Johannes Bernardus van Bree was the dominant figure in Amsterdam musical life, particularly as a conductor, from 1830 to 1855. He was born in Amsterdam on January 29, 1801 and died on February 14, 1854.
His father, Frans van Bree, a music teacher, gave him his first violin lessons.
In 1828, he completed his musical education taking music theory lessons from Johan George Bertelman – as a composer, however, he was self-taught.
The family moved to Leeuwarden in 1812. Johannes van Bree began his career accompanying dance lessons and teaching music to the children of the baron of Minnertsga. He also performed several times as a violin soloist in Leeuwarden.
After returning to Amsterdam in 1820, Van Bree played for a brief time in the orchestra of the Théâtre Français. His affiliation with the orchestra of the Felix Meritis society, the most prominent orchestra in the capital city, lasted longer. In 1821, he made his debut as a soloist with this orchestra.
After being promoted to concertmaster of the Felix Meritis orchestra, he was soon appointed conductor. In addition, he conducted the choir of the Moses and Aaron Church (Zelus Pro Domo Dei) and, from 1836, the choir of the Society for the Advancement of Music.
In 1840, Van Bree accepted a post as musical leader of the Hollandsche Schouwburg. However, he resigned a year later because its opera company was dissolved. That year, he became the leader of the orchestra, which he co-founded, of the Caecilia Society, a philanthropic organisation. Beethoven’s music was performed most often, but also Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn and Carl Maria von Weber.
Van Bree continued to lead the Felix Meritis, Caecilia and Society for the Advancement of Music ensembles until shortly before his death. From 1853 to 1856, he was also the director of the society’s music school, while teaching music theory, the violin, singing and piano at the school. However, health problems in his last years made it difficult for him to keep up with all these tasks.
During his short life, he composed a respectable body of works. His compositions reflect the many sides of his public functions: Masses and other sacred music, cantatas and declamatorios, an opera, an opéra-comique and an operetta, songs, works for men’s choir, two symphonies, overtures, concertos, three string quartets, numerous piano pieces, and other shorter works.
His best works (such as the famous ‘Allegro for four string quartets‘) are, in the words of a contemporary, characterized “by simplicity and naturalness … by polish, clarity and freshness, a certain popularity, without triviality”. (F.C. Kist, 1857)
He had great success as an opera composer with ‘Sapho’ (1834) and ‘Le bandit‘ (1835). In 1838, he formed a string quartet, with which he introduced the music of Ludwig van Beethoven and Louis Spohr, among others, to Amsterdam audiences.
Aside from the often performed ‘Allegro for four string quartets‘ in D minor (1845), which he composed for the Caecilia Society, his music has largely been forgotten.