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Ton de Leeuw


16-11-1926 - 31-05-1996


componist, contemporary classical music, electronic mucic and computer music, twelve-tone technique and serialism


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Ton de Leeuw

Ton de Leeuw becomes one of the most important Dutch composers of the 20th century. His early inspirations are Béla Bártòk and Willem Pijper. After completing the national examination in piano, music theory and music history, he turns his attention in the 1950s to serial music. Stimulated by his studies ...
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Mentioned in the biography of

1950   Alex Manassen
1951   Guus Janssen
1953   Jo van den Booren
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Biography Ton de Leeuw

Ton de Leeuw becomes one of the most important Dutch composers of the 20th century. His early inspirations are Béla Bártòk and Willem Pijper. After completing the national examination in piano, music theory and music history, he turns his attention in the 1950s to serial music. Stimulated by his studies with Olivier Messiaen, De Leeuw increasingly immers himself in non-Western music and later also electronic music. Characteristic of his composition is its approach to Eastern music principles from a Western perspective, without imitating Asian music. Block structures, repeated rhythmic and melodic patterns and modality are its most important elements, applied with the clear goal of achieving balance and harmony. The vocal works, in particular, are representative of his aesthetics. Aside from composing, De Leeuw teaches, is a music director at the Netherlands Radio Union and a writer. His book 'Muziek van de Twintigste Eeuw' [Music of the Twentieth Century], published in Utrecht by Oosthoek, is a best-seller in musical circles. Among his best-known students are Jan Vriend, Jos Kunst, Joep Straesser, Bernard van Beurden, Jacques Bank, Daan Manneke, Tristan Keuris, Guus Janssen, Paul Termos, Chiel Meijering, Margriet Hoenderdos, Alex Manassen and Sinta Wullur.

1942 - 1945

Ton de Leeuw (November 16, 1926, Rotterdam) easily masters the piano, but it doesn’t satisfy him. He begins to compose, completing six pieces as a youth during the war, drawing inspiration mainly from the music of Béla Bartók. After chancing upon an Arab station on his radio, he becomes fascinated with the music of people who live, think and feel in thoroughly different terms than do Westerners.


Ton de Leeuw completes the national examination for piano, music theory and music history, and composes the 'Concerto Grosso', for string orchestra. The piece is strongly melodically constructed and has polytonal features. “It is, in fact, a youth work; more inspired by Hindemith than Bartók,” he later says. De Leeuw takes private lessons with Louis Toebosch, Everhard van Beijnum and Henri Geraedts.

Louis Toebosch

1947 - 1949

De Leeuw takes composition lessons from Henk Badings and becomes engrossed with electronic music. In the 1950s, the two lay the foundation for electronic composition at the Philips Physics Laboratory.

Henk Badings

1949 - 1950

De Leeuw studies non-Western music and orchestration in Paris with Olivier Messiaen. He also has lessons in orchestration with Thomas de Hartmann and becomes inspired by the avant-gardists Pierre Schaeffer and René Leibowitz.

1950 - 1954

Ton de Leeuw studies with the ethnomusicologist Jaap Kunst at the University of Amsterdam. From Kunst, De Leeuw learns that Eastern music does not develop, but simply is: its essence lies in the experience of the moment itself, not in its relation to what came before or is yet to come. De Leeuw spends much time in the library of the Royal Tropical Institute. He composes the 'Three African Etudes' (1954), for piano, based on African rhythmic patterns. The music leans toward modality, is free of the harmonic tensions characteristic of Western music, and in consequence has a static quality.

1954 - 1959

De Leeuw works as a music director at the Netherlands Radio Union (later the Netherlands Broadcasting Foundation). He is awarded the Prix d’Italia for the “radiophonic oratorio” 'Job' (1956). This work still bears traces of Western expressiveness. In 1958, he receives the Prix des Jeunesses Musicales for the 'String Quartet' (1958), a work in which he clearly tries to connect with the then-fashionable serial mode of composition.

