Flood requiem makes U.S. premiere at Cornell College
October 21, 2019
(from the site of Cornell College)
As Iowa and other areas of the country continue their long-term recovery from major floods, Cornell College will present an artistic response with the U.S. premiere of Dutch composer Douwe Eisenga’s “The Flood, Requiem” at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8, in King Chapel.
Cornell’s combined symphony orchestra and choirs will perform the large-scale work, written in 2003 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the North Sea flood of 1953 that killed 1,845 in the Netherlands. Cornell’s orchestra will swell in size for this concert with the addition of music faculty and area professionals.
The soloist will be Iowa City mezzo-soprano Kelly Hill, whose recent work includes Handel’s “Messiah” with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, New Haven Symphony Orchestra, and the Waterbury Symphony Orchestra; and alto soloist in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with the Yale Philharmonia.
Enhancing the music will be multimedia projections of 1953 Dutch flood images that inspired the work, as well as images from the events of the last 20 years in the U.S. The composer will be on campus for final rehearsals and the performance, with support by the Performing Arts Fund NL in the Netherlands.
“We chose the requiem not only for its beauty and accessibility but because of the impact recent flooding has had in Iowa and across the U.S.,” said Professor of Music and orchestra director Martin Hearne, a Louisiana native who experienced Hurricane Katrina in 2005. His wife and musical collaborator, Professor of Music and choral conductor Lisa Hearne, is preparing the choirs.
Texts for “The Flood, Requiem” include parts of the Latin Mass, a sea elegy by a Russian poet, and poetry by Christopher Levenson, a young Canadian rescuer during the 1953 floods. Some of
Levenson’s descriptions bring Iowa floods to mind:
Who wades through this harvest of water,
where windmill and telegraph poles, askew and crazy,
disturb the skyline with wrecks?
The Flood, Requiem - Diary
At the beginning of 2003 my piece The Flood, Requiem (at that time titled as Requiem 1953) was premiered during the commemoration of the flood that struck a big part of the southern Netherlands 50 years earlier.
Asked by a regional newspaper I wrote a sort of development diary, covering the years of preparing and writing, which was published two weeks before the premiere.
The plan for the Requiem dates back to early 1999. In February, with the first musical ideas in my pocket, I visit Jan Hut, conductor of the Middelburg Oratory Choir. I had made a rough composition sketch on the text of the Dies Irae, which has been part of the requiem mass for centuries. Jan is enthusiastic about the first synthesizer demo of the piece and we decide that it is worth recording. In Groningen - Jan has his roots in the north just like me - he has a choir that can contribute to this recording.
In November - in the meantime the piano piece Rivus II had been released on cd and the music for the family show Oliver Twist had been written – we’re recording the choir-parts of this movement from the requiem. It is a special recording. Jan is the only one who hears the accompanying demo-music in his headphones. The choir hears nothing but stays on tune and rhythmically accurate. Unbelievable, the piece is on tape within three hours.
During Christmas the Oliver Twist how gets its premiere. Seven sold out shows and a very positive response. We don’t attend the last shows because Margriet and I, together with our children Thom and Miki, celebrate the turn of the millennium in Berlin.
At the beginning of 2000, I start working on the further development of Dies Irae. The recorded choir parts are loaded into the computer. In the following months I produce a completely new version of the piece with the help of a whole stack of electronic sound-devices. The intention is that this version will be a promotional demo. As a relatively unknown composer, wanting to set-up such a large project as the requiem, everyone involved must be able to get a musical picture of what it is going to be.
All in all, it takes until October until the demo CD is ready. The work is interrupted by other commissions such as The Efforts of Fossombrone - a half-hour tape composition - and Rivus I, rewritten in a new line-up. In the meantime I also try to compile the text for the entire requiem. I come across beautiful poems about the flood from Christopher Levenson, a Englishman who stayed in the Netherlands in 1953. In addition, with poetry from Lorca I try to give the somewhat heavy texts from the Latin requiem mass a more human counterbalance.
It is also time for business affairs. The demo-cd’s are sent with accompanying letters. Ruud van Meijel, manager of the Zeeland Nazomer Festival (ZNF), is willing to take charge of the production of the requiem. To my surprise, he also comes up with another job, a chamber opera about the Dutch naval hero Michiel de Ruyter. Some time later I am formally commissioned by the ZNF to write a requiem in the context of the commemoration of the flood of 1953. The Zeeuws Orkest and the Zeeuws Philharmonisch Koor will perform the requiem.
Christopher Levenson appears to be alive, immigrated to Canada in the late 1960s. At the beginning of 2001 I get him on the phone. He enthusiastically gives permission for the use of his texts. Lorca's poetry causes more problems. The texts are not free of copyright. A lawyer from London represents the beneficiaries. He gives permission by telephone but then sends a contract with so many pitfalls that I can’t accept the agreement. The man does not give any room for negotiation. The result is that I have to search for an alternative to Lorca.
The first half of 2001 is all about composing Kabaal, as the opera about Tromp and De Ruyter has been baptized. In between, I write Growing Worm for the pianist Marcel Worms, which is premiered in February in Amsterdam and released on cd half a year later.
When Kabaal is premiered at the end of August, I have completed the first two parts of the requiem. Together they in fact form a new, now orchestral version of the Dies Irae. Moreover, I have found a good replacement for Lorca's texts. The requiem will have nine parts. Now that I have a year of working on the piece ahead, the doubts come over me. I have not experienced the disaster. Who am I that I can write this piece? A number of things have always been clear. The music should become accessible, accessible to every listener. Text and music should also keep a necessary distance, giving the listener room for his own thoughts and emotions. But still, the context of the commission makes me doubt. After a few weeks I come to the conclusion that the only option is to write a requiem as beautiful as possible, as comforting as possible.
