The Man and the Artist, an Interview with Tenor Peter Gijsbertsen

By Raymond Beegle
September 19, 2017

Artistic growth is, more than anything else, a refining of truthfulness... The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist knows how difficult it is.
— Willa Cather

Lotte Lehmann, a great truth teller, often said to her students, both famous and obscure, “I don’t believe you!” and perhaps this is the major indictment one can level at the multitude of vocalists named, categorized, and duly entered in today’s burgeoning discographies, catalogs, and internet options.  Only a handful are endowed with, or have achieved, this ultimately undefinable, unprovable quality of truthfulness.  Numbered among them are Lehmann, Tiana Lemnitz, Zara Dolukhanova, Peter Schreier, Roman Trekel, Heinrich Rehkempfer, Hans Hotter, and now the remarkable young Dutch tenor, Peter Gijsbertsen, who also has this gift living somewhere in the timbre of his voice, in his intellect, and in the spontaneous, intuitive, unconscious part of his being which, in the nineteenth century, was called the soul.

His recent CD, Nacht und Träume, is, to my mind, the most important Schubert recording in many years. Chubby, gentle, homely little Schubert, messenger of the beautiful, demands much from a singer: humanity and generosity of spirit; breadth of expression without a hint of artifice; subtlety and yet simplicity; the forethought of a sage, and the spontaneity of a child. These demands are met with a natural ease by Gijsbertsenn, whose personality seems to be coincident with them and, one supposes, with the personality of the composer himself.

Nacht Und Traume
By Peter Gijsbertsen, Jozef De Beenhouwer

This special affinity for Schubert begins with a close bond to nature

“I was raised in a tiny village. When I was still a little boy we moved to a slightly larger village. My sister and I had the fields to play in, and I remember how wonderful it was to pick berries off the bushes and eat them, and how I would bring rhubarb to my mother and she would cook it for dinner.”

An absence of pretense and a general attitude of good will toward humankind is another shared trait

“When I was 27 I went on a pilgrimage. I started walking from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, still in France, and walked all the way to Santiago de Compostela and onwards to the sea at Finisterra. All in about 30 days so plenty of kilometers every day. It was an amazing experience because of the world you step into, which is quite separate from the everyday ‘real’ world. For me it was mostly about social interaction rather than a spiritual journey.

I met all sorts of people with whom you share your stories, feelings, agonies (blisters and creaky ankles) and so forth. You stick together for a few kilometers, days or, like with the last people I met, all the way through to the end. The fact everyone is in the same little world made me free to make these connections with people and let go of them as well without any kind of pressure. Also, the rhythm of walking every single day was very nice. You didn’t have to think about what to do the next day. You just got up at 6 a.m. and started walking. I guess sharing the whole experience with all these people I met was the best thing about it.”

Had he ever thought of being anything but a singer?

(Immediately) “Yes!” I would be a teacher! I would like to teach kids from the ages of 9-12. They are so fresh then so pure, so flexible. Even with my own son, Leo, he doesn’t like to be told “no,” but a few minutes later he’s over it, and he’s learned something.”

Music was not his heritage

“There was no classical music in my family. I didn’t start listening to great music until I was about 17! My parents bought me an album of a popular tenor and I thought, “beautiful!” and started to buy CD’s. I remember at first listening to the sacred music of Heinrich Schutz, the “Carmina Burana” of Orff, and thinking they were great. “I was also attracted to Finzi, first one song and then another, and Britten’s folk songs.

Jef van Hoof: Art Songs
By Wilke te Brummelstroete, Peter Gijsbertsen, Jozef de Beenhouwer

An awakening

“The first time I was deeply moved by music? I don’t know…I do remember in my early 20’s I heard a performance of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was thunderstruck! I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t say anything about it to the friend I was with. There were no words!”

