A time to remember: The music of Henriëtte Bosmans was made in defiance of Nazism

Pauline van der Roest

The name Henriëtte Bosmans isn’t well-known today. But in the years before the Second World War, she was a prominent female composer in The Netherlands. As a bisexual woman with a Jewish mother and Catholic father she was under threat during the Nazi occupation of Holland. She survived and one of her songs became an anthem of liberation for the Dutch people at the end of the war. It has a strong Canadian connection because the piece celebrates the arrival of Canadian soldiers in the final stages of the war. To honour her music and memory, the Dutch-born, Ottawa-based mezzo-soprano Pauline van der Roest has put together a concert of Bosmans’ music. Before the show on Nov. 11, she spoke to ARTSFILE.

Q. Can you tell me something about Henriëtte Bosmans?

A. Henriëtte Bosmans was born in 1895. Her mother was a concert pianist and teacher and her father was a cellist and played with the Amsterdams Concertgebouworkest. She studied piano with her mother and was passionate about music. In 1915 she debuted as a concert pianist and she started to compose short pieces for piano and violin at that age as well. At first her focus was on instrumental works. Her Concertino, for example, has been performed quite often. Later in her career she started to write more pieces for voice and piano first based on Dutch and German poetry and later based on French poetry. Her mother was Jewish and her father was Roman Catholic.

Henriëtte Bosmans

Q. Do you have a personal or profession connection to her and or her music? If so what is it?

A. I feel strongly about the efforts that women have to make to be successful in their careers in general. I am a classical singer and Dutch language teacher. I was born in The Netherlands and have been living in Canada since 1998.

I was looking for a new challenge connected with my roots. I started looking into Dutch female musicians that had successfully made their way in a mainly male society in the days from before, during and just after the Second World War. I was curious to find out what kind of strength and drive moved these women. When I came across Henriëtte Bosmans I was drawn into starting to do more research on her works and her intriguing life. I somehow needed to bring this woman’s works back to life. After reading her biography, I found many things about her that I can relate to, especially her critical thinking, honesty and her perseverance. I like challenges: starting them, ‘complaining’ about the amount of work and stress, finishing them, being happy that it’s over and then taking on the next one.

Her life had so many different elements. Her drive to become a musician, her struggles during the war, her struggles in her relationships because of her bisexuality, all when there was not much known about these personal struggles and a lot of denial and discrimination.

When I found out that the scores were actually available I knew I had to continue this project. It started small and I tried to let it grow into something valuable as a tribute to Henriëtte Bosmans and as a personal accomplishment to my own singing journey.

Q. The rest of the evening features French songs. Is there a connection between the pieces and Bosmans?

A. All the music, including the French songs, was written by Henriëtte Bosmans. Except the three songs that will be performed by the Tone Cluster choir.

Bosmans’ choice of the poetry in the French songs matches her personal struggles and her observation of the struggles she witnessed around her. She was often searching for loving partners, losing partners to sickness or death and the deterioration of her own health which led to her death at 57.

Q. Nazi persecution extended to gays and lesbians. Is that something you want to bring to the forefront?

A. We live in a time when diversity is under threat … a development that I find worrying and scary and comparable to the threats in the years before the Second World War started. We can’t allow our society to go backwards.

I grew up in a very white society that was prejudiced against gays and lesbians. I had to, and wanted to open my eyes and ears to see that people who seemed different were not different at all. During my life I have met wonderful people from all backgrounds and orientations. I has made me realize how fortunate I am to be able to connect with all these people and how much that has enriched my world. I stand for equality and I am against thinking that one person is better than another.

Q. Please tell me about the piece that is being performed that is dedicated to Canadian soldiers.

A. I could not believe that there was a Dutch art song about Canadians liberating the Netherlands when I found it on an archive website. My parents were children through the war (and had great respect for the Canada) and being a classical singer this was very close to me.

The song was written in June 1945 and was based on a poem by Fedde Schurer. It describes the arrival of Canadian troops after years of suffering and the exuberant happiness and gratitude that the people felt after the country was liberated.

