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peter schat


05-06-1935 - 03-02-2003


componist, contemporary classical music, twelve-tone technique and serialism


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Peter Schat

Peter Schat is one of the most colourful and widely-known Dutch composers of the 20th century. He was born in Utrecht, the son of a Protestant baker, and knew from an early age that he wanted to be a composer. He studied the techniques of the Second Viennese School with, ...
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1956   Klaus Kuiper
1966   Sophia van Sante
1967   De Nationale Opera
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Biography Peter Schat

Peter Schat is one of the most colourful and widely-known Dutch composers of the 20th century. He was born in Utrecht, the son of a Protestant baker, and knew from an early age that he wanted to be a composer. He studied the techniques of the Second Viennese School with, among others, Kees van Baaren. During the 1950s and '60s, he was a child of his time. Musically, he engaged in the avant-garde developments of dodecaphony, spatial positioning of musicians, electronic music and serialism. In the early 1980 his growing discontent with serialism led him to develop a harmonic system – the Tone Clock – that focused on intervals. Schat was a passionate Provo activist, writer and social critic whose political zeal can be heard in his music. He wrote more than 50 compositions and published numerous articles and books, among which De Toonklok [The Tone Clock, 1984] and De Wereld Chromatisch [The World Chromatic, 1988].


Peter Schat is born in Utrecht on June 5.

1953 - 1956

After secondary school, he studies the piano with Jaap Callenbach at the Utrecht Conservatory. At the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, he studies music theory and composition with Kees van Baaren, who grounds him in the work of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern as well as row technique. Schat debuts with the 'Passacaglia and Fugue' for organ at the 1954 Gaudeamus Music Week, an annual event presented by the Gaudeamus Foundation. He later jokes that the 'Passacaglia and Fugue' is “thoroughly Christian”. One critic hears Arnold Schoenberg's influence in the piece, a notion Schat dismisses. Later, however, he composes a dodecaphonic string quartet, the beginning of a period in which he composes with tone rows – this, incidentally, never leads to his total “conversion” to serialism. The 'String Quartet' (1954) is performed during the 1956 Gaudeamus Music Week. Later, one of its movements is published with a new movement: 'Introduction and Allegro in the Old Style'.


'Septet' is premiered and awarded the AVRO Prize. In it, Schat distances himself from late Romantic emotionalism, following instead the lead of serialists such as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and György Ligeti. He completes his piano degree with a performance whose programme includes Modest Mussorgsky's 'Pictures from an Exhibition' and Ludwig van Beethoven's 'Third Piano Concerto'. Schat's parents and siblings emigrate to California, but Schat stays behind because he believes that only in Europe can he live as a composer.

1958 - 1960

Schat meets the composer Rudolf Escher. They see each other regularly and maintain correspondence in which they reflect on the revolutionary musical developments of the day (serialism and electronic music) as well as social developments. Schat voices amazement with a mechanical aspect of Schoenberg's composition, which eventually leads to his falling out with Escher. He later says that Escher “dried up in the theory”. Schat composes 'Octet' and dedicates it to Van Baaren. Following Boulez, he gives the performers choices and opportunities to improvise in it for the first time. During the 1958 Gaudeamus Music Week, he meets the English-Hungarian composer and teacher Mátyás Seiber. Schat applies for a grant to study with him in London to work on traditional compositional technique. He attends the Darmstadt summer course and there meets Pierre Boulez. 'Octet' (1958) and the orchestral piece 'Mosaics' (1959) are premiered during the 1959 Gaudeamus Music Week. Forty years later, Schat describes the latter as “an exercise, an exploration of serial technique” and “Webernish”. In October 1959, he goes to study, mostly counterpoint, with Seiber. In London, he develops an interest in music theatre. “Opera is marvellous,” he writes Escher. It will be years before he presents his first opera, but in London he composes 'Cryptogamen', a song cycle on five esoteric poems by Gerrit Achterberg. While in London, he also writes 'The Fall' (1960), a piece for 16 voices that uses text fragments from 'Finnegans Wake' by James Joyce. At the Musikhochschule in Basel he meets Pierre Boulez, who becomes his teacher. He hopes to learn from Boulez “to think with musical consistency”. Despite his tirades against the “barren desert” of the serialists, he develops a totally serial idiom.


