Book ‘Arabesk’ about Simeon ten Holt by John Heymans

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John Heymans wrote the book ‘Arabesk’ about Simeon ten Holt. read the review by Wim Huijser. The book is published by IJzer…   

Several places had an iconic circle of artists before the Second World War. For example, there was an Amsterdam, Dordrecht and Groningen School. In Bergen in the province of Noord-Holland, however, people spoke about the ‘Berger gang’. They included the composer Jakob van Domselaer and his son Jaap, the poets A. Roland Holst and Gerrit Kouwenaar, and the writer H.C. ten Berge, as well as Simeon ten Holt (1923-2012). It was the artistic environment that initially inspired the young composer, but from which he also felt compelled to look for his own tone, his own sound.

Although John Heymans’ book Arabesk was announced as a biography, it is not, or it should be the biography of Simeon ten Holt’s most beloved composition – Canto Ostinato – albeit with an extensive history. In writing, however, Heymans chose a literary perspective from which he not only followed Ten Holt’s artistic development, but also that of other ‘members’ of the Berger gang. Heymans was curious about the answer to the question of what it is like to be acclaimed as a beloved composer after a lifetime of playing in relative anonymity. And with a composition that is actually at odds with everything this composer initially believed in.

Artist village

J. Heymans (1954), originally a mathematician and technology philosopher, was himself a friend of Simeon ten Holt for thirty years. Based on their meetings, letters, diary excerpts and conversations with close friends, he describes Ten Holt’s musical wanderings in Arabesque, which at the same time creates a beautiful image of the artists’ village of Bergen. It was here that Ten Holt, son of the painter Henri ten Holt, became friends at primary school with the son of his later teacher, the musician Jakob van Domselaer. The Natteweg, the Doorntjes, the Groeneweg and the Nesdijk; as a reader you have the tendency to regularly check the map of the village of Bergen to see exactly where all the houses and cottages that were inhabited by artists of the Berger gang stood. The young Simeon liked to visit the Van Domselaers. He also knew the aristocratic atmosphere that hung there from home. As he himself said: ‘From childhood I was raised with the idea that you have two kinds of dogs: breed dogs and street dogs’. Both the Ten Holts and the Van Domselaers clearly belonged to the first kind. Already at the age of fifteen, Simeon ten Holt left secondary school to study with Van Domselaer for about seven years. This made his pupils familiar with the thinking and acting of the uncompromising artist. Ten Holt heard a lot about Van Domselaer himself, but learned little from the subject. Soon he started composing a piano piece under his own steam. Opus 1, however, which he never rejected as a youthful sin, was a firm reaction to the Bergen milieu.


At the end of 1949, Simeon ten Holt left his wife Marie Dagnelie and their two young children to go to Paris with his youngest sister at the bonus tournament. It is an important biographical fact that is more or less hidden in the chapter ‘The tone master’. As said: Heymans did not want to write a biography and left the story of Ten Holt’s life to the composer himself, who would later write his own memoirs with Het woud en de citadel, based on the diary Ten Holt kept throughout his life from his departure to France.
In Paris Ten Holt was brought into contact with the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud, with whom he attended lectures. He did not learn much there, but according to his own words he was probably more there to experience the anecdotal side of the world and to meet himself. After his return to the Netherlands in the autumn of 1951 Ten Holt worked on new work for piano: 20 Bagatelles, Twelve Short Pieces and the Sonata 1953 with which he performed in the Bergen dance hall of De Rustende Jager in 1956.

Befriended poets

Meanwhile the friendship with H.C. ten Berge had started. In his book Heymans takes every opportunity to explain the relationship with these and other ‘side-figures’, referring among other things to Ten Berge’s novels about his alter ego Edgar Moortgat, in which A. Roland Holst also figures as Roelands van Holthuis. Roland Holst and Ten Holt befriended each other for half a century and also for a period of time each other’s neighbour. The composer lived in three places that were a few dozen steps away from the villa of the Prince of the Poets. According to Ten Holt, Roland Holst had no knowledge of music, but that was no problem for the friendship. Both liked to listen to records with the voice of Dylan Thomas.
The long introductions, such as those about the work of Ten Berge, Heymans considered useful because the poetry of the poet and sole editor of the magazine Raster testified to an artistic attitude he had in common with the composer. Both recognized each other a lot and liked to work ‘from nowhere’. Simeon ten Holt, too, after emerging from Van Domselaer’s compelling world of thought, constantly sought new forms in which to try out his musical ideas. A highlight in Ten Berge’s oeuvre, according to Heymans, is his ‘Nine comments on Canto Ostinato’, included in the collection Liederen van angst en vertwijfeling (Songs of Fear and Despair, 1988).

Circle of fifths

In the sixties Simeon ten Holt developed his ‘diagonal idea’ which boils down to ‘the simultaneous and equal performance of the overburdened tone series of the circle of fifths’. The composer found a similarity with ‘the structure of the human psyche’. In doing so, he was able to turn God-Divilism within himself ‘into the foundation of a personal perspective on [his] identity’. Ten Holt had come to this diagonal idea out of an aversion to good bourgeoisie and classical tonality.
With his major work ..A/.TA-LON (1968) for mezzo-soprano and 36 musicians playing and talking, however, a turning point was reached in his work and in the mid-seventies Ten Holt wanted to regain physical contact with his musical material. The composition initially threatened to remain unplayed, but was to be performed in 1978.
A year later, Ten Holt created something exclusive for piano with Interpolations. In his own words he broke with all kinds of social phenomena that perpetuated tonality, such as ‘slavery and serfdom, possession and abuse of power, privilege and injustice’, big words that were not unusual in this era.

