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Tristan Keuris


03-10-1946 - 15-12-1996


componist, contemporary classical music



Tristan Keuris

As a child, Tristan Keuris wanted to imitate what he found beautiful. He began composing as soon as he could play the piano. His musical talent was discovered at the local music school. While most of his contemporaries were devoted to serialism, Keuris was more interested in music history and ...
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Biography Tristan Keuris

As a child, Tristan Keuris wanted to imitate what he found beautiful. He began composing as soon as he could play the piano. His musical talent was discovered at the local music school. While most of his contemporaries were devoted to serialism, Keuris was more interested in music history and the workings of sound and tone colour. His main models were Anton Webern, Gustav Mahler and Igor Stravinsky – Webern for his use of interval structures; Mahler for his large-scale, late Romantic orchestrations; and Stravinsky for his syncopated rhythmic structures and diatonal writing. Keuris’ compositions sound organic and harmonic – he once said that he worked “in complexes of atmospheres and colours”. He called the form of his works athematic: “The form is indeed traditional, but regarding their content, my works deviate from that. I know immediately when I’ve come across a fragment with ‘life in it’. I go straight to work with it.” Keuris said that the organic quality characteristic of his music simply came of itself. He wrote more than 50 pieces, including orchestral, vocal and chamber music. His vocal music shows a clear preference for Italian text. His first success with a wider audience, also intenationally, came with the 'Sinfonia' (1974) for orchestra.

1946 - 1961

Tristan Keuris is born on October 3, 1946, in Amersfoort. After playing the recorder and flute as a young child, he begins taking piano lessons at age 10. This is also when he starts composing. “It was at my grandmother’s house. I was enormously productive.” At ages 12 and 13 he wrote about 40 pieces, including chamber music, piano pieces and two symphonies. “Bartók’s 'Concerto for Orchestra' can be heard in the first symphony. The second symphony has been lost,” Keuris says. Looking back on this period, he says in 1976: “I imitated a number of people, and I did it consciously. Anything I thought was beautiful, I wanted to be able to do myself – and that’s still true.” At the music school in Amersfoort, the 14-year-old Keuris has his first music theory and composition lessons with Jan van Vlijmen, who was then director of the music school, and the following year with Ton Hartsuiker, who teaches him about twelve-tone technique.

Jan van Vlijmen Ton Hartsuiker

1962 - 1968

Keuris has a conspicuously large amount of absences in high school, and in 1962 he is expelled. “I worked very hard, but not on what they wanted me to,” he says 25 years later. With about 60 compositions to his name, he is accepted at the Utrecht Conservatory and studies composition with Ton de Leeuw, who teaches him to be consistent and to dispel any vestiges of tonal harmony. Keuris makes a detailed study of serialism. He later concludes that its calculating approach is foreign to his sensibilities. His 'Kwartet' for orchestra (1967) is still in a strict serial style and with a De Leeuw touch. 'Play' for clarinet and piano (1967) deviates somewhat from the introverted style of his teacher.

Ton de Leeuw


Keuris graduates from the Utrecht Conservatory with the Prize for Composition and makes his debut at the Gaudeamus Music Week with 'Kwartet' for orchestra (1967). In addition, he writes 'Choral Music I' for orchestra, in which he adds diatonic elements. He later says, “A wonderful tool, that twelve-tone technique, but the first good dodecaphonic piece has yet to be written”.


He writes the 'Sonata' for piano and dedicates it to his former teacher Ton Hartsuiker. Hartsuiker later says of the piece: “It has all the marks of a transitional work; on the one hand, the influence of Ton de Leeuw is still noticeable, but on the other, more individual aspects obtrude, and these point to the later Keuris.” At the request of the saxophonist Ed Boogaard, Keuris writes the 'Saxofoonkwartet', a work in which he clearly attempts to break free of his teacher. It is a “wild piece, with an alternation of chords that lie very far from each other; intentionally ugly and rough,” according to the composer. A British reviewer describes it as “an inexplicable, but intriguing synthesis of bebop saxophone, Messiaen gamelan, post-Webernian fragmentation and the harmonies of a Hollywood arranger”.

