Jan van Gilse lived for his art, always seeking the best and the highest attainable goal in music, inspired by idealistic motives. As a conductor and organizer, he militantly championed the interests of Dutch music. The Germans certainly could have made good use of a man like van Gilse, were it not for his fierce anti-fascist convictions and the fact that he always managed to elude the Nazi regime.
As a composer, van Gilse was no pioneer. As he had studied in Germany, his music was initially influenced by the Germano-Austrian tradition. After conducting French Impressionistic orchestral repertoire (e.g. Debussy, Ravel, and Roussel), he incorporated a number of distinctive stylistic characteristics in his own music. Gradually, he was able to develop his own style.
Before the War
Van Gilse received his early musical training in Rotterdam and The Hague, going on to study composition and conducting with Franz Wüllner in Cologne. He left for Berlin in 1902, where he completed his composition studies with Engelbert Humperdinck.
As an organizer, van Gilse proved to be of exceptional importance to musical life in the Netherlands. He co-founded the Genootschap van Nederlandsche Componisten [“Society of Dutch Composers”] in 1911 and established the Bureau voor Muziek Auteursrecht (Buma, “Composers’ Performing Rights Society”] two years later. He chaired both organizations for many years. In 1935, he founded the Stichting Nederlandsche Muziekbelangen to promote the performance of Dutch music.
Van Gilse conducted the Utrechts Stedelijk Orkest (USO) [“Utrecht City Orchestra”] from 1917 to 1921, where he was greatly admired for his groundbreaking work. But when the composer Willem Pijper launched a sustained and aggressively negative campaign against van Gilse in his reviews published in the Utrechts Dagblad newspaper starting in 1919, the sensational “Pijper versus van Gilse” controversy was born. Van Gilse resigned as conductor. From 1922 to 1933, he lived in self-imposed exile in Switzerland and Berlin. Nazism was on the rise in Germany, however, and he no longer felt at home there; consequently, he happily accepted a post as principal of the Utrecht Conservatory in 1933.He relinquished the position in 1937 to devote himself to composing, guest conducting with various orchestras, and matters relating to BUMA.
Years of Occupation
During the occupation, van Gilse became increasingly isolated. He continued to dismiss the German Nazi regime out of hand, thus refusing to join the Kultuurkamer ["Dutch Chambre of Culture"], and became more and more deeply involved in the artists’ resistance movement. He was hardly able to compose anymore. He was forced to go into hiding in 1942 to avoid being captured by the Germans. “One is moved to think that Jan van Gilse dragged with him to all his hiding places three heavy folio volumes, scores of his opera Thijl. Always on the lookout for him, the Germans decided they would locate him by banning his work and seizing and destroying his music wherever they could lay their hands on it.” 
“From various hiding places, van Gilse continued to edit the underground periodical he had established called De vrije kunstenaar ["The Free Artist"], but after a few months, he had to give up this work because he was no longer reachable after changing locations so often. From 1943 to 1944, his two sons, both of whom were active in the resistance, were killed, a loss from which van Gilse never recovered. At his eighteenth hiding place, at the home of fellow composer Rudolf Escher, he fell ill. He died at the hospital in Oegstgeest on September 8, 1944, after having been admitted under a false name.” 
Van Gilse started work on his opera Thijl in September 1938, a dramatic legend that took the form of a prologue, three acts, and an epilogue. The work is based on the “heroic, cheerful, and glorious adventures of Uilenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak in Flanders and elsewhere” by Charles de Coster. The libretto was written by Hendrik Lindt. In the original score of this impressive work, van Gilse penned the dedication “To the fighters for justice and liberty.”
“On November 29, , van Gilse completed this work, now considered his finest creation. On December 5, he wrote to Lindt, ‘Thijl is finished! I am overjoyed to have been able to bring my work to a good conclusion. The music between the third act and the epilogue is - I believe - particularly successful; it is lamentation music for Thijl, who is presumed dead.’”  During the occupation, van Gilse, who had been born in Rotterdam, only managed to work on a declamation for speaking voice and orchestra entitled Rotterdam, set to a text by Jan Prins. The composer was unable to produce more than twenty-seven pages of the score, leaving the work unfinished, as a result of the adverse circumstances in which he found himself in 1942.
After the War
After the war, the Stichting Nederlandsche Muziekbelangen and BUMA evolved into such institutions as the Stichting Donemus and the BUMA Foundation. Jan van Gilse was the spiritual father of these leading music organizations, which have provided considerable support to many generations of post-war composers in the Netherlands. He continues to live on posthumously through these organizations and through his music, in which there has been a renewed interest over the last few years.
Author: Geert van den Dungen