Cornelis Dopper was made infamously famous one evening of 1918 when, after a performance conducted by himself of his 7th Symphony “Zuiderzee” with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, he was ridiculed by his more avant-garde colleague Matthijs Vermeulen, who shouted “long live Sousa!” – with the implication that the music wasn’t any better than your standard Sousa March (which shows that Sousa was well known in the Netherlands in 1918). It dealt a fatal blow to Dopper’s reputation, and he’s now an unknown quantity, even in his native country.
Yet I find the music better than that. I have the same Symphony in a live performance from 1940 with the same orchestra conducted by Willem Mengelberg, on The Mengelberg Edition vol. 13. Alexander Voormolen: Sinfonia, Cornelis Dopper: Symphony No. 7 “Zuidezee”, Gothic Chaconne. Archive Documents ADCD 119 (2001). Certainly it isn’t avant-garde, and Dopper doesn’t always maintain the highest level of inspiration (there’s even a second movement, subtitled “humoresque”, that’s almost embarrassing and may be what attracted the sneers of Vermeulen), but the Symphony isn’t entirely “arrière-garde” either and there are some beautiful moments, and a freedom of form and variety of moods that I find, in fact, quite modern. I feel that, with a stereo recording, unhampered by the scratching surface noise and limitations of the 1940 live recording, it’s the kind of work that, with familiarity, may grow on you.
But Dopper’s masterpiece and, in his time, most popular work, is his Ciaconna Gotica from 1920: a powerful work, starting in a somber and brooding atmosphere reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia, then traversing various moods, always with great orchestral invention. It was performed many times by Mengelberg and recorded by him in the studio, for Telefunken, in April 1940. The same recording, in a better transfer, is on Teldec’s Willem Mengelberg Concertgebouw Orchestra: Niederländische Komponisten. Works of Valerius/Wagenaar, Dopper, Röntgen, Hendrik Andriessen, Rudolf Mengelberg, Wagenaar, Marnix von St. Aldegonde/Mengelberg. Teldec 243 723-2 (1988).
But whatever the interest of those Mengelberg recordings, the works cry for modern recordings in spacious stereo. And they exist: both works were recorded by the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra under Kees Bakels, on NM Classics 92060, barcode 8713309920604, paired with Peter Van Anrooy’s Piet Hein Rhapsodie (1995).
This makes me curious about Dopper and when possible, I’ll explore the two CDs that Chandos released in their “obscure Dutch composers” series with the Residentie Orchestra of The Hague:
Chandos 9894: Symphony No. 2, Päân I & II-symphonic studies. Matthias Bamert (2001) barcode 095115988428
Chandos 9923: Symphony No. 3 “Rembrandt”, Symphony No. 6 “Amsterdam”. Matthias Bamert (2002) barcode 095115992326