Moreover, the music should not only be aimed at the people who experienced the disaster, the piece should also appeal to young people in particular. This requiem, I think, must not only look back, but also offer an optimistic view of the future, in which the resilience of people overcomes any disaster.
At first it goes relatively smoothly. At a steady pace I work successively on parts six, three and four. For each part I have keywords, such as "silence, anger and hope" that I use to shape the long composition. When Margriet goes on maternity leave at the end of November I can even put more time into composing.
Our third child, Zep, is born in mid-December. What a miracle and what happiness, for the third time a beautiful, healthy baby.
When after three weeks, entirely devoted to the new little fellow, I pick up work again, the ideas keep coming. Part five and the epilogue, part nine are also ready by the end of February.
Then the dip follows. After months of high productivity and a busy domestic life, I allow myself a few days off during the spring break. And after that ... the "flow" is gone. Although I work on part eight on a daily basis, the long, very rhythmic part that should form the actual final, doesn’t get right. At the end of March there is no other option than to throw the first eight fully orchestrated minutes of this part in the trash bin. Only somewhere in April do I realize that this movemnet, the Libera Me, should become a kind of musical enlargement of the second part. This idea provides the breakthrough, even though it will take until the end of May until the part is finished.
We have been looking for an alto singer for the solo part for some time now. Pianist Rien Balkenende - who supervises the auditions - and I travel to Amsterdam twice to work with a number of female singers. The first round, at the end of May in the Muziektheater, does not yet yield a clear winner. After the second audition round, Joan Berkhemer, the conductor of the Zeeuws Orkest and I choose the singer Simone Veder.
Part seven, titled Like a Promise, is the last part to be written. I decide to set the text as simply as possible, the requiem needs a moment of rest at that spot. The requiem is finished in June. Exactly one month later I collect the first copies of the score from the bookbinder. The intervening weeks were needed for the completion of the piano version and the production of the choir version.
In summer we stay for nearly five weeks on our, now permanent, camping-site in Normandy. Little Zep can sit now and appears to enjoy camping as much as the rest of the family.
Then there is the last major job concerning the requiem, creating the individual parts for all orchestra members. It is a job that must be done as carefully as possible. Every mistake in a part steals rehearsal time, and there is not much rehearsal time….
The Zeeuws Philharmonisch Koor has more time. From the beginning of September they rehearse every Saturday under the guidance of Jan Hut. When I come to listen for the first time a month later, it appears that they are already well on their way. The response of the choir members are very positive.
On the last Thursday evening of October, the orchestra meets for the first time to rehearse the piece. It is not much more than a first introduction between orchestra and composition that evening. I find the second orchestra rehearsal, a week later, more exciting. Only from than on I can really judge whether there are no major errors in orchestration and, equally important, whether the orchestra is capable of making music from the notes. The evening makes it clear that there will be no problems on both issues, especially at the moments that Joan rehearses in detail.
It is a pity though that time constraints on this second evening already become a limiting factor. There are only two rehearsals before the choir is added and as far as I am concerned that should be more.
The last two rehearsal evenings in November, with choir and orchestra, do not always go smoothly. Yet there is still no reason to worry, although I am terribly upset that -because of the New Year's Concerts by the orchestra -there is no rehearsing on my piece from the end of November untill mid-January. My resentment about this becomes greater when it appears that national interest in the requiem is starting to grow. The NOS television is mailing that they are impressed by the demo and that they are likely to broadcast some parts.
the original demo
This message reinforces my feeling that the requiem can also be viable outside the region and I decide to approach record companies. EMI and Warner are not interested but the third label that I approach, BMG, invites me for a meeting. On November 22 I am sitting in Hilversum at the desk of a label manager for the first time in my life. In the following weeks BMG will investigate whether a CD of the requiem is feasible. They engage Maarten Hartveldt, owner of a beautiful studio in a church in Tilburg, as a possible producer of the CD. He is also extremely enthusiastic about the music.
BMG asks for more demo material. On a Friday afternoon we record the choral parts of two shortened movements with a small group of choir members. The same evening I hear that Jannet, the wife of Ane - one of the singers - is incurably ill. A few weeks later Ane calls. Jannet, who also sang in the choir, died. He asks if he can use the two pieces of the requiem during the cremation. He has also promised her that he will continue to participate in the performance of the requiem. I am silent for days, deeply impressed by the bravery of these people.
After the Christmas holidays, it soon becomes apparent that a cd-recording is a terribly expensive thing and that the record company has no idea how to cover the risks. Several meetings follow. However, there’s still no decision at the beginning of January.
The ZNF starts its publicity campaign. While the regional newspaper is waiting for this "diary", national newspapers call for interviews and there is serious talk about a national television broadcast. This all happens while the orchestra isn’t rehearsing the piece, busy with new-year concerts. It is something that makes me very nervous.
It is now Wednesday. Tomorrow, the sixteenth, the choir and orchestra will start rehearsing again. I strongly realize that "it will always work out" for projects like this and that in this life it is ultimately about other things. About people like Ane and Jannet, for example. About people struggling with the experiences of a terrible disaster. And about love, also for those who are no longer here.
January 15, 2003