Rudolf Escher was a composer who wrote for the ear, rather than to conform to some extra-musical principle. He composed a relatively small oeuvre of orchestral pieces, chamber music and vocal music, and also immersed himself in the musical applications of electronic instruments. On the modest dimensions of Escher’s oeuvre, ...
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Biography Rudolf Escher
Rudolf Escher was a composer who wrote for the ear, rather than to conform to some extra-musical principle. He composed a relatively small oeuvre of orchestral pieces, chamber music and vocal music, and also immersed himself in the musical applications of electronic instruments. On the modest dimensions of Escher’s oeuvre, the musicologist Leo Samama notes: “The precision with which he approached his work – ‘That precision is no coincidence. It is probably somewhat hereditarily ordained, as is my academic interest. It’s in my family. My father was a half-brother of the graphic artist Maurits Escher. My grandfather was a hydraulic engineer, my father a professor of geology and mineralogy’ – often got in the way of impulsive expressive art.” Escher’s music is often described as being indebted to the French tradition because, among other reasons, even before the war the composer had written extensively about French music. But Escher himself objected to being placed in the context of the French tradition, because of superficial characteristics such as parallel chords or a certain arabesque-like quality in his music. “The automatism with which for the past 30 years, just to make certain, the Debussy/Ravel punched tape is fed into the music-review machine whenever a work by Escher is on the programme borders on stupidity, not least of all because Debussy’s and Ravel’s music represent largely different musical worlds.” (Rudolf Escher) Escher believed that music journalism fell short in interpreting contemporary music, particularly on the structural level; the inevitable reduction of his music to the adjective “French” was to his mind symptomatic: “My affinities with Sweelinck, his toccata technique in particular, with Gregorian melismas, Gesualdo, gamelan music, late medieval polyphony, and, not least, with Mahler [...] are no less real than that with certain aspects of Debussy and Ravel.” He found it important that sonorities and structures in music could be comprehended by the ear – one of the reasons he could not give atonal and serial music his undivided endorsement, though he certainly recognized the importance of this development for structural thinking. (Leo Samama: VPRO-gids 1992) He advocated broadening the field of musicological research to include psychophysics and the science of conveying musical information. (Elmer Schönberger: 'De wellustige tandarts en andere componisten', De Bezige Bij p.78-104, 1985)
Rudolf George Escher is born on January 8 in Amsterdam, the son of the geologist Berend George Escher and Emma Brosy, of Switzerland. His father is the son of the hydraulics engineer George Arnold Escher and a half-brother of the graphic artist Maurits Cornelis Escher.
1916 - 1921
The family moves to Batavia, in the former Dutch East Indies, where Escher’s father works as a geologist. The father is a reasonably good pianist and gives the young Escher piano lessons. Escher later says that getting to know the gamelan is significant in his musical development.
1922 - 1928
The Eschers return from Batavia and take up residence in Leiden. Here, Escher attends secondary school and takes piano lessons from Bé Hartz. He writes several pieces for piano and violin.
1929 - 1930
After four years, Rudolf Escher leaves the gymnasium to study at the conservatory in Cologne. In preparation for this, he follows the advice of Peter van Anrooy to seriously study the piano and takes in addition violin and harmony lessons.
1931 - 1933
Escher enrols in the Rotterdam Conservatory, where he studies the piano and also has cello lessons. Under the guidance of the Rotterdam organist J.H. Besselaar Jr., he becomes skilled in counterpoint, which will later play a prominent role in his music.
1934 - 1937
Rudolf Escher studies composition with Willem Pijper. In 1935, he makes his debut as a composer with the 'First Piano Sonata'. He marries Beatrijs Jongert.
Escher publishes a controversial essay, 'Toscanini en Debussy, magie der werkelijkheid' [Toscanini and Debussy, the magic of reality], in which he makes a plea for “good listening”. The essay is published by D. Van Sijn & Zonen in Rotterdam. Several of his poems are published in the journal 'Forum'.
1940 - 1945
Many of the pieces Rudolf Escher wrote as a student are lost in the German bombardment of Rotterdam on May 14. Escher helps with the underground newspaper 'De vrije Katheder' [The Free Lectern]. Under the influence of his war experiences, he later says: “My work of this period took on a sort of gravity, a doggedness here and there that makes clear it was born amid disaster. For me personally, that is precisely its ethical significance: that they are things made from the spirit, in a time when ‘spirit’ (if one can still use the term for such a thing) was almost exclusively put to destructive purposes.” Among his most important wartime compositions are 'Musique pour l'esprit en deuil' (1943), 'Sonata concertante' (1943) for cello and piano, 'Arcana Musae Dona' (1944) for piano, and the first two movements of the 'Sonata per violoncello solo' (1948).
1946 - 1955
After the war, Escher moves to Amsterdam. He is awarded the Music Prize of the City of Amsterdam for 'Musique pour l'esprit en deuil'. He works for a year as 'De Groene Amsterdammer’s music and visual arts correspondent. His successor is his friend and fellow composer Matthijs Vermeulen. Until 1951, he is on the board of the Netherlands Opera, and in 1947 he is named a board member of the Netherlands Music Interests Foundation. The theme of war and peace resonates in some of his pieces written after 1945, for example 'Hymne du grand Meaulnes' (1951) en 'Le vrai visage de la paix' (1953), for eight-part choir. According to the musicologist Leo Samama 'Songs of Love and Eternity', written in 1955 to poems by Emily Dickinson, “must be counted among the best a cappella choral music written in our country”.
1959 - 1962
Escher works in the studios for electronic music in Delft and Utrecht. For AVRO Television, he composes electronic music for the television play 'The Long Christmas Dinner' (1961). He teaches composition at the Amsterdam Conservatory and is a board member of the Netherlands Society for Contemporary Music.
1964 - 1975
Escher is a senior researcher at the Institute for Musicology at the University of Utrecht. He teaches the course Aspects of Contemporary Music. In carefully prepared classes, he conducts detailed formal and structural analyses. He calls serialism, among other things, “a forcible, revolutionary movement”.
1977 - 1980
Escher receives the Johan Wagenaar Prize for his complete works. On March 17, 1980, Rudolf Escher dies of liver disease in De Koog on the island Texel.
The correspondence between Escher and his half-uncle, the graphic artist M.C. Escher, is published under the title 'Beweging en metamorfosen; een briefwisseling' [Motion and Metamorphoses: An Exchange of Letters] by Meulenhoff/Landshoff, edited by B. Escher-Jongert. His essay 'Pelléas et Melisande' is included in the collection 'Debussy: actueel verleden' [Debussy: A Current Past], edited by D.J. Hamoen and E. Schönberger.
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