Sem Dresden
(Amsterdam, 20 April 1881 - The Hague, 30 July 1957)

Dutch composer and teacher. The scion of a diamond-broking family, his father tried to suppress his musical interests; nevertheless he managed to study with Roeske and Zweers in Amsterdam. On the strength of a promising student piano piece, he was sent in 1903 to study composition and conducting under Pfitzner at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin. Pfitzner unexpectedly steered his compositional interests towards French Impressionism; he also encouraged Dresden to remain in Germany as an opera conductor. After two years, however, he returned to the Netherlands. There, aided by his wife Jacoba, a noted alto, he began a career as choral conductor; he also continued to compose. From 1914 to 1926 he directed the nine-member Madrigal Society, which earned international repute for its painstaking performances of Renaissance and contemporary choral music; it was succeeded, from 1928 to 1940, by a larger chamber choir in Haarlem. In 1919 he had been appointed head of composition at the Amsterdam Conservatory and was its director from 1924 to 1937. With Pijper in 1922 he established the Dutch ISCM chapter. His erudite articles in De Amsterdammer and De Telegraaf (1918–27) were a progressive influence in Dutch musical life.

Dresden was named director of the Royal Conservatory in The Hague in 1937 but served only three years before being dismissed, due to his Jewish ancestry, by German Occupation functionaries. He spent most of the war interned on an estate in Wassenaar; despite dangerous conditions he composed assiduously through these years. He resumed his post in The Hague after liberation, remaining until his retirement in 1949. Many noted Dutch musicians were his students, including Monnikendam, Godron, Smit, van Beinum, Felderhof, van Otterloo, Mul and Cor de Groot. Throughout his career Dresden served on numerous boards and committees, especially in choral education and music for youth. Such administrative functions together with composing occupied him after retirement. In his final hours, confirming the religious tendencies in his later works, he became a convert to Roman Catholicism.

The compositions written shortly after his return from Berlin show largely French influences, as in the four suites for wind and piano composed for the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Sextet. The impressionistic Sonata for Flute and Harp (1918), which emphasizes contrasting instrumental timbres, was acclaimed in both France and Holland. Dresden’s later music is essentially tonal, but with modal twists and frequent added-note chords. An elastic use of metre may reflect his lifelong involvement with Renaissance polyphony. Long-arched, soaring melody is another hallmark, present in virtually every work from the Sonata for Flute and Harp onwards.

Through his choral experience he became fascinated with traditional Dutch songs, of which he made many popular arrangements. In addition, he used these tunes to generate themes in original compositions, either overtly (Quartet no.1) or as a form of musical punning or submerged quotation (Cello Sonata no.2, Piano Trio); Bizet and Wagner fragments are treated similarly in the Flute Concerto. This concern with motivic development carries over into the Dansflitsen, where a seven-movement dance suite grows out of one small motif. In the Chorus tragicus (1927), to a text by Vondel concerning the fall of Jerusalem, unusual choral techniques are used, with suggestive sound effects in the brass and percussion accompaniment. In this work, the Chorus symphonicus, St Antoine (written for an international congress of church music in Augsburg), Psalm 84 and St Joris, Dresden emerges as his country’s leading twentieth-century composer of oratorios and festive choral music. The Chorus symphonicus, his most monumental composition, was written during World War II. The texts, from the penitential psalms, reflect the hardships and bitterness of everyday life in those years. By contrast, the operetta Toto, about a little dog concealed from licensing authorities, is a humorous representation of Dresden’s own existence during the Occupation.

Dresden’s last composition was the one-act opera François Villon, to his own text. His pupil Jan Mul prepared the orchestral score after the composer’s death, and the work was first performed during the 1958 Holland Festival. It was praised as the most striking Dutch opera to date.