1959 - 1960

On a commission from the Friends of the Brabant Orchestra, Ton de Leeuw composes 'Brabant', to a poem by Harriet Laurey. In this piece, he uses twelve-note technique, but rather freely. He is named a composition and electronic music teacher at Amsterdamsch Conservatorium. 'Antiphonie', for wind quintet and tapes, is premiered at the Holland Festival 1960 . The work calls for a spatial deployment of the musicians and four electronic soundtracks.


On assignment from the Dutch goverment, Ton de Leeuw travels to India to study classical Indian music. This is the first of his many musical “journeys of exploration”. He becomes a guest teacher in Japan, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Australia, the Philippines, Iran, the Soviet Union, the United States, and many European countries.


Ton de Leeuw is named associate professor of 20th-century music at the University of Amsterdam. He receives the Prof. Van der Leeuw Prize for 'Symphonies of Winds', commissioned by the American Wind Symphony Orchestra. De Leeuw composes 'Haiku', for soprano and piano, and the television opera 'Alceste', on a commission from the Salzburg Festival for a piece suited to both the theatre and television. He is unable to complete the work on time. 'Alceste' is more a dance drama than an opera and lacks the experimental character of his other work, for, according to the composer, a mass medium such as television requires music that is accessible to a broad public.


The first edition of the widely read and praised book 'Muziek van de Twintigste Eeuw' [Music of the Twentieth Century] is published by Oosthoek in Utrecht. It is translated into English, German and Swedish. De Leeuw composes 'The Four Seasons' for the international Harp Week in Queekhoven House in Breukelen.


The opera 'De Droom' [The Dream] is premiered at the Holland Festival. At its conclusion, De Leeuw says in an interview: “I am against the development of European music; composers are too expressive, too expansive, too aggressively oriented toward being individualists – I no longer believe in that”.

1968 - 1969

The world premiere of 'Haiku II' for soprano and orchestra, commissioned by the Rotterdam Arts Foundation, is given in Rotterdam. As in De Leeuw’s “spatial music”, the instrumentalists are spread throughout the hall and the vocalist goes on “promenades”, resulting in the continually changing relationship between the sounds. The piece wins the 1969 Visser Neerlandia Prize.


On a commission from VARA television, for the 25th anniversary of the Gaudeamus Foundation, Ton de Leeuw composes the television play 'Litany of our Time', one of his few biographically tinted works. For 'Lamento Pacis' (1969), he receives the Music Prize of the City of Amsterdam. The work is based on Erasmus’ 'Querela Pacis' (1517) and interweaves this passionate call for peace with Eastern spirituality.

1971 - 1976

Ton de Leeuw is named director of the Amsterdam Conservatory. The first Musicultura gathering is held in 1974 at Queekhoven in Breukelen and is dedicated to East Asia: China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. In subsequent years, Musicultura gatherings are dedicated to Indonesia, the Philippines, India and Iran. De Leeuw finishes 'Gending'(1975) for gamelan, a piece on which he says he worked for 25 years. He has already written for gamelan in the 1950s, but “assimilating this music takes time,” De Leeuw says. “A gamelan is an organism, almost a living creature. (...) Gending honours that instrumental organism, but without leaning on traditional Javanese thought processes”.


Ton de Leeuw introduces the concept of “extended modality” in his music. This is a contemporary extension of the age-old modal practices of, for example, India, the Arab countries and Indonesia. The music is formed by a complex structure of musical and extra-musical (ethical, philosophical and symbolic) factors. These elements can be traced back to the tone pattern, the “model”, that lies at the foundation of each composition. By constantly repeating the model, for instance, the music acquires a cyclical character, continually evolving from and returning to the foundation.

1981 - 1982

De Leeuw is a guest teacher at the University of California, Berkeley. He is commissioned by Groupe de Recherches Musicale (Paris) to write the electronic piece 'Clair Obscur' (1982), whose title refers to Rembrandt. The play of light and shadow relates to the masses of sound, which slowly transform themselves. For the choral piece 'Car nos vignes sont en fleur', Ton de Leeuw receives the Matthijs Vermeulen Prize. The text of this work comes from the 'Song of Songs', the music is characterized by “extended modality”: tone rows, rhythmic and melodic formulas, a strict, cyclical temporal structure that emphasizes the material and ideal unity of the whole from a strongly symbolical/ethical background.

