MATTHIJS VERMEULEN (8 February 1888, Helmond – 26 July 1967, Laren)
After primary school Matthijs Vermeulen (born as Matheas Christianus Franciscus van der Meulen) initially wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, who was a blacksmith. During a serious illness his inclination towards the spiritual gained the upper hand. Inspired by a thoroughly Catholic environment, he decided to become a priest. However, at the seminary, where he learned about the principles of counterpoint of the sixteenth-century polyphonic masters, his true calling – music – came to light. On his eighteenth he abandoned his initial ideas and left school. In the spring of 1907 he moved to Amsterdam, the country's musical capital. There he approached Daniël de Lange, the director of the conservatory, who recognized his talent and gave him free lessons for two years. In 1909 Vermeulen began to write for the Catholic daily newspaper De Tijd, where he soon distinguished himself by a personal, resolute tone which stood out in stark contrast to the usually long-winded music journalism of the day. The quality of his reviews also struck Alphons Diepenbrock. He warmly recommended Vermeulen with the progressive weekly De Amsterdammer. There Vermeulen revealed himself as an advocate of the music of Debussy, Mahler and Diepenbrock, whom he later used to call his "maître spirituel".
In the years 1912-1914 Vermeulen composed his actual opus 1, the First Symphony, which he called Symphonia carminum. In this work, expressing the joys of summer and youth, he already employed the technique he would remain loyal to for the rest of his life: polymelodicism. The four songs Vermeulen wrote in 1917 display, each in its own special way, the composer's preoccupation with war. In the reviews for De Telegraaf, a daily newspaper he worked for since 1915 as head of the Art and Literature department, he also showed just how much in his view politics and culture were inseparable.
Vermeulen's polemic against the unidirectional German orientation of Dutch musical life got him into trouble. After having presented his First Symphony to Willem Mengelberg, whom he much admired, he was disdainfully rejected after a one-year period of keen anticipation. Consequently, Vermeulen's orchestral work did not stand a chance in Amsterdam. The first performance, given by the Arnhem Orchestral Society in March 1919, took place under abominable circumstances and was a traumatic experience. Yet, Vermeulen started to work on his Second Symphony, Prélude à la nouvelle journée, shortly after that, and a year later he gave up journalism in order to fully dedicate himself to composing, while financially backed by some friends. After a last, fruitless appeal to Mengelberg, Vermeulen moved to France with his family in 1921 in the hope of finding a more favorable climate for his music. There he completed work on his Third Symphony Thrène et Péan, and composed the String Trio and the Violin Sonata.
However, Vermeulen's symphonic works did not find their way into the French concert halls either. From sheer necessity Vermeulen returned to journalism. In 1926 hebecame the Paris correspondent for the Soerabaiasch Handelsblad, a daily paper in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). For fourteen years he wrote two weekly extensive articles on every possible topic. The commission, in 1930, to compose the incidental music to the play De Vliegende Hollander [The flying Dutchman] by Martinus Nijhoff was encouraging. Nine years later he received a new impetus with the first performance of his Third Symphony by the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Eduard van Beinum. The long-awaited confrontation with the resounding notes confirmed the effectivity of his concepts. In the years 1940-1944 he composed his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, bearing the titles of Les victoires and Les lendemains chantants, which symbolize Vermeulen's faith in the good outcome of World War II.
In the fall of 1944 Vermeulen had to take severe blows. In a short space of time he lost his wife and his most cherished son, who was killed while serving in the French liberation army. The diary Het enige hart [The singular heart] gives a deeply moving account of his mourning process. Seeking the meaning of this loss, Vermeulen drew up a philosophical construction, which he further developed in his book Het avontuur van den geest [The adventure of the mind].
In 1946 Vermeulen married Thea Diepenbrock, daughter of his former mentor, and went to work again for the weekly De Groene Amsterdammer, in the Netherlands. His articles on music rank among the most compelling in that area. In 1949 his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies were performed.
Politics and society kept on occupying Vermeulen passionately. He found the stifling atmosphere of the cold war increasingly depressing. Fearing a nuclear confrontation he spoke out against the arms race in several periodicals. During the first large-scale peace demonstrations of 1955 he said: "The atomic bomb is an anti-life, anti-God, anti-man weapon."
The performance of the Second Symphony (which was awarded a prize at the 1953 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels) during the 1956 Holland Festival instigated a new period of creativity. Vermeulen moved to rural Laren with his wife and child, where he composed the Sixth Symphony Les minutes heureuses, followed by various songs and the String Quartet. His last work, the Seventh Symphony, carrying the title Dithyrambes pour les temps à venir, reveals unflagging optimism. The composer died after a wasting disease, on 26 July 1967.