Obituary for Frans Brüggen

Frans Brüggen in 1978. Photo by Paul Hosefros.

Frans Brüggen in 1978. Photo by Paul Hosefros.

Frans Brüggen, Pioneer in Early Music, Dies at 79

August 25, 2014  |  The New York Times

Frans Brüggen, a Dutch pioneer of the early music movement, a co-founder and conductor of the influential Orchestra of the 18th Century, and a virtuoso recorder player who in his youth became (literally) a poster boy for the instrument, died on Aug. 13 in Amsterdam. He was 79.

His death was confirmed by Sieuwert A. Verster, who founded the ensemble with Mr. Brüggen in 1981.

Their period instrument orchestra was one of the first ensembles to adopt a historically informed method of performance, in which the lush sound, vibrato-heavy string playing and sometimes ponderous tempos that were then standard were abandoned for a buoyant, leaner sound with less vibrato.

Unlike other period ensembles, the Orchestra of the 18th Century has not strayed too far from its original focus; it has ventured into Mendelssohn, Schubert and Chopin, but not later romantics like Brahms.

Mr. Brüggen had a particular affinity for conducting Beethoven, releasing two recordings of the complete symphonies and leading the “Eroica” Symphony more than 100 times.

Reviewing a 2007 performance of two Schubert symphonies and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 during one of the orchestra’s infrequent appearances in New York, Allan Kozinn wrote in The New York Times that “by keeping the brass choirs in the foreground sounding punchy in the Ninth, he tapped a vein of both novelty and visceral excitement that gave these familiar works a welcome freshness.”

The orchestra (a part-time group that tours several times a year and regularly releases recordings) was founded with an unusually egalitarian pay plan. After expenses, profits are divided equally among musicians and conductor.

The orchestra recruits its members through word of mouth and never holds auditions. “We are a bit like the Rolling Stones,” Mr. Verster said in a phone interview, “always the same people.” The orchestra intends to continue to perform with guest conductors, he added.

As a guest conductor himself, Mr. Brüggen worked with both Baroque and modern ensembles, including the London-based Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Amsterdam-based Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — bringing a period practice aesthetic to his interpretations.

Mr. Brüggen had a rebellious streak and appreciated counterculture movements, both in and out of musical circles. In 1969 he supported what became known as the “Notenkrakers” (“Nutcrackers”) action, in which conservatory students and composers, unhappy with the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s conservative programming and what they saw as its elitism, disrupted a performance in Amsterdam with noisemakers and a megaphone.

Mr. Brüggen, who in 1972 founded an avant-garde recorder trio called Sour Cream, began his career as a recorder soloist and chamber musician. He elevated the instrument to star status with his brilliant, idiosyncratic approach. Some early albums came along with a poster of him, a tousle-haired young virtuoso.

His performances were physically and aesthetically distinctive: He played while sitting cross-legged and infused his interpretations with a flexible rubato that rendered the music sensually expressive.

Early video recordings highlight his beautiful tone, remarkable technique and soulful artistry, often heard in collaboration with eminent musicians like the Dutch keyboard player and conductor Gustav Leonhardt.

Mr. Brüggen, who also played the flute professionally, played a wide range of repertoire and became a champion of contemporary composers; Luciano Berio and Louis Andriessen were among those who dedicated works to him. He performed as recorder soloist with his orchestra in its early days but stopped after his 50th birthday.

Franciscus Jozef Brüggen was born in Amsterdam on Oct. 30, 1934, the youngest of nine children of August Brüggen, who owned a textile factory, and the former Johanna Verkley, an amateur singer. He studied recorder and flute at the Amsterdam Conservatory and musicology at the University of Amsterdam. At 21 he became a professor of Baroque music at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. He was a visiting professor at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley.

Mr. Brüggen is survived by his wife, Machtelt Israëls, and two daughters from that marriage, Zephyr and Eos, as well as two daughters from a previous marriage, Alicia and Laura, and a grandson.

Mr. Brüggen, who had appeared frail for many years and sat on a stool to conduct, last led an orchestra in May. But despite failing health he had no plans to abandon his career. In 2008 he told The Times that he planned to conduct “until I fall dead, like all conductors.”

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