Dutch composer Jan van Gilse spent most of his professional life, which lasted from 1900 until the National Socialists rang the curtain down in 1941, between a rock and a hard place. German-educated, as were most promising composers in the years around 1900, van Gilse returned to the Netherlands as a conductor only to endure withering attacks from critics owing to the perceived German-ness of his programming and compositions. During these hard times, van Gilse played a major role in establishing proper performance rights policies in the Netherlands and served as the first president of what is now BUMA-STEMRA, the equivalent in Holland to what ASCAP or BMI are in the United States. Finally stepping aside from his conducting post in Utrecht in order to silence his critics, van Gilse took up minor conducting engagements in a scattershot fashion thereafter in order to get by. After 1933, van Gilse was fending off Nazi-sponsored requests -- some proffered by his idol, Richard Strauss -- to ally music publishing in the Netherlands with Nazi interests; he was also greatly concerned with protecting Jewish musicians from persecution. During the war, both of van Gilse's sons died fighting in the resistance, and van Gilse himself perished while in hiding and was buried under a phony name.
CPO's Jan van Gilse: Symphonies 1 & 2, featuring the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra under the dedicated direction of David Porcelijn, is sponsored in part by the De Vergeten Componist Foundation, a Dutch organization devoted to securing attention for works of unjustly forgotten composers. Van Gilse is at the top of the list, and BUMA is solidly behind the project as well. Van Gilse's music is certainly not difficult to grasp, and it comes from a unique perspective within post-romanticism; it is not Wagnerian, and while the example of Strauss can be heard hovering in the background, van Gilse makes practically no use of the knotty chromaticism endemic to Strauss. If he resembles anything specific, one could say that van Gilse almost sounds like a Dutch Dvorák.
The Symphony No. 1 in F major (1901) was written when van Gilse was 19. For a composer so young, it is quite an accomplishment, though in practice it does not really seem to come alive until the Finale; van Gilse tends to concentrate much of his melodic ideas and development in upper registers of the orchestra, and for the first three movements the symphony seems to lack weight. The Symphony No. 2 in E flat major (1902), which was premiered under the baton of Willem Mengelberg, is a big improvement in this respect; it shows far more variety and assurance in its use of the orchestra and benefits from charming melodic ideas and the increased depth of harmony employed. It is good music, not great, and worth recording at least one time, as van Gilse has two more symphonies it does make the listener wonder where he went from here in a stylistic sense.
The performances by the Netherlands Symphony under Porcelijn are creditable, and the notes by John Smit make for a fascinating read. One wishes the music were more involving than it is; it's as hard to imagine just who might be in the market for this recording as it must have been for van Gilse to keep the yellow stars from the elbows of his Jewish orchestra members circa 1940. Nevertheless, Jan van Gilse made so many sacrifices during his career for his fellow musicians that this tribute, however belated, is certainly deserved.