Ton de Leeuw

(Rotterdam 16-11-1926 - Paris (France) 31-5-1996)

Nederlandse versie

the Choral Works
the Missa brevis (revised 1999)


Ton de Leeuw was born in Rotterdam on 16 November 1926. He trained with Louis Toebosch and Henk Badings and travelled to Paris in 1949 to study with Olivier Messiaen and Thomas de Hartmann. His early interest in non-Western music led him to study ethnomusicology with Jaap Kunst in Amsterdam (1950-54). From 1954-1959 he was a recording engineer with the Nederlandse Radio Unie. Thereafter Ton de Leeuw was professor of composition at the Amsterdam (Sweelinck) Conservatory, where he became director and head of the electronic studio, and a member of the senior academic staff of the University of Amsterdam. In Holland he was actively involved in the renewal of orchestral repertoire (including the much talked-of proposal to establish a mobile ensemble) and in the music policy of Dutch radio. In 1958-1976 he held several hundred radio lectures on contemporary and non-western music. Ton de Leeuw undertook his first trip to Asia in 1961 to study the classical music of India. Travels to other Asian countries followed in pursuance of the same aim. From the seventies onwards his foreign activities increased considerably. He directed workshops for young composers in many countries and was a visiting lecturer in European, Asian and Australian cities and at American universities. Publications from his hand appeared in various national and international journals. His book Muziek van de twintigste eeuw, still a standard work among music students, appeared in 1964 and has been reprinted several times and translated into German and Swedish. On the occasion of his 65th birthday in 1992 the book Ton de Leeuw was published, appearing in Dutch and later in an English translation. In 1988 he settled in Paris to devote himself primarily to composition. He died there in 1996.

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The Choral Works

Ton de Leeuw's oeuvre is highly varied; among the more than 140 compositions we encounter orchestral works, chamber music, operas, electronic music, concertos and music for television. Numerous notable compositions are written for choir and/or solo voices, a fact related to Ton de Leeuw's considerable interest in a wide range of texts and his desire to set them to music in the most direct manner. The choral works occupy a special place in view of the composer's preference for the specific choral sound and for the collective aspect of the medium. From 1953, the year in which the Missa brevis was written, he composed seventeen choral works for professional and amateur choirs. The first three, Missa brevis (1953), Vier koorliederen (1954) and Prière (1954), all published by Annie Bank, may be within reach for amateur choirs, like the Cinq hymnes (1987/88); Cloudy forms (1970), The magic of music (1970) and The birth of music I (1975) are indeed written explicitly for amateur choirs.

The texts of the choral works come from a variety of sources; a classification could be made on the basis of sacred and secular, western and non-western sources. A general stylistic classification reveals stylistic periods which are really applicable to Ton de Leeuw's entire oeuvre. In short these are: dilated tonality in a transparent and open idiom in the fifties; from De droom (1963), beside the normal manner of singing, more or less unconventional singing and playing techniques, free instrumentation and open forms, many types of polyrhythmic writing, some use of microtones and spatial techniques; finally, from the late seventies, in addition to increasing emphasis on spiritual aspects, there is mention of dilated modality. This term refers to early Eastern models in which form and expression are determined on the one hand by note series, rhythmic and melodic formulas and a strict cyclic time structure, and on the other hand by the symbolic and ethical background to music.

In this context it is interesting to present a survey of the choral works of Ton de Leeuw, including a reference to text sources (G = sacred, W = secular, we = western, n-we = non-western):

1953 G we Missa brevis
1954 W we Vier koorliederen
  G n-we Prière
1963 W n-we De droom
1966 G we Psalm 118
1969 W we Lamento pacis I, II en III
1970 W n-we Cloudy forms
  W n-we The magic of music
1975 G n-we The birth of music
1981 G we Car nos vignes sont en fleur
1983 G we Invocations
1984 W we Chimères
1985 G n-we Les chants de Kabir
1986 G n-we Transparence
1987/88 G n-we Cinq hymnes
1991/92 W n-we A cette heure du jour
1994 G we Elégie pour les villes détruites

