Harry Mayer

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  • Harry Mayer

Harry Mayer is arguably the least well-known composer in our line-up for the first 401DutchOperas concert. Soprano Jolien De Gendt will create Mayer’s Margarete. Pieter Dhoore will accompany her at the piano

Text: RS after Mathilde Mayer’s very detailed biography of her father at mayertjes.nl
Further sources: Harry Mayer: Faust (1952, score, sketches); Documentation : archives Nederlands Muziek Instituut

Harman (later Harry) Mayer (Enschede, October 22, 1913 – 1983) was the oldest in a family, which would have three more children. They were raised in a conservative, protestant environment. At home, no instruments were played, nor were the psalms rendered vocally when played on the organ . Notwithstanding the religious environment, the artistic soul of father and house painter Johannes was passed on to his children, since son Herman became a painter, daughter Annie a poet, little Johanna embroidered, and Harry… became a composer! This to the great disappointment of his father, who had prefered  him to continue the family business.


HarryMayerYoungHis primary school teacher J. A. Ketel, who conducted local choirs and fanfares, discovered Harry’s musical talent. He brought Harry to the Christelijke Fanfare in Enschede, where he played saxophone and bas-clarinet, from 1925 to 1935. His progress on the harmonium soon resulted in Ketel letting him play the Church organ. By 1926, the 13 year old received a steady contract with the reformed Church in the Wilhelminastraat, Enschede. He also accompanied Ketel when he conducted his choirs. Harry’s final step toward a life in music came in 1929, when Kees van Baaren heard him play. Together with Ketel, he urged Harry’s parents to let their son study with him. Van Baaren was impressed with Mayer’s skills in improvisation on the organ, and urged him to write these down. Just like Mozart, Harry could do this flawless. Van Baaren then tought Harry composition, which would provide the fundament under Harry’s later oeuvre.

Kees van Baaren and Kuno Stierlin

Van Baaren also taught Harry the harmony theory of Arnold Schönberg (1874 - 1951), and led him to German literary figures like Thomas Mann, or philosophers such as Kant, Nietzsche or Schopenhauer. In 1927 Mayer studied also violin, with Arend de Hoop, founder of the Twentse Orchestra Society. To make ends meet, he accepted a post in the salon orchestra De Hoop. That proved a bridge too far for Mayer’s orthodox reformed environment, since they played on Sundays. He had to stop performing there, or face being fired from his job as Church organ player. Mathilde Mayer: “Reformed or not, Harry accepted all sorts of side jobs. He played the piano at parties of the textile barons in Enschede, and accompanied silent movies at  the piano. He had to express extreme emotions, romantic ones, grieve, and such phenomenons as storms at sea, cars racing, and war. This enriched his improvisational talents greatly.”

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In 1930, Harry met Kuno Stierlin (1886-1967), composer, organ player, choir conductor, and pupil of Max Reger. Stierlin taught Harry how to improvise on the organ according to the greater artistic rules, and he brought him into contact with the music of Reger and Karg-Elert. He too let Harry accompany him while conducting his choirs. For Harry’s orthodox environment, his activities reached a point of no return since these choirs were Catholic. That was unheard of in 1930, and Harry then decided to break with his reformed Church. His modesty made his former reformed friends accept him still, understanding that his musical heart could not resist the temptation of the rich Catholic music tradition and the supreme organ of the Antonius Church.

Harry then earned his living by giving piano- and organ lessons. Unfortunately, this business coincided with the great depression, and his business soon withered. In 1935 he even had to give up his own lessons with Kees van Baaren. As a parting gift, Harry dedicated his first composition, a violin quartet, to his teacher.

By 1938, Kuno Stierlin returned to Germany. He increasingly sympathized with Hitler and his Third Reich. Harry disapproved of these ideas and therefore their friendship had been strained. As a result, the connections with the Antonius Church were also broken.