For the Donaueschingen music festival, he writes the ensemble piece 'Entelechie I'. Its somewhat aggressive “movement structures”, “sound shadows”, and “retrospective and anticipatory quotes” steer clear of melodic reference points. “It was in fact homework,” Schat says years later. He subsequently composes 'Entelechie II', scenes for 11 musicians, mezzo soprano, and orchestra, on texts by the poet Bert Schierbeek, a work commissioned by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. In Basel, he writes the introverted 'Signalement', for six percussionists and three double basses, of which he says: “Like children playing with sand, I play with these sounds, building with them hills of pure disconsolateness.” His discomfort with Boulez's “tone counting” mounts. Looking for new expressive possibilities, he becomes briefly involved with Willem de Ridder's Mood Engineering Society, a company that attempts in multimedia projects to link the visual arts, music and theatre.


At the request of the physicist Adriaan Daniël Fokker, Schat writes 'Collages', for 31-tone organ. Fokker is an advocate of the 31-tone system designed in the 17th century by Christiaan Huygens. Schat soon abandons this tone system and breaks off contact with Fokker after an argument about the merits of serial music. He wins 2nd Prize at the International Composers Competition for 'Entelechie II'.

1963 - 1965

He works on 'Labyrint', a “multimedia daredevil piece” that he describes as “a sort of opera”. The libretto, by Lodewijk de Boer, is based on Louis Paul Boons 'De paradijsvogel' [The Bird of Paradise] and presents three aspects of women: the ideological woman, represented by the musical layer; the everyday, realistic woman, through the play; and the physical woman, through filmed passages. 'Labyrint' consists of composed movements that can be performed separately.


On a commission from the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, he writes 'Clockwise and Anti-Clockwise', which takes time as its theme. The ensemble is divided in five groups and plays without a score, though there are printed parts for the individual groups: flutes, clarinets, bassoons, oboes and French horns. In September, Schat co-founds STEIM, a research laboratory in Amsterdam for the development of live electronic-instrumental music.


Schat writes 'On Escalation', in memory of Che Guevara. He later says of this openly political work: “It is a communist piece. The musicians seize control from the conductor.” At its premiere, 200 policemen cordon off Amsterdam's Carré Theatre to prevent rioting. In relation to this brief flirtation with communism, Schat, with writer Harry Mulisch and others, visits the Cultural Congress in Cuba.


Schat writes 'Anathema', for piano, in which tonal and serial elements confront each other without either becoming dominant: an atonal beginning stands against a Brahmsian espressivo molto. Schat describes the piece as “the transition to a style in which dissonance and consonance have been fully integrated”. The title, he says, refers to “serial music's taboo on melody”. At the same time, he composes for Frans Brüggen 'Hypothema', for tenor recorder and tape. With Louis Andriessen, Jan van Vlijmen, Reinbert de Leeuw, and Misha Mengelberg, he composes the large-scale, happening-like music theatre piece 'Recontructie', an homage to Che Guevara and manifesto against oppression and imperialism. The piece has a turbulent premiere at the Holland Festival. In November, 'Recontructie's composers form the vanguard of the 'Nutcracker' demonstration: a protest against the Concertgebouw Orchestra's artistic policies in which toy clickers are used to disturb a concert in Amsterdam conducted by Bernard Haitink. The demonstrators demand that the orchestra programme more avant-garde music.

1970 - 1973

Schat writes 'Thema', for solo oboe, guitar and winds. The piece, inspired by James Brown's 'I Feel Allright', embraces the physical directness of pop music, thus rejecting the abstractions of serialism. He writes 'To You' (1972), on a text by Adrian Mitchell, a piece that Schat says deals with “The dilemma of the century: the choice between enjoyment and criticism”. In 1973, he wins the Matthijs Vermeulen Prize for 'To You'.


