By Mascha van Nieuwkerk

In April 2018 CREATE pre-PhD Mascha van Nieuwkerk was invited to deliver a paper on the International Opera Conference Across Labels in Madrid. She presented her research on the connections between opera and concert practice in the nineteenth century, based on her analysis of the overlap between two CREATE datasets (Felix and Opera) and the programming archive of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The conference took place in the beautiful old opera house of Madrid: Theatro Real de Madrid. Her paper is printed here, and the accompanying Prezi can be found here.


Opera in the Dutch concert hall. Genre connections across sectors

I am very honored to start the day with the first paper of this label crossing opera conference. Or actually: I am excited! The coming days we are going to go across musical boundaries, across labels, styles and genres. For me it is exciting to be among other label-crossing musicologists because in my historical research into the concert practice of the ‘long nineteenth century’ I am often confronted with the problem that existing textbook theories about genre do not seem to work very well in the historical practice. It must be a familiar feeling for many of you: music history is just not as well ordered as theory suggests. If we look at music history through the eyes of music theorists we see a decent order of musical styles, genres, spaces and performance practices. But on the actual programs of concert halls and opera houses in the past we see a disorderly mess of styles and genres that were much more fluid and intertwined. From experience as a musician I can assure you: musicians just do not behave like theory tells them to.

Let me start with a question: Does any of you know these three figures? A cellist and two violinists. They were the three most frequently played composers of variations, fantasies and other instrumental arrangements opera melodies in the Dutch concert hall Felix Meritis. It is exactly this very unknown practice that I want to zoom into in the coming 15 minutes or so: opera music performed in the concert hall.

In various research projects in the past few years I have been collecting an enormous amount of digitized concert programming data of concert halls and opera houses in the Netherlands. Today I would like to use these data to demonstrate how surprisingly central opera was on Dutch concert programs in the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. I will show you how these label-crossing practices worked and how they developed over time. Musicologists have mostly neglected the adaptations of opera music for concert purposes mainly because they tend to focus on the original works, the ‘musical idea in its purest form’, and, of course, opera and concert practice are often studied separately. Both institutionally and in historiography they are considered as separate musical spheres. Opera in the opera house and orchestral and chamber music in the concert hall.



We are very lucky in the Netherlands that recently three big Dutch archives of musical programs have been digitized. This means that for the first time we can actually study the performed repertoires and the ways genres worked in practice instead of in theory only. William Weber, an inspiring pioneer of studies into concert programming, has rightfully noticed in 2006 that ‘the history of concert programming has yet to be written.’ These three digitized archives are a great first step in the direction of writing the history of Dutch concert programming.

First we have the Dutch Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra that has published their full programming records in 2013 starting in 1888 the founding year of the famous orchestra. Then there are two are digital archives that I have been developing for CREATE, the digital humanities program of the Dutch Center of Cultural Heritage together with student-assistants and an information specialist. We created a collection of concert programs of Felix Meritis, an important predecessor of Het Concertgebouw and currently we are working on the Dutch Opera Performance Archive, an index of all opera productions staged in the Netherlands from 1886-1995.


Felix Meritis & Het Concertgebouw

In Dutch historiography the opening of Het Concertgebouw in 1888 is often described as a turning point in the history of Dutch musical culture. From that moment on the long awaited professionalization and modernization of concert practice could finally start off. But there was a lively musical culture already before that time in smaller concert halls, elite music societies and popular concert series in summer time. In order to study concert practice over a longer time frame I included the programming of one of the main predecessors of the Concertgebouw in my analysis: Felix Meritis, the main concert hall for the Amsterdam elite before the opening of the Concertgebouw in 1888. Membership was required to be permitted the concerts of Felix Meritis and members were supposed to have a serious interest in music, art and science. So, no music for the millions here, but serious concerts. Still, concert programs at this hall were extremely divers, combining different genres and instrumentations: a symphony, a violin concerto, a vocal aria, an opera overture, some virtuoso instrumental pieces, another overture, so on and so forth. These programs were clearly designed to suit divers musical tastes: like nowadays the programs were a result of an implicit negotiation between audience members, performers and concert managers. An anonymous music critic summed it up perfectly:

‘The subscription concerts are all very much alike, in the sense that the programs invariably consist of a symphony, some overtures, an aria, a concert for this or that instrument, some smaller pieces and songs. Apart from some occasionally change […] the same sequence recurs.’

