There is a certain tendency towards irreverence in the Dutch spirit that causes Julius Röntgen’s countrymen to refer to his great talent with gentle mockery. Röntgen’s professional reputation enjoyed a noticeably higher regard in other countries, and he earned accolades abroad that eluded him in his home nation. One such distinction was the honorary doctorate conferred upon him by the University of Edinburgh in 1930, presented by Sir Donald Francis Tovey. After Röntgen’s death, The Times published a eulogy written by the esteemed musicologist, who referred to Röntgen’s works with praise: “Röntgen’s compositions, published and unpublished, cover the whole range of music in every art form; they all show consummate mastery in every aspect of technique; even in the most facile there is beauty and wit; each series of works culminates in something that has the uniqueness of a living masterpiece.” Besides his international reputation as a renowned pianist and composer, he was also in high demand as a teacher, turning down offers abroad in favour of staying in Amsterdam. Composers such as Grieg and Brahms respected him highly and sought his friendship. As a pianist, he enjoyed collaborations with some of the great musicians of his time: singer Johannes Messchaert, cellist Pablo Casals, and violinist Carl Flesch, among others.
Julius Röntgen came from a very musical family. His father Engelbert, a violinist, was born in the Netherlands (Deventer) and later emigrated to Leipzig, Germany, where he played in the Gewandhaus Orchestra. He married the pianist Pauline Klengel, who came from a family with a long musical tradition. Julius, the eldest child and only son, spent his youth in Leipzig. His parents were well connected within the highest musical circles, and regularly received musicians such as Felix Mendelssohn, Niels Gade and Joseph Joachim in their home. Julius Röntgen’s grandfather taught him the fundamentals of piano and violin playing, and his parents themselves took responsibility for his further training. Röntgen’s exceptional musical talent was apparent at an early stage, but his father seems to have done his best to prevent his son from leading the typical life of a child prodigy. In addition to the training that he received from his parents, Röntgen studied for short periods of time with teachers such as Louis Plaidy, Carl Reinecke, Moritz Hauptmann and Franz Lachner. Within a few years, Röntgen gained a widespread reputation as a piano virtuoso, performing throughout Europe.
He began writing music at a young age, publishing his first composition in Germany in 1871. Only a few years later, he was invited to accept a teaching position in Amsterdam. After some hesitation, he settled there in 1877, making an immediate impact on the level of his students. In 1884, together with a number of colleagues, he founded the Amsterdamsch Conservatorium where he also served as managing director from 1913 until 1924.
Despite his busy career as a concert pianist, teacher, conductor and director of the Conservatory, Röntgen managed to compose more than 600 compositions. Many of these works remain obscure, and even Röntgen himself admitted in an interview that he did not know all of his own compositions. As a fellow composer once recalled: ”In the time it takes for someone to pick up a pen and paper, and to write down the keys and signs, Röntgen had probably already composed the beginning of a fugue.” For Röntgen it was his usual practice, since the music was already completed in his head before he committed it to paper.
During Röntgen’s lifetime, only one hundred of his compositions were published, the first thirty-one of them by the German firm Breitkopf und Härtel. Most of Röntgen’s manuscripts are in the depots of the Netherlands Music Institute in The Hague. Recent years have seen a concerted effort to record the majority of his symphonic works and solo concertos; however, much of Röntgen’s chamber music is still lying in obscurity. This series of recordings by the Lendvai String Trio is therefore a wonderful opportunity to get acquainted with a rich and diverse corner of Julius Röntgen’s oeuvre: the complete string trios.
THE STRING TRIOS
Röntgen wrote sixteen String Trios, fifteen of which have never been published. For the most part, the Trios were also neither numbered nor named by the composer (an exception being the Walzer Suite), leaving the year of composition and key signature as the only means of their identification.
For someone who had starting composing in his teens, it is surprising that Röntgen came to the genre of String Trios only later in life, completing his first trio in 1915 at the age of 60 and the last trio in 1930, two years before his death. The reasons for this remain obscure, but it is clear that chamber music played an important part in Röntgen’s life. In 1912, he formed a professional piano trio with two of his sons from his first marriage (Engelbert, a cellist, and Julius Jr., a violinist). With this ensemble, he gave concerts for years. However, Röntgen had another favourite instrument, the viola, and with two sons from his second marriage (Edvard and Joachim), he played string trios, presumably only at home, where he himself played the viola parts.
