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Julius Röntgen: a biographical sketch

Julius Röntgen was born in Leipzig on 9th May 1855 the son of a Dutch-German father, Engelbert Röntgen, who was leader of the famous Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and a German mother, the pianist Pauline Klengel. Engelbert Röntgen was born in Deventer in 1829. His mother was Dutch and his father was German, from the small town of Lennep east of Düsseldorf. Engelbert went to Leipzig to study the violin at the Academy of Music founded in 1843 by Felix Mendelssohn. There he married Pauline Klengel who was a member of a well-educated Leipzig family containing several musicians. Her mother was French and her father was Moritz Klengel, Municipal Director of Music and Cantor of St Thomass Church, like the great Johann Sebastian Bach.

   Julius was an extraordinarily gifted child and never attended a school. Both he and his two sisters were educated at home by their parents and given music lessons by their grandfather, while they were instructed in other subjects by private tutors. His father tried not make Julius into a Wunderkind: he was actually very pleased when Julius made his first mistakes!

   However, young Julius was in many ways a wonder: for example he started to compose while still a child. You can probably imagine it: his home in Leipzig was only a street corner away from the famous St. Thomass Church where Johann Sebastian Bach had been Cantor and Director of Music. Furthermore, he received his first piano lessons from Carl Reinecke, the famous composer and Director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. In his early compositions Reinecke's influence is clearly discernible, as also are the influences of Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms. Röntgen grew up in these favourable surroundings, gaining the full benefit of a great musical heritage. Unsurprisingly, his first compositions bear the clear hallmarks of this heritage.

   In March 1870, at the age of fourteen, Julius visited Franz Liszt in Weimar. He played some of his own compositions - a Prelude in A flat and a Prelude and Fugue in C flat. While he was playing the Fugue, Liszt took over and produced an improvisation on it. After this, young Julius received an invitation from Liszt to come to the usual soirée at the composers house.

   Later, Röntgen went to Munich where he studied the piano with Franz Lachner, a friend of Franz Schubert's. Thus it was that, at the age of eighteen, Röntgen started his professional career as a piano virtuoso.

   He became engaged to Amanda Maier, a music student from Sweden whose father was German and who in fact took violin lessons from Julius' father. Their marriage would take place in 1880.

   In 1877 Julius found that he had to make an important career-choice: Vienna or Amsterdam? After long deliberations Röntgen chose to go to the School of Music in Amsterdam. A good friend of Engelbert Röntgen's, Professor Loman, who lectured in theology at Amsterdam University and who in cultural matters was a man of some importance, promised his parents that he would look after the then 22-year-old piano teacher.

   Shortly after his arrival in Amsterdam, Julius wrote a long letter to his parents with his first impressions of Dutch musical life. They were not exactly complimentary. Clearly, Röntgen saw a real opportunity to make a difference, musically speaking, in this dire situation. Six years after his move from Leipzig he co-founded the Amsterdam Conservatoire with the Dutch composers Frans Coenen and Daniel de Lange. He would finally leave the institution in 1924 after 12 years of service as its Director. During this period he had a very fruitful life as a pianist, conductor and choirmaster (for example of the Excelsior Choir). Brahms visited Amsterdam several times between 1878 and 1885, with Röntgen in 1884 playing the great composers Second Piano Concerto under the direction of Brahms himself. This performance was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the early part of Röntgen's life in Holland. Nevertheless, despite this success Brahms was not very impressed with the standard of Dutch musical life at the time. After one poor performance of a masterpiece of his he said: In future I'll only come to Holland for the delicious food and drink!

   At the same time a committee of distinguished men was formed to study the possibility of building a new concert hall on the southern edge of the city. Röntgen advised the committee to go to Leipzig to study the Gewandhaus concert hall which was known for its wonderful acoustics. After four years construction work, the new Concertgebouw had its grand opening on April 11th 1888. The music performed was the Entry of the Guests from Richard Wagners Tannhäuser, conducted by Henry Viotta. The subsequent founding of the Concertgebouw Orchestra brought to an end the long tradition of smaller symphony orchestras which used the Felix Meritis concert hall in the city-centre. The final Felix Meritis concert took place on April 13th 1888 with Röntgen conducting Robert Schumann's Fourth Symphony; then, 8 days later on April 21st, the Toonkunst Choir gave a concert in the Concertgebouw with Röntgen conducting. It was only the second performance in the new concert hall!

   On June 8th 1888 an advertisement appeared in the Algemeen Handelsblad newspaper for the new position of conductor and director of music of the recently-formed Concertgebouw Orchestra. Although Julius applied for the job, he was unsuccessful. The chairman of the board of the  Concertgebouw Orchestra Foundation had in mind a totally different person, the German Hans von Bülow, who had given several concerts in the old Parkzaal, a concert hall in the same part of town as the Concertgebouw. In fact there were some doubts about Röntgens competence as a conductor. However, von Bülow turned out not to have sufficient time to take up the post. Thus, in some haste, the board appointed the former violinist Willem Kes (who at that time was conducting in Dordrecht) as the first conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. He was seen as just the all-round conductor they were looking for, competent not only in the traditional classical repertoire, but also in the newer works of the period.

