The Kennedy Center

Cyrano de Bergerac, Overture

About the Work

Johann Wagenaar Composer: Johann Wagenaar
© Richard E. Rodda

Johan Wagenaar

Born November 1, 1862 in Utrecht, Holland.

Died June 17, 1941 in The Hague.


Nineteenth-century social convention almost cost Holland one of its most brilliant musicians - Johan Wagenaar was born out of wedlock in Utrecht on November 1, 1862, but the disparity between the aristocratic station of his father, Cypriaan Gerard Berger van Hengst, and the humble origin of his mother, Johanna Wagenaar, made marriage impossible, so the boy was given his mother's name and brought up in near-poverty. Wagenaar showed musical gifts as a child, but his mother's straitened circumstances made it impossible for him to receive any formal instruction until he was thirteen, when he began lessons on violin, piano and organ, and started to study composition with Richard Hol, the cathedral organist in Utrecht and head of the city's Toonkunstmuziekschool ("music school"). He received his professional training at the school, earning his tuition by playing violin in local orchestras, and joined its faculty upon his graduation in 1885. Three years later Wagenaar took over his teacher's organ position at the cathedral, winning special acclaim for his Bach performances, and in 1896 succeeded him as director of the Toonkunstmuziekschool. Wagenaar also developed a parallel career as a choral conductor, directing the city choirs in Utrecht, Arnhem, Leiden and The Hague between 1904 and 1927. In 1919, he was appointed director and composition teacher at the Royal Hague Conservatory, where he remained until his retirement in 1937. He died in The Hague on June 17, 1941. For his services to music, Wagenaar was decorated six times by the Dutch Queen and twice by King Albert of Belgium, and received an honorary degree from the Utrecht University. One wonders what his father would have thought.

Wagenaar's most enduringly successful composition among his three operas, twenty orchestral pieces, large-scale vocal and choral works, and chamber music is his concert overture Cyrano de Bergerac of 1905, written just eight years after Edmond Rostand unveiled his now-iconic dramatic creation, which he based loosely on Hector Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655), known in Paris for his plays, his free-thought philosophy and his Brobdingnabian nose. ("'Tis a rock! A peak! A cape!," Rostand has his title character boast. "A cape? Forsooth! 'Tis a peninsula!") Cyrano has inspired orchestral works, a half-dozen operas (including one by Franco Alfano, best remembered for completing Puccini's Turandot, and another, by American composer David DiChiera, premiered in Detroit as recently as 2007), ballets, an operetta by Victor Herbert (1899, just two years after the play's premiere in Paris), a Broadway musical (1973, book and lyrics by Anthony Burgess, music by Michael Lewis; Christopher Plummer received a Tony for his leading role), many films (from a two-minute clip from 1900 of Clément Maurice reprising a scene from the original production to José Ferrer's Oscar-winning role in 1950 and recent portrayals by Steve Martin and Gérard Depardieu), and innumerable stage revivals. Wagenaar said that his concert overture "references only the main character (Cyrano) from Rostand's ‘heroic comedy' and his main traits." The work's style, scale and programmatic nature suggest a sort of Dutch analogue to Richard Strauss' tone poems, which were then exciting public acclaim and Wagenaar's admiration (Also sprach Zarathustra had created a sensation a year earlier), but the music has a somewhat more easygoing quality and unforced wit.