The Great Silence
The love of music in a rich and classical novel set in the 1910s
Erik Menkveld has made an impressive debut with a historical novel set in the Amsterdam music scene of the 1910s. The main characters are composer Alfons Diepenbrock and his wife Elisabeth. Diepenbrock is also involved with another woman, Jo. Another prominent character is Matthijs Vermeulen, Diepenbrock’s protégé, who initially works as a music reviewer. The portrayal of these characters lends Het grote zwijgen all the allure of a classic psychological novel, in which the love of music permeates everything.
At first, the characters are full of high-minded artistic ideals, such as Beethoven’s adage alle Menschen werden Brüder – with music as the unifying element. However, in addition to the romantic developments, which are in a sense a betrayal of these ideals, artistic rivalry also plays a role. Diepenbrock finds himself at odds with Willem Mengelberg, the acclaimed conductor of the Concertgebouw orchestra, who is accused by music connoisseurs of favouring a conservative repertoire. Although Mengelberg always expresses his admiration for Diepenbrock, he only rarely performs his work.
Above all of this hangs the shadow of the First World War, which becomes more palpable when Vermeulen leaves for Belgium as a correspondent. He reports from Louvain and Liège about the atrocities that the Germans are carrying out among the local population. The Netherlands is neutral, but the war brings about deep division, including in cultural circles. Everyone is anxious not to damage good relations with Germany, which is why no one criticises the Austrian Mengelberg for his pro-German stance, while Diepenbrock ends up in social and artistic isolation because of his disapproval of the Germans. After the war, both his ideals and his prestige have faded. He becomes embittered, particularly when his wife Elisabeth embarks upon a brief affair with Vermeulen.
Basing his work on biographies, letters, memoirs, newspaper articles and other historical sources, Menkveld brings his characters to life and presents an incisive picture of the artistic atmosphere of Amsterdam in the 1910s, full of colourful details about everyday life, prevailing attitudes and the social status quo.