Baritone  Max  van  Egmond

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Max van Egmond (born February 1, 1936 in Semarang, Java, Indonesia [the former Dutch East Indies]) is a Dutch bass and baritone singer. He has focused on oratorio and Lied, and is known for singing works of Johann Sebastian Bach. He was one of the pioneers of historically informed performance of Baroque and Renaissance music. He studied voice at Hilversum with Tine van Willingen de Lorme. At the age of eighteen he became a member of De Nederlandse Bachvereniging (Netherlands Bach Society).

Starting in 1965, he became involved in the complete Bach recordings of Gustav Leonhardt, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Frans Brüggen. He recorded the St Matthew Passion under Claudio Abbado in 1969 and Nikolaus Harnoncourt in 1970, singing the bass arias. In 1973, he was the Vox Christi in the first historically informed performance in the Netherlands of Bach's St Matthew Passion. Johan van der Meer conducted the Groningse Bachvereniging. Ton Koopman and Bob van Asperen played the organs. In 1977, he performed the part with Charles de Wolff and De Nederlandse Bachvereniging, in 1989 with Gustav Leonhardt. In the St John Passion he recorded the words of Jesus in 1965 with Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus Wien, in 1979 with van der Meer, in 1986 with de Wolff, and in 1987 the arias with Sigiswald Kuijken and La Petite Bande.

He participated in recordings of Monteverdi's operas with Harnoncourt, L'Orfeo in 1968, and the first complete recording of Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria in 1971. He also performed more recent operas, such as the world premieres at De Nederlandse Opera of Jurriaan Andriessen's Het Zwarte Blondje in 1962, and of Antony Hopkins' Three's Company in 1963. In 1969 he was the soloist in Reger's Hebbel Requiem in concerts recorded live in the Berliner Philharmonie with Junge Kantorei, Symphonisches Orchester Berlin and conductor Joachim Carlos Martini. In 1976 he performed with the same choir Handel's Messiah in Eberbach Abbey.


Egmond has also performed and recorded romantic Lieder of Schubert, Schumann and Fauré, among others, accompanied on period instruments. Songs by Gabriel Fauré were accompanied by Jos van Immerseel on an Erard piano built in 1897. Schubert's Winterreise was accompanied by Penelope Crawford on a fortepiano of Conrad Graf, built in 1835.

He was a teacher at the Sweelinck Conservatory Amsterdam from 1980 until 1995, and conducted master classes annually in Mateus, Portugal, and at the Baroque Performance Institute at Oberlin, Ohio since 1978.

In October of 1987, Egmond was in Chicago for a performance with the Harwood Ensemble.  A couple of days before the concert, he graciously agreed to meet with me for a conversation.  The discussion ranged from detailed information to deep philosophy, and even had some light-hearted moments.

Here is what was said . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Tell me the secret of singing early music!

Max van Egmond:   The secret?  First of all, one needs to practice the general skills of singing Art Music
Classical Musicthe breath control, the placement, diction, and all those things that are universal for all classical singers.  In certain respects, one needs to know morethe agility for coloraturas and trills and other ornaments should be good.  Also, you need to have a control over the vibrato.  It is not that early music means always singing without any vibrato, but you need keep it under control, and even direct it a little bitsometimes a little more, sometimes a little less.  Vibrato is a real ornamental thing.  Then you need to be able to adapt the volume to the more tender early instruments that accompany you.  There are some subtleties that are important that you don’t always need in the traditional late romantic operatic style, where it’s more just focusing on volume and darker color.


BD:   Do you also sing some romantic music, and some modern music, too?

van Egmond:   Yes.

BD:   Then let us focus on this for a moment.  Is the early music completely different from the romantic and modern music as far as your vocal technique goes?

egmond van Egmond:   No!  Just as I said, I depart from the universal skills that a singer should have, and it is just the style.  What you do with the voice differs a bit.  In dramatic music, for instance, I find myself doing more with the romantic rubatos.  Sometimes there is a little more vibrato in the voice, and the extremes in volume are bigger.  I did a romantic Liederabend [song recital] three days ago in Houston, and the program had some Haydn, some Fauré, and a lot of Schubert, plus some works by a contemporary Dutch composer, Alexander Voolmolen.  As I said, one tries to be very dramatic in Romantic music, and this means that you give more expansion to the voice.  But it’s not an entirely different way of singing.

