Born: February 8, 1888; Helmond
Died: July 26, 1967; Laren, The Netherlands
Matthijs Vermeulen was born the son of a blacksmith in the Noord-Brabant province of the Netherlands. At age 14 he entered the Abbey of Berne at Heeswijk with the intention of becoming a priest; there he received thorough instruction in sixteenth century harmony. In 1907, Vermeulen left the monastery and enrolled into the Amsterdam Conservatory. After two years' study, Vermeulen took his first job as music critic on the Amsterdam daily De Tijd;Read more his work as a perceptive and provocative writer placed his name in circulation long before his compositions were known.
The composer Alphons Diepenbrock played an important role in Vermeulen's early life, offering encouragement, advice and assistance. At the opposite end of Vermeulen's spectrum was the powerful music director of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Willem Mengelberg, frequently the target of Vermeulen's most pointed criticism. Upon completing his Symphony No. 1, "Symphonia Carminum," in 1914, Vermeulen mailed the score to Mengelberg for possible performance. More than a year later, Mengelberg mailed it back with the advice that Vermeulen should study with composer Cornelis Dopper, a highly popular, if not terribly original, composer. Vermeulen was deeply offended. As World War I raged in greater Europe, Vermeulen's criticism increasingly focused attention on Mengelberg and his relentlessly pro-German programming at the Concertgebouw. In 1920, Vermeulen greeted the Concertgebouw premiere of Dopper's Seventh Symphony with the shouted comment "Long live Sousa!" Vermeulen was subsequently barred from the Concertgebouw, and Mengelberg refused to consider the score of Vermeulen's newly completed Symphony No. 2, "Prélude à la nouvelle journée" (1919-1920).
As a music critic prohibited from attending public concerts, Vermeulen was without hope of employment in Amsterdam, and he relocated to Paris with the intention of making it as a composer. With his Cello Sonata No. 1 (1918) Vermeulen turned his back on Romanticism, adopting an ultra-modern idiom based on systems of his own devising, but also heavily influenced by the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. Despite the active interest of influential figures such as Serge Koussevitzky and Nadia Boulanger, only occasional performances of Vermeulen's music occurred in Paris. In order to make ends meet, in 1926 Vermeulen signed on as the Paris correspondent for a newspaper based in the Dutch East Indies. Outside of retouching or orchestrating older works, the decade of the 1930s was largely unproductive musically for Vermeulen.
In 1939, conductor Eduard van Beinum defied Mengelberg's 1920 ban on Vermeulen, premiering the composer's Third Symphony, "Thrène et peán" (1921-1922), in Amsterdam. This rekindled Vermeulen's interest in his own work, and as World War II and the occupation of Paris raged about him, Vermeulen produced two major symphonies, No. 4 ("Les Victoires") (1940-1941) and No. 5 "Les lendemains chantants" (1941-1945). In 1944, Vermeulen's wife died, and one of his sons was killed fighting on the side of the French.
After the War, Vermeulen returned to Amsterdam, accepting a position as critic on a prominent weekly. After a long silence, Vermeulen re-initiated his compositional activity when his 30-year-old Symphony No. 2 won the Queen Elizabeth Prize in a competition in Belgium in 1953. Vermeulen retired from journalism in 1956, afterward composing his last two symphonies, a string quartet, and several other works, although increasing deafness and his fragile health made it difficult for him to enjoy the fruits of these later labors. Today Matthijs Vermeulen is recognized as the major Dutch composer of symphonies, and is remembered both as a modernist pioneer and a descendant of the symphonic legacy of Mahler and Richard Strauss. Read less