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The Missa brevis

Sample pages

The above survey reveals that the Missa brevis was the overture to an extensive series of choral works. Ton de Leeuw composed the piece in just four days in February 1953, in response to a commission from KRO radio. This early work is notably well balanced and imbued with spirituality, aspects which were to become characteristic of the composer's entire oeuvre. Stylistically it is clearly a representative of the fifties, with its open and transparent texture and dilated tonality. In his book Muziek van de twintigste eeuw (1963) he wrote of this term: " (…) We encounter the phenomenon of dilated tonality in Bartok and Stravinsky as well. This too had its source in the nineteenth century. In dilated tonality a central, centripetal force remains active, and is indeed so powerful that it cannot be undermined even by relatively complex harmonic structures. Elementary harmonic functions are still present, but the centripetal forces are often of a horizontal nature. Dilated tonality may occur in countless forms: from the simple addition of modal elements, parallel harmony, major-minor mixes, added notes etc. to polytonality with different centres at the same time. Indeed our understanding of dilated tonality is very closely related to our hearing ability. Something sounding chaotic and ‘atonal' for the untrained listener may be perfectly cohesive for the insider; music considered to be polytonal in 1920 has now become monotonal, as long as we are able to relate all voices to a single centre." (Muziek van de twintigste eeuw, p.8).

The Missa brevis is a functional work, not too difficult for professional choirs and within reach for amateurs; its transparent character makes it most suitable for liturgical use. The composer wrote on this: "It was my intention to write a piece closely approaching the tradition of the Roman Catholic liturgy, which is (mainly) characterised by single-part singing and early Renaissance polyphony. This music is the expression of a collective spiritual experience rather than the subjective utterance of the individual. Thus the sober, transparant vocal style which makes the work accessible for semi- or even non-professional choirs.

References in the Missa brevis to Gregorian chant and early polyphony are revealed, for example, in melodic movement in seconds or in recitation, parallel-writing in perfect intervals, and characteristic rhythmic suppleness.

In the Kyrie parallel fourths and fifths and polyphonic writing are important features. In the first and last Kyrie in particular, as in the earliest organum, the part-writing is marked by the parallel fifths and fourths with which the soprano and alto begin. In between is the polyphonic Christe: the melodic and rhythmic material gradually branches out by means of imitations and inversions, rising up and growing from a single voice to part-writing.

The characteristic parallel-writing crops up continually in the Missa brevis: in the Gloria mainly as a contrast in the two-part passages, in the Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei to a greater or lesser extent as a regularly recurring element of the four-part sections.

In the Gloria, after a solo passage, the first homophonic fragment introduces a striking melodic descending octave in the soprano, a motief which recurs in the Sanctus. In the Gloria this four-part passage returns three times, in particular where the text extols the magnitude of the Lord. In between, the more intimate texts are sung to alternating one- and two-part passages. The two-part sections for soprano and alto, in the Kyrie for instance, are in parallel fifths; the long solo passage (with a short three-part miserere nobis heard twice) is for low voices only.

Two important elements of the Credo are continual text recitations at the same pitch, and intervals filled up stepwise. The first 25 bars combine these two features: the soprano recites on a' while the alto moves by step between d' and g'.

In the succeeding passage the four voices recite together in unison; a link with the Gloria is formed by the melodically descending leap of an octave or a fifth.

Thereafter the four voices descend one by one in undulating, stepwise movement through two octaves. The two elements are combined again, ending with a pause at bar 62, followed shortly after by an ascending undulating movement. For more than 30 bars the four voices recite, first with the octave leap and unison on e, then in a complex chord on a (the latter providing an example of the dilated tonality mentioned earlier). After a second pause in bar 119 the movement comes to an end (after a short variant of the beginning of the Credo), combining once more the two main elements of recitation and stepwise movement.

In the Sanctus three-part polyphony contrasts with four-part homorhythmic movement. The bass begins with a rising melodic line which branches off into the tenor and alto respectively. The following four-part homorhythmic passage forms a melodic and dynamic climax, succeeded after a pause by the first Hosanna. This striking section, with its descending octave in the soprano, is a variant of the four-part passage in the Gloria. In the Benedictus the first polyphonic section of the Sanctus is repeated in melodic inversion; at the close a fragment in parallel-writing is heard, and the movement ends with the second Hosanna.

The Agnus Dei is predominantly four-part and homorhythmic, with two short two-part interludes. Brief parallel-writing in perfect intervals occurs at many points, less than in the Kyrie but sufficient to evoke this typically early-medieval sound.


Ariane de Leeuw
Daughter of the composer


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