Johannes Bernardus van Bree

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  • Van Bree in 1854

For whom shall the trumpet sound?
For whom shall myrtle be burned?
On the wings of fame
Resounds his beloved name:
Van Bree! Van Bree! Van Bree!”

Song of praise to Van Bree, following the premiere of his opera, Saffo, in 1832

Composer, conductor and violin player Johannes Bernardus Van Bree emerged for a local teaching post in provincial Leeuwarden as principal conductor of prestigious Felix Meritus in Amsterdam, where he enjoyed much success since his being appointed there in 1820. By 1829, he was made principal conductor there. When he also accepted the post of conductor of the Toonkunst Choir, along with the post of principal of the Toonkunst Music School, he nearly monopolized musical life in Amsterdam. His compositions gradually turned him into the leading Dutch 19th Century composer before Johannes Verhulst. As composer of operas, Van Bree scored two major triumphs with Saffo (1832), and Le bandit (1835). From the largely lost score of Saffo we will perform the aria van Palaemon at our first 401DutchOperas concert of 26 april, 2015, in Laag-Keppel. Thisaria, 'Ginter, waar ‘t Ionisch nat,' shall be performed by tenor Denzil Delaere. Part of this concert will be broadvast live on this website by means of a webstraeam. the complete concert shall afterwards be made available by means of a download.

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Text: René Seghers
Bronnen: F.C. Kist: Necrologie Johannes Bernardus van Bree (1857, Caecilia); Eduard Reeser: Music in Holland (1959, Meulenhoff, Amsterdam); Algemene Muziek Encyclopedie (1980, Unieboek, Bussum); Eduard Reeser: Een Eeuw Nederlandse muziek 1815-1915 (1986, Querido, Amsterdam); M.B.: Recensie Van Bree’s Allegro moderato (Luister, 1987-6); Jan ten Bokum: Het Honderd componistenboek (1997 Gottmer, Haarlem)

Johannes Bernardus Van Bree (Amsterdam, 29 January 1801 – Amsterdam, 14 February 1857) received his first violin lessons from his father Frans, and later also from Johan Georg Bertelman. Around 1812 the family moved to Leeuwarden, where his father had found work. Little Johannes had to help him with tuning pianos and accompanying… dance lessons. He made such progress on the violin, that baron C.E. Collot d’Escury hired him as violin teacher to his children, on his estate in Sexbierum. After four years with the baron’s children, Van Bree returned to Amsterdam, where he became violinist at the French Theatre (Fransche Schouwburg). In 1927 he married Anna Maria Maaskamp, who, according to literature, ‘died not much later,’ although it isn’t know when exactly.


From 1828 onwards, Van Bree also manifested himself as conductor. First with the Mixed Vocal Society, and from 1829 onwards also at the symphonic concerts  of Foundation Felix Meritus. In 1830, he replaced Antoine Fodor as principal conductor there, which suddenly put him in pole position within the music scene of Amsterdam. In 1831 he remarried, with Johanna Catharina Uitenbroek, following which he managed to develop and greatly enhance the level. Felix Meritus, regardless the opposition he faced there. As conductor of the Toonkunst Choir Amsterdam, Van Bree also became a pioneer with respect to spreading the oratorio culture from Händel to Schumann. By 1851 he also started a renaissance of 16th and 17th Century motets and madrigals by the likes of Lassus, Arcadelt, Palestrina, de Vittoria, Stradella and Pergolesi. These concerts mark the earliest start of the revival of the old South- and North Dutch polyphonic schools, a practice that was carried on from 1880 onwards, Daniël de Lange.