In memory of Salvador Allende, he composes 'Canto General', a work that foreshadows the 'Tone Clock'. The text, by Pablo Neruda, expresses belief in a better world, but the music conveys no sense of hope. Schat becomes a composition teacher at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague.

1975 - 1976

He writes the circus opera 'Houdini'. The main character, the escape artist and anti-occultist folk hero Harry Houdini, stands as the symbol of someone who through his own power can free himself.


'Kind en Kraai' [Child and Crow], a song cycle on texts by Harry Mulisch, is clearly related to the famous song cycles of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann and Arnold Schoenberg, or at least with “what a song cycle once was,” according to Schat. The song 'Vergezicht' [View] makes a rhythmic reference to 'Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen' from Schumann's 'Dichterliebe'. Schat dedicates 'Kind en Kraai' to his son Sebastiaan. 'Houdini' is premiered on September 29 at the Carré Theatre in Amsterdam.


He finishes the 'Symphony No. 1', through which he becomes reconciled with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Critics accuse him of selling out, but as the work is in keeping with his growing interest in Western musical traditions, the criticism is unfounded. (Bas van Putten, 2005) The work takes the Viennese symphony as a form model but bears a stronger resemblance to Schat's 'Septet' from 1957, which strives for a synthesis between Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique and the Viennese Classical sonata form.

1979 - 1980

Schat discovers that from the twelve tones within the octave, precisely twelve triads (twelve combinations of three tones) can be made. He calls these triads “hours” that together form 'The Tone Clock'. The Tone Clock is an aid for gaining an overview of the different relationships in a tone system. 'Houdini' (1976) has its American premiere on August 2 in Aspen. On February 2, 1980, it is repeated in Carré Theatre. Schat has now become part of the opera establishment. He composes 'Aap verslaat de Knekelgeest' [Monkey Subdues the White-Bone Demon], based on a 17th-century Chinese fairy tale told in cartoon form. The premiere of this “comic strip opera” – for soloists, ensemble, mimes and acrobats – is enthusiastically received at the 1980 Holland Festival. On the same day, it wins 2nd prize at the Carl Maria von Weber Composition Competition in Dresden.


Schat writes 'Polonaise' for piano on a commission from the Dutch government. He dedicates the work to his father, “who instilled in me a love for piano music, risked his family in the resistance against the Nazis, and in the evenings played Chopin”. It is a prime example of music about music, which Schat was inspired to write by the strike in 1980 at the Lenin Wharf in Gdansk.

1982 - 1983

Schat receives the Fontein Tuinhout Prize for 'Aap verslaat de Knekelgeest' (1980). He resigns from his teaching position at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. He dedicates his 'Symphony II' to the city of Rotterdam, the birthplace of his girlfriend Marina Schapers, who was killed in 1981 during a vacation in Greece.


Schat writes 'Serenade', for strings, “an instrumental balcony scene”, which is performed during the Holland Festival. He writes 'Adem' [Breath], for the Netherlands Chamber Choir, on a text found in a 3,300-year-old Egyptian pharaoh's burial chamber. The book 'De Toonklok', a collection of essays and interviews, is published by Meulenhoff/Landshoff.


In his composition 'De Toonklok', for mechanical clock, Schat presents the twelve “hours” on the Tone Clock. The piece refers to Bach's 'Well-Tempered Clavier', which employs all 24 keys of tonal harmony.


For the Leonard Bernstein festival at Tanglewood, Schat writes 'For Lenny', a song on a text by the Greek poet Konstantinos Kavafis, whom both Schat and Bernstein appreciate. The piece briefly quotes Bernstein's song 'I Feel Pretty'. The book 'De wereld chromatisch; een muzikaal reisverslag' [The World Chromatic; A Musical Travelogue] is published.