BD:   Weren
t the early composers asking for the same kinds of emotions?

van Egmond:   Absolutely, but in early music there are certain traditions about how to express the emotions.  The composers used them, of course.  You have, for instance,
the ‘Seufzer Figure, the sighing figure, [demonstrates a string of slurred notes] which is used very often by Bach.  There are also many other expressive means that they use, and the singers and instrumentalists need to know those traditions, and those standard means of expression.

BD:   Does it change your mind-set at all when you are dealing with early music as opposed to the Romantic works that we are perhaps more used to in this day and age?

van Egmond:   [Hesitantly]  Yes.  I try to remind myself of the spirit of those days.  When you read, for instance, about the Romantic period, we learn the way people reacted and behaved.  It is said that even adults would weep at least once a week because it was just common and healthy to react in such a way.  Then the ladies would faint maybe at least once a month because it was the fashionable thing to do.  Also, when a new child is born in the family, or when somebody has died, then people would grab their pen and write a poem about the event, even if they were not poets.  So, the people would behave much more emotionally, and much more over-sensitively than nowadays.  Then in the Baroque period before that, things were also very standardized, even on stage.

BD:   Were they too regimented?

van Egmond:   Yes, I think so.  I’ve been told, for instance, that when actors were rehearsing, and suddenly they were stuck, and didn’t know how to put their foot or where to keep their hands, they would run out of the theater to look at the nearest statue on the square or in front of the theater, because the artist who had made that statue was completely aware of the traditions and the rules about how to behave, how to stand, how to sit.  So, it was all standardized.  Also, when you look at the painting of, for instance, Monteverdi, who was a very severe and serious person, I have a feeling that emotions were there, but were more under control, more channeled, more standardized.  So, that is what I try to remind myself of in those different styles.

BD:   This brings up one of my favorite questions
the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value.  In this case, is that balance completely different from the Baroque period, to the Romantic period, to the Contemporary period?

van Egmond:   [Thinks a moment]  If you mean how far does one take an account of what the audiences need and want, I must say I have some colleagues in the Early music scene who tend to say that they are not interested in the public as such, in what they want and what they like.  They are there, and they expose their art, and whether the audiences like it or not, that’s none of their business.  I’m not like that.  I’m very much aware of my audiences.  They come to a performance to undergo a very intense experience of art
of music and emotionor to be amused or entertained.  After all, even a Classical concert or a Lieder recital has enough light-hearted moments.  I’m always reminding myself of that, and while I’m on stage I try to create a link, almost a short-term relationship with the people in the audience.  Sometimes it is with individuals that you happen to notice and that catch your eye, and sometimes it is the whole group, the whole atmosphere that’s apparent in the room.  I find the audience, the public, very much part of the happening, and it’s not until I feel that I have a contact with them that I feel satisfied about a performance.

BD:   You try to reach each person?

van Egmond:   I can’t say every person, but I try to make them feel what I feel.  Also, in preparing the concerts and designing the programs, I certainly try to be aware of what the people are expecting to like and understand.  First of all, with the languages, when I perform on this continent, I try to include enough compositions in the English language so that they will have something to listen to in their own language.  Then, I try to avoid things in other languages that are so completely dependent on understanding the words that you could not enjoy it at all when you don’t understand the language.


BD:   Reading the translation in the printed program is insufficient?

van Egmond:   When it is, yes.  Also, there are countries where the audience is already very sophisticated in the style of music that I usually bring, and there you allow yourself more difficult programs.  There are other countries where they are not yet used to hearing the Lieder repertoire, which is really something for the Happy Few, or authentic Baroque approach, which is really also for the connoisseurs.  So, I really try to be aware of the audiences.  [In my conversation with Elly Ameling, she also used the phrase
the Happy Few when speaking about Lieder audiences.]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You also sing stage performances as well as concerts?

egmond van Egmond:   Yes, but not as frequently as the concerts.

BD:   Is your approach different because there is an additional barrier between you and the audience?

van Egmond:   No, the difference in opera for me lies in the fact that it’s staged.  You’re acting and you’re in a costume, so you have to add these activities to your art.  But the barrier is not any bigger than for a recital.  That’s just the invisible curtain between the audience and the artists, which you have to break through.  In other words, when you’re on stage, you are mentally prepared of what you want to express, and for yourself you have a feeling that the slightest change in your voice or your timbre or your volume will be enough to indicate the change of mood.  But audiences are not as prepared and not as much anticipating as I am, so you have to overdo it in order to first wake them up from their indifference, and then convince them of what you want to express.  I always tell my students that performing is constantly trying to break through this invisible wall or curtain which is between you and the audience.