Né à Amsterdam le 20 avril 1881 - mort à La Haye le 30 juillet 1957. Il est le fils de Marcus Dredesn, courtier en diamants et d'Anna Mijerson.
Son père tente de la détourner d'une carrière musicale. Il étudie tout de même au Conservatoire d'Amsterdam avec Bernard Zweers (1854-1924), pour la composition, Fred [Frederik Jan] Roeske (1868-1961), pour le contrepoint, Richard Hageman (1881-1966) pour le piano.
Une de ses compositions pour le piano est particulièrement remarquée et révèle un avenir prometteur : on l'encourage à continuer ses études à Berlin. En 1903, il est admis au Conservatoire de Berlin, où il étudie la composition avec Hans Pfitzner. Ce dernier le dirige vers le style de l'expressionnisme français, et l'encourage à demeurer en Allemagne comme cerf d'orchestre d'opéra.
En 1905, il est de retour aux Pays-Bas, où il commence une carrière de chef de choeur, tout en continuant à composer. Il dirige des ensembles à Laren, à Amsterdam et plus au sud des Pays-Bas, à Tiel.
Il se marie le 25 mars 1907 avec la contralto Catharina Jacoba Adriana Dhont. Ils auront deux fils.
De 1914 à 1926, il est à la tête de la Madrigaalvereniging (Société Madrigal), un chœur a cappella de 9 membres qu'il a créé, et qui accède à la notoriété dans un répertoire polyphonique de la Renaissance et d'œuvres contemporaines.
En 1918, il participe avec Daniel Ruyneman (1886-1963), Henri Zagwijn (1878-1954), Bernhard Van den Sigtenhorst Meyer (188-1953), Alexander Voormolen (1895-1980) à la création de la  « Nederlandsche Vereeniging tot Ontwikkeling der Moderne Scheppende Toonkunst » (Société néerlandaise pour le développement de la musique moderne), qui rassemble de nombreux compositeurs.
De 1918 à 1927, il rédige des articles dans « De Amsterdammer » et le « De Telegraaf », qui ont une certaine influence sur la vie musicale des Pays-Bas.
En 1919, il ets professeur de composition au Conservatoire d'Amsterdam.
En 1922, avec Willem Pijper (1894-1947), il fonde la section néerlandaise de la « Société Internationale de Musique Contemporaine ».
En 1923, il publie un livre sur la vie musicale aux Pays-Bas depuis 1880.
En 1924, il prend la direction, jusqu'en 1937, du Conservatoire de musique d'Amsterdam, en remplacement de Julius Röntgen (1855-1932).
De 1928 à 1940, il dirige un grand chœur de chambre à Haarlem.
En 1937, il est nommé directeur du Conservatoire royal de La Haye, en remplacement de Johan Wagenaar (1862-1941).
Il doit en démissionner en 1940 en vertu des lois raciales imposées par l'occupant nazi. Il est remplacé par Coenraad Lodewijk Walther Boer (1891-1984).
Pendant presque toute la durée de la guerre, il reste caché dans une propriété à Wassenaar, où il continue à composer malgré les conditions difficiles.
À la libération, il reprend son poste à la direction du Conservatoire de La Haye, qu'il quitte à sa retraite en 1949. Jusqu'en 1953, il dirige la « Fondation de la musique pour la jeunesse ».
Il a donné de nombreuses conférences sur la musique néerlandaise, notamment aux États-Unis en 1947, et a occupé de nombreuses responsabilités administratives : Président de la commission nationale pour l'éducation musicale ; président du département de la musique du Conseil des arts ; membre du Conseil de l'Opéra néerlandais ; président de la fondation Willem Pijper ; membre de la fondation Alphons Diepenbrock.



Toto (operetta, 3, Dresden), 1944–5, ?unperf.;
Dsjengis Khan (incid music, van den Does de Willebois), 1951;
François Villon (op, 1, Dresden, after F. Villon), 1956–7, orchd J. Mul, Amsterdam, Stadsschouwburg, 15 June 1958


Theme and Variations, 1913;
Vn Conc. no.1, 1936;
Sinfonietta, cl, orch, 1938;
Ob Conc., 1939;
Conc., pf, ob, str qt, 1942, rev. as Pf Conc., 1945–6;
Vn Conc. no.2, 1942;
Fl Conc., 1949;
Dansflitsen [Dance Flashes], 1951, arr. 2 pf, 1953;
Org Conc., 1952–3
Symfonie concertante (1956)


