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Feike Asma As A Composer


davidh
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A contributor on another thread has just commented, "In Holland we had Feike Asma, (who won lots of fans to the organ who now only go to concerts by people who try to play like he did. One Asma was more than enough)."

 

I know little of Asma as a performer, except from a recording of his own and Jan Zwart's works, although I have heard that he had little respect for other composer's stated intentions, and as a result others were either very enthusastic or very dismissive.

 

Just over a year ago I first became aware of his compositions, of which there are well over a hundred, mostly chorale preludes or chorale variations. (I know that some people don't like this genre and they needn't read any further). I have since bought recordings and many pieces of sheet music.

 

One of the first things that I noticed was that some performances don't follow the published music, although different performers seen to play from a common text, which suggests either that there are alternative versions, perhaps in print, or else that performers work from manuscript sources, and perhaps the published versions have been edited to reduce their length.

 

Although the harmonic language is pretty consistent throughout - you don't have to hear many bars to recognise Asma - there is a wide variety of different types of variation in terms of structure and embellishment. They range from quite simple to quite difficult to play, but they all lie very comfortably under the hands, as one might expect if the music was transcribed from extemporisations rather than composed in the head and then fitted to the fingers.

 

Some of these preludes might well be useful for English churches. Of course some of these are based on Lutheran or Dutch tunes not known or used here, but others are based on hymn tunes which are well known here, i.e. in the UK. The problem is that the titles of the variations are in Dutch, and there is no reference to the names of the tunes as they are known elsewhere. It might be useful if someone who knows the Dutch and British scenes were to make up a list linking them to the English names.

 

Asma is only one of many Dutch composers writing in this genre over the last century or so. Few of them have been heard of outside of The Netherlands, excepting perhaps Jan Zwart, and even his music doesn't seem to be stocked by British suppliers who have a tremendous range of other organ music.

 

Although only a few miles separate us from Holland, the musical culture seems to be almost completly unknown here. The biggest problem is probably one of language. Many audio recordings, DVDs and musical publications are only available from Holland, and can only be bought by navigating websites entirely in Dutch, but emails bring friendly replies in good English. Payment is also a problem. Few Dutch websites accept credit card payments, sterling cheques are not welcome, and payments by bank transfer add £15 to £20 to the cost of an order, so the only convenient way to pay is by posting Euro notes.

 

I think, too, that the Dutch don't seem to expect that people from other countries would be interested in their organ music. A lot has happened between Sweelinck and Andriessen, and is still going on!

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OK, here, quickly the Asma/Zwart tradition story (Dutch contributers might want to fill in the gaps or contradict my opinions).

 

Feike Asma studied with Jan Zwart which his why he played a lot of his music. The common opinion is that Asma continued the Zwart tradition, however the best organist of the current generation of the Zwart family, (actually the only one who can really play) says that Asma broke off the tradition, and I have to say when he plays Jan Zwart's music it sounds completely different, (I almost get it!).

Whatever we might think about questions of taste in Zwart's music, he was an important influence in the revival of congregation singing in the early 20th century, and he wrote the first biography of Sweelinck.

 

"Asma is only one of many Dutch composers writing in this genre over the last century or so."

 

Asma was not by any stretch of the imagination a composer, he was an arranger of tunes. He even admitted so himself. (The much used title "koraalbewerking" means literally "chorale arrangement").

The tunes in question are primarily from the Geneva Psalter, and from hymn books used in Calvinist families at home, (notably the Johannes de Heere collection). The point about this music is that it is meant to inspire emotional feelings of Calvinist longing in the faithful. It is important to point out that a huge number of Protestants (millions) in The Netherlands continue to live a very closed lifestyle, with no television, cinema, concert attendance etc permitted. They have their own newspaper and their own political parties. Their church services do not permit choirs, and only the Geneva Psalter may be sung. This, (and perhaps some slightly less orthadox protestants) are the 'target audience' of Asma's music and that of his disciples.

 

"Few of them have been heard of outside of The Netherlands, excepting perhaps Jan Zwart,"

 

Exactly, The Netherlands is the only really calvinist country in Europe.

 

"A lot has happened between Sweelinck and Andriessen, and is still going on!"

 

If you are interested to look at some serious recent Dutch music I would recommend:

Ad Wammes: Miroir (already very popular in the UK, I'm also playing it this year)

Thijs Kramer: Organ Symphony 'Media Vita" (unknown even in Holland but it is published and it is really wonderful)

Anthon van der Horst: Christ Lag in Todesbanden (partita on the first section of BWV 4)

Anything by Bert Matter (Latry plays the Von Gott will ich nicht lassen Fantasia, its great if you like 'cool' minimalism).

 

In Holland the pieces by Ton de Leeuw (Sweelinck Variations expecially) and Daan Manneke (Organum for example) are quite popular but I'm not so fond of them. Extending the minimalist thing there's also Jan Welmers, impressive big pieces, (Laudate Dominum is maybe the best), again an acquired taste.

 

Greetings

 

Bazuin

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My thanks to Bazuin for some very useful information, and I'll watch out for the "serious recent Dutch music" which he has recommended.

 

Asma was not by any stretch of the imagination a composer, he was an arranger of tunes. He even admitted so himself. (The much used title "koraalbewerking" means literally "chorale arrangement").

 

The problem for me here is that by that criterion Bach too would be "an arranger of tunes" as far is his chorale preludes are concerned.

 

Although the Dutch may have the only real Calvinists, I can't see why only Calvinists would be interested in the music. There are Roman Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran, Methodist and Anglican hymn writers and composers of church music, and people who are not Roman Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran, Methodist and Anglican or indeed of any faith at all nevetheless listen to their music.

 

Most modern hymn books in this country use an eclectic mixture of tunes, and no one cares at all about the denomination of the composer.

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Asma a composer? he for one didn't think so, and right he was.

 

Interested in a living Dutch composer who writes substantial works for organ (among many other instruments/settings)?

 

Try my former teacher Arie J. Keijzer, 1964 winner of "Haarlem", pupil of Siegfried Reda (amongst others).

More info by PM.

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The historical topic when I sat the FRCO was modern Dutch and Belgian, and I had to start from almost zero, Peeters and Jongen were my only starting points. However, a day in the RCo library in Birmingham with a LARGE pile of the stuff and I came out much educated and edified. I'm slightly ashamed that I still don't have any in my repertoire, this may make me revisit it.

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Payment is also a problem. Few Dutch websites accept credit card payments, sterling cheques are not welcome, and payments by bank transfer add £15 to £20 to the cost of an order, so the only convenient way to pay is by posting Euro notes.

 

Interesting. A year or two ago I tried to purchase a publication from the Klais web-site. In the end, the only way I could accomplish this was by posting Euro notes. Fortunately, they arrived at their destination, but I shouldn't like to make a habit of this procedure.

 

You wouldn't think we were in the EU, would you?

 

John

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