BD:   Is there ever a case when the audience breaks through first?

van Egmond:   Yes, I can imagine that.  When you’re performing a program that you have done many times, there may be a moment in your routine when you are very alert and very inspired, and you notice that the audience is looking at you with interest and with alertness, and suddenly they have already understood, and they are already with me, so I’d better take care not to lose them, but take them along.

BD:   How do you decide which roles and parts you will accept, and which roles and parts you will decline?

van Egmond:   I don’t very often have to decline certain invitations, because it just so happens that the people who want to hire me seem to be aware of what I’m able to do... or not do.  [Both laugh]  I’m more often invited to sing the Passions and the Bach Cantatas, or Messiah than, for instance, Beethoven’s Ninth, or a Verdi Requiem.  I have done those in earlier years, but my voice is really better suited for a more chamber music approach, which one has in most oratorios.  They’re usually not with enormous orchestras or enormous volume.

BD:   Let me turn the question around.  Are there any parts that you wish people would ask you to sing?

van Egmond:   Yes, and I do sing them from time to time, fortunately.  The part of Jesus in the Passions I’m always very glad to sing.  I also like to sing in Haydn’s Creation, and in Messiah very much.  In opera I would love to do more Monteverdi, and more Handel above all, because I feel very close as a singer to Handel as a composer.

BD:   Are you glad that the public is re-discovering that there can be coloratura with a bass and not just with the soprano?

van Egmond:   Exactly, yes!  There are also very interesting Haydn operas, and I would like to do more romantic Lieder recitals than I do now.  I do them quite regularly, but I’m very much known as a Baroque performer, and the Romantic Lieder repertoire suits me almost as well as the Baroque repertoire.

BD:   Do you sing any very early music, from the Renaissance, for instance?

van Egmond:   Not so much, no.  In this program with the Hogwood Early Music Ensemble, were some early Baroque compositions, and I have made a record with the Studio der frühen Musik in Munich.  Thomas Binkley is the director of that, with some Renaissance and Mediaeval songs.  But it hasn’t happened very often.  I must say I’m by far not as knowledgeable about that style as groups that really specialize in it.  My strong side is the virtuoso aspect of Baroque music, as well as the expressive side of it.

BD:   Do you sing differently in the recording studio than you do on stage?


van Egmond:   Yes.  A recording is not a very pleasant activity, I must say.  On stage, one is inspired by the presence of the audience.  Also, in a direct radio broadcast, or a live recording of something, you are inspired because you know this is the moment, and it has to be good, and when it goes wrong, well, you’re lost.  Whereas in the recording studio for the commercial recordings, you are repeating over and over until they feel it is ideal.  It is so fragmentary.  You sing through the complete piece three or four times, and then you start repeating little fragments here and there, and you lose track of the total thing.  You lose your inspiration, and the voice gets tired.  By the time that the technicians are satisfied
because all the instruments sound in tune, and everything’s together, and there are no airplanes passing abovethe voice is no longer in its freshest form.  Often I am a little tired, so I am usually not very satisfied with the process of the recording itself, nor with the final product that you find in your mail half a year after.

BD:   [With only partial seriousness]  Then why do you keep making records?

egmond van Egmond:   [Laughs]  It’s part of the job, and the projects that I’m involved in are very interesting and very important.  I have done quite a few solo recitals, both with Romantic and Baroque music, but what is getting most of the recognition is the project of the complete Bach Church Cantatas, recorded on Teldec or Telefunken.  That is such a rewarding and interesting thing that I’m very glad I’m in it.  We are approaching the finale of it.  This coming January we will have the last recording session.  Then they will all have been recorded, and maybe after half a year the last box will be released.  It has been a work of around twenty years, and I’m very privileged to have joined the project from the very start until the end.

BD:   Are you the only one to be continuously through the entire project?

van Egmond:   No, my colleague from Austria, Kurt Equiluz, and the counter tenor, Paul Esswood, also.  Of course, the boy sopranos are different because their voices changed.  But it’s quite a regular group of artists who have been basically in this.  I expect there will be some kind of a celebration when it’s all over.