In 1923 Julius Röntgen celebrated his 65th birthday. At an age considered by many to signify retirement he was still full of new musical ideas, enough to compose four string trios within a time of less than two years. The first trio on this CD (No. 9) was written in the spring of 1923, followed by Trio No. 10 during summer holidays in Fuglsang, Denmark that same year. Fuglsang, a large manor house set within a beautiful park, was the holiday destination of choice for Röntgen and his family who stayed there for a few weeks nearly every summer between 1892 and 1914. Röntgen loved this place for its natural beauty and the possibility to make sailing trips every day, calling it his ‘second homeland’. The resort was very popular among other musicians and composers such as Carl Nielsen (with whom Röntgen became close friends) not only for its splendid setting but also for its marvellous music hall, where concerts were given every summer evening. Unfortunately, the outbreak of World War I in 1914 forced the Röntgen family to curtail their trips abroad, and nearly ten years passed before they could resume their holidays in Fuglsang.
Röntgen loved the great outdoors, and for many years his greatest wish was to build his own home in the midst of unspoiled nature. When the family started to make plans for such a home, it was clear to them that their son Frants Edvard (1904-1980) should design it. Although the boy was only sixteen years old, he started to sketch a house for the family. The Röntgen’s also had to decide upon a location; at first they considered Schoorl, another one of their favourite holiday destinations, but they soon realized that it was too far from Amsterdam, where Röntgen still was director of the Conservatory. Their eye then fell upon Bilthoven, a little village near Utrecht, which at that time was still nestled within the quiet countryside amongst woods, heather and sand dunes. Construction began on a house styled according to the principles of the Amsterdam architectural school in the summer of 1924. Naturally, a large music room was planned, shaped like a half rounded conservatory. The building progressed quickly and the family was able to move in only one year later. They called their new home Gaudeamus after the famous song Gaudeamus igitur (let us be happy) that students used to sing and that his friend Johannes Brahms had quoted in his Academic Festival Overture. But the house had another name as well; because it was the first design project of young Frants, it was also affectionately dubbed ‘Opus One’.
In the meantime, Röntgen retired from the directorship at the Conservatory of Amsterdam. Even so, he maintained a rigorously active schedule, giving a well-attended music analysis course together with his wife Mien des Amorie van der Hoeven. Besides teaching, he was also composing almost constantly, inspired as he was by his natural surroundings. As he himself told a journalist in an interview: “I lay down in the heather and the birches are looking at me, with God’s sky above.”
THE STRING TRIOS NO. 13 – 16
As Julius Röntgen approached his 70th birthday he resolved to make composing his
foremost priority. He retired from his position as director of the Amsterdamsch
Conservatorium in June 1924, and an intensively creative period followed: in the
last seven years of his life he brought out no fewer than 100 new compositions,
while still giving piano lessons to a small but eager group of students from
In 1925 the family was able to move into their new home, Gaudeamus, a villa in
Bilthoven designed by Röntgen’s son Frants Edvard. That autumn, in collaboration
with his wife, Röntgen started a series of seminars in musical analysis. They focused not only on the great masterworks of the classical and romantic period, but also new
music of the 20th century that Röntgen himself had studied in great detail. His
students were introduced to works by Schönberg, Stravinsky and the Dutch composer
Willem Pijper, among others. In the summer of 1927 Röntgen and his wife travelled
to the United States where their son Engelbert was working as a cellist. It would turn
out to be a journey full of musical discovery, starting on the boat to America where
Röntgen heard live jazz for the first time. He was fascinated by the music’s charm
and inventiveness, and during his stay in the US his son indulged his newfound
interest and Röntgen returned to the Netherlands with several LPs of jazz music.
Röntgen had an open musical mind; despite the conservative musical tastes of his
colleagues, who despised jazz, he enthusiastically introduced the music of George
Gershwin to his students in the Gaudeamus seminars. In fact many rhythmical
features, such as syncopations, are part of the 14th and 15th Trios, and sometimes
clear jazz influence emerges from the music. Another new experience for Röntgen was
hearing American spirituals during his stay in New York; after his return home he
made arrangements of several songs and later incorporated them into some of his
own compositions, such as the String Trio No.15.