As a result of his conducting post with Felix Meritus, Van Bree was required to provide an annual orchestra work of his own composition. Again he excelled, and soon established himself as an important composer. A first proof of his stature came in 1832, when his ‘Mis in As’ was distinguished at a Dutch composition contest. A cycle of war songs, inspired by the Belgian Revolt of 1830, brought him the status of National composer. This then enabled him to spread his wings further, which culminated in a number of Singspiele, and operas. On March 22, 1834, his opera Saffo was given no less than 15 (some say 17) times in the City Theatre of Amsterdam, a veritable triumph. In 1835 he conducted the Dutch premiere of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell in the Fransche Schouwburg, along with performances of his own ambitious new opéra comique, Le bandit. This outlines the musical specter of Van Bree, whose operas, just like those of his Flemish colleague Karel Miry, are both linked to the French opéra comiqe of Auber, while at the same time revealing the revolutionary innovations of grand opéra along the lines then just introduced by the likes of Auber and Rossini.

Maatschappij Caecilia and professional musicianship in the Netherlands

In 1840 Van Bree also became conductor of the Amsterdam City Theatre, where he was in charge of the National Opera. Regrettably that company dissolved within a year, ending also his operatic aspirations. Van Bree then turned to different ambitions, and founded the Caecilia Foundation, which would eventually become one of the most influential musical institutes of The Netherlands. Special within that orchestra was the fact that it was comprised solely of professional musicians, as opposed to the general practice of mingling professionals with amateurs. The professionalization resulted in better-rehearsed performances, which augmented performance levels considerably. The orchestra was limited to two performances annually, and in these performances Van Bree focused on the great symphonic repertoire by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Mozart and Weber, then still far from routine names on concert programs.

De compositions of Van Bree

Van Bree’s progressive musical choices testify of his shrewd personality and intelligence. This makes one extra curious after his compositions, both his symphonic oeuvre as his operas. Distributed over various genres, he wrote about 200 compositions. According to Jan ten Bokum in the ‘100 Dutch Composers Book,’ his composing was a compromise between commercial demand and personal believes. In his concert programs he is a revolutionary spirit, but in his commissions he mostly sticks to routine and popular techniques, closely linked to the lightweight, French style, with its preference for cavatinas, romances, gallops and virtuoso variations on popular tunes. His most inspired woks are to be found within his symphonic oeuvre, the string quartets, the masses, and certain piano works that are tailored more to the German-Austrian tradition than the French. Louis Spohr was his example there, which can be spotted easily in his – still famous – ‘Allegro for four string quartets,’ from 1845. To these most celebrated compositions, we add his opera’s Saffo en Le bandit, now that we have seen the scores of these (in so far as preserved). Saffo seems to add a very distinguished German romantic element to the French model, whereas it also has an audible Dutch element. Le bandit is more wholly French in tone, which can’t come as a surprise given the French language and its premiere in the French Theatre. A certain lack of depth in his less famous output seems to have been caused also by the fact that, given all his posts, there was little time left for composing.

Van Bree as opera composer

“The same fate that befell Saffo, also befell Van Bree’s opera Le bandit, which was rapturously applauded at its premiere, on December 22, 1835. H.J.M. Muller, who studied this opera, praises its dramatic qualities and settings. The use of remembrance melodies points to Van Bree’s knowledge of the most modern techniques then in use. It is a great pity that his short tenure as director of the City Theatre Amsterdam ended with a disillusion in 1840, which prematurely ended his career as an opera composer.” (Eduard Reeser in Een Eeuw Nederlandse Muziek, 1986)

In his vocal and instrumental music Van Bree is an eclectic, which is also revealed in his operas. Precisely in those works, the composer has also demonstrated a genuine dramatic talent, and deep understanding of the art of expression and characterizing within set situation. Those gifts largely compensated for an incidental lack of genius in his music. It wasn’t mere chauvinism that brought Saffo to no les than 17 repetitions. Van Bree has added to Van Lennep’s libretto a musical context that was far above anything created in this field here earlier. Admittedly, praise in Amsterdam doesn’t necessarily mean the world, but in the case of Saffo, we can point to international praise. Having said that, we also admit that the opera hasn’t found its way to the international repertoire, in addition to which it soon disappeared from the Dutch stage. Only the overture remained a beloved concert piece, especially so by the horn player Potdevin, for whom Van Bree wrote an important obligato part, that dominates the composition after its wild beginning.” (Eduard Reeser in Een Eeuw Nederlandse Muziek, 1986)