War years

After a brief intermezzo as pianist and repetitor of an Opera and Operetta company in German Westfalen, Harry had to rely entirely on his work as Kees van Baaren’s assistant. Since both were anti-German, they did not land any official jobs, and Van Baaren’s teaching practice soon dried-up, along with the entire musical life in Enschede. By 1943, Van Baaren ended his practice and moved west, where he became the most prestigious teacher of composition of the next decades at the High School of Music in The Hague. Mayer remained in his beloved Enschede, where he conducted several local choirs sine 1941, along with the Dutch Reformed Church Choir in Delden and their Youth Choir. For both he wrote several compositions, among them psalms and musicals. These compositions were lost in 1944, when the choirs had to stop performing due to the war. By 1943 Mayer himself already fled to Winssum (Friesland), where he remained until the middle of 1944. In this period he composed pieces for pedal-harmonium.

Upon his return in Enschede, he was drafted for the Arbeits Einsatz in Rheine (Westfalen), where he had to construct windows. A German doctor there helped him to false papers, and he escaped, walking back to The Netherlands by foot. He remained hided with a farmer until the end of the War.

The Nineteen-fifties

After the war, Mayer settled in Delden, where he was appointed organ player in the New Reformed Church. He would remain in post there for the next 21 years. During this period he became an influential promoter of musical life in the region Twente, as organ player, composer, and teacher. His compositions have various influences. Immediately after the war, he started studying Renaissance music and dodecaphonic music. From 1950 onwards, Mayer would use the dodecaphonic technique in his works, which made him a pioneer in The Netherlands. Still in 1950, he also married with one of his pupils. This resulted in two children, Hans and Saskia. Regrettably, the marriage didn’t last, and was dissolved in 1955. This period is however the period that his best piano music was composed, along with his only opera, Faust, from 1952. When I rediscovered the handwritten score of this opera in the archives of Nederlands Muziek Instituut (NMI), literally nothing was known about it. Even Mayer’s name was wholly forgotten, until his daughter Mathilde launched a website that recalls the family history. She suspects that he wrote the work without any commission, just out of inspiration: ‘He was very creative, inspiration was his driving force. It is well possible that he wanted to realize a dream with Faust. I do not believe it was ever performed though.’

In 1956 Mayer met his second wife. This marriage then resulted in two more children, Sjoerd en Mathilde. In this period, Mayer wrote many organ compositions, and chamber pieces, often written for his many pupils. See above!

The sixties and onwards

MayerPhotoStudentsMayer eventually also taught at the Enschede Conservatory. When the Twents Muzieklyceum was founded, he taught theory of music, music history, and composition. He kept this post until he retired. The family then went to live in Lonneker. In the meantime he continued conducting the choirs in Delden, then also in Lonneker, and he became a well known critic for the local newspaper Tubantia. He also was appointed Chief Editor of the magazine The Organ, and wrote for Mens & Melodie on a plenitude of subjects, among others about the composers/organists  Reger, Widor, Webern and Messiaen.

Mayer was hen valued by his colleagues for his didactic qualities, his skills in improvisation on piano and organ, his knowledge of modern music, and his publications. And yet, he did not become one the famous musical figures of The Netherlands, unlike his former teacher, Kees van Baaren. Even in the latter’s biography, Mayer’s name isn’t mentioned. According to his daughter, Mayer was limited by his Christian environment, and remained in the background of the province. A further limitation was his inability to keep up with time. He didn’t understand electronical instruments, recording equipment, or studio facilities. He didn’t have a driver’s license, but was sworn to his bicycle. If a concert was too far to bike, his wife would drive him. He didn’t understand electronics. Once, when the loudspeakers failed to produce a sound from the record player, he pulled the plug out of the box, and put it into his ear, in order to see if there was sound in it. Reel-to-reel rerecord, cassette recorder, it all eluded him. Until his death, he wrote his articles in handwriting, since he couldn’t type.



Faust remained his only opera, and also his most ambitious composition. Thie rediscovery of this intriguing title is one of the true surprises that my research into the history of Dutch operatic composers has revealed.  Faust is a large scale composition that fearlessly sets some scenes that are very close to Gounod’s work, including 'Es war einmal ein König in Thule', followed by a jewel aria 'Wie kommt das schöne Kästchen hier herein?’, on Goethe's lyrics. Clearly, like Boito with Gounod, Gounod with Berlioz, and Berlioz with Spohr, Mayer wasn’t suffering from ‘fear for the known.’ The work breathes the ambition to reintroduce the classical Faust story after Goethe’s Faust I, in his own musical idiom, which harks back to the context of Goethe's later musical world in terms of song (Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Wolf at the far end of the spectre).


