Johannes Verhulst

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Born: 19 March 1816 — Den Haag — The Netherlands
Died: 17 January 1891 — Den Haag — The Netherlands
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Life

Johannes Josephus Hermanus Verhulst was born in The Hague on 19 March 1816 as a child of parents who had little means (his father was a compositor). Verhulst became the most important Dutch composer of the mid-nineteenth century, and he was to become a key figure in musical life.

Verhulst could develop his talents thanks to a favourable musical climate which was the result of three important initiatives: the foundation of the Koninklijke Muzijk- en Zangschool (Royal School of Music and Singing) in The Hague in 1826, the foundation of the Maatschappij tot Bevordering der Toonkunst (MBT, Society for the Stimulation of Music) in 1829, and King Willem I’s decision to expand the Koninklijke Hofkapel (Royal Chapel) to the size of a symphonic orchestra in the same year.

At the age of ten Verhulst was admitted to the choir class at the Royal School of Music. Director Johann Heinrich Lübeck (1799–1865) recognised Verhulst’s talent and managed to persuade his parents to let their son, who was teaching himself to play the piano, also take violin lessons and lessons in music theory. Johannes progressed so fast that Lübeck was happy to support his pupil’s desire to devote himself entirely to music. He gave him the prospect of a position in the Royal Chapel of which he was the conductor. Verhulst’s father objected to this plan and forced his son to become an apprentice lithographer. However, this was not a success. Working as junior assistant at the music shop of Weygand & Co. was also a fiasco, as Verhulst regularly became absorbed in studying the notes when he was supposed to be sorting out the music. At the insistence of Lord Chamberlain J.W. baron Huyssen van Kattendijke, the moving force behind the Royal Chapel, Verhulst’s parents gave in. Johannes was appointed second violinist at the age of fifteen. Mid-1833 he was promoted to first violinist. Lübeck’s protection also provided him, at the age of sixteen, with the position of organist at the church at the Binnenhof in The Hague.

Verhulst already started composing at a young age. His meeting in 1835 with the new conductor of the Théâtre français in The Hague, the Belgian Charles-Louis Hanssens Jr. (1802–1871), author of numerous operas, ballets and symphonies and a lot of church music and chamber music, was important for his further development. Verhulst learnt the tricks of the trade of instrumentation from him. This resulted in the skilfully orchestrated Overtures op. 2 and 3 for which he was awarded prizes. When Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy spent the summer of 1836 in Scheveningen, Lübeck showed him work by Verhulst. In a letter to Lübeck from 20 August Mendelssohn expressed his surprise about its quality. He offered to coach the young Dutchman. Verhulst was given leave of absence with full pay in order to study abroad while the association “Maatschappij tot bevordering der toonkunst” gave him a stipend for five years. It was not until the beginning of 1838 that Mendelssohn actually had time for Verhulst. However, Verhulst made good use of the period in between. At the end of April 1837 he took leave of the Royal Chapel. After having had organ lessons from Josef Klein (1802–1862) in Cologne Verhulst went on to Paris, where he underwent further training with Hanssens, who had found employment there. Verhulst also witnessed the spectacular premiere of the Requiem by Berlioz in the Dôme des Invalides.

An entirely different musical climate awaited Verhulst in Leipzig which had become the centre of German musical life since Mendelssohn had been appointed director of the Gewandhaus concerts in October 1835. We do not know exactly what Mendelssohn’s lessons involved, as different sources contradict each other. There is talk of a traditional education, but there is also evidence that rather suggests a kind of independence. Nevertheless Mendelssohn’s influence can clearly be found in Verhulst’s compositions from this period: the first two movements (Kyrie and Gloria) of the Messe op. 20 (1840), Psalm 84 for soprano, choir and orchestra), the Symphony in e minor op. 46 (August–October 1842), and a number of chamber music compositions. He dedicated one of these, his String Quartets op. 6 (1838) published in Leipzig by Fred. Hofmeister, to his mentor.

At Mendelssohn’s house Verhulst met Robert Schumann. They became lifelong friends. Verhulst often accompanied Schumann on his walks and he sat at Schumann’s regular table with composers and musicians like Ferdinand Hiller, Ferdinand David, Ignaz Moscheles and Moritz Hauptmann. Verhulst sang songs that Schumann had just composed and they played quatre mains together. The artistic relation between the two composers can be seen best in their song writing. Schumann’s appreciation of the compositions of his Dutch colleague has been recorded in a number of articles in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. On his part Verhulst dedicated his String Quartet op. 21 to Schumann as an homage.