BD:   [Wistfully]  It won’t pass your way again...

van Egmond:   Well, we hope that they may start the Secular Cantatas by Bach.  There are, by far, not as many as the Church Cantatas, but it has been very expensive and a difficult project for Teldec, so we have to wait and see if they can afford to go on.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What advice do you have for singers who want to perform this kind of repertoire?

van Egmond:   Try to train your voice in a very instrumental way, and try to be as disciplined and detailed as instrumentalists are.  For instance, singers are often not at all very precise with rhythm or with counting.  Also, they are not often very exact with intonation.  They are sometimes sloppy with ornaments and agility, and a great problem is the diction.  Language and words are very basic things in early music.  In fact, they are very important in any kind of vocal music, but in early music the texts and the diction were very, very important.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  More important than the music???

van Egmond:   [Smiles]  Almost!  For instance, when you look at secco recitatives, the singer is almost more an actor, and the singing tends to lean towards declamation almost more than singing.

BD:   These are the recitatives with just the harpsichord?

van Egmond:   Yes.  The interesting thing is that after singing the recitative, you turn to the aria, and then you can expose a completely different way of singing.  Then you are like one of the obligato instruments, so you sing a nice cantabile, a nice legato sound.  But in the recitatives, it’s really a lot more spoken, or it should be like that.  All these aspects should be practiced by singers who want to do this kind of repertoire, and it’s very detailed.  There’s a whole list of requirements that you have to work on in the course of the years that you want to specialize.

BD:   Would there ever be a case where someone writing today could put over something in that style?

van Egmond:   Oh, yes!  I think so.  Composers have done very amazing things.  We were just listening to Philip Glass before we started this interview.  That has, for instance, the same kind of regularity and precision that you also find in the dance forms of Baroque music.  It’s not at all the same, of course, but the patterns sometimes remind you of Baroque music.  I’ve done a composition by Benjamin Britten, a song cycle for baritone which is called Songs and Proverbs of William Blake.  There, the structure and the architecture of the cycle was such that it looked like the recitative and aria form.  He had, more or less, imitated those forms, those structures.

egmond BD:   But he clothed it in Twentieth Century harmony?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Judith Nelson, and William Christie.]

van Egmond:   Oh, absolutely.  But for the so-called recitative part, there was very little accompaniment and the voice reciting rather than singing.  Then the aria started, and we would have an instrumental introduction, and the voice would have a more cantabile line.  It was really inspired by the structure of Baroque cantatas.  So, no doubt, one can approach this style.  During masterclasses, sometimes I tell students that through the periods of classical music, the focus for the voice training was on different aspects.  As I said, in the early Baroque, the word is very important.  In late Baroque and Classical style, the virtuosity is very important.  In Romantic music, the sentiment is very important.  In late Romantic music
Wagner and Pucciniwhat I call the survival is very important.  There, you need to know how you can expand your voice in such a way that you can carry above the orchestra.  But in the Twentieth Centuryour present dayone might say, in certain respects, that we are getting back again to the requirements of the Baroque period.  First of all, you have to have an instrumental mastery of the voice, because you have to do very unexpected, sometimes even unvocal things with your voice.  So, if you are very aware of your technique with instrumental precision, then you may be able to do that.  You have acrobatic aspects in modern music, like you had the difficult coloratura in Haydn, Mozart, and Handel.   Also, the words and the declamation are again becoming very important in today’s music.  The different handling of vibrato can also be important.  Sometimes a composer of today will prescribe non-vibrato singing.  Last, but not least, there is an element of improvisation sometimes, like we had in early music, where you create your own ornaments.  You are free-ornamenting.  In this century, sometimes you are also allowed to improvise, so in a lot of aspects, in a lot of senses, you can say it’s a sort of a closed circle.

BD:   What do you feel is the ultimate purpose of music in society?

van Egmond:   That’s a very deep question!  I think it is the same as all forms of art.  We have poetry, we have the visual, we have architecture, we have dance, we have theater, and we have music to present beauty, emotion, or just entertainment.  There is a combination of all of it for the people
and also from the standpoint of the artistas a way to express oneself.  They are, of course, aspects of the culture of certain areas, certain people, and certain countries, and as we become more international in the Western Civilization, it’s one of many fragments of the overall cultural aspects of our society.

