Born: March 30, 1772; Witzhelden, Germany
Died: July 19, 1847; Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Johann Wilhelm Wilms was a Dutch composer born in Witzhelden, Germany, a village located very close to the border with the Netherlands. After local training in music from his family members and a short stint in the pious, Calvinist town of Lüttringhausen, Wilms relocated in 1791 to Amsterdam, where he would spend the remainder of his life and career. Wilms was proficient at both flute and piano, but his ability on the flute earned Wilms his firstRead more engagements as an orchestral player, most importantly in the Amsterdam-based orchestra of the Felix Meritis Society. In 1796, Wilms was one of the founding members of Eruditio Musica, the first presenter of public concerts in Amsterdam run by professional musicians; as pianist and composer, Wilms served as one of Eruditio Musica's major figureheads until its dissolution in 1824. Within this organization, Wilms introduced piano concerti by Beethoven and Mozart to audiences in Amsterdam.
Wilms' symphonies were soon to follow and elicited much comment and praise from reviewers such as E.T.A. Hoffmann in the Allgemeine Musicalische Zeitung published in Leipzig; the C major Symphony Wilms numbered as his "No. 1" was first heard in Leipzig at a New Year's Day concert in 1806. Wilms' seven symphonies -- of which only six survive -- constitute the most important part of his musical legacy and were written over a long span of time, from about 1801 to 1834 or so; their publication history is out of sync with their chronology and exact dates for these works are difficult to establish. Wilms also composed five piano concertos, a flute concerto, and other concerted works, concert overtures, chamber, piano music, and numerous songs, one of which, "Wien Neerlandsch bloed," served as an undeclared national anthem of the Netherlands throughout the nineteenth century. Wilms was also noted for a fanciful and highly popular battle piece for winds, De Schlacht von Waterloo. Wilms would spend one year as the Amsterdam correspondent at Allgemeine Musicalische Zeitung in 1814-1815 and was one of the most visible and important musicians in Amsterdam in the first three decades of the nineteenth centuries. In the early 1820s, however, all of this activity peaked; between 1821 and 1822 Wilms lost his wife, infant daughter, and father-in-law in quick succession. Afterwards, he broke off most professional engagements, stopped publishing his music, and took up the post of organist at the Het Lam Mennonite Church in Amsterdam, a position Wilms held until blindness forced him out of it in 1845. His composing activity, however, continued nearly up until the time he died at age 75 in 1847.
Although some of Wilms' work hearkens back to currents in the eighteenth century, he is unmistakably an early romantic composer, strongly influenced by Beethoven, but in possession of an original voice, particularly in the symphonies. Despite that Wilms was vocal in the Allgemeine Musicalische Zeitung about the relative absence of Dutch music from European concert halls -- a sentiment echoed nearly a century later by Matthijs Vermeulen and others -- Wilms himself was forgotten for nearly two centuries. The International Johann Wilhelm Wilms Gesellschaft was set up in Bonn in 2003 to ensure modern publications of Wilms' extant works. In a review of a disc of Wilms' symphonies in 2005, a writer from the New York Times commented, "He's not a Beethoven, and there's nothing wrong with that." Read less
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