Wachterlied (14th century), SATB, 1918;
Boerenfeest [Peasant Festival] (G.A. Bredero), SATB, 1923, completed 1953;
Meilied (16th century), SATB, 1925;
Chorus tragicus (J. van den Vondel), SATB, 5 tpt, 2 bugles, perc, 1927;
Memoria judaeorum (C. Tacitus), male chorus, 1932;
Hymnus matutinus (6th century), SATB, 1935;
Assumpta est Maria, SATB, 1943;
Chorus symphonicus (Ps cxxxix, lxix, lvii, xxxiv, S, T, SATB, orch, 1943–56;
Gelukkig is het land [Happy is the Land] (B. Aafjes), SATB, wind, 1948;
Ps xcix, SATB, org, 4 trbn, 1950;
Beatus vir, male chorus, 1951;
Fabel: den aap en de katte [Fable: the Monkey and the Cat] (Vondel), male chorus, 1953;
St Antoine (G. Flaubert), sym.-orat, solo vv, SATB, spkrs, orch, 1953;
3 Vocalises, SATB, 1954;
Ps lxxxiv, S, T, SATB, orch, 1954;
De wijnen van Bourgondië (Dresden, after wine adverts), SATB, orch, 1954;
Carnavals Cantate, S, TTBB, orch, 1954–5;
St Joris [St George] (Dresden), S, Bar, SATB, 2 pf, perc, 1955, rev. with spkr, orch, 1956

solo vocal

43 early songs, before 1908;
4 songs (J. Schürmann), 1917–19, orchd;
Treurig, treurig (J.K. Rensburg), 1919;
4 Vocalises, Mez, chbr orch, 1935;
4 liederen (A. Donker), 1942–5;
Ausonius ad uxorem (A. van Duinkerken), 1951;
Catena musicale (Bible: Ecclesiastes), S, 7 insts, orch, 1956;
Rembrandts ‘Saul en David’, S, orch, 1956

chamber and solo instrumental

5 Little Pf Pieces, 1903–15;
Suite, ww qnt, pf, 1911;
Praeludium, scherzo and finale, 2 pf, 1912;
Trio, 2 ob, eng hn, 1912;
Suite, ww qnt, pf, 1913;
Rameau Suite, ww qnt, pf, 1916, rev. 1948;
Sonata no.1, vc, pf, 1916;
Sonata, fl, hp, 1918;
Suite, ww qnt, pf, 1920;
Str Qt no.1, 1924;
Str Qt no.2, 1938;
Toccata, Chorale and Fugue, org, 1941, rev. 1946;
Sonata no.2, vc, pf, 1942;
Pf Trio, 1942–3;
Sonata, vn, 1943;
Suite, vc, 1943–7;
3 Pf Pieces, 1945, rev. 1947;
Hor ai dolor, pf, 1950; Come fu…, pf, 1953


30 choral arrs. of old Dutch songs;
O Kerstnacht [O Christmas Night] (Vondel), SATB, str, trbn, 1939

Catalogue chronologique des œuvres


Nederland sinds 1880 (The Hague, 1923)
ed.: Algemene muziekleer (Groningen, 1931, 12/1972)
ed.: Gedenkboek uitgegeven ter gelegenheid van het 50 - jarig bestaan van het Amsterdamsch Conservatorium (1884–1934)(Amsterdam, 1934)

Stromingen en tegenstromingen in de muziek (Haarlem, 1953)



P.F. Sanders: ‘Sem Dresden’, Moderne Nederlandse componisten (The Hague, 1931), 44–71
W. Paap: ‘Sem Dresden’, Mens en melodie, i (1946), 73–9
W. Paap: ‘Sem Dresden’, Music in Holland (Amsterdam, 1960), 16–19
J. Wouters: ‘Sem Dresden’, Sonorum speculum, xxv (1965), 1–13
J. van der Veen: ‘Sem Dresden’, Biografisch Woordenboek van Nederland, ed. J. Charité (The Hague, 1979)
J. Kolsteeg: Sem Dresden en de harmonische vernieuwingen in de Nederlandse muziek rond 1920 (diss., U. of Utrecht, 1988)


Jean-Marc Warszawski
28 août 2010



Dansflitsen, Orchestral Suite  -
Rafael Kubelik Conducts
Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra

Dansflitsen (Dance flashes) (1951) -
1. Intrada - Alla Polacca - 0:00
2. Siciliana - 0:57
3. Tempo di valse -3:04
4. Passamezzo - 4:57
5. Menuetto vivo - 7:04
6. Marcia funebre (molto moderato) - 9:42
7. Alla Tarantella (molto allegro) - 11:26
Orchestra: Residentieorkest
Conductor: Willem van Otterloo