BD:   An important fragment?

van Egmond:   For me, certainly, and for an increasing number of people, music is important.  The more intellectual forms of Classical music are more for the Happy Few, for the real connoisseurs, but we all know that some kind of music can be heard practically everywhere you go.  When you’re in a restaurant, or in an elevator, or at the airport, or in a supermarket, you hear music everywhere and anywhere.  So, it seems to be a very basic thing in life.  It’s almost like drinking coffee, or smoking.  People seem to feel a need to listen to music.  When they’re at home, they put on the radio automatically.  Personally, I don’t handle music like that.  I put it on with more consciousness.  When I want to hear certain things, then I play them.

BD:   You’re more selective?

van Egmond:   Yes, and being a professional musician, for me the silence very important for relaxing and to really unwind.  But I can imagine that for people who are not dealing with music as a profession, it is a very nice thing to hear in the background, or to listen to even more frequently than I listen to music myself.

BD:   [Mildly shocked]  Do you feel that Bach, or Monteverdi, or Haydn should be background music???

van Egmond:   [Laughs]  Oh, they were background music in the times when they were created.  Haydn, for instance, was a court musician, and it was his job to present music while the count or the prince or the king was having his dinner parties, or his balls.  So, it was at least entertainment music.

BD:   Then is it a mistake for us now to elevate it to such a high position?

van Egmond:   That’s sometimes said.  People who are philosophizing about authenticity sometimes say that if we want to be really authentic, then we should not perform Haydn symphonies in concert halls, but we should do it at dinner parties and other small gatherings.  Bach cantatas, for instance, were always part of the religious service, and not used as a vocal element in a symphony concert, like happens nowadays.  I certainly would enjoy it as background music in hotels and restaurants if more often there was some
classical music mixed in, because it should have the same rights as Pop music.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Classical music should get the same exposure as Pop music?

van Egmond:   Yes, why not?

BD:   Should music be a commodity on the stock exchange?

van Egmond:   Yes, yes, why not!  [Both have a huge laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

egmond BD:   Do you sing differently in different sized halls, when you sing in a small hall or a large hall?

van Egmond:   Oh, yes!  It depends on the hall, and the size of the orchestra, and the volume of the sound.  I certainly try to adapt my expansion, and the diction, also.  For instance, in big churches that have sometimes enormous echoes and are too live, you need a tremendous exaggeration of articulation of the consonants.  Otherwise, it’s really not understood at all.  On the other hand, when I perform with lute accompaniment, then I try to be aware of the intimacy of that instrument.  Very often I sit down beside the lute player, instead of standing up while singing.  That already allows you to reduce your expansion a bit by being seated.

BD:   That would be much more intimate.

van Egmond:   Yes.

BD:   Is there a role or a part that you have sung more often than any other?

van Egmond:   Yes, the St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion.  I have sung them hundreds of times.  Holland is very much an oratorio country.  Italy is living only from operas, and in Germany many, many opera theaters are found in every town of some importance.  America has a lot of opera, too, in the bigger centers.  Holland does have the one important opera theater, but the tradition and most of the vocal activity lies in oratorio in our country.  In our small country, we perform more Passions every year than all of Germany or Austria where they understand the German language much better.  It just so happened that I started my vocal activities in one of the most important Bach choirs in Holland.  So, from the age of eighteen I have been involved in the yearly series of Passion performances.  I could never get enough of it because I love that music, and I sing either the Jesus, or the arias in both Passions... although nowadays conductors tend to have me sing the Jesus part more often than the arias.  There is a tradition that the more experienced singer does the Jesus, and the younger soloists do the arias.

BD:   Would you ever do both in the same performance?

van Egmond:   Only in case of an emergency.  It has happened, when one of the other soloists would not turn up because of an accident, or suddenly be taken ill.  Then I’ve sung both, and it is interesting because you feel as if you’re singing various roles in an opera, particularly in the recitatives, because there are not only the arias, but the one who sings the arias will also perform the roles of Pilate, and Peter, and the Priests.  So, I would find myself having a dialogue with myself.  [Laughs]  But it’s a great satisfaction.  I find these Bach oratorios have become part of my life.