1983 - 1984

De Leeuw is awarded the Johan Wagenaar Prize for his entire output. He resigns as associate professor of 20th-century music at the University of Amsterdam. On a commission from Radio France, he composes 'Chimères' (1984) for the vocal group A sei voci. The work is based on three poems by Gérard de Nerval. De Leeuw says of this work: “The sublime poetry struck me through the unusual combination of its highly individual and hermetic usage of language and nearly perfect harmony and apparent simplicity”.


De Leeuw composes 'Les Chants de Kabir', more deeply exploring in this piece the abilities of the A sei voci singers than he did in 'Chimères'. The texts, taken from the poetry of the 15th-century Indian mystic Kabir, reflect the core of Indian spirituality: a feeling of unity with the godly and the conviction that the path to this lies within man himself. To this end, the piece calls upon the inner concentration of the singers. “Music has not only aesthetic meaning (beautiful or ugly), but also moral content, in the sense of spiritually enriching or spiritually impoverishing”, according to De Leeuw. For the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s centennial, he composes the orchestral piece 'Résonances'.

Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest

1986 - 1989

De Leeuw resigns from the Amsterdam Conservatory and moves to France, living alternately in Paris and in the countryside. He composes Apparences I (1987) for the cellist Monique Bartels, and in the same year writes Apparences II, for clarinet quartet, a commission from the Fund for the Creation of Music. In 1989 he writes, on a commission from the NOS, Hommage á Henri for clarinet and piano, a work that clearly alludes to his earlier lessons with Messiaen.

Monique Bartels Sjef Douwes


For the 30th anniversary of the VARA Matinee Series, Ton de Leeuw writes 'Danses sacrées', commissioned by the Fund for the Creation of Music. There are no actual dances, however, in this piano concerto. “Dance, movement and music reflect on a human level the never-ending stream of matter in motion in our universe. They are, as it were, the stylized representation of this. When we experience this unity, dance and music take on a sacred character. Thus, the title”, De Leeuw says.


The opera 'Antigone' (1991) is premiered. In it, De Leeuw focuses not on the subjectivity of the separate characters, but their general human condition, common to all people, without emphasizing dramatic developments or psychological processes. For the 20th anniversary of the vocal ensemble Studium Chorale, he writes the choral piece 'A cette heure du jour', based on an ancient Sumerian text in the French translation of Philippe Selk. De Leeuw describes it as “a breath-taking account by a royal writer from Sumeria who, against the backdrop of the violence of war, voices his love for a priestess”.


A CD with chamber music by De Leeuw ('Les Adieux', 'Hommage à Henri' and 'Trio') wins an Edison Classic award.


Ton de Leeuw dies in Paris on May 31.


Ton de Leeuw is posthumously awarded the Matthijs Vermeulen Prize for his last composition, '3 Shakespeare Songs' (1995), for mezzo-soprano and ensemble.


The CD with choral works by Ton de Leeuw ('Prière', 'A cette heure du jour', 'Cloudy Forms', 'Car nos vignes sont en fleur' and 'Transparance') receives an Edison Classic award.

2010 - 2011

Music Centre the Netherlands brings out two volumes containing the complete piano solo works by Ton de Leeuw, which come with CDs by pianist René Eckhardt. For some of de Leeuw’s compositions this will be the first time they are published, other compositions will be published again in a modern, critical edition.

René Eckhardt

Discography Ton de Leeuw

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.

Photos Ton de Leeuw

Audio/Video Ton de Leeuw

Video Ton de Leeuw

Ton de Leeuw: Quartetto p...
Ton de Leeuw: Quartetto per archi n.1 (1957/1958)
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Ton de Leeuw: Quartetto per archi n.1 (1957/1958)

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