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Jurriaan Andriessen’s Time Spirit

On August 23, 1996, the composer Jurriaan Andriessen, a descendant of a well-known family of artists, died. His grandfather Willem and his father Hendrik were also composers and his brother Louis still is. His sisters Caecilia (she passed away this week) and Heleen were also active in music. His uncle Mari Andriessen was a sculptor, uncle Nico was an architect and cousin Jurriaan was a visual artist. Although he wrote a large and varied oeuvre, with symphonies and other orchestral works, an opera, ballet, church and chamber music and also film music (eg for Dorp aan de rivier (Village by the River) en De Aanslag (The Assault) by Fons Rademakers), his more succesful younger brother Louis would overshadow him in later years.


A good example of his versatility is the symphony Time Spirit, a theatrical piece that was written for TV in which a clarinet player forms the center. A symphony orchestra, ballet dancers and the then emerging pop group Focus (with Thijs van Leer) surround this central figure. The symphony was accompanied by 34 slide projections of prints by Escher. While the graphic artist had said no to Mick Jagger early in 1969 (he wanted to use a work by Escher for an album cover by The Rolling Stones), Escher sympathized with the initiative of Andriessen. In a letter to Gerd Arntz he wrote:

‘A nice, cheerful composer (not as crazy as his younger brother Louis), who doesn’t act as profoundly as for instance my cousin [also a composer, EK] Rudolf Escher. This Jurriaan is crazy about my prints and is busy making an orchestral work about it.’*

M.C. Escher, Castle in the Air, woodcut, January 1928. One of the prints shown, this one during the first dance intermezzo. A symbol for the idealised worldview of a child, according to Andriessen.
M.C. Escher, Belvédère, lithograph, May 1958. Also shown during a dance intermezzo, signifying an escape from reality.

Time Spirit is a half-hour triptych in which the parts (with the titles Reptiles, Fish and Birds and Encounter) are connected by dancing intermezzi. The clarinettist is the central figure whose loneliness is the main theme of the piece. “The personification of human life, from birth to adulthood. The circle of musicians expresses the surrounding world.” As Andriessen said in an interview with De Tijd.

The premiere took place on November 19, 1970 at De Doelen in Rotterdam. Reprises would also follow at the technical university in Delft and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Escher was a guest at the premiere and wrote about it to son George and his wife Corrie:

M.C. Escher, Predestination (Topsy-Turvy World), lithograph, January 1951
M.C. Escher, Predestination (Topsy-Turvy World), lithograph, January 1951

‘Well, I thought it was impressive! I never knew that my silly prints could be interpreted and presented so dramatically. Blending together sometimes ten or more slides of the same print, on different scales, larger and larger growing fish and birds, to a sharp climax (eg as in Predestination , where you hear the poor bird’s fear of death, as it were, when the fish finally catches him.) I got a lump in my throat and totally unknown co-listeners mentioned they were turning “cold”. The clarinettist-soloist [George Pieterson] was able, electronically, by pedaling, to amplify the sound of his instrument to no avail. Maybe it was on the verge of “kitsch”, but first tell me what kitsch is.’

So Escher was enthusiastic, but the music critics were divided in their opinions. Time Spirit was labeled as ‘surprising’ and ‘overwhelming’, but also as ‘kitsch’ and ‘audiovisual fuss’. The NCRV broadcast organisation made recordings during the premiere and aired Time Spirit in January 1972. To the delight of Andriessen, who wanted to reach as many people as possible with his work.

Dutch newspaper NRC handelsblad, 11 November 1970
Het Vrije Volk, 12 November 1970
De Telegraaf, 19 November 1970
De Tijd, 19 November 1970

NRC Handelsblad, 20 November 1970
De Tijd, 20 November 1970
De Volkskrant, 23 November 1970
De Tijd, 17 January 1971, writing about the TV broadcast

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