Between 1926 and 1928 Röntgen also continued his collaboration with the filmmaker
Dirk Jan van der Ven, accompanying his movies from the piano with his own
compositions. He also took on several hours of teaching on a volunteer basis at a
private school in Bilthoven, an initiative of the famous pedagogue Kees Boeke. For
someone who was supposedly retired, Röntgen was busier than ever.
Röntgen composed a series of three String Trios in the beginning of 1925. The last of
these, Trio No.13, was written in March of that year in Hotel Regina in Bilthoven, while
the family was awaiting the completion of their new home. The Trio opens with a
‘feeling’ of peaceful comfort reminiscent of a warm bath, moving into an elegant dance,
but not lacking in dramatic intensity. The next two movements are real dances: a lazy
Habanera dominates the second movement with an ostinato rhythm in the cello, and the third movement Scherzo features a wild peasant dance with rumbling drone. The
last movement is a marked contrast from the other three. The given tempo marking of
Allegro is hardly discernible in the beginning; after some powerful opening chords the
music gives way to an elegiac melody. Despite a promising waltz, Röntgen builds up
the musical tension; the restless stretto that follows before coming to an abrupt
ending lends an agitated and uneasy feeling to the movement as a whole.
The last three Trios are all written in minor keys. The opening of No.14 (1928) is
encapsulated by a single melancholy theme, often played in unison, that increases in
dramatic intensity. Syncopated rhythms dominate this five-movement Trio, particularly
in the jazzy opening of the third movement. Other echoes of Röntgen’s trip to the
United States are audible in the Spiritual-influenced tunes in the very tender second
movement (con tenerezza). The last three movements flow without a break. In the
fourth movement we hear Röntgen’s splendid variation technique in a series of ten
short fragments, and he ends this trio with his beloved fugal technique where he
reminds us of the theme of the fourth movement.
Trio No.15 has a special place amongst Röntgen’s works. It was composed during a
family vacation during which the Röntgens were taken on a tour of northern Italy by
their son Engelbert and his wife. The foursome travelled slowly and took in the sights
by car, which must have been a joyful experience for the composer. He dedicated his
fifteenth trio to his son, ‘The Master Chauffer Engelbert (Unsere Meisterchauffeur
Engelbert)’, and Röntgen’s wife referred to this piece thereafter as the ‘Car Trio (Auto
Trio)’. The movements were written in Aosta, Bellagio and Aeschi during the summer of
1929. The music reflects the happiness of this journey, and the listener can easily
imagine riding together with the family through Germany to Italy, passing all the
magnificent landscapes Röntgen loved. The Trio opens with an intimate, melancholy
movement of incredible beauty. The second movement mixes folk music themes with
occasional features of American Spirituals on top of a bourdon accompaniment. The
viola opens the third movement with a romantic melody. While the first three movements share a calm and sensitive aesthetic, the last movement is full of humour
and energy: since Röntgen enjoyed playing the viola parts of his own String Trios, he
composed a viola part for himself with an imitation of a carhorn (wie eine Hupe).
The last of the String Trios, his sixteenth, dates from May 1930. On May 10th Röntgen
made his last appearance as a concerto soloist: together with the Rotterdams
Philharmonisch Orkest he performed his beloved Fourth Piano Concerto by Beethoven.
Nine days later he was fêted with a celebratory programme of his own music in the
Kleine Zaal of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. The last String Trio was composed
within those same days, and it has quite a different character. From the start, the
music traps the listener in an oppressive atmosphere permeated with melancholy that
never lets go, despite the playfulness and lightness of the second Scherzo-like
movement. Without interruption second movement elides into the third, and the music
sounds like a farewell. The exceptionally beautiful melody that dominates this
movement is first presented by the viola. But finally Röntgen allows excitement to take
over, and he ends his last Trio with an Allegro passionato that borders on the
Until his death two years later – sadly, sooner than anyone had expected – Röntgen
never stopped composing, but the Sixteenth String Trio was his last contribution to
this genre. He left a rich musical legacy with these works, and thanks to the Lendvai
String Trio they can finally be heard as a collection.
(English edited by Shuann Chai)