Van Bree’s orchestral music in radio-, LP and and CD recordings

Although Van Bree is no longer a household name in Dutch music today, his orchestral music is surprisingly well performed and recorded. Given the pretext, it will hardly surprise that the violin takes a prominent place in these recordings and broadcasts. There are no less than four official and at least two radio/TV recordings of the ‘Allegro for four string quartets’ from 1845 (1965 LP Olympia OCD 501 Residentieorkest - Ferninand Leitner; 1986 LP VERENIGDE SPAARBANK VR 23895 Concertgebouw Kamerorkest - Jaap van Zweden (his debut as conductor!); CD NM Classics 92035 met Viotta Ensemble -V. Liberman; 1996 CD KVT50 VAN-BREE-FEEST Nieuw Sinfonietta Amsterdam; 2009 RADIO Netherlands Chamber Orchestra - Gordan Nikolic; 2010 TV Nieuw Sinfonietta Amsterdam - Peter Oundjian). Below is a brief review from M.B. in Luister, June 1987, regarding Ferdinand Leitner’s recording of the ‘Allegro for four string quartets’, of which we also privide an MP3:

“Van Bree’s famous ‘Allegro for four string quartets’ is a jewel of a composition. Leitner conducts a model performance, which reveals the considerable qualities of this piece that is on a par with was then being composed elsewhere in Europe.’


Anneke Hogenstijn and Maarten Mostert describe their own private CD production, made in the wake of the Van Bree parties in the Van Bree Street, Amsterdam, 1996:

“As a conductor, Van Bree had ample opportunity to program also his own works, and to modernize the repertoire. Regardless his busy agenda he managed to compose Church music, cantatas, operas, an operetta, songs, duets, symphonies, overtures, piano pieces, and so on. Of all these, only 'Allegro for four string quartets’ is still played now and then. The work was premiered during a Caecilia-concert on March 27, 1845. This original composition has an easy listening quality, although it is at the same time very demanding on the musicians. Each of the sixteen violinists has a separate line, usually within his or her quartet. The various settings are played by each quartet separately, and then passed form one to the other, which created a unique uniformity. This effect is very audible, sine the quartets are organized in a half circle.”

Apart from the quartet, recordings circulate of





Van Bree’s opera’s in opnamen

Except for Saffo and Le bandit, Van Bree wrote several other Singspiele and opera adaptions. Here the complete list

1831 Neemt u in acht (Take care!)(zangspel op tekst van Foppe)
1831 De heldendood van J.C.J. van Speijk (The heroic death of J.C.J. van Speijk)(declamatorium op tekst van Kinker)
1832 Ja Neerlands Volk (Yes, Dutch Nation) (declamatorium)
1832-34 Saffo (zangspel op tekst van Jacob van Lennep)
1835 (23 december) Le bandit (komische opera op tekst van Theaulon naar Margaillan)
– Stage music for Esmeralda
– Dutch adaption of Méhuls’ Joseph

Al the above mentioned opera’s are now forgotten. They have not been performed since, presumable, the 1840s, except the overture to Le Bandit. The Saffo aria that will be performed at the first 401DutchOperas concert of 26 April, 2015, in Laag-Keppel, has a catchy tune that one instantly remembers, much as the tune of Kloris ‘Al die niet meugen’, or Papageno’s “Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja,” from Mozarts’ Die Zauberflöte. The challenge of ‘Ginder waar ‘t irinisch nat’ is mostly to be seen in the rhythm, which Van Bree tuned to imitate the sound of the rolling waves. The very particular musical alliteration demands much subtlety and coloring from the performer, so as to prevent it from becoming repetitive. For the 401DutchOperas concert in Laag-Keppel I have personally selected tenor Denzil Delaere, whose exuberant and colorful voice is very suited to this music..