   Fortunately, Julius was not a man to loose his spirits after this first major disappointment of his musical career. He concentrated on the opportunities which came his way - chamber music and his work for the Conservatoire. It is hardly surprising, then, that the number of compositions which flowed from his pen in this period was much smaller than would be the case twenty years later. Indeed he achieved his greatest successes as accompanist to the renowned violinist Carl Flesch, the famous singer Johannes Messchaert and the great cellist Pablo Casals. With Messchaert he went to Vienna at least once a year and of course visited Johannes Brahms.

   In the summertime, when concert life in Amsterdam came to a temporary halt, Röntgen often went to Denmark with his family where he stayed at the Fuglsang Castle, built for the Neergaard family on the island of Lolland in the mid-1850s. There he met Carl Nielsen, the composer Hartmann and his daughter Bodil de Neergaard, and they played their chamber music almost every day. The beautiful countryside of this island in the Baltic was a great source of inspiration for new compositions. Julius met Bodil for the first time when he made a visit to Edvard Grieg's little summerhouse near Lofthus in the Hardanger fjord area. This friendship between Röntgen and  Bodil de Neergaard was the beginning of a long-lasting relationship between the Röntgen family and Denmark. Almost all of his sons were fluent in Danish as they had to have dinner in the kitchen downstairs as long as they were under age. At one point a brief article appeared in a Danish newspaper when Röntgen arrived in Denmark on another visit: Today Professor Röntgen  arrived in Fuglsang - but not the famous one.

   Together with his first two sons from his first marriage to Amanda Maier (who died in 1894), Röntgen formed a piano trio which performed for some years. From his second marriage to Abrahamina des Amorie van der Hoeven, another talented piano teacher, he had four more sons, three of whom became professional musicians. When the sixth son, Joachim, was born, he wrote in a letter to Grieg: With this sixth son I have completed my sextet. In his large house on Van Eeghenstraat in Amsterdam there were three grand pianos and several other instruments.

   Julius usually began his day with a short bicycle ride through the Vondelpark, then had his breakfast and spent his morning working on composition, reading and correspondence. In the afternoon he walked to the Conservatoire in Keizersgracht and after his day's work he went back home by tram. In the evening he played his music with colleagues and conversed with friends. Sometimes he was so preoccupied with his new compositions that he left the room without saying goodbye to his guests, going upstairs to compose again.

   Just after the Great War in 1919, Röntgen became a Dutch citizen. The reason was that his first son from his second marriage, Johannes, had been conscripted by the German Army. In the meantime, the second son of his first marriage, the cellist Engelbert, who had emigrated to the USA, became a soldier in the US Army Medical Corps. As a result of the war, Röntgen was not able to return to his homeland for some years.

   The number of compositions which Röntgen produced increased as time went by. In the final eight years of his life he composed almost one hundred new works, consisting mostly of chamber music and lieder.

   After his retirement in 1924, he went to live in a small village in the province of Utrecht called Bilthoven. His son Frants - the only son who did not become a musician (although he was a very good amateur flautist) - built him a large villa in the modern architectural style of the so-called Amsterdam School. It was named Gaudeamus. The big floating music room was round in shape and had almost no contact with the ground. Many well-known musicians from abroad visited him there and were his guests, e.g. Pablo Casals, the Spanish cellist, and the young Australian pianist and composer, Percy Grainger. In his final years, Röntgen gave lessons in musical analysis on such subjects as the compositions of Hindemith, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Pijper. After the Second World War the house became the home of the Gaudeamus Foundation which promoted modern Dutch music. After extensive restoration in the nineties, it is still a cultural meeting-place with an emphasis on Dutch music and art.

   Röntgen's music can be characterised as belonging very much to the Leipzig School; however, there is also evidence of his interest in folk music. Nevertheless, most of his compositions have a very particular 'Röntgen-sound' which is melodic and thoroughly memorable. If Brahms - and in particular the Brahms of the Second Symphony and serenades -  has a natural successor, it is Julius Röntgen.

   Röntgen even went so far as to experiment in his last year with atonal music, writing a Bitonal Symphony which has never been published. However, what he admired most was the fluid music of the French composer Claude Debussy. Once he said a little naively: Now I'm very proud of a new composition of mine, just in the style of Debussy. He also experimented with new media, such as film, going to the Tuschinsky cinema in Amsterdam where he played the piano simultaneously with a silent film on Dutch folklore which he had made in cooperation with the Dutch folklorist Dick van der Ven. Like many other famous pianists of his time he also made piano-rolls for the pianola.

   Two years before his death in September 1932 he received a honorary doctorate from Edinburgh University. The British musicologist Donald F. Tovey invited him to come to Scotland for the ceremony and Röntgen composed two short piano concertos especially for the occasion.

   Shortly after Röntgen's death Professor Tovey wrote an obituary in The Times. This is what he wrote:

 ... Röntgen's compositions, published and unpublished, cover the whole range of music in every art form; they all show consummate mastery in every aspect of technique. Even in the most facile there is beauty and wit. Each series of works culminates in something that has the uniqueness of a living masterpiece...

This biography appears by kind permission of the composers grandson, also called Julius Röntgen.