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A city in music: Maastricht and its maestro of the masses

People attend a concert of Dutch violinist and concert director Andre Rieu as he performs for the 100th time on the Vrijthof square in Maastricht, on July 21, 2019. - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Sophia Deboick on a modern music phenomenon and his creative hometown.

Maastricht is a name that looms large in the history of the European Union. As the place of the EU’s birth with the 1992 Treaty it is forever associated with grey diplomacy and has been a four-letter word in the mouths of Eurosceptics. But this pretty city of rich history, with winding streets set behind 17th century fortifications, has rather more to it.

Of Roman foundation, Maastricht became an important religious centre as the burial place of fourth century bishop Saint Servatius, and was later at the heart of the Carolingian Empire, and this capital of Limburg – the most southern Dutch province, which protrudes into Belgium – boasts strong French and German cultural influences. Inundated with refugees in the early part of the Second World War, the city’s labyrinthine marlstone mines and caves provided shelter during the Nazi bombardment of the Battle of Maastricht.

Maastricht shielded a large number of Jewish families during the war and was the first Dutch city to be liberated by the Allies.

But for all this history, Maastricht’s music has been notable for looking forward, producing sounds that anticipated the future of the medium, even if more recently it has embraced nostalgia and looked backwards to a largely false past.

Dick Raaijmakers was born in Maastricht in 1930 and pursued his early interest in music in the midst of war, playing piano and, crucially, building radios. Despite formal piano training after the war, Raaijmakers became more and more interested in the intersection of music and technology as technological innovation became framed as the vehicle of all mankind’s hopes in the 1950s.

In 1954 Raaijmakers took a job on the Philips radio assembly line in Eindhoven to gain experience with electronics. He ended up changing musical history.
Promoted to Philips’ Natuurkundig Laboratorium (‘physics laboratory’ – known as NatLab), Raaijmakers became assistant to Dutch composers Henk Badings and Tom Dissevelt. Both were carrying out some of the earliest experiments in making electronic music, but it would be Raaijmakers who would attempt the first electronically-made popular music, using the pseudonym Kid Baltan (‘NatLab Dik’ backwards).

The launch of Sputnik 1 – a ‘second moon’ – in the autumn of 1957 proved the inspiration Raaijmakers needed and the instrumental Song of the Second Moon has been called the world’s first electronic pop song. Full of the wooshes of space flight and random beeps that sounded like a distant world trying to make contact, it also had memorable melodies and structures traceable to contemporary Latin and jazz.

Raaijmakers was still at the cutting edge 10 years on from Song of the Second Moon, as Stanley Kubrick sounded him out for scoring 2001: A Space Odyssey – Raaijmakers, a man always consumed by his own projects, was not interested. Later, as a theatre-maker and conceptual artist, Raaijmakers created extraordinary phonokinetic objects in his pursuit of erasing the “false and irrelevant associations with ‘real’ sounds” experienced when listening to electronic music, continuing to put Maastricht on the map as the cradle of his pioneering creativity right up until his death in 2013.

Maastricht’s pop credentials were enhanced in the 1980s by a rather different figure.

Benny Neyman was born in the city in 1951 as the son of a miner in the Limburg coalfields, but ploughed his own furrow by making Dutch-language pop music which drew more on the tradition of Francophone chanson than the levenslied (‘life song’) Dutch variant of schlager. His greatest hit, however, was distinctly un-Dutch in its feel.

Waarom Fluister Ik Je Naam Nog (‘Why Do I Still Whisper Your Name’), from 1985, was originally sung by Hellenic pop singer Bessy Argyraki and Neyman’s version retained its trilling bouzouki strings reminiscent of a Greek taverna. It was No.1 in the Netherlands for 11 consecutive weeks, becoming a classic of Dutch pop. Covering songs gleaned from across Europe but with self-penned Dutch lyrics became Neyman’s modus operandi for the whole of his professional life.

His career had a surprising longevity given that he never had another major hit after Waarom Fluister Ik Je Naam Nog, his devoted, overwhelmingly female fanbase attending his endless tours in their droves. His charismatic stage presence was partly responsible for that, but Neyman put his success down to having “always remained myself”, and that was true in more ways than one.

From the start, Neyman was always open about his sexuality and his 25-year relationship with his husband Hans van Barneveld. His lyrics often came from his own life experience as a gay man. Vrijgezel (‘Batchelor’), from 1981, pointed out how, despite societal disapproval, the title character ends his days having “seen all the stars” and “enjoyed his freedom”, while his Liefde voor het leven (‘Love For Life’) reflected his devoted relationship with van Berneveld.

Neyman had a strong sense of his regional identity too. His 25th album, Trök Nao Blouwdörrep (‘Back to Blue Village’), in 2004, was named after the Maastricht neighbourhood of his birth and fulfilled Neyman’s long-time ambition to record in the local dialect. From 1984, Het land van het zwarte goud (‘The Land of Black Gold’) paid tribute to Limburg and his miner father. Already, Neyman’s Ode Aan Maastricht, from 1979, had paid affectionate tribute to this “City of tradition, of incense and beer”, a “City on the swirling Meuse/ But little sung about, unfortunately”.

Two years before his 2008 death, Benny Neyman poignantly performed Ode Aan Maastricht at ‘King of the Waltz’ André Rieu’s homecoming concert in the city.
Maastricht-born violinist Rieu’s summer concerts mark their 15th anniversary this year and, having drawn some one million spectators from all over the world to Vrijthof Square to see his Johann Strauss Orchestra perform, as well as touring globally, Rieu is both Maastricht’s major export and a classical music phenomenon unrivalled in the world today.

The son of the conductor of the Maastricht Symphony Orchestra and educated at the Maastricht Conservatoire, the septuagenarian Rieu, toting a 1667 Stradivarius and with long hair, cravat and tails, is a larger than life figure. His slightly madcap air – he has insisted he wants to perform at the North Pole and on the Moon and that his heart beats in ¾ time – is enhanced by him living in a castle of 13th century origin in southern Maastricht.

In an age where touring revenues often outstrip those from music sales, Rieu is king, routinely making eight-figure sums from his tours. A successful touring act for nearly a decade before his orchestra, founded in Maastricht 1987, ever put a record out, in 2009 Rieu was the sixth highest-grossing touring act in the world, outstripping Billy Joel, Elton John, Tina Turner and Coldplay.

The draw is not hard to understand. Rieu and his anachronistically-costumed musicians (the women wear huge pastel-coloured dresses in the 19th century Viennese style) play not just the waltz but a programme that draws on the ‘greatest hits’ of opera and also includes pop songs and pieces from musicals. Comedy is central to the shows, the visual jokes and slapstick transcending language barriers just as much as the music does, and audience participation is positively encouraged.

Highly camp and strongly invested in a populist sense of old-time charm, Rieu’s performances have left ‘serious’ classical musical fans aghast, but he has carved out a new market by bringing classical performance to millions who would otherwise find it inaccessible or off-puttingly formal. Not for nothing has the New York Times called Rieu “the maestro of the masses”.

While coronavirus has temporarily stymied Rieu’s march across the globe and saw his usual Maastricht summer concerts cancelled, he already had another well-established income stream.

Rieu has repeatedly broken box office records with cinema screenings of his concerts, garnering some $60 million in ticket sales, and August’s compilation film André Rieu’s Magical Maastricht: Together in Music saw Rieu’s status as a pioneer of event cinema consolidated. Through this bringing together of live performance and cinema, as much as through his tours, Rieu has brought Maastricht to international prominence. Next year’s summer concerts – the comeback after corona – are likely to be the greatest celebration of Maastricht and music yet seen.

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