For the National Opera in Brussels, Schat writes 'Symposion', on a libretto by Gerrit Komrij. The main inspiration for the opera is the 1981 biography of Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky by the American musicologist Alexandra Orlova. The book contends that Tchaikovsky was condemned by a secret tribunal to drink a glass of water infected with cholera because his homosexuality could not be tolerated in noble circles. From April 3 to 12, the “Schat in Groningen” festival is held, with concerts and lectures about and given by the composer.

1990 - 1991

Schat writes 'De Hemel' [Heaven], twelve variations for symphony orchestra, for which he receives the Joost van den Vondel Prize from the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster. He dedicates the piece “to the martyrs for democracy at the Square of Heavenly Peace” in Beijing. The work, which employs all of the hours of the Tone Clock, is premiered at the 1991 Holland Festival on June 21.


peter schat For the pianist Jean-Ives Thibaudet, he writes 'Etudes', for piano and orchestra. The correspondence between Schat and Rudolf Escher is published by The Walburg Pers, Zutphen.


In response to “the increasing ethnic tensions in the world and the war threats arising from them”, Schat composes 'Alarm', for carillon and large bells, based on Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck's variations on the folk song 'Est-ce Mars le grand Dieu des Alarmes que je voy'. 'Symposion' (1989) is premiered on April 29 in the Amsterdam Muziektheater.


Schat gives voice to the former Dutch East Indies in 'Een Indisch requiem', for tenor, choir and orchestra, which uses texts by the Indonesian freedom fighter and nationalist Tan Malaka, poet Jan Eijkelboom, and essayist Rudy Kousbroek. He lectures on his work in the United States at William Patterson State College, Princeton University, Rutgers University and the New Jersey State Museum.


For the North Netherlands Symphony Orchestra, Schat writes 'The Food of Love', on texts by Ida Gerhardt, Lucebert, and William Shakespeare. After the successful premiere of 'De hemel' (1990), by the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hans Vonk, Schat writes 'Arch Music for St. Louis', inspired by the Gateway Arch, the city's 200-metre-high, bow-shaped monument symbolising the gateway to the Wild West.

Hans Vonk


Schat finishes the 'Third Symphony' (Gamelan Symphony), which adds seven metallophones from the Indonesian gamelan to the traditional symphony orchestra. “While composing it, I had to think of the meeting of Tane Mahutu, the God of the forest, and a two-thousand year old tree in the middle of the forest, around which a beautiful platform is built so that you can't step on the roots. Out of respect, you begin to whisper. The twelve timpani convey something of that overwhelming tree experience.” Donemus publishes 'Het componeren van De hemel' [The Composing of Heaven], a collection of essays reflecting on nature, religion, and politics. Exactly 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Schat writes 'The Wallpeckers', a toccata for orchestra.

2000 - 2001

Schat writes 'Rondgang' [Walk-Round], for chamber orchestra, and makes an arrangement of 'To Whom' – from 'Het vijfde seizoen' [The Fifth Season, 1973] – on a text by Adrian Mitchell about the American invasion of Vietnam. Though the political reality has turned 180 degrees, one line by the poet still rings true, Schat says. “At the time, it was about the war waged by the imperialists, now it's about the lies of the communist regime”. 'Triptiek voor onze tijd' [Tryptich for Our Time] – with three earlier compositions: 'Indisch requiem', 'Etudes', 'De hemel' – is premiered at the Holland Festival. The work refers to political occurrences: the fight for Indonesian independence, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the bloodbath at the Square of Heavenly Peace. In 2001, he completes the 'Lenteconcert' [Spring Concerto], for flute and orchestra, which he had begun in 1990.


Peter Schat dies at his residence in Amsterdam on February 3.

In the discography you will find all recordings that have been released listed chronologically. We restrict ourselves to the title, the type of audio, year of publication or recording, label, list of guest musicians, plus any comments on the issue.

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