A revelation

In the period that followed the atonal work, Ten Holt wanted to look for a different musical horizon. At the end of 1969 he therefore enrolled as a student at the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht and in Bergen he built an electronic studio in which he did preparatory work for his electronic compositions. Until he had had enough of serial work, electronic music and the computer. With the computer you can get far with schematizing your imagination’, Ten Holt thought, ‘but the danger is that the means then becomes the end and the music is forgotten with the surprising sounds (accumulations).
In his private studio he had meanwhile started on the wing in a piece that contrasted sharply with everything he had made before. In doing so, he went against the prevailing avant-garde. For the time being he gave it the name ‘Perpetuum’. A first insight into this had already been given to him in June 1975 during the first concert of the Philip Glass Ensemble in the Concertgebouw. According to Ten Holt himself it was ‘a revelation’. Although he did not feel directly related to Glass, the American had given him a sign. In the summer of 1976 the composer completed a first version of ‘Perpetuum’. The premiere of what was eventually to be called Canto Ostinato took place on 25 April 1979 in the Ruïnekerk in Bergen. It was performed by four pianists: in addition to ten Holt himself, the more or less friendly pianists Andries Hubers, Chaim Levano and Stanley Hoogland. To ensure continuity, the performance during the break was smoothly taken over by a tape that the musicians had played in advance. According to the composer himself the first performance was ‘relatively successful’. H.C. ten Berge, however, called it ‘a well-intentioned failure that left the audience somewhat bewildered’. It was only in the following years that the broad appreciation of the repetitive composition would gradually increase. In any case, with his recent work Ten Holt had brought about a return to ‘an almost shameful eloquence’: ‘tonality after the death of tonality’, or ‘God after the death of God’. The reaction he invariably received from friends and passers-by from that moment on was: ‘It’s nice that you’re composing tonally again, boy! The piece would later be played by the ‘Haagse’ team consisting of pianists Gerard Bouwhuis, Arielle Vernède, Cees van Zeeland and Gene Carl, but also by Kees Wieringa and Polo de Haas, Ivo Janssen and Jeroen van Veen. The latter still regularly organizes so-called lying concerts around this work, which even have a therapeutic effect for many listeners.

Euphonious avant-garde

With Lemniscaat (1982-1983) Ten Holt composed the next large piece of which the marathon performance started on 1 July 1983 and lasted more than thirty hours. However, it would not get the fame of the Canto. Whereas the Canto was a prolonged piece of music consisting of repetitions of a series of successive motifs, Lemniscaat remained stuck in an eternal movement, without beginning or end.
H.C. ten Berge summed up Canto Ostinato as:

‘Euphonious avant-garde. A term that connects two poles: that of tradition and renewal, that of the ingrained track and the virgin territory. At times blatantly romantic in which feelings that were forbidden are suddenly stirred up, at times also digging and rooting […]’.

In spite of the fact that the Canto has only fierce supporters and opponents and it initially took a lot of effort to sell the gramophone album, sales were steady. Gradually, however, in Heymans’ words, it took the form of a ‘cantorry’. In the nineties the piece received more and more attention and more pianists and other musicians included it in their repertoire. It appeared in many versions on CD and in the concert hall. Ramón Gieling made a film about Canto Ostinato and thus about Simeon ten Holt with Tussen front en thuisfront. It was his reclusion in particular that was magnified in the film, which was broadcast in March 1988 as an episode of the NOS art programme Beeldspraak. This made both the composer and his creation widely known, not to say world-famous. About his best-known work and what followed, Ten Holt himself wrote that this was the product of an individualist ‘who looks forward to a world in which people can listen to each other and refrain from debilitating ambition and be satisfied with the simple details of existence’.

Circle of friends

Arabesk is not a biography; the death of Simeon ten Holt in 2012 is therefore limited to a mention on the dust jacket. When it comes to the last years of the composer’s life, his elitist attitude is particularly striking, as are his egocentric and capricious traits. Friendships, including those with H.C. ten Berge, were sometimes terminated overnight. In the distance, this phenomenon is reminiscent of the circle of friends in the novel Bij naderzien (On closer inspection, 1963) by J.J. Voskuil, the writer to whom J. Heymans once devoted his book Lam naast leuw (Lamb next to lion, 2000). But in my opinion there is more kinship between the Berger gang and Voskuil’s universe. Heymans wrote with Arabesk a fascinating and occasionally ‘dramatic’ work – albeit sometimes with a bit too many repetitions – in which artistic friends end up in a comparable musical chair dance, but in which ambitions are eventually realised. As the publisher at the back of the book writes: ‘This sounds like the given for a novel’.
In the ‘Final chord’ of his monograph, the author explains why this book had to be written. This gives a nice retrospective of how he himself had discovered the Canto Ostinato, at a time when the composer was still taunted for his masterpiece.

Order the book

Arabesk. Over Simeon ten Holt
J. Heymans
Uitgeverij IJzer
ISBN 9789086841868