Syntagma Musicum, the internationally famous Dutch early music group founded by Kees Otten

Syntagma Musicum, with a youthful René Jacobs

Following the demise of Muziekkring Obrecht, in 1961, and a brief return into his jazz roots, Dutch recorder pioneer Kees Otten was soon active in early music again, making a series of radio programmes, with his old friends, the Collettes, with vocal compositions from the 15th and 16th centuries juxtaposed with their instrumental arrangements.

Shortly after this, he began musing on starting up another group:

I wanted an ensemble of the standard of a first-class string quartet. My aim was not to try to conjure up the atmosphere of paintings of the time, with dancing people and so on, but rather to achieve a translation into music of the visual art of Memling or Van Eyck. I was trying to make some kind of Utopia, of course, but I thought it was worth a try.

In 1963, Otten established Syntagma Musicum. The ensemble consisted of Will Kippersluys (contralto), Marius van Altena (tenor, portative organ, crumhorn), Anneke Pols (fiddle, viol, recorder, crumhorn), Kees Otten (recorder, gemshorn, crumhorn, rackett, cornett), Leo Meilink (recorder, crumhorn, pommer, trombone) and, Otten’s second wife, Barbara Miedema (clavichord, spinet).

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It was a period in which quite a number of new early music groups were being formed in many countries: Musica Reservata and Thomas Binkley’s Studio der fruhen Musik were both established in 1960, and David Munrow started the Early Music Consort of London in 1967.

Syntagma Musicum offered a much broader range of “early” sounds than Muziekkring Obrecht had ever done. In cooperation with instrument makers, they experimented with crumhorns, dulcians, pommers, rackets, cornetti and gemshorns, and also used copies of medieval and Renaissance recorders.

“At one time,” Kees Otten has commented, “I owned 80 wind instruments, as well as keyboard instruments and our new portative organ. From the outset we also had a business manager … so everything was arranged much better than before.”

Duke Ellington

In terms of planning the programmes, Otten admitted following Duke Ellington’s approach: a number of major musical highlights in the evening, with everyone in the band getting at least one solo. This was possible because each of the items took only between two and ten minutes.

Otten was known for his witty, deadpan commentary, which introduced the public to instruments they had probably never seen before. Otten said of his own presentation style, “It happened again and again that the public had hardly understood anything of the music, but they had had a highly enjoyable night’s entertainment.”

Apart from concerts, they also made several very large series of broadcasts for Dutch radio.


The first record by Syntagma Musicum, issued in 1967, was awarded an Edison (the Dutch record prize), as were their three subsequent discs. A Grand Prix du Disque quickly followed, along with a Japanese press prize. All of this equated to an international breakthrough.

In 1968 Syntagma Musicum played at the Edison presentation ceremony, at which the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein was to receive an award.  Bernstein was also present on the afternoon before the event, and was so enthusiastic during Syntagma Musicum’s rehearsal that he shouted out, “I want more!”. The press picked the remark up, and those three little words both helped the growing interest in medieval and Renaissance music and enhanced Syntagma Musicum’s international reputation enormously.

As a direct result, tours to the US, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Indonesia, Australia, Hong Kong and Japan quickly followed.

Almost all change

By 1974 Otten was exhausted, as he was teaching at the conservatoires of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and Den Haag at the same time. In the same year, there were also disagreements amongst the members of Syntagma Musicum, some of whom left the group.

The new line-up included the lutenist Toyohiko Satoh, the trombonist Charles Toet and two star ex-Brüggen recorder students: Walter van Hauwe and Kees Boeke (who also played the gamba and had studied cello with Anner Bylsma). Several singers also became involved for varying periods of time, including René Jacobs, Carolyn Watkinson and, finally, Rita Dams, who had been a student of the tenor Marius van Altena. Apart from Otten, Van Altena – whom Otten described as the constant element that bound the ensemble together – was the only one of the original members who remained in the group throughout the 25 years that it existed.

For business reasons, after nine “golden” years, the group was reduced to just four people: Satoh, Van Altena, Dams and Otten himself.

Otten summed up the period in these words:

This was a particularly good time for me: we had a wonderful repertoire, two singers who were perfectly attuned to each other, and a lutenist whose approach reminded me greatly of Julian Bream [with whom he had played regularly in his early years].

The end of an era

In 1987, after 25 years of performing with Syntagma Musicum, Otten decided to stop, and held a large party to celebrate the end of an era. As luck would have it, three days later, a letter arrived from Japan (where they had previously toured five times), inviting them to make a valedictory tour. “We did it, of course,” Otten recalls, “and at the final concert, the four of us performed for almost 4000 people, and that was the end of it.”


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

© Semibrevity 2014 – All rights reserved

Also of interest:

Kees Otten, Dutch recorder pioneer

Muziekkring Obrecht – the first ever Dutch ensemble for medieval & Renaissance music

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

The Leonhardt Consort: the early days – with recorder pioneer Kees Otten 

Gustav Leonhardt & Martin Skowroneck – Making harpsichord history

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