BD:   Have we begun to really understand the music of Bach in the last ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty years?

van Egmond:   I would say so, yes, in as far as somebody who does not have the genius of Bach himself is able to understand his music.  This is because his music is so complex, so rich, so full of meaning that you need to approach it from all sorts of different angles in order to understand it all.  One way is to just sit down and listen to it.  Another way is to perform it, but also to sit down and read the music.  Just look at the scores and read them.  With all these different ways of approaching it, you will discover different aspects of the music.  We even know that Bach has these mysterious numbers in his works.  For instance, the most important moment in an oratorio will happen exactly in the middle, where there are as many measures before as after.  There are a lot of other symbolic things with figures and numbers in his music.  You can analyze the St. John Passion this way, and it’s startling what you will find.  Those are things you will not hear at all when you listen, because when you’re listening you’re not counting.  But it is an incredible source of emotion when you find these amazing things that are piled up in one masterwork.

BD:   Is that what makes it a masterwork?

van Egmond:   Perhaps...  Creating a very complicated structure in itself is a clever job, but at the same time it is so beautiful and so appealing to people who are not aware of that complicated background information.  They can just enjoy the mere sound of the music, and the rhythms of the melodies, so that it really works for practically everybody who approaches it.  That is what makes it into a masterpiece, I would say.

BD:   Are we getting compositions on those levels today?

van Egmond:   [Hesitates]  I find that difficult to answer.  I have a feeling that Bach was really unique.  On the other hand, only recently I listened to the late string quartets by Beethoven.  In the last one he wrote there are such amazing things piled up.  Mozart, and, of course, many later composers created masterworks, too.  There is a lot to be enjoyed, but if genius could be measured then I’m sure that Bach would be somewhere in the top ten.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Should the public only listen to the top ten geniuses, or should we also listen to the next level, and maybe the level below that?

van Egmond:   Oh, certainly, because the top ten will only be enjoyed in comparison with other things.  For example, tonight, right before this interview, I was lucky enough to eat some caviar with the dinner that was offered to me.  But one wouldn’t enjoy that so much if one would eat it every day.  So, it is the relativeness of things, and the comparison with other things that make them work.  Besides, there are so many different tastes.  There are some people who don’t like Bach at all, even if they know quite a bit about music.  Sometimes I’m very happy to sing very simple compositions that bring a nice change into what I usually do.  People should listen to whatever they can find, and whatever they like.

*     *     *     *     *

egmond BD:   Who are the great Dutch composers coming along?

van Egmond:   [Thinks a moment]  We have Henk Badings.  He’s quite a well-known composer who died recently, so it’s not exactly contemporary any more.  There is Andriessen, a very artistic family... two brothers
Jurriaan and Louis, and their father Hendrik and uncle Willemwere well-known composers.  There is also Alexander Voormolen who died recently.  He has written very interesting songs.  As we go back in the Romantic period, there is a sort of vacuum.  There certainly were composers in those years, and even a Dichterliebe.  We all know the setting by Schumann, but there seems to be a Dichterliebe by some Dutch composer who used the same texts.

BD:   Do we have to go all the way back to Sweelinck to find another composer?

van Egmond:   No, certainly not, but from the top of my head I could not mention many in the Romantic period.  In the program with the Harwood Ensemble, I’m singing some works by Willem de Fesch, who was a Dutch Baroque composer, and then there was one of the brothers from the Huygens family, who has written very interesting songs on poems that he had written himself.  He could write poems in seven languages.

BD:   My goodness!

van Egmond:   Yes, he was quite a clever man.  This is Constantijn Huygens, and his brother Christian Huygens was the inventor of some clever things, including the pendulum, and also a very strong looking-glass to look at the stars.  So, this was a very clever family.  The father was in the diplomatic services, serving several generations of Princes of Orange, who ruled over Holland in those days.  Then there is Sweelinck when we go back even further.  It’s interesting that among the creative arts, the painters from Holland have always been a lot more known and successful than the composers.  That’s an interesting fact, although nowadays the musicians, some soloists, and at least one orchestra from Holland, have gained some international reputation.

BD:   I would say so!  Is it particularly gratifying for you to perform Dutch music in Holland?

van Egmond:   Not really.  That’s also why I couldn’t come with a very detailed answer to your question about Dutch composers of today and of the past.  The Dutch are not very chauvinistic.  They tend to be very internationally orientated.  They learn some foreign languages at school, and they try to improve those languages when they start traveling.  We do a lot of music from other countries.  I just told you that we do more of the Bach Passions than Germany.  The operas that are performed by the Dutch National Opera are ninety-five percent from other countries.  Maybe once in two years, or once in five years we hear an opera by a Dutch composer.

