GEM: How to sing the Night?


‘How to sing the Night?’ – it is one of the questions the Dutch 18th-century composer Frederik Nieuwenhuijsen (1758-1841) dealt with in 1783 when he wrote this note to the poet J.P. Kleijn (the author of several odes and songs for which Niewenhuijsen composed the music). Nieuwenhuijsen admits his disappointment with the fact that the music of his cantata De starrenhemel (‘The star-spangled sky’, based on a text by H. van Alphen) does not find the right expression for the word ‘Night’. Whereas the ‘rising’ (occurrence) of the ‘Song’ (Gezang) has been expressed simply with a rising musical figure, a pause is inserted in the score after the singer has mentioned the ‘Night’. The inserted pause however is qualified as a kind of stop-gap (‘good enough, but nothing good compared to the poetry,’ he writes), not an apt expression. What may fascinate us is the way in which Niewenhuysen refers to this word ‘expression’. It is poetry, which can name the ‘Night’ and the associations related to it, whereas music can only suggest a sense of meaning by indirect means (here: silence). In the eyes of the 18th-century artist this is a less ‘expressive’ form of imagination, which confronts him with what he considers as the disadvantages of the chosen art form.

The fragment is taken from a document at the collection of the Netherlands Music Institute (NMI) in The Hague. More information (in Dutch) about Nieuwenhuijsen’s manuscript can be found here.