In 1888 Felix Meritis was closed and the well-to-do of the Dutch capital found a new home in Het Concertgebouw. The new hall was open to every music lover hat could afford a ticket. The notables of Felix Meritis found themselves enjoying the great new orchestra between shopkeepers and schoolteachers.



In order to analyze programming practices over a longer period of time I have been developing quantitative and conceptual tools to compare larger amounts of concerts. In this respect genre is an extremely powerful concept because as the music critic I just quoted already noticed, a nineteenth century concert can be understood as a highly patterned sequence of genres: a symphony, a song, an aria etc. These patters can be studied over a longer time frame.

Here we briefly see the programming formats of Felix Meritis and the early Concertgebouw seasons. Notice how programming sequences changed with the conductors leading the orchestra in Felix Meritis. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra [RCO] introduced three specialized concert formats: a concert around a soloist, a ‘Philharmonic concert’ and a ‘popular concert’.

In order to make a long-term analysis of these programs I studied all the genre classifications used on the concert programs and interestingly, what I found was that existing genre theories of the nineteenth century were not very accurate for describing the taxonomies that I found on the programs.



So lets go briefly into theory. Most genre theories are very much focused on the divergence of genres. For example, the theory of Dahlhaus, one of the most important genre theorists of nineteenth century, is all about the separation of instrumental and operatic genres in this period. The general idea in Dahlhaus theory is that the ‘twin styles’ of Rossini and Beethoven, opera and instrumental music, were separated into isolated musical spaces: opera in the opera house; symphonic repertoire in the big concert halls and string quartets in the small concert halls and other genres such as variations, fantasias and short virtuoso works were marginalized into the private sphere of the salon. The idea is that the big musical developments of the nineteenth century all contributed to this ‘separation of genres’: the professionalization of orchestra’s and rise of ‘their’ genre the symphony, the opening of specialist concert halls, the emergence of concert etiquette, silent audiences and last but not least, of course, the heated discourse about absolute music.



But if we look at the genre practices on the concert programs of Felix Meritis and the RCO we see a much more complex and inclusive image. In fact, opera did not disappear from the Dutch concert hall in the nineteenth century as Dahlhaus suggests and not even in the twentieth century. I can spend minutes taking about the development of the genre taxonomies used in concert practice and another hour analyzing this graph, but for now I would like to zoom into this little section here. In Felix Meritis as well as het Concertgebouw there was a vivid practice of operatic performances. Let me show you how this practice worked and how it developed over time.


Variations and fantasies

We see here in this graph that especially in the 1830s, 40s, 50s opera was extremely important. In the period that Johannes Bernardus van Bree was leading the orchestra of Felix Meritis ore than 1/3 of the program items was related to opera. There was a stable balance between vocal fragments (arias, recitatives etc.), orchestral overtures and instrumental adaptations of opera material (variations, fantasies etc.).

Whereas arias and overtures were the genres for the singers and the orchestra, variations and fantasies were the genres of the instrumentalists. Players used these formats to show their virtuosity and their personal vision on well-known melodies, reverencing to the collective musical memory of the audience.

To give you a quick insight into this practice, here we see the repertoire played by the violinist mister Fischer at Felix Meritis in the period that Johannes van Bree was conducting the orchestra. He was the most frequently invited violinist in this period, performing about two, three times a year in this hall. You can see that he performed variations on various opera themes by Meyerbeer, Carl Maria von Weber, Auber, Donizetti, Rossini and of course he regularly played Souvenir the Norma. Casta Diva form Bellini’s opera Norma was the most popular melody for variations and fantasies.

The era of free operatic variations would not last very long. After Johannes van Bree died and Johannes Verhulst took the lead, the number of variations and fantasies went down to almost zero and generally opera was taking a lesser and lesser share. These tends can be partly explained by the development of the programming sequences under different conductors over the years. The conductors Verhulst and Röntgen were changing the concert sequence in such a way that the symphonic repertoire could have a more prominent place on the programs. In this process opera fragments became les important. Whereas in the period of Van Bree symphonies and opera overture were still interchangeable, under the leadership of Verhulst the symphony acquired a fixed spot. Röntgen would even clear the whole second half of the concert to give the symphony a special place.

