Sem Dresden, born and bred in Amsterdam, led a musical life of unstoppable activity. He conducted; wrote a long catalogue of compositions for various instruments, ranging from piano solo to large orchestra; taught at music school and held many important posts in the Dutch musical world. From 1924 he was Director of the Amsterdam Conservatory and in 1937 he was appointed Director of the Koninklijk Conservatorium (Royal School of Music) in The Hague. In 1941 he was obliged by the occupying Germans to cease his musical activities, and a period of silence ensued. Dresden had to take cover. It was characteristic of him that he obstinately continued to compose and finished more than ten opus numbers during the war years.
Sem Dresden was the son of a diamond merchant; from his early years he displayed a great talent for music. As a composer he was lucky enough to begin his studies in Amsterdam under Bernard Zweers; at the same time he took lessons in piano and violin. In Berlin he studied under Hans Pfitzner. In 1907 Sem Dresden married Jacoba Dhont. She was a professional singer and through his wife the composer met many Amsterdam vocalists. Dresden used this circle to found the Madrigal Society in 1914, later renamed the Haarlemsche Motet- en Madrigaalvereeniging (Haarlem Motet and Madrigal Society). The company performed polyphonic Renaissance works, an unusual repertoire at the time. Contemporary music was also regularly on the programme. Not long after founding the madrigal society Dresden began to write his first choral works: Oud-Nederlandsche Liederen (Old Dutch Songs) appeared in 1916 and Wachterlied (Song of the Watchman) in 1918. Some years later in 1928 he wrote Chorus tragicus, to words by Joost van den Vondel, in which the singers are accompanied by an orchestra consisting of percussion, bugles and trumpets. This work was followed by Chorus symphonicus (1944), a "choral symphony" in four parts for voice and orchestra. Dresden’s opera François Villon (1957), about the 15th century French poet, thief and vagabond, requires not just soloists, an orchestra and dancers, but also a fully-fledged choir.
In spite of his training by the German Hans Pfitzner, Sem Dresden’s style draws more on the south than the east. Along with contemporaries such as Willem Pijper and Bernard van den Sigtenhorst Meyer he had a predilection for modern French music; the old German romanticism seemed more remote. However his compositions do not only contain the light French touch. His Second Violin Concerto, a masterpiece that won the Johan Wagenaar prize in 1948, has some very dark passages. In the funereal second movement it seems that the difficult war years have left their mark. Both the intermezzos are also tumultuous. After the Second World War Dresden’s music became more dramatic. We hear this for example in Dansflitsen (1953), a spectacular orchestral work that runs a number of dances together, from polka and waltz to sicilienne and tarantella. By the time this work was premiered, Dresden was fully re-established in the Dutch musical world. After the Liberation he regained his post as Conservatory Director and even after he retired, in 1949, he remained very active, for example as Director of the foundation for young musicians Stichting Jeugd en Muziek. He was also Chairman of the arts council Music Committee.
It is remarkable that Dresden even found time in his exceptionally busy life to put his own thoughts on paper. Before the Second World War he worked as a journalist for some years with De Telegraaf; he also published various articles in other newspapers and magazines. In 1923 he published a book with the title Het muziekleven in Nederland sinds 1880 (Music in the Netherlands from 1880). Dresden also wrote the highly successful Algemeene Muziekleer (Standard Music Theory) in 1931; by 1963 it was already into its eleventh edition.
Jochem van der Heide
Oud-Nederlandsche Liederen 1916 choir
Wachterlied 1918 choir
Sonate 1918 flute and harp
Chorus tragicus 1928 choir, trumpets, bugles and percussion
Chorus symphonicus 1944 soloists, choir and orchestra
Dansflitsen 1953 orchestra
François Villon 1957 soloists, choir, orchestra and ballet