Bernard van Dieren

Picture of Bernard van Dieren

Bernard van Dieren was a Hollander who lived the greater part of his life in London, where he acted as English correspondent for Dutch papers. He wrote six string quartets and other chamber music works, mainly songs, an opera "The Tailor", a Chinese symphony, and other pieces. He is also the author of a provoking series of essays, collected under the title of "Down among the Dead Men", where he stakes claims for the consideration of Bellini, Meyerbeer and Busoni as great composers. Van Dieren is totally unknown in his own country: his works are all but never performed anywhere, his opera "The Tailor" still awaits its first performance, his Chinese Symphony has been played once: moreover, although I arranged for him to conduct in Glasgow at one of our concerts, he backed out at the last minute and the concert was cancelled. You might well ask me then, why bother to discuss such a person in this series of lectures? Van Dieren has always had a highly intelligent - if small - group of admirers; among them Hubert Foss, musical director of O.U.P. who published many of his compositions: Cecil Gray, noted English critic, who classed van Dieren along with Bartok, Schonberg, Sibelius and Hindemith, in his selection of 20th century composers destined for immortality: Sorabji who holds a similar belief: Constant Lambert who conducted the Chinese Symphony, Op. 11 and who told me he believed it to be in the first half-dozen great orchestral works of this century; Philip Heseltine who wrote enthusiastic articles on van Dieren in "The Sackbut" and elsewhere; and Sir William Walton, who only last year said "The works of Bernard van Dieren deserve to be resurrected. He developed a style of free dissonance altogether his own, contemporary with Schonberg's early works. I have only heard his Chinese Symphony once, and it struck me as being very rich and profound."

Cape Town has heard two performances of "The King's Scene" from the opera "The Tailor", Gregorio Fiasconaro singing with the Cape Town Municipal Orchestra, myself conducting; Richard Lilienfield, the blind baritone, has sung a good number of his songs. Colin Taylor was a friend and admirer, at least to some extent, of van Dieren's music. In our music library at the College, I found a score of the Sixth String Quartet, inscribed by the composer to Taylor; a Christmas gift in 1932. On the other hand, Taylor has written this sour comment on the inner cover of van Dieren’s sonatina, "Tyroica" for violin and piano - "Arid, academic stuff, without even the redeeming feature of being pianistic or violinistic!" The work in question was intended to be a parody on academic composers of the old Durham D.Mus. type, and I think Colin Taylor missed the whole point of the burlesque.

Van Dieren was married to Frieda Kindler, a very fine pianist, and one of Busoni's favourite pupils, whose brother, Hans Kindler, was a famous cellist, and, who, later, in America, made a reputation for himself as a conductor.

Unfortunately for van Dieren, he had never quite broken through that peculiar trait and barrier the English sometimes unexpectedly raise towards Continentals, and which never really allows them to 'become one of the gang'. Whether so proud, sensitive, cultured and artistic a personality would have allowed himself to be adopted is quite another matter. In Holland, he is apparently never entirely forgiven for leaving his country and settling in 'enemy' territory.

Van Dieren also wrote an authoritative book of Epstein, and on more than one occasion acted as Epstein's model: for instance, many years ago when van Dieren was lying ill, on what his friends considered his death-bed, Epstein came and modelled his hands which he later used for one of his best works "Christ".

There is a curiously elusive quality about van Dieren's music which makes a good performance unusually difficult, and possibly more than any other contemporary composer he has suffered from bad performances. Much of his music is without bar lines, and a characteristic "prosey" quality makes it yield up its secrets only after prolonged and intensive study. This, and the fact that he was suffering from an incurable illness which never left him free from pain, were the main reasons for which I can only describe as his shocking behaviour in Glasgow.

We were going to give a performance of "The King’s Scene" from the second act of the opera "The Tailor". Van Dieren had promised to conduct and John Goss, the noted English baritone who had made a particular study of van Dieren's vocal works, was coming up from London to sing the role of the King. The rest of the programme was to consist of songs and piano pieces - the latter to be played by his wife, Frieda Kindler, the authoritative interpreter of his piano works, and one of the really few inspiring teachers in England.

Bernard van Dieren and his wife came up a few days before the concert was scheduled to allow him to take the last few rehearsals of our chamber orchestra. John Goss was coming by a later train due to arrive in time for the final rehearsal. The news that we were giving this concert had received considerable publicity throughout the country, and we had received letters from newspaper critics and admirers of van Dieren so far afield as London, asking us to reserve seats for the performance, as they intended making a special journey to Glasgow for the event.