Ideas about operatic transformation and fragmentation changed. Interestingly, we can observe these developments on the concert programs as well as in Dutch music journalism. From the 1860s various music journalists in the Dutch musical journal Caecilia campaigned against the performance of such genres as variations, fantasies and potpourris advocating a more central role for sonatas and symphonies on concerts. In this period, the words ‘variation’, ‘fantasy’ and ‘potpourri’ were always used in a negative context and thereby marginalized as mediocre and tasteless genres lacking originality. We see here…

One critic states that composers of variations and fantasies were in fact semi-composers. He writes that they have made freebooting the norm and banished all originality.’ They are dangerous creatures without any earnest devotion to music. In fact, they cover up their lack of actual knowledge with al kinds of “fantasy-creations”‘



Variations and fantasies on operatic material might have been marginalized at the end of the nineteenth century, but opera keeps popping up on concerts al though the twentieth century. On the programs of the RCO opera was still a continuous part of the concerts but compared to the Felix Meritis programming we see that the focus was now fully on the orchestra. We see here that the green part (operatic overtures and entr’actes) was by far the biggest category and there is a new category introduced that was uncommon in Felix Meritis: orchestral arrangements of operatic fragments adapted especially for concert practice.


Orchestral fragments

The operatic repertoire played by the Concertgebouw orchestra in the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century reflected a general development in operatic composing since Wagner: the introduction of a semi-symphonic, through-composed approach to opera, placing a greater emphasis on the orchestra as the bearer of emotion and musical meaning. In this not a surprise that Wagner was by far the most performed opera composer by the RCO. The difference with Felix Meritis is very noticeable here.  In Felix Meritis Wagner’s music was not even in the top 10 of works played in the second half of the 19th century. His music was played only 7 times, in total! Wagner’s operas had been staged in the Netherlands several times by the German opera but the real Dutch Wagner vogue would only start when the Wagner society was founded in 1893 and the RCO would become their orchestra. The programs of the RCO show that Wagner’s operas were not only living in the opera houses. His operas were very much alive in the concert hall as well.



In this short paper I tried to convince you that we should not miss out on opera in the concert hall. Especially in a country like the Netherlands that is often described as a non-operatic country, operatic performances on concerts are extremely relevant. In the nineteenth century the small country was depending on foreign troupes for performances of whole operas. There was only a French opera company based in The Hague and a German Opera in Rotterdam. But thanks to the concert programs of Felix Meritis we know that opera was living beyond the activities of these institutions. In the twentieth century the RCO performed fragments of multiple operas that were never staged by opera companies in the Netherlands. If we would only study the activities of opera companies we would totally miss out on these operas.

 The concert programs I studied reveal that operatic repertoire was not at all separated from concert repertoire in practice. Over the centuries opera keeps popping up on concert programs in different forms: sometimes transformed, sometimes fragmented. As a musician I have been especially interested in the ‘migration’ of opera from opera house to concert hall, so to say. I find these practices incredibly interesting because it shows us how musicians have at all times adapted musical works to the specific circumstances of a performance. I believe that these rather unknown musical practices force us to look differently at same basic conceptual issues in music historical research. We will definitely be further engaged in these issues in the course of this conference. But lets quickly pinpoint them:


  1. Genre

Theories on genre are often focusing on the binaries between genres. But if we look at concert practice genres seem to be much more hybrid and flexible than in theory. The question is: can we have a more flexible approach to genre? Should we redefine textbook definitions of genre? And ultimately: should we even reconsider the alleged divide between operatic and ‘concert’ genres?


  1. The ‘work–concept’ [as introduced by Lydia Goehr in her Imaginary museum of Musical Works (1992)]

If we look at concert practice, an opera does not seem to be just óne thing, not just óne singular music theatrical identity. In fact, an opera could have multiple manifestations when migrating form the opera house to the concert hall. Operas were transformed, fragmented and adapted to the manifold circumstances of their reception. So a second question is: should we redefine opera as a more flexible entity as well?


I am very curious to know what you thoughts are on this.