Jaap Nico Hamburger, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

At age three, our family was gifted a 78-rpm phonograph (yes, with a horn and a sling…). With it came two sets of records: a Wagner opera (that at the time I didn’t much care for) and…. a complete recording of Beethoven’s 9th with the Berlin Philharmonic. That’s when I knew who I was, and how I wanted to spend the rest of my life. I have not looked back since then.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

The two additional experiences that shaped me were at the age of six attending a performance of Bruckner’s mighty 8th Symphony (Bernard Haitink with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra) and at thirteen, my first encounter with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. Hearing Mahler for the first time gave me a strong sensation of hearing ‘The Truth’.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The greatest challenge is the first attempt at composing every next work: inevitably I ask myself ‘Do I have something to say with this work? Are these notes relevant to the human condition of today?’ I never know if I can ever produce the next work in a meaningful way. There are no guarantees and that is frankly, quite frightening.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

The challenge of working on a commission is that there are pre-existing expectations, based on the appreciation of prior work. So, the challenge with creating a new work is whether the commissioning party will be happy with a work they hear for the first time…Obviously, the pleasure of working on a commission is that someone appreciated my prior work enough to trust me with composing something new. That’s is a true honour and a humbling experience.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Working with musicians is a truly magical experience. When I compose, I hear the music in my head. But the music only exists in this world through the performance of musicians, when it actually comes ‘alive’. Without the efforts of my colleagues, my music is nothing but black dots on a white sheet of paper… And the musicianship my colleagues bring in interpreting my music creates real magic. The result of a performance with good conductors and good musicians is usually beyond my wildest expectations.

Of which works are you most proud?

Usually of the one I just finished composing. When the last one is not the best I ever did, I am in real trouble.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Indeed, as language. If I succeed in what I wish to do, then I have communicated a concept, a thought, a story, if you like, to an audience. In order to communicate, you must use a language that can be understood by the people you wish to communicate with. Every sentence needs to make sense in order to communicate a specific thought. If I think that is not the case, the page will end up in the trashcan…Consequently, I try to use a musical language that is a logical continuation of what already exists. I do not wish to technically innovate for the sake of technical innovation.

How do you work?

Alone, mostly at night, when the world gets quiet.

How did the Holocaust inspire your new release, ‘Chamber Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2’?

Symphony No.1, ‘Remember to Forget’ was inspired by the news that Györgi Ligetti had passed. Reading his fascinating life-story inspired me to compose a story about adversity, and how he overcame adversity in a positive, constructive and creative way. Ligetti became one of the most important artists of the second half of the 20th century despite many and all odds.

Reading the diaries of five teenagers who were murdered during the Second World War inspired me to compose my Symphony No. 2 ‘Children’s War Diaries’. Sometime after reading these diaries, I visited the Yad VaShem Holocaust Memorial Center in Jerusalem. The architecture of the Children’s Memorial is uniquely sobering as it memorializes the 1.5 million children murdered in the War, approximately 95% of all Jewish children aged 0-18 in occupied Europe. This staggering number is what led Raphael Lemkin to introduce the term ‘genocide’ in a 1944 landmark publication. Overwhelmed by the starkness of the Children’s Memorial, as I left the building, and stepped into the blazing Jerusalem sunlight, the contours of a new symphonic work came to mind. I went home and wrote it down.

The release features The Violins of Hope. How did this come about, and what do they lend to “Children’s War Diaries”?

The Violins of Hope are a collection of instruments that were played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust, usually under unimaginably brutal circumstances. Some of the instruments survived, even though their original players did not. Amnon Weinstein, a famous Israeli luthier, spent decades finding and restoring these instruments. The collection is made available for special occasions only. In 2019, I was invited by the Montreal Holocaust Museum to collaborate on a concert celebrating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Europe by (among others) the Canadian Armed Forces. The concert was held at the spectacular Montreal Symphony hall, with the phenomenal Orchestre Metropolitain de Montréal, under the baton of Dutch conductor Vincent de Kort. The experience of hearing ‘Children’s War Diaries’ through the sound of violins that were actual witnesses to the events of the Second World War was quite extraordinary. Even today, I am not sure how to put that experience into words.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Musicians? Anyone who is brave enough to know who they are, come in front of an audience and know they have no choice but to be who they are and nothing else… Favourite composers? There is a long list: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Berg, Bartok, Shostakovich, John Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin, and Prince….There is good music and less good music. And good music is for all times and all genres.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Even one single person listening and thinking that they were presented with an idea they could relate to. I’d say that, and a performance of my next symphony at the Royal Albert Hall!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

‘Life is a very narrow bridge. And the challenge is to not be afraid. Don’t be afraid at all’. And, make sure you connect to people and society in a meaningful and authentic way.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow and maintain classical music’s audiences?

If we understand the term ‘classical music’ to mean ‘art music’, then I think that art needs to be ‘true’, in the sense that it addresses relevant aspects of the human experience. That does not necessarily mean it is ‘pleasant’ or ‘agreeable’ or popular. It simply needs to be true, and always of the highest possible quality. Ever-increasing progress in technology and platforms for global sharing have democratised the process of making and sharing music. It does not always come with a filter on good versus not-so-good quality. In the end, I believe there will always be an audience for authentic art, just as there will be an audience for authenticity in general.

Also, in addition to authentic and socially relevant content, the use of technology such as film and other visual media can enhance storytelling. Providing audiences with the ‘all-embracing’ theatrical experience, beyond ‘just music’, is an exciting challenge and will draw-in new audiences.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

At my wife’s side

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being at my wife’s side

What is your most treasured possession?

The marriage certificate I share with my wife

What do you enjoy doing most?

Being with my wife

What is your present state of mind?

In search of lost time (this answer was obviously borrowed from Proust himself…)

Jaap Nico Hamburger’s Chamber Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 are released on 6 November 2020 on the Leaf Music/Naxos label.


Jaap Nico Hamburger is the current Composer in Residence with Mécénat Musica in Montréal. His compositions include commissions from Turning Point Ensemble, Ensemble Caprice, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, and an original contribution for the project ‘400 years of Dutch Keyboard Music’. He was recently commissioned by the Dutch Government and the United Nations to compose a new concerto for harp and orchestra, to be premiered by Lavinia Meijer and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2021. Other commissions include works for Discovery Channel, and broadcasting companies in the UK and the Netherlands. He is a Canadian Music Centre Associate Composer, President and CEO, Orange Music Inc., a Vancouver music production company; and, a former Director of City Opera Vancouver.

Born in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, he started his musical education at the age of 3, and studied piano with Ruben Lifschitz, Alexandre Hrisanide and Youri Egorov. He graduated from the Royal Sweelinck Conservatorium of Music, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, with a soloist degree in piano. He has lived in Canada since August 2000.

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Artist photo: Reuben A Hamburger

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