Our chamber orchestra, of about 22 players, consisted of the best available musicians we could get from Glasgow and Edinburgh. They had worked very hard at the opera, and were, in their opinion and ours, quite up to standard, only awaiting the final polish which is the privilege of the composer to give at the last rehearsals. This group of players was practically the same as we used on previous occasions when a small orchestra had been necessary, for instance, when William Walton, a few weeks earlier, had conducted his "Façade" for us. The leader of the orchestra, although a fine fiddler, was a rather bumptious little man, whose conceited attitude often got up the backs of the other players, and was a constant source of irritation to us all.

The van Dierens arrived on the Saturday morning. A rehearsal had been called for the following Sunday afternoon.

Lunch with the van Dierens on the Sunday was an enjoyable affair over which he enthused about such less accepted musical gods as Meyerbeer, Busoni, Alkan and Berlioz: he complimented us highly on the pioneering work of the Active Society and it was in a particularly happy frame of mind that I escorted them along to the rehearsal. But beware of vanity ... it is a snare and a illusion. We had been told that van Dieren was a very difficult man to deal with, and, although up to that moment we had no reason to believe this, nevertheless, I felt that the orchestra was more nervous of him than it had been of any of our previous guest conductors.

After a polite little speech expressing pleasure at the opportunity of being with us, van Dieren got down to business. He looked at the orchestra, awkwardly lifted his arms and started waving them around: the orchestra looked at him expectantly - what was he doing? Once more he repeated the same gestures and this time one brave member of the orchestra scratched on his fiddle. Van Dieren began to look peeved, and rattled his baton for attention: again he gesticulated wildly with his arms in mid-air, but not a squeak came out of the players. Van Dieren glared balefully at the orchestra, who were now beginning to look puzzled and not a little scared. The fact was that van Dieren had failed to give them the necessary preliminary up-beat. Eventually they did come in and the rehearsal proceeded. Right from the start it was painfully obvious that van Dieren didn't think much of our band. Over and over again he stopped them, seldom letting them even finish a phrase. He kept up a steady running commentary, which passing over the heads of most of the players, had something in its very timbre that filled them with uneasiness.

The interval came at long last. The players were looking either sulky or downright mutinous. Van Dieren stalked off madly into the artist's room and slammed the door. I followed after him to try and soothe his ruffled feathers, but was told to get out. In about ten minutes time he flung open the door, stampeding into the room, for all the world like a raging bull. His face was scarlet, his eyes flashing, his lips set in a grim angry line. Heaven help anyone who made a mistake this time!

We learned afterwards that he had taken a dose of cocaine - to ease his mental and physical agony: but if the injection alleviated the pain, it certainly did not improve his temper. The orchestral part of the opera is, in the main, very simply scored, with the exception of one or two absolutely fiendishly difficult and almost unplayable passages, of which one was for the bassoon. If van Dieren made our bassoonist play it over once, he made him do it twenty times, until the poor man was in such a state of the 'jitters' that he couldn't play at all. Then turning on me he rasped out "Why the blazes couldn't you get me a decent orchestra?" "Why didn’t you get me a bassoonist who can play" "Can’t the damn orchestra read music?" He stamped, raged, almost foaming at the mouth, and finally with a furious gesture flung his baton down and said the rehearsal was over.

He said that he would go back to London that night: wire John Goss to stop him coming North. "Couldn't we understand plain English THE CONCERT WAS CANCELLED." For an hour or so we tried to persuade him to change his mind: he was adamant - there would be no concert! So, the van Dierens took the night Scot to London (after wheedling out of me cash to buy first-class train tickets - they had neither tickets nor money). Arriving in London van Dieren rushed off to see Peter Warlock one of our vice-presidents and a great friend and supporter of van Dieren. What transpired at the meeting between the two composers will never be known nor whether van Dieren's recital of his unhappy visit to Glasgow added to Warlock's already mental sufferings - anyway, van Dieren was the last person to see him alive for Warlock successfully gassed himself that night!

Cecil Gray told me later that I should never have invited van Dieren to conduct: that van Dieren knew nothing at all about the physical side of conducting, that he had heard so many bad performances of his music that he was afraid of adding to their number: also, that he suffered from an incurable kidney disease which kept him constantly in pain. Sir Barry Jackson interested himself in van Dieren's opera with a view to a London production; the composer made such a nuisance of himself that Sir Barry told him where to put his score and washed his hands of the whole affair. After the Glasgow cancellation there was some nasty "letters-to-the-editor" stuff from us and van Dieren - even the threat of a law-suit. It looked as though we had fallen out for good; but, when I was about to conduct the Berlioz operas, he sent me a very friendly and congratulatory letter. Owing to illness he was unable to attend any of the performances, and he died shortly afterwards at the age of 52. It is worth looking into this composer's music: and well nigh time that Holland should sit up and take notice of probably the only composer of international status they have produced in a century - if they only knew it!