Farewell to Frans Brüggen (1934 – 2014), the most famous recorder player in the world


Frans Brüggen in 1967  


Frans Brüggen passed away on Wednesday morning, 13 August, 2014, at his home in Amsterdam, just a few months short of his 80th birthday. He had been ill for quite some time and had become very frail. He conducted his last filmed concert from a wheelchair (see below) on May 14 of this year, in which the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century was doubled in size with students of the Royal Conservatory of the Hague, following a 5 day residency. Heartbreaking.

Video of Brüggen conducting Rameau

Brüggen, the youngest of nine children in a very musical family, began to play the recorder at the age of six. He was initially taught by his oboist brother, Hans, who “was old enough to be my father”. Apparently, with all his uncles and aunts, they had enough people to play all the Brandenburg Concertos (whether they ever did, I don’t know), and young Frans was regularly woken up at night to come downstairs and play a missing part. (For more details of Brüggen’s early years, see this blog post.)

Later, Kees Otten, whom Brüggen regarded as a good teacher, took over, but Brüggen wanted to do everything differently and, after passing his exams, he quickly developed his own highly recognizable style of playing, and his concert presence – seated with crossed-legs, hunched forward and stirring the pot with his recorder – couldn’t have been more different from the established norm of the early 1950s.

Although Otten laid the foundations of the rehabilitation of the recorder as a “real” musical instrument (see this blog post), it was Brüggen who boosted the recorder’s image yet further, enhancing it with his casual manner and boyish good looks.

And it was Brüggen who was to become the first fully fledged recorder soloist of the early music revival, aided and abetted by Gustav Leonhardt (whom he called “the teacher of a generation” – in fact, of more than one). Their trio, completed by cellist Anner Bijlsma, and Brüggen’s participation, from 1960 to 1968, in Quadro Amsterdam with violinist Jaap Schröder, even using modern instruments, helped cement Brüggen’s reputation.

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By 1967, he was an international superstar, poster-boy of the early music movement and, as a Dutch obituary published this week reminds us, “the recorder player in the sports car [a red Porsche]” which, like Leonhardt, he liked to drive at 200 km an hour.

Video of a youthful Brüggen, playing Telemann’s Fantasie No 3, in 1967

Around this time, Brüggen said that he intended to play the recorder for another 10 years and hoped by then to have made as much money as he needed, and to be living somewhere in the Mediterranean. His prediction was to come true: he bought a house in Tuscany from Luciano Berio, and he continued to play until the early eighties, when he was the soloist in concertos with his own Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, which he co-founded with musicologist-turned-manager, Sieuwert Verster, in 1981.

Video of Frans Brüggen talking about his orchestra, in 2012

He often said that there were only a couple of dozen masterpieces in the recorder repertoire, and this led him, like his teacher, Kees Otten, before him, to commission new works from contemporary composers. Berio’s Gesti, challenging for both player and listener, was premiered at the Wigmore Hall in 1966 and became something of a signature piece for Brüggen.

Video of Brüggen playing Berio’s Gesti and talking about it (in Dutch), in 1967

Stravinsky was one of the few composers, perhaps even the only one, to decline a request from him, saying, “You’re a nice boy … but I’m too old.”

A musical anarchist

Brüggen was something of a musical anarchist. He quickly found his own way, rejecting much of what he had been taught, “discovered” old instruments and forgotten sources, particularly during his road-trip to Italy and Austria, in an old Volkswagen square-back camper van, following his double graduation from high school and the conservatory.

He was also active in creating new repertoire, and pushed the boundaries of what could happen in a concert, with his star students Kees Boeke and Walter van Hauwe in his experimental group, Sour Cream, formed in 1971. Dressed mostly in white, they played a dynamic and audatious mix of standard recorder repertoire and avant garde “performance pieces”.

Sour Cream playing Tye

Walter van Hauwe’s article “Frans Brüggen at 60”

Brüggen also added his voice to the “Nutcracker Action” (little known outside Holland), in November 1969, in which the elitist nature of Dutch music culture and the very conservative programming of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra was challenged by leading artists and composers, whose work was often overlooked. Their coordinated disruption of a RCO concert at the Concertgebouw, using children’s rattles and plastic kazoos, stunned everyone present, and the 40 perpetrators were literally thrown out into the street. The resulting media uproar did much good in liberalizing the whole scene and in shaking up the Dutch musical establishment.

Brüggen was involved in the ensuing public debate and his much-quoted cri de coeur was that every note of music by Mozart to Beethoven (and by inference that of earlier works too) played by the RCO was a lie, as it lacked any reference to the composer’s original intentions.

Brüggen the conductor

Brüggen’s approach mellowed over time, and as well as his own original-instrument band he was later to conduct the RCO and other “normal” orchestras, which he imbued with the old playing styles as well as altering their approach to what the composers concerned might have intended, often with quite staggering results.

He managed consistently to create surprising performances of exceptional refinement, particularly with his own Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century. I will never forget his Matthew Passion, where the dramatic intensity was both shocking and sublime.

Listen here to the complete 1998 Matthew Passion

With his own orchestra, although he was at the front as conductor, it was always clear that he was performing with them, and this collaboration, coupled with much mutual respect and love and the democratic set-up of the orchestra, produced music-making of the highest order. As Tom Service has pointed out in his blog, “He seemed to share the music with his musicians rather than lead them.”

Frans Brüggen, as a conductor, recorder player and flautist, was a musician par excellence, an early music pioneer of immense importance, a challenging and imaginative teacher and, above all, a brilliant and adventurous spirit full of openness and generosity.

A Remembrance Service for Frans Brüggen will be held at the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam next Tuesday, 19 August, 2014. People can pay their final respects from 11 o’clock and the service will start at 12 noon. According to Sieuwert Verster, Managing Director of  the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, “It will be a modest and sober meeting, with few speakers and little music.”

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1 comment to Farewell to Frans Brüggen (1934 – 2014), the most famous recorder player in the world

  • Louis A. Waldman [Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin]

    This is a really revealing article, in that it goes beyond Frans Brüggen’s staggering achievements in early music to uncover his activities as part of the European musical avant-garde in the late 60s and 70s. Maestro Brüggen brought the past into a searching conversation with the present, as only a few very great artists can do.

    A radical with a recorder.

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