VanBreeBanditCDThe recording of Van Bree’s overture to Le Bandit reveals a wholly different Van Bree than the one we meet in the Saffo piece. Le bandit is an ambitious opéra comique in which the overture combines elements of Spohr’s’ Faust with Aubers Muette de Portici and Rossini’s Guillaume Tell – as if France is located in the Thuringer Wald.


De ambitieuze overture maakt voorts duidelijk dat Van Bree niet voor niets tot de meest prominente plaats in het nationale muziekleven opklom. Hij is weliswaar geen baanbrekend componist, maar assimileert op geheel eigen wijze dan baanbrekende stijlen in een doortimmerd stuk dat uitmunt in melodische en harmonische rijkdom. Zijn instrumentatie getuigt van een volkomen begrip van de symfonische structuren die destijds in de orkestratiepraktijk toonaangevend waren. Spohr, zeker, maar gaandeweg lijkt het erop dat ook Beethoven en Rossini nog even aan Auber uitleggen hoe je zo’n ouverture nu precies in elkaar draait. Het is een pakkend stuk, maar zoals gebruikelijk met de zeldzame fragmenten die er van Nederlandse opera’s uit de 19e eeuw zijn opgenomen helaas ‘slechts’ de ouverture. Jammer, maar begrijpelijk want de ouvertures zijn natuurlijk het makkelijkst in symfonische concerten te programmeren. Zangers brengen namelijk forse extra kosten met zich mee, nog even los van het gegeven dat niet ieder zichzelf respecterend symfonicus iets heeft met het ‘begeleiden’ van zangers. Dat is vooral ook jammer omdat Le bandit gebruikt maakt van herinneringsmotieven en dramatische effecten zoals we die uit de vroege grand opera-praktijk kennen, elementen die hij zich door tijdens tal van uitvoeringen van de laatste Duitse en Franse opera’s aan de Fransche en de Hoogduitsche Schouwburgen eigen had gemaakt.


In the context of the enormous success of both Saffo and Le bandit, one may be surprised by the absence of later operas in Van Bree’s oeuvre. Reeser seeks the answer to this puzzling fact in his directorship of the Amsterdam City Theatre, and therewith also of the National Opera. The latter was dissolved within a year of Van Bree’s assignment to the post, and ended his career as a composer of operas. On one hand, Reeser suspects that Van Bree’s compositions may not drive audiences into frenzy as they did in his time, but on the other hand Reeser suspects that there will be several hidden gems that may surprise people today. Reading that, one maybe surprised to also learn that Van Bree had great difficulties to make ends meet throughout his life. His enormous output in terms of work and composing was moreover made in a life plagued by poor health. When he died on February 14, 1857, after a long illness, he left his wife and five children behind in bitter poverty. His funeral was a national event, yet in order to still the most immediate needs of his family, a benefit concert had to be organized by Felix Meritus. Notwithstanding all the praise-bestowed on him in the wake of his funeral, history has ranked him among the talented but less innovative composers, who passed over on the most complex innovations of the Viennese school, even though he promoted precisely these trends as a conductor. As a composer he was largely formed by the tastes of his youth, which were oriented towards the French school. Arguably, his harmonies aren’t as complex as Beethoven’s, yet his French orientation will have benefitted the melodious qualities of Saffo and Le bandit. F.C. Kist formulated it thus, in his necrology in ‘Caecilia:’

“Without praising his compositions to the rafters… they still reveal a genuine talent, genius, and much originality. They are direct, natural, melodious, and supported by effective harmonies. They have a certain polish, a clarity and freshness, even a certain popular mode (without being vulgar), which made them very successful in his native country.”

Support us in performing forgotten Dutch operas

401DutchOperas aims to perform and record excerpts of each and every single one of all forgotten Dutch operas. Apart from performing and recording highlights of the only partially preserved Saffo, we also aim to perform and record highlights of Le bandit, during future concerts. Should you wish to support this unique project to disclose the Dutch National operatic heritage, you can donate or contact us here to discuss the possibilities of sponsoring or hosting a concert.