping with the 500th anniversary of Luther's posting of the theses: Zing, Vecht, Huil, Bid - Muziek van de reformaties. The Early Music Festival was and is the first address for Renaissance and Baroque fans.

Canal Festival

Since 1998, special places and courtyards in downtown Amsterdam and on the banks of the IJ have been transformed into concert venues for nine days in August. Whether on the water, on jetties, in hidden courtyards, in architecturally interesting or culturally significant places or even in the living room or on the roof terrace of a resident - new performance locations are added every year. At the big final concert in the Prinsengracht, visitors not only romp around on the street and sidewalks: on the canal itself, one packed boat sways next to the other and top musicians present their art in a unique atmosphere.

Nederlandse Muziekdagen

The Nederlandse Muziekdagen is a three-day festival for New Dutch Music that has been held annually at the beginning of November since 1989. This festival initially took place in Utrecht, but has been held in the Muziekgebouw aan’t IJ in Amsterdam since 2008. The aim is to promote Dutch classical music and Dutch composers. Of course, world premieres take place there on a regular basis. Since 1994, the Henriette Bosman Prize - named after a Dutch composer - has been awarded as a sponsorship prize for young composers as part of the Musiktage.

Wereld Muziek Concours

Largest brass music festival in the world in Kerkrade, Limburg. Held every four years since 1951, the events are spread over a month (July to August). Musical competitions are held among numerous amateur brass orchestras, marching and show bands (in the Parkstad Limburg Stadium), percussion ensembles and conductors, with participants from all over the world. There are also concerts by professional orchestras. At the 17th edition from July 4th to 28th 2013, a number of musicians and several thousand visitors from different countries are expected.

Author:Verena Soldierer
Created: August 2009
Updated: August 2017, Henrike Post

  • People and Links
  • literature

    You can find all bibliographical information on the dossier at

  • Literature tip
    Bottenheim, S.A.M .:

    De opera in Nederland, Leiden 1983.

  • Literature tip
    Bredschneyder, Fred:

    Meer dan een eeuw operette in Nederland, Naarden 1995.

  • Literature tip
    Coleman, T. (Ed.):

    Een noodzakelijke luxe: 15 jaar Nederlandse Operastichting 1971-1986. Amsterdam 1986.

  • Literature tip
    Elsendoorn, Jo:

    Four new operas: Van Monteverdi dead Nono. Haarlem 1967.

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