Ed Bogaard

1971 - 1973

Keuris writes the 'Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra'. Two years later, he completes 'Concertante Music' for ensemble and, for the Phemios Trio, 'Music for Violin, Clarinet and Piano'.


Keuris teaches composition and music theory at the Groningen Conservatory. He finishes the 'Sinfonia', a commission from the VPRO broadcasting company. The press is somewhat reserved in its response, but audiences are more enthusiastic. Though years later he calls it a “rather weak piece”, he explains: “I don’t intentionally write accessible music. But my discourse is often logical. That simply happens. Music has to be convincing”.


'Sinfonia' receives the Matthijs Vermeulen Prize. The jury report says: “What is true of Keuris’ music in general, is particularly true of this piece: It speaks a clear language!” Critics, however, wonder whether it marks a return to the Romantic symphony. Keuris concedes to feeling nostalgia for the Romantic and Classical eras. But he says that he wants to rediscover a simpler, more transparent system, and “it has to be new. So I have begun writing more diatonically, because dodecaphony yields endless chromaticism, and that produces a relatively grey medium. I had the idea of cleaning house: everything has to be freer, more spacious”. With 'Sinfonia', Keuris becomes internationally known.


Keuris writes 'Serenade' for oboe and orchestra, in which Classical elements of form, melody and harmony dominate, even more than was the case in 'Sinfonia' (1974). He also writes 'Fantasia' for flute and 'Fingerprints' for piano. In an interview with Elmer Schönberger, he explains that 'Fantasia' could be thought of as a 'Sinfonia' for a single instrument.

1977 - 1980

Keuris begins teaching at the Hilversum Conservatory and composes in that year the 'Sonata' for violin and piano and 'Concertino' for string quartet and bass clarinet (revised in 1979). A year later, he writes 'Capriccio' (for 12 winds and double bass) for the Netherlands Wind Ensemble to a commission from the Johan Wagenaar Foundation. In 1980, he completes the 'Piano Concerto' and 'Eight Miniatures', commissioned by the Nieuw Ensemble.


For the 90th anniversary of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Keuris composes 'Movements'. “I try to let the orchestra sound as ‘natural’ as possible. I use lots of short rests, which should give light and space, and through which you can hear everything well.”


The Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Haitink, takes the 'Piano Concerto' (1980) and 'Movements' (1981) on its tour of the United States. For these works, Keuris is awarded the City of Hilversum Culture Prize. He composes the 'String Quartet' and 'Divertimento' for violin, wind quintet, piano and double bass.


For the presentation of the book 'Geschiedenis der Nederlanden' [History of the Netherlands] in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Keuris writes the 'Clarinet Quartet'. In it, he does not try to portray elements of Dutch traditional music; quite the contrary, he breaks that expectation with music written entirely in a 20th-century style. The piece has an aggressive beginning, a remarkable tone colour, but it is also accessible. Commissioned by the Rotterdam Arts Foundation, he composes 'Seven Pieces for Bass Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra'.


Tristan Keuris gives master classes in Christianssand and moves from the Hilversum to the Utrecht Conservatory, where he begins teaching composition. He writes the 'Piano Trio' and 'Violin Concerto'. In the 'Piano Trio', he alludes to a salon music atmosphere: “Not for the fun of it, but out of craftsmanlike interest, to see if I could handle the salon quality”.


Keuris writes the 'Variations for Strings'. The music publisher Novello (London) approaches him to publish all of his new work. His international fame grows. The first work Novello publishes is 'String Quartet No. 2'. Ten-plus years later, Roeland Hazendonk says this quartet is “virtuoso in its treatment of the instruments without degenerating into easy effects”.


Keuris gives master classes in Houston. He writes the 'Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra' and 'Music for Saxophones' to commissions from the Raschèr Saxophone Quartet.


Commissioned by the Houston Symphony Orchestra, Keuris writes 'Symphonic Transformations'. And for the International Music Competition 1988, he writes 'Aria' for flute and orchestra, and a version for flute and piano, to a commission from the Adama Zijlstra Foundation. About the writing for the flute, Keuris says: “I’ve attempted to do justice to every facet of the instrument, to illuminate it from all sides”.