The word simplicity was a common thread in our conversation

“My favorite composers are  Bach, Mozart and Schubert. It’s best to hear Bach live. I love the opening chorus of the Matthew Passion. Like all Bach’s music there is simplicity in it. I love simplicity in music. That’s why I love Bach, Mozart and Schubert. “Simple” is so strong in them!”

On choosing repertoire

“Sometimes, they just call me and say ‘will you sing Winterreise?’ About Winterreise… one song leads to another and the shape unfolds. Sometimes I go right into the next song, sometimes I wait. I listen for what should come next and let it unfold. Sometimes you determine what’s going to happen, sometimes the song does…  but, back to choosing repertoire, I go by what I’ve heard; sometimes I buy music and read through things and choose what I like; music comes first, then the words. Slowly I put a program together.”

Many artists feel a great difference in their work before a microphone in a recording studio and their performing before a live audience. Peter Gijsbertsen doesn’t seem to think so:  “I’m glad I always have the opportunity in the studio to do it again, to have another take. In a recital, you don’t have another chance! Also, you’re up close. You see the ones that are bored! You also see the ones that are moved.  Coughing is a bad sign; silence is a good sign! There is the music, and there is what I call my 2nd brain that tells me what has to be done with my body and my intellect. The best is when everything is gone and it’s just the music!”

Being Beauteous | Kammermusik 1958
By Fabian Diederichs, Peter Gijsbertsen, Valentin Priebus, Sophia Whitson, Katharina Kuhl, Andreas Grunkorn, Anna Prohaska, Jurgen Ruck

A singer he admires

“Peter Schreier! It may not be the most beautiful voice, but he sings with his heart. That’s what’s important. And he is such a fine musician.”

“He sings with his heart” means a lot to Peter Gijsbertsen. I sensed that it was the central issue when I asked him about the difference between singers of the present and singers of the past:

“The world we live in now is so different. Its about I-phones. It’s about making money, doing things fast, being popular. Not the things that are you. I try to stay away from this.”

About work

“I didn’t start my life in music until I was 19 and went to Utrecht conservatory. I really had no background. I realized that I had to work! There were hurdles, and more hurdles, but I learned to tell myself ‘take them.’ They still keep coming and I take them!”

From the beginning of our conversation I was struck by the singer’s simplicity; by the total absence of “grandness,” of postured affability, and the attitudinizing one usually encounters in such interviews. My first thought was ‘Good God! He’s genuine, just like his singing!’ I wondered how he would ever be able to preserve this authenticity in the sea of sharks that is the “music business.” It prompted me to ask him about mentors and teachers, guides past and present:

“A mentor or teacher… my parents! My parents brought me up well, and taught me by example what it is to be a good person. Also, my best friend, Gilbert den Broeder, who is an accompanist and coach. Then there is my wife, Maartje. She helps me to stay pure. “

His major asset as a musician

“My strong point is to stay true to the music. Do what the composer says. No added high notes, no long fermatas on them to show off the voice. I also try to keep fit: physical exercise every day, running, when I can. I also learned, from having kids, that I’m not fragile! Although I may be tired I can do the things if I have to do, even sing!”

Inevitably, when an interview is finished, one regrets not asking this or that: how the artist feels after an especially satisfying performance; how the large events in life become reflected in his voice; how he maintains his modesty considering the abundance of his talents. But they would only give us just a little more sense of Pater Gijsbertsen, the man and the artist. The mystery of any man or any artist will always remain a mystery - to us and to himself as well.

We’ll have to be satisfied with Rachmaninoff’s remark, “If people want to know who I am, let them listen to my music”.

Raymond Beegle reviews classical music and opera for the New York Observer and Fanfare Magazine. For many years he was Contributing Editor of Opera Quarterly, the Classic Record Collector (UK), and also appeared on The Today Show (NBC) and Good Morning America (CBS). As an accompanist, he has collaborated with Zinka Milanov and Licia Albanese.  Currently Mr. Beegle serves on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music in New York City.