Frans Brüggen: the early years (1942–1959), with his teacher Kees Otten

The Amsterdam Recorder Ensemble in 1954, with Frans Brüggen on bass

When Frans Brüggen (born 1934), the youngest of nine children, was about 6 years old, he got his first recorder lessons from his brother Hans. It was their mother’s idea, as the schools were often closed because of the war, and Frans began to “mess around” out of sheer boredom, “which my mother couldn’t deal with, on top of everything else.”

Frans Brüggen: “Learning the recorder was an excellent idea, I immediately fell in love with that instrument and tootled my way through the rest of the war years.”

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As well as studying law, his older brother, Hans Brüggen, was a talented oboist who knew Hans Brandts Buys (see also here and sometimes played in his performances of Bach cantatas.  It was through these concerts that Kees Otten knew Hans Brüggen (and also another musical brother, the violinist Albert, father of Daniël Brüggen of the, now defunct, Loeki Stardust Quartet), and that’s how Kees came to meet Frans, when he was around 8 or 9 years old and still in short trousers.

He could blow the stars out of the sky

Otten remembered the occasion vividly: “He was very small, but he could blow the stars out of the sky, even though he didn’t sometimes feel like playing the recorder at all.”

When Hans couldn’t teach his little brother anything more, Kees Otten began to give him regular lessons, and they played together in recorder quartets in a house-concert in 1948, when Brüggen was just 14.

Asked by Brüggen’s father whether he should allow Frans to make the recorder his career, Otten recommended against it, saying that you shouldn’t become a musician unless you were 100% committed to doing so. “Happily,” he admitted later, “Frans didn’t take my advice.”

Kees gave very good lessons

Subsequently, Brüggen studied formally with Otten at the Amsterdam Muzieklyceum and, in 1954, was only the second person in Holland to pass the new recorder exams.

“Kees gave very good lessons,” Brüggen has said, “and his approach had a good effect on me, but straight away I wanted to be better than him. Shortly after I passed my exams I stopped seeing him completely. That’s how these things go: with help from a teacher you reach a point which enables you to continue studying by yourself, so that you find your own musical way. For me, that was really necessary, as I wanted to do everything very differently. Playing in ensembles was alright, but more than anything I wanted to be a soloist.”

Brüggen had played, for a while, in Otten’s Amsterdam Recorder Ensemble (see also here) and, according to Otten’s incomplete archive, had been involved in around a dozen radio broadcasts (some of which were part of the significant series in which Otten seemed to specialize) plus five or six live concerts.  Brüggen, who has large hands, often ended up with the bass recorder which, according to Marijke Ferguson, he hugely enjoyed and played with great verve.

Auntie Janny

Brüggen’s different attitude was evident when, in 1954, during his debut radio broadcast with Janny van Wering (1909 – 2005), Holland’s most respected harpsichordist at the time, he refused to ornament the slow movement in the way he had been taught by Otten.

“I really dug my heels in,” he said, “as I believed that playing ornaments was often used to cover up a poor technique, and the more you played ornaments, the worse you were at playing the recorder. And I wanted to demonstrate how well I could play.”

Janny van Wering, who, despite dispelling the doubts that her student, Jaap Spijgt, had had about playing with Kees Otten (see this blog post), admitted that she had not taken the recorder very seriously herself before playing with Brüggen. For her, it summoned up the spirit of the Socialist Workers’ Youth Movement (the AJC), which promoted physical exercise, folk dancing and amateur music-making – mostly on recorders – as a means of developing and educating young people.

However, she described the recording session in 1954 as “a revelation”, so much so that, after the broadcast, she offered to play with Brüggen again, and they subsequently performed a great deal together.

In the late 1950s they gave a series of 15 or 20 school concerts with the violinist Jaap Schröder (with whom they made a record of Telemann Trio Sonatas in 1958). In the course of that year, Schröder and Brüggen travelled around Holland together in Brüggen’s small Fiat car, with Van Wering, and her harpsichord, being transported separately.

Although Brüggen often played with Gustav Leonhardt, his collaboration with van Wering continued until at least 1963, when they gave a concert together in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in May and a radio broadcast for the BBC’s Third Programme in September.

Georg Philipp Telemann – Sonata in C played by Frans Brüggen and Janny van Wering.

In 1955, at the age of 21, Brüggen was appointed professor at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. He was later also to teach at his old school, the Amsterdam Muzieklyceum.

It’s curious now to reflect on what Brüggen said about the music he played at that time:

In the 1950s, we didn’t think of the recorder as an “early music” instrument, and we had absolutely no historical awareness. I just played what I felt like, which included, for better or for worse, [tunes from] symphonies by Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. I also played Handel sonatas, but that was because of the recorder, not because of Handel.

It was only when Brüggen came in contact with Gustav Leonhardt (see a translation of Brüggen’s 1971 interview about Leonhardt) that the connection between early musical instruments and the music itself became apparent, as he remarked:

There was a considerable difference between Leonhardt and me: he really knew [how to play early music] and I just had some ideas. Through his education in Basel and his experiences in Vienna [at libraries and playing with the Harnoncourts, among others], he had a much better knowledge of musical styles and he knew how to apply it to his playing. He could tell you exactly [from his research] why you should play a piece or a phrase in a particular way: he wasn’t guessing … With the awareness that “early music” was something completely different, I began a new phase in my career.  Then, I had to know everything about it, all at once, and I read a great deal [about historical  performance practice] and followed all the instructions to the letter.

J. S. Bach – Flute Sonata BWV 1033 played by Frans Brüggen, Anner Bijlsma & Gustav Leonhardt, recorded live in Milan.

Thanks are due to Marijke Ferguson, Marina Klunder (Kees Otten’s widow), Jaap Schröder and to Jolande van der Klis for her excellent Oude muziek in Nederland which has been a valuable source in writing this post. The English translations of various quotes are my own.

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