BD:   That reminds me of another name, Peter Schat.

van Egmond:   Yes, that’s certainly a very well-known composer of today.  Ton de Leeuw is another one.  When I keep thinking, then they bubble up bit by bit!  [Both laugh]  In the programs of symphony orchestras, and recital programs by soloists, again Dutch names turn up only rarely.  Maybe on one out of five symphony concerts there will be a piece by a Dutch composer, and in Lieder recitals it’s not a must that there is one little group of Dutch compositions.  I do try very often.  In the Lieder recital that I gave in Houston only three days ago, I did include a song cycle by the Dutch composer Alexander Voolmolen, and the concert here in Chicago has two Dutch Baroque composers
Wilhelm de Fesch, and Constantijn Huygens.  So, I do try myself, but it’s not really common.

BD:   Is singing fun?

van Egmond:   Oh, yes!  Above all, rehearsing is fun.

egmond BD:   [Surprised]  Really???

van Egmond:   When you rehearse, you can sing and you don’t have the stress of the concert.  Also, you have the intimacy of working just with the accompanist.  I’m very lucky to perform in the United States.  For me, that means working with American musicians.  As you know, many traveling soloists will come with their own accompanist, and they arrive in a city the night before, or even the morning of the concert.  They give their recital, and then they travel onto the next location.  Somehow, with me the tradition has grown that I’m invited by local American groups, and accompanists, and orchestras and ensembles.  This means that I arrive a week or soor at least three to five daysbefore the concert.  Then I start rehearsing with the colleagues from this country.  I get to know them.  I also get to know the town.

BD:   Does this make for better concerts?

van Egmond:   It certainly is more fun for me.  As to better concerts, I’m not able to always compare exactly what would happen if I would arrive with my own accompanist.  Of course, one would be more experienced.  One would have done the same program a couple of times, but it would probably be less spontaneous.  Also, there is less of an interchange of ideas because now I learn from the accompanists.  They have a new view on the subjects, and they sometimes learn from me, or get new ideas from me.  So, it’s a livelier approach.

BD:   Do you like the life of a wondering minstrel?

van Egmond:   I don’t mind traveling.  I like it a lot.  What I don’t like is the more practical results of that.  If you are not at home very regularly and enough, then things at home accumulate
like correspondence, and book-keeping.  So when you come home, you have to make up a lot of things, and that’s unpleasant.  That’s not so nice.  Also, I have some students I teach, and you can’t teach them in Amsterdam and be at the same time somewhere else to perform.  So I sometimes have to make up lessons that I’ve missed, or I have to find somebody who replaces me.  That sometimes works fine, but not always.  There are some practical problems created by a lot of traveling, but the traveling, as such, is often very pleasant.  In modern times, traveling is quite comfortable, and you gain a lot of friends in different countries and different cities.

BD:   Are you encouraged by the young voices you hear in their lessons?

van Egmond:   Yes, certainly.  The real talented ones are, of course, rare
like everywherebut every now and then, there are some very good voices.  First of all, I am encouraged to really be able to do what I advocate, what I tell them to do.  I sometimes purposely invite my students to a concert that I give myself, so I really force myself to be able to do the same things that I tell them to do.  Also, sometimes they have such talent, and they are so intelligent and artistic that I feel they can do things better than I can.  Or, the voices are simply more beautiful, and more spectacular, and then it’s a joy to work with them, and to develop that.  It’s even happened on one or two occasions that I have a special student.  In fact, it was an American, the counter-tenor, Derek Ragin, who is now quite successful in Baroque opera in Europe and in America.  When he started his lessons with me, I kept telling myself not to change anything, because so often when a new student arrives, you want to change a lot of things that you think are wrong.  With Derek Ragin, however, what he does has a very relaxed natural spontaneity which should always stay with him.  So what I did was just work a bit on his style, and languages, and polishing here and there, but leaving all the basic things as they were.  That’s quite a special experience, I must say.

BD:   Thank you for being a singer.

van Egmond:   [Smiles]  Well, I hope I can continue a little longer!

BD:   I’m sure you will.

van Egmond:   Thank you.  This was a more thorough and deep interview that I’ve had for in a long time.

BD:   [With gratitude]  I hope you enjoyed it.

van Egmond:   I certainly did.  It makes much more fun than just a few minutes in a hasty atmosphere.


© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on October 7, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1989 and 1996.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.