Soon after his arrival in Leipzig Verhulst was actually no longer regarded as a student. This becomes apparent from his appointment as conductor of the orchestral society Euterpe at the beginning of the season 1838/39. As a twenty-two-year-old he was put at the head of a group of forty instrumentalists, most of them members of the famous Gewandhaus Orchestra. One of the aims of the society that gave ten to twelve concerts a year (the so-called Abendunterhaltungen that took place every fortnight during the winter months), was to explore new works. With Verhulst as a conductor the society flourished: reviews in the press and reports by Schumann reveal the quality of the performances. In order to well and truly establish his name Verhulst twice organised a concert with exclusively works of his own. On 24 January 1842 he presented among others the two movements of his mass and the symphony.

When Verhulst visited his home town The Hague in the autumn of 1842, he was given the opportunity to perform some of his works in the Gothische Zaal. Willem II attended the concert and decorated Verhulst with the cross of the Orde van de Nederlandse Leeuw (Order of the Dutch Lion). Verhulst was also offered the honorary title of conductor of the hofmuziek (court music) with a salary of one thousand guilders a year. He was offered the position on condition that he would in future devote his talents to his motherland, and not to foreign countries. He did not hesitate for long and settled in The Hague where he immediately started to work on new compositions.

Verhulst wrote the major part of his oeuvre in the first decade after his return to the Netherlands. He completed his Messe with the Credo, Offertory, Sanctus, Benediktus and Agnus Dei in the summer of 1843. The more than one hundred songs on Dutch texts, mostly by his kindred spirit Jan Pieter Heije (1809-1876), date from the period 1844–1851.

In 1848 Verhulst was appointed director of the Rotterdam Toonkunst Choir. This made him the artistic director of the prestigious music festival that took place in Rotterdam to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the MBT in 1854. A wooden concert hall with 3830 seats had specially been built for the jubilee, in which celebrities such as Franz Liszt and Anton Rubinstein performed. The Dutch premiere of Handel’s Israel in Egypt (in an arrangement by Verhulst that included trumpets, timpani and horns) and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony made a great impression.

Shortly after each other Verhulst was given three important positions. In 1860 he became the successor of Lübeck at the Diligentia concerts in The Hague, and in Amsterdam he was appointed director of the local department of the MBT and the orchestral society Caecilia in 1864. When in the same year Verhulst also became conductor of the orchestra of Felix Meritis, he held the highest positions in Dutch musical life.

Verhulst’s impact on Dutch musical life was enormous. He realised a significant rise in the level of ensemble playing and he was commended for his “great precision in creating light and darkness” and his attention for correct phrasing together with supple rhythmic movement. Verhulst had a special affinity with Beethoven: he set a standard in performance practise with his often fast tempi. Further he familiarised the audience with works by Mendelssohn (he conducted the premiere of the Elias in 1850), Schumann, Gade and Brahms. Verhulst also gained international respect, as we can see from his appointment as honorary member of the Royal Philharmonic Society in London in 1859.

The biggest triumph of his long career was the three-day music festival celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the MBT in May 1879, in the Grote Zaal of the Paleis voor Volksvlijt, the “Crystal Palace” of Amsterdam. On the first evening Verhulst presented Handel’s Josua in an orchestration by himself, with a choir of over 900 singers, brought together from all over the country, and an orchestra with more than 150 professional musicians. The second day was devoted to works by native composers. According to a report it was “especially the lovely music of the Mass by Verhulst that delighted the audience”. On the final matinee Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as well as the Dutch premiere of the Violin Concert by Brahms with Joseph Joachim as a soloist, were played.

Verhulst was called “de eenige” — “the only one”. However, his monopoly also aroused resistance, as his programmes hardly went beyond the idiom of Mendelssohn and Schumann. He now categorically refused to perform compositions by Berlioz and Liszt; Richard Wagner was his bête noire. This led to increasing protests from the press and the audience, and got him into trouble with the board of Diligentia. In 1883 Verhulst was forced to leave the conducting of Wagner’s music to his colleague from Utrecht, Richard Hol (1825–1904). Eventually this resulted in a break-up. Though Verhulst was made an honorary member for his seventieth birthday (19 March 1886), he was dismissed less than three months later. Verhulst thereupon also resigned his positions in Amsterdam and withdrew from public life. He died an embittered man on 17 January 1891.

(Contribution by Ton Braas <ton.braas(at)planet.nl>.)

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