Wit and mechanics of the holiday composer


Hans Roosenschoon. Photograph courtesy

IT WAS A music teacher in the early youth of composer Hans Roosenschoon (pictured) who suggested the boy write music for piano, instead of take the conventional route of mastering the instrument first. “I think it was out of desperation,” says Roosenschoon, this year’s composer-in-residence for the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival (JIMF), with a mix of seriousness and jocularity. He was responding to questions posed by My View.

“When I was about 9 years old, I built a tape machine with parts of my Meccano train set, an electric motor and typewriter ribbons. As the ribbon wound its way slowly, I sang along, and made up my own tunes.” The image brings together singing, mechanics, lyricism and engineering and thus offers a quirky summation of what Roosenschoon’s music is about, even though he still feels that the work of JS Bach could be all that he needs for eternity, if he was pushed to choose only one composer.

Born in the Netherlands in 1952, he moved to South Africa with his family as a babe in arms, the following year. Growing up and studying at Pretoria’s Conservatory of Music, he began testing his composer mettle, and was dared by his peers to give light of day to one of his first dinkum pieces at a forum for the purpose. He took on the dare with a side-glance: “I was too scared to play it under my own name. Hence I chose a pseudonym, Peter Schat, the real name of a Dutch composer (1935-2003).

“The piece was called Beton (Concrete). I don’t think I played it very well: the then director of the Conservatory thought I did not understand the music at all!”

But piano was not Roosenschoon’s only instrument. In the 1970s, he began cello under the tuition of Betty Pack, who was an important influence to his career. In 1973, his work, Janus was premiered under Pack’s direction, with the South African Junior String Orchestra, for which Roosenschoon performed.

“It’s written for strings and is based on popular songs such as The Song of the Volga Boatmen (1900) and the traditional English shanty What shall we do with a drunken sailor? In this case Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, is looking towards the east and the west,” but he recalls, that it was not only the complexity of this work, but also the experience of having it pushed to the fore by his teacher, “that made a lasting impression on the chamber works I subsequently wrote.”

Roosenschoon successfully became a cellist in an orchestra, weighing up the different challenges of a music career, and his wish to have a family, to say nothing of his need to earn an income. After composing his work Sonatine, Credo in 1975, he won a coveted SAMRO award for overseas study, which took him to London, but at the same time, he went into a piano silence that was to last 14 years.

“Stravinsky’s colourful orchestration as we find it in his Le Sacre du Printemps (1913) could perhaps be blamed for this,” he quips. “That, and the work of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933) and Hungarian composer Gyӧrgy Ligeti (1923-2006).” He had encountered the magic of contemporary music’s possibilities and needed time to regroup.

But the piano silence didn’t erase him from the discipline. His orchestral work, Palette, was released on vinyl in 1977. It was chosen to represent the composition class of the Royal Academy of Music of that year, as a case study for visiting students.

“Generally speaking,” wrote music critic Danie Fourie, at the time, in programme notes about Palette, “Roosenschoon’s tendency towards ‘colourful music can already be seen [in this work which was] completed while he was studying in London. The basic theme of this piece is restricted to a dialogue between sonorities and textures: sonorities in which different string techniques are exploited and in which dynamic shadings and different kinds of articulation combine with a variety of changing textures.

“Strings are sometimes used as percussion instruments; the overall effect is that of continuous movement. In this work, the composer paints with bold strokes and the formal aspects of the music are at times decisively influenced by the technique he uses. This can take the form of a collage or a seemingly disorientated counterpoint of things less idyllic, more unpleasant but generally deeper and more true. At certain points, the results are severe, even bare, with complementary moments of extraordinary vastness and lyrical beauty, a patchwork of elements woven together as if the composer’s ingenuity has outwitted itself.”

Roosenschoon was the recipient of the Standard Bank Young Artist award for music in 1987 and in 1989, the Unisa International Piano Competition, then in its fifth iteration, approached him to compose a test piece: Fingerprints. And these opportunities to break out and make music amid the administrative working pressures he faced over the years, effectively defines the texture of his career.

In many respects, Roosenschoon’s professional trajectory as a composer has been neither obvious nor clear. He has moved between cities and jobs, between being a card-carrying composer and holding down an academic post. In 1998, he was appointed head of department in the music school of Stellenbosch University, where, 10 years later, he was able to introduce a course specifically in composition.

“I have had several unfilled spaces,” he says, looking back on his life. “In many ways, I see myself as a ‘holiday composer’ – a person who sporadically creates music. For me, commissions were a kind of catalyst that focused my mind over the years.”

Since his formal retirement in 2017, this showcase position with the JIMF is his first major exposure. For this festival, he wrote a work for a piano quartet “that amounts to a mockery of the notion of appropriation, something that has become a bone of contention in present-day musicology,” he says, referring to the theme of humour of this year’s festival.

“Being the composer-in-residence of the JIMF 2019 is a great honour for me,” he continues. “In addition to the performances of my works, working on the New Music Collaboration under the auspices of the Goethe Insitut, was most rewarding for me.  I simply love to work with young people, and be exposed to their open minds.”

  • Roosenschoon’s works, A new costume for the Emperor and The man who (unknowingly) mistook his music for mathematics, a commission of the JIMF,  perform in the first half of the JIMF’s closing concert, on February 3 at 3:00pm in the Spaceframe Theatre, Wits Education Campus, in Parktown Johannesburg.

1 reply »

  1. Fascinating. Didn’t know too much about him apart from a quick Google when it was announced he was composer-in-residence for the Mozart fest.
    And a big thank for your blog which stands out among a plethora of those which comprise largely pumped up press releases and sycophantic “reviews”, something I was commenting on only tonight.
    This makes yours a sheer delight.

Leave a Reply