Jan van Dijk (1918-2016), Winner through Music

During the war, the composer Jan van Dijk wrote over forty compositions. But because he refused to join the Dutch Kultuurkamer, they remained unperformed. In the war years, he had a private music school, gave lessons at another music school, and conducted a choir. He says, “Music was intangible to the enemy; it was impossible for them to grasp.” 

Jan van Dijk“I witnessed the Rotterdam Blitz. On the second day after the bombing, I went walking through the city. The stench of scorched bodies was ghastly - there are no words to describe the grotesqueness of it. A person has to do something in order to cope. Music was intangible to the enemy; it was impossible for them to grasp. Music allowed me to hold on to that ‘winner’ feeling throughout the war. For me, music was on a spiritual pedestal. It became almost independent. It became a witness to the war, as I was.”

Covert Occupation
“Initially, the occupiers entered the city very calmly after those four days of war, which only in certain places was bad - Rotterdam in particular, of course. The Germans were smart enough to do this in a very friendly way; that’s how they wrapped people around their little finger. Everyone who had something to do just went right on doing it - bakers continued to bake, and butchers continued to sell meat. Musicians, too, just kept on making music.

The Germans moved quickly to oversee all musical activities. In terms of radio and songs, everything was basically broadcast on Sunday afternoons, on the Wehrmacht [‘German Defense Forces’] Sunday afternoon concert, which had a profound influence on the musical awareness of the Dutch population. A mass of people who stand alone, who hear that and nothing else, stop asking themselves questions. It was like a heartbeat being activated every Sunday afternoon.”

An Abstract Response to the War
Jan reacted to the situation he found himself in through music, yet without literally translating it in his work. This also applies to the war years. “My work isn’t like Herman Strategier’s Arnhemsche psalm, in which the war is heard very directly. The war is much more abstract in my work - the titles are often the only direct reference to it.” The piece Vertroosting, based on a poem by Vondel [most prominent Dutch composter of the 17th century], is one example. “I wrote it after a number of acquaintances of mine had been shot. All my fellow students from before the war who were Jewish were deported. Excellent musicians - they were all taken away. Only one survived. It was absolutely terrible. That was reality.”

Van Dijk’s Jaargetijde is also based on a Vondel poem. He still plays it often: “When I hear that piece now, I immediately feel that connection to the war. It is filled with a fear and abhorrence of war, and simultaneously with a desire to make music. When I hear it, it’s like I’m right back in the war.”

Jan van Dijk, 1943
Jan van Dijk, 1943

Music Career on Hold
In 1942, Jan did not join the Dutch Kultuurkamer ["Chambre of Culture"]. This brought his music career to a standstill, and his compositions were no longer allowed to be performed. “I wasn’t really that interested in musical life then; after all, I wasn’t allowed to take part in it any more. All I had left was what I could do myself: thinking, writing, and composing. If you were a person of principle, things got really bad for you all of a sudden. You had nothing. All you could do was to go underground and limit yourself to house concerts.”

Forty Unheard Compositions
“I went on composing throughout the war. That’s all I could do. I couldn’t escape it. I thought, ‘Once the war is over, I’ll establish a private symphony orchestra.’ I set out to write works for it in advance. You might say I wrote sprints for a jump that never came. I wrote piano pieces for a pianist who wasn’t allowed to play. I composed works for choirs that couldn’t sing. All that because I wasn’t a member of the Kultuurkamer. Over time, those works fell into oblivion.”

Henk Badings
Jan knew the composer Henk Badings, who replaced the Jewish director of the Royal Conservatoire Sem Dresden after he was dismissed by the Germans. Although he claims to have detested Badings because of this, Jan tempered his view of him after the war. “It turned out that for many of the people we thought had sided with the Germans in the Kultuurkamer, it was quite a different story,” he says. When he joined the faculty of the Conservatoire in The Hague around 1960, he spoke to teachers who had worked under Badings during the war. He says, “These teachers told me, ‘We never had such a good director as Henk Badings. We had forty students who didn’t actually have to be here, but because of him, they did not end up having to go to Germany to do hard labor. Badings saw the chance to take care of things. He played a double role. And that double role allowed him to give tremendous freedom to a great many musicians.”

“Even someone like [Eduard] Flipse continued to conduct. It was inevitable that he would eventually have to work with the Germans. After the war, he was suspended by the Ereraad [“Music Honor Council”, one of five such councils charged with cleansing cultural life of traitors and collaborators]. He and others had to pay the price for having gone ahead - even though the bakers and butchers who had continued practicing their professions weren’t suspended.”

Willem Pijper: Teacher and Friend
Jan was born in 1918 and studied at the Rotterdam Conservatory from 1936 to 1941. There, he studied with Willem Pijper and had organ lessons outside the conservatory with composer Ferdinand Timmermans. After concluding his studies, he continued studying with Pijper from 1941 to 1946, and the two remained friends until Pijper’s death in 1947. During the war, Jan ran a private music school and taught piano at the Toonkunst music school in Rotterdam which was affiliated with the Rotterdam Conservatory through its director Pijper. Jan says, “I stopped teaching there in 1944. Then came that terrible day when everyone was arrested. I was part of a group of people who implicitly trusted one another. Whenever there was a rumor, we all knew about it immediately. At some point, I was given a message: ‘Don’t go to Rotterdam tomorrow, or you’ll fall into the trap.’”

After receiving a final conscription notice for hard labor (Arbeidseinsatz) in 1945, Jan decided to go into hiding at his father’s parsonage. The Germans could not hear the soft sounds of the harmonium, the only instrument he was able to play while in hiding. It proved to be his musical lifesaver. For that reason, the instrument continued to play a decisive role even into the later years of his musical career, and he composed a concerto for harmonium and orchestra in the 1990s.

After the War
The private orchestra he had hoped to establish after the liberation failed to materialize. But after the war, Jan was also highly active as a pianist and church organist, conductor, composer (writing works for piano and orchestra, choral compositions, songs, symphonic music, and works for wind and fanfare band), music theorist, teacher, administrator, and critic. He imparted his love and knowledge of music to many students. He continues to occupy himself with innovations in music and is still a prodigious composer. At the time of writing, he had composed over 1,100 small- and large-scale works. Music is his first necessity of life. He still plays, and a large grand piano dominates the living room of the house he and his wife have in Tilburg.

Author: Nicole Janssen


Vertroosting (1944, 1'18), Jan van Dijk

Jaergetijde (1944, 6'46), Jan van Dijk