Rudolf Escher (1912-1980), A Conscientious Ethicist and Esthetician

As a young, creative composer, Rudolf Escher found it difficult living in a time of chaos, destruction, and uncertainty. An inveterate ethicist, he always set out to discover the essence of the main truths of life. The compositions he wrote during the occupation directly reflect his intellect, as well as a constant awareness of living in an age of destruction. His works can be seen as an act of resistance against the violence of war.

Rudolf Escher (source: Netherlands Music Institute)
Rudolf Escher (source: Netherlands Music Institute)
But after the war, too, he attempted to seek the true face of peace in his works. With extreme precision and a carefully balanced sense of musical expression, Escher shaped his œuvre.

Rudolf Escher was born in Amsterdam shortly before the First World War broke out. After spending several of his childhood years in Java, where his father worked as a geologist, he enrolled at the classical grammar school in the Dutch city of Leiden. Exhibiting multiple talents, he initially hesitated between music, the visual arts, and the world of letters. Finally, he settled on music: Escher studied piano and composition at the Rotterdam Conservatory from 1931 to 1937. As a composition student of Willem Pijper’s (from 1934 to 1937), he wrote only chamber music. He composed his first orchestral work, the Largo from the Sinfonia in memoriam Maurice Ravel, in 1940 - just before WWII broke out.

An Awareness of Living in an Age of Destruction

Unfortunately, nearly all of Escher’s early compositions from his childhood and his years as a student of Pijper’s were destroyed during the Rotterdam Blitz on May 14, 1940. “The next five years were crucial in further shaping Rudolf Escher’s ‘psyche’ through the destructive violence of Teutonic army boots, underground activities, his involvement with De Vrije Katheder, and his compositional activities. ‘My work from that period acquired a kind of heaviness, with glimmers of pent-up rage here and there, which quickly make one realize that they grew out of disaster. I personally see that as their ethical meaning, that they are constructions of a mind in a time when the “mind” (if one can, in fact, call it that) was exploited almost exclusively for utterly destructive purposes.’”1

Escher belonged to a select group of composers who categorically refused to join the Kultuurkamer. Other such “dissidents” included Jan van Gilse, M.A. Brandts Buys, Hans Henkemans, Karel Mengelberg, Hans Osieck, and Marius Flothuis. During the war, Escher was involved with De Vrije Katheder, a small underground periodical established in November 1940 by a group of Amsterdam-based students which focused mainly on politico-cultural resistance. In the course of 1943, Bertus van Lier, Paul Sanders, the writer Theun de Vries, and the anthropologist and physician Arie de Froe also contributed to this effort.

War Compositions
Escher’s most important wartime compositions are the impressive work Musique pour l’esprit en deuil for orchestra (1941–3) the Sonate concertante for cello and piano (1943), and Arcana musae dona for piano written in 1944. Several of Escher’s post-war compositions also grew out of his ideas on war and peace. These include the orchestral work Hymne du grand Meaulnes and Le vrai visage de la paix for a cappella chorus. “While these compositions did not ‘grow out of disaster,’ this music does convey a quest for peace, balance, a lost Arcadia, and fresh air. How ‘fresh’ can the air in a composition be? The choral works Songs of Love and Eternity and Ciel, air et vents provide an answer to that question.” [1]

After the War
After all the misery that war had brought, Escher remained true to his own compositional language and did not succumb to the influence of modernistic new trends. “In that sense, Rudolf Escher was something of a cautious composer. In another sense, namely as a contemporary composer, his choice was not simply the result of bluntly refusing to move with the times in which he lived, but rather of a meticulous process of weighing up the possibilities of each new technique. After all, composing is not the same thing as embracing a certain technique.” [1] It thus comes as no surprise that Escher studied the technical possibilities and impossibilities of electronic music, then all the rage, while in Delft and Utrecht between 1959 and 1961. He then concluded that it was not up to the task of conveying the esthetic value of his music.

Shortly after liberation, Escher began writing on music and art for De Groene Amsterdammer (1945–6) and settled in Amsterdam. Later, on Professor Eduard Reeser’s recommendation, Escher was appointed senior lecturer of musicology at the University of Utrecht, where he taught twentieth-century music and carried out theoretical and sound research between 1964 and 1975. Escher also published essays and articles in various newspapers and journals. French composers such as Ravel and Debussy always remained a source of inspiration for him.

Author: Geert van den Dungen

  • Arcana Musae Dona: Toccata (1944)
  • Nederlandse muziek in de 20ste eeuw [Netherlands Music in the 20th Century"], Leo Samama; Amsterdam University Press - Salomé, 2006 [1]