Harry Mayer: Faust 'All mein Ruh ist hin' (Act III, Gretchen am Spinnrade - Anfang)
Margot Luttikhuizen (mezzo-sopraan), Peter Beemsterboer (piano), 19 juni, ca. 1972.

In terms of the story line, the work sets heavily on supernatural elements, with choral passages for the Earth Spirits, and Evil Spirits, which, including a scene in the witch’ kitchen, makes it the most supernatural Faust among the more popular operatic versions by Berlioz, Gounod, and Boito.Although Faust never left Mayer's drawer, two pieces of it wereonce performed in a song adaption for mezzo-soprano, on June 9, presumably in 1972, at the birthday of Charles Wolf. Mayer then needed two 'filelrs' for a song recital and juggled 'Two songs on text by Goehte' from his sleeve, the 'Song of the king of Thule', and Margarethe's Spinning wheel monologue. He then told his daughter that these weren't really 'songs', but that he had taken them 'from something else', without mentioning where from. it wasn't until I contacted her on behalf of our performances that she realized these songswere presumably adaptions from Faust. These adaptions were sung by mezzo-soprano Margot Luttikhuizen, accompanied from the piano by Peter Beemsterboer. We present here a fragment of the Spinning wheel song, 'All mein Ruh ist hin', which strikingly reveals the influence of Schubert's 'Erlkönig.' 



The 'Spinning wheel song' is awonderful addition to our own performances of 'Es ist so Schwul... Es war einmal ein König in Thule', and 'Wie kommt das schöne Kästchen hier herein?’, which we present at our first

In 2010 René Seghers started his research project regarding operas composed by Dutch and Flemish composers. At the moment, the research for his Dutch Operas Anthology is advanced to the point where 401DutchOperas can now present its first ever live concert, which features mesmerizing examples of Seghers’ discoveries. The concert will take place on April 26, 2015 in Hoog-Keppel. While it is accessible for invitees only, there is a limited possibility to obtain one of the 20 available tickets (see below). Performers are soprano Jolien De Gendt, tenor Denzil Delaere and pianist Pieter Dhoore.

In the past five years, 401NederlandseOperas.nl and 401DutchDivas.nl have cooperated in their research with institutes such as Netherlands Musical Institute (NMI) and Jan Jaap Kassies (vm. Omroepmuziekbibliotheek). The first ever concert of 401DutchOperas.com is unique in that it features no less than 16 arias and duets from 19th and early 20th Century Dutch and Flemish operatic literature. All of them are now completely forgotten and at the same time hauntingly beautiful! These excerpts will be presented live in concert, in addition to that a partial web stream will be provided. The concert as a whole will be available to the world by means of an audio and video download (70% of the 401DutchOperas members are located outside the Benelux).

The composers and their operas

Performed will be arias and duets of operas by Andries ten Cate, Johannes Bernardus van Bree, Carl Eckert, Baron Knigge, Jan Rijken, Emile von Brucken-Fock, Gustaaf Francies de Pauw, Jan Brandts-Buys, Ignace Lilien, Harry Mayer, and Flemish composer Karel Miry. Articles regarding these composers are currently being uploaded to the 401DutchOperas.com website, in both Dutch and English. Find here the program of this unique concert:

1. Ten Cate – Seïd en Palmire (1830) ‘Spoedig mijn zuster’ (Act I Aria Selima) [Jolien De Gendt]
2. Van Bree Saffo (1834) ‘Ginter in ‘t Ionisch nat’ (Act III Lied Palaemon) [Denzil Delaere]
3. Carl EckertGuillaume d’Orange (1848) ‘Wenn ich mit Menschen und mit Engelszungen redete’ (Act II Aria Anna van Hove) [Jolien De Gendt]
4. Karel MiryDe dichter en zijn Droom (1872) ‘Ik bleef den geest getrouw’ (Act II Monoloog Dichter) [Denzil Delaere]
5. Baron KniggePhilippine Welser oder die Perle von Augsburg (1873) ‘La nuit s’avance’ (Act IV Aria Philippine) [Jolien De Gendt]
6. Jan RijkenNorma (1889) ‘Keusche Göttin’ (Act I Aria Norma) [Jolien De Gendt] *
7. Jan RijkenNorma (1889) ‘Slotduet’ (Act III, Duet Norma, Sever) [Jolien De Gendt, Denzil Delaere] *
8. Emile von Brucken-Fock – Seleneia (1894) ‘Maneschijn muziek…. Ik gaf mij gevangen in vrouwenhanden’ (Interlude & Maanlied Heros) [Denzil Delaere]
9. Gustaaf Francies de Pauw – Bellida (1879) ‘Que les oiseau qu’il chante’ (Act I Serenade Lorenzo) [Denzil Delaere]
10. Gustaaf Francies de Pauw – Bellida (1897) ‘Ou donc aller mon Dieu’ (Air d’orphéline Bellida) [Jolien De Gendt]
11. Brandts-BuysMicarême (1919) ‘Gott sei gedankt’ (Der junge Frau) [Jolien De Gendt]
12. Brandts-BuysMicarême (1919) ‘Duet’ ((Der junge Frau, Narr) [Jolien De Gendt, Denzil Delaere]
13. Ignace LilienBeatrijs (1927) 'Duet Gratiaan-Beatrijs' [Jolien De Gendt, Denzil Delaere]
14. Harry Mayer – Faust (1952) ‘Es war einmal ein König in Thule… Es ist so Schwul’ (Act II Recitative & Aria Margerete) [Jolien De Gendt] *
15. Karel Miry – Charles Quint ‘Dieu des amours’ [Denzil Delaere]
16. Karel MiryBouchard d’Avesnes ‘Reviens, car dans mon âme’ [Jolien De Gendt]

* The performances of excerpts of Jan Rijken's Norma and Harry Mayer’s Jewel aria "Es ist so Schwul" from Faust are absolute world premieres. All other titles are modern day recreations of works of which not even excerpts have ever been recorded.

The performers

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  • Soprano Jolien De Gendt
  • Tenor Denzil Delaere
  • Pianist Pieter Dhoore
  • Violin player Kees Hilhorst

The concert will have a brief introduction by music philosopher René Seghers, author of the 401 Dutch Operas Anthology in the making, and artistic director of the concert. The agile lyric-dramatic soprano Jolien De Gendt with her handsome timbre and the radiant lyric tenor Denzil Delaere shall revive these works to their full splendor. Pieter Dhoore will accompany them on the piano. Naturally, De Gendt and Delaere will be Diva and Divo of the month on our 401DutchDivas website. Delaere will be the first singer to have achieved this status twice, since he was elected Divo of the Month previously, in the wake of his extraordinary appearance in the 2013 Karel Miry production of Charles Quint, by Lyrica Ghent.

Location, live broadcast, downloads

The location of the concert is a picturesque estate in Hoog-Keppel, near the German border past Doetinchem. There we will receive a select number of invited guests. The opening part of the concert will be broadcast live through webstream on 401DutchOperas.com, and in the days thereafter we will make the entire concert available as audio and video download. The concert will be recorded professionally.

Limited ticket availability

The exclusive concert is open to invited guests only, since it aims to establish contacts in order to further promote and secure future concerts on exclusive locations. In this way, we hope to disclose a rapidly growing part of the Dutch operatic heritage to the public. In this way, the anthology in progress will become a resounding document that points people to forgotten composers and operas that can also be enjoyed by the ears.


Should you have sympathy for our quest to disclose the Dutch operatic heritage and would you like to support research and further performances/recordings, you may contact us via email or phone number below. On the website you will find sponsoring options under the button with that name.

On behalf of 401DutchOperas,

Bas ten Have
Anthony van der Heijden
René Seghers

401DutchOperas live concert of April 26, 2015, in the presence of Harry’s daughter Mathilde, and his wife. The honor of the creation befalls on the wonderful Flemish soprano Jolien De Gendt, whom we ourselves discovered for The Netherlands. She is accompanied from the piano by Pieter Dhoore. Onwards, we hope to be able to perform and record more passages from Mayer’s Faust, and, why not, prepare the score for performance in Enschede or Delden.


Do you care with us about Dutch and Flemish operatic heritage and would you like to contribute to research, concerts and recordings, please contact us through the This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . On the website you will find a brief resume of our  sponsoring plan.

On behalf of 401DutchOperas,

Bas ten Have
Anthony van der Heijden
René Seghers