Shortly after the war this piece was performed frequently at the Concertgebouw and the audience roared with energy and enthusiasm. It was an ode to the Canadians and the concerts were sold out. It was not so much about the quality of the composition, but about the meaning of the words and the time in which it was performed. 

Q. What did the liberation mean to your own family?

A. The song describes so clearly what my parents have told me about the hard times during the war, the fear, the hunger, but especially the happiness and the celebration when the country was liberated by the Canadians. When my parents visited Canada and we went to see the RCMP musical ride, my 75 year old father, whom I had hardly ever seen crying, had tears in his eyes. The riders symbolized the liberation. It was as if he was back in his youth reliving all those emotions again. It was very powerful to witness this.

We grew up with stories about the war. It had made such a big impact on my parents.

Q. Where is your family from in the Netherlands?

A. My family is from Den Haag (The Hague). I was born in the south of the country in Helmond.

Q. Bosman’s partner during the war was a member of the Dutch resistance. Did she have a role there as well?

A. Henriëtte Bosmans was not part of the resistance, but took much care of her mother who constantly felt the threat of the chance of being deported. Bosmans, being half Jewish, was not allowed to perform in public during the second half of the war. What were known as ‘Black Evenings’ were organized at private homes for concerts, but these were illegal. They were a way for musicians to earn some money in these difficult years. Bosmans did perform during these concerts, but had to flee at least once.

In that time the Nazi regime organized the ‘Nederlandse Kultuurkamer’ in which musicians had to be registered to perform and receive an income. Bosmans refused to be part of that system. In 1944 her mother was arrested and send to Westerbork (detention and transit camp). Bosmans was actually able through her connections in the music world to have her mother released because her mother as a ‘full-Jew’ had been married to a Roman Catholic.

Q. Is her music in general well known and much performed in Holland? Elsewhere?

A. No, her music was well-known then, but not today. Finding the scores through a Dutch singer (Julia Bronckhorst) who recorded music by Bosmans helped me to continue my journey. I was eventually able to order the scores as well as her biography. It was through the biography that I realized how successful Bosmans was. I felt even more motivated to promote her music again and make her work part of the current music world.

Q. Can you describe the range of her repertoire?

A. The classical pieces have lots of influences — Grieg, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Chopin, Liszt, Cesar Franck and Fauré. I find that her songs have a very unique style. Still you can hear influences from these composers. It goes from the classical repertoire to the Chansons. Her songs are mainly based on French poetry. She was drawn to the French people and their music world. She adored Edith Piaff and actually wrote one song for her, which unfortunately was not performed by Edith Piaff.

She wrote for: piano/cello, piano/violin, cello concertos, orchestral works, voice/piano, piano trios, a flute concert and a concertino for piano. Towards the end of her life she was in a relationship with the French singer Noemie Perugia for whom she wrote songs based on French poetry by Paul Fort and André Verdet.

Q. How was she regarded then?

A. She was highly respected as a musician and a composer. She was one of the few women composers and belonged to a group whose works were broadcast or performed, on average, twice a month.

She was described as a ‘pur sang Bohemienne’ who would withstand compulsion and always longed to depart to a longed-for land of freedom. After her death one Dutch newspaper wrote: ‘Henriëtte Bosmans lives on in her work as long as the voice of the heart will reach humanity’.

A campaign was organized to get her name painted on the wall of honour in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw but it did not succeed. Two commemoration concerts have been organized in her name in which songs and concert pieces written by Bosmans have been performed and well received. In Haarlem and in Amsterdam, streets have been named after her. However, nowadays hardly anyone remembers her music or knows who she was. This is a chance to change that.

A Tribute to Henriëtte Bosmans
With: Joan Harrison, cello; Frédéric Lacroix, piano, Pauline van der Roest, mezzo-soprano and Tone Cluster — quite a queer choir
When: Nov. 11 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: MacKay United Church, 39 Dufferin Rd.
Tickets: At the door or at The Leading Note

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.