Saturday, June 30, 2018

Remembering Kee (2): The Solo Viola

I feel incredibly privileged to have been able to study for two years with Piet Kee at what was then called Sweelinck Conservatorium Amsterdam. (Unfortunately, the name of the great Amsterdam composer disappeared from the name of the school following a merger with the Hilversums Conservatorium in 1994.)

Many fellow students, back then or later, often privately (as students do), sometimes very publicly, have expressed dissatisfaction with Kee as a teacher. “It must always have been a tremendous burden to him,” I remember one excellent former Kee student—now a very prominent Dutch organist—saying, back in the day. Another very prominent international student has stated rather publicly that Kee, while evidently an excellent musician, could not teach at all. I humbly disagree, and here is one small example of how Kee taught in a manner that, at least to me, was fascinating, beautiful, and highly effective.

Many Kee students studied the Prelude to the Pange lingua by Zoltán Kodály in their first year at the conservatory. (Kee had recorded the Prelude himself at St. Bavo’s; I don’t recall having ever heard another organist play it in concert, but it is a very beautiful short work that is worth revisiting, I think.)

It was admittedly not so terribly easy to play this colorful work beautifully at the 1950s Flentrop in Amsterdam South (where Kee famously taught for many years, presumably because he particularly liked the action of the instrument). Moreover, I had really no clue what to do with a Neoclassical work with elements reminiscent of, say, Ravel. On the top of the last page, there was a rather high solo in the left hand, which I obviously had difficulty with.

“Look,” said Kee. “Such a beautiful little solo! Think of it as a viola solo in an orchestral piece.” (As always when I cite Kee here, please note that I cite from memory after many years; moreover, I do my best to translate citations into idiomatic English.)

At 18 I found that such a beautiful and enlightening remark. I remember smiling; Kee, of course, observed my reaction. “I see that appeals to you,” he said, I suppose not altogether displeased. “Why don’t you play it one more time.” I did, and of course it now was so much better (not that I noticed that myself, but I noticed very little back then).    

Friday, June 29, 2018

Remembering Kee (1): At the Cinema

When I came back to The Netherlands in mid-May of this year, it was very much on my mind to visit my old organ teacher Piet Kee. But the first weeks were busy, and I figured there was no hurry in contacting Kee; yes, he was 90 years old, but since his dad had made it to 99, it seemed reasonable to expect that Piet would still be with us for quite a while.

Boy, was that a mistake. Kee passed away within two weeks of my being back in Haarlem.

That’s now almost exactly a month ago and I have spoken about Kee quite a bit with colleagues and close friends. Many, many memories, and my intention is to write them down here, a bit as I get to them (or as they get to me). Here is a first one.

I was reminded of this when I went to see a movie in Haarlem’s outstanding independent cinema, the Filmschuur. We saw The Bookshop, a nice enough movie that I enjoyed watching for the second time, this time in the company of a friend. At the end, as it happens with movies, the titles rolled down the screen. People start leaving the room. We stay seated a little longer.

“Many years ago,” I tell my younger friend, “I went to see a movie in the old Filmschuur, over in the Smedestraat. An Italian movie, Tuscany, beautiful pictures, but goodness knows what it was about. One of those movies.

“Anyway, I walk into the cinema, and there are Piet Kee and his wife. I sit down next to them, how could I not, they were friendly, both parties bien étonnés de se trouver ensemble, so to speak.

“At the end of the film, like now”—I said to my friend—“the titles roll down the screen. People start leaving, but not Piet Kee and his wife, nor, of course, I.

“Piet Kee turns to me. ‘Ik heb zo’n hekel aan mensen die meteen weglopen,’ he says, somewhat quietly, but nonetheless very clearly.” I hate people who walk out immediately (although admittedly ‘hate’ sounds  little too harsh in English.)

“I have often thought about that,” I said to my friend. “Of course, it had nothing to do with music, but in a way everything with Piet Kee’s artistry. Respect for the work of art. For the music. For the performance. And for the performer, of course.”

My friend encouraged me to blog about my memories of Kee, so thanks to her, there’s the first one. Many to come.


A while ago, when I taught third-year French to an interesting mix of students in America, I somehow got the idea that it would be fun to read some really good Dutch children’s books in French. I found the first two of Guus Kuijer’s (possibly the foremost Dutch children’s author of the fin de siècle) Polleke cycle in what are in my view excellent French translations and very much enjoyed reading them. Kuijer is a master in discussing very serious matters for a young audience in a manner that is both serious and playful, no mean feat, as they say.

I could not find the remaining three French Pollekes (although I now see that all five books in the series have indeed been translated), so now that I’m back in The Netherlands, I finally walked into the nearest independent bookstore, Gillissen on de Rijksstraatweg in Haarlem Noord. Polleke was not on the shelf, but the friendly bookseller offered to order it for me. “It’ll be here tomorrow after three o’clock.”

It’s now tomorrow 6:30 PM and I just started reading the third Polleke book, Het geluk komt als de donder. I made it to page 3 and already I have to interrupt my reading to write this little piece. I could not have written all of this introduction, all you really need to know is what Polleke writes (the books are written in the first person, very effectively) at the bottom of that page 3. Here it comes, with my own translation:

Soms lijkt het of er overal oorlog is, behalve hier.
Sometimes it seems as if it’s war everywhere, except here.

“Hier/“here” is The Netherlands, of course, and one only wishes it were true. Amsterdam just got a new mayor, a woman just two weeks my senior and from my hometown, a prominent member of the “green-left” party in The Netherlands. Already not only the Dutch capital, but the whole nation seems to be divided about the new mayor, and in no uncertain terms.

But perhaps this is nothing compared to what’s going on in other parts of the worlds at the moment.