Keuris gives master classes in Manchester. For the 100th anniversary of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, he writes 'Catena' for wind orchestra. “I joined a large number of links of various lengths and forms in this piece (catena = chain) – but in a way that it ultimately sounds like a single entity, similar to the way a chain looks like a rope when seen from a distance”. He writes 'To Brooklyn Bridge' for choir and ensemble on a text by Harold Hart Crane. Keuris says: “The piece is misty, iron-like white, and at the end it gets very cold”. He also composes the 'Clarinet Quintet', whose progression and dialogue between the clarinet and string quartet are both reminiscent of the quintets by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johannes Brahms. And he writes 'Five Pieces' for brass quintet. “If I think of the colour of this quintet, it has something to do with the autumn”, he says in an interview with Leo Samama.


Keuris also begins teaching composition and music theory at the Hilversum Conservatory. To a commission by the NOS radio he writes 'Three Sonnets' for alto saxophone and orchestra, and for the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, 'Intermezzi'. Coming after the large-scale 'Catena' (1988), for 31 winds, writing for a smaller ensemble in 'Intermezzi' annoys him. After finishing it, he says: “Rarely have I worked on a piece with such distaste only later to find it so delightful”. Critics describe it as “accessible, but absolutely not clichéd”.


For the 100th anniversary of the Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra and the mezzo-soprano Jard van Nes, he writes 'Three Michelangelo Songs', in which he lets “melancholy parting gestures play an important role”. He also writes 'Canzone' for clarinet and 'L’Infinito' (on a text by Giacomo Leopardi) for mezzo-soprano, baritone, two choirs and orchestra. The title 'Passegiate', for recorder quartet, refers to the slowly descending opening motif, which later undergoes melodic development and takes a stroll – passagiata – through the instruments, from sopranino to contrabass recorder.

Jard van Nes


For the Rassegna Europea di Musica Contemporanea (Italy), which surveys contemporary European compositions, he writes the Dutch submission, 'Antologia', for the Orchestra Sinfonica dell' Emilia Romagna. Keuris is not pleased with the piece. (The Dutch premiere comes only in 2008, performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by David Robertson).

1992 - 1993

Keuris writes the 'Double Concerto' for two cellos and orchestra for the Manchester International Cello Festival to a commission from the BBC. “This is the first time I have tried to write an opening movement using groups of themes. Ususally, I write athematically,” he says. The Dutch premiere is given the following year at the Frits Philips Music Centre in Eindhoven.


To mark the restoration of the Maarschalkerweerd organ in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Keuris writes the 'Concerto' for organ and orchestra. The premiere of 'Laudi', for mezzo-soprano, baritone, two choirs and orchestra, is given during the Dutch Music Days. Its text comes from the poetry bundle '' Alcyone' by the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio.


For the Kirill Kondrashin Competition, a prominent international competition for young conductors, Keuris writes 'Three Preludes'. He also composes the 'Chamber Concerto' for accordion and ensemble, and the 'String Sextet' for three violins, two violas and cello. In the latter, he seeks a connection with the past, and the influence of Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms are audible.


Keuris receives the Koussevitzky Foundation Award for a choral composition for the New York Virtuosi. He writes the 'Violin Concerto No. 2' for the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra. For the reopening of the Netherlands Broadcasting Music Centre, he writes 'Arcade (six more preludes for orchestra)' for the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Edo de Waart, to a commission from the architect Carel Weeber. This is his last completed work. 'Arcade' translates six architectural concepts into sound: the Aureol, Campanile, Colonnade, Arabesque, Centotaph and Cornice. The subtitle 'six more preludes for orchestra' refers to the 'Three Preludes' (1994). Keuris considers expanding the number to 12 preludes for a 'livre d'orchestre', an idea he returns to shortly before his death.

Edo de Waart


Tristan Keuris dies in Amsterdam on December 15.

Discography Tristan Keuris

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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