Dick Kattenburg was born in Amsterdam and moved when still a boy with his family to Naarden. His father was a textile manufacturer and director of Hollandia-Kattenburg – the building is still a well-known landmark in Amsterdam on the other side of the IJ. Both Dick and his brother Tom had a very good early education in music. Tom became a concert pianist; Dick studied musical theory and violin in Antwerp and later also in The Hague. He studied under Willem Pijper, amongst others. Shortly after his graduation in 1941 Kattenburg was forced to hide, because of his Jewish origin. At first he was sheltered by a friend in Utrecht, Ytia Walburg Schmidt, but this hiding place was betrayed, and in the next few of years Kattenburg lodged in a number of different places. In a post-war report by the Red Cross it appears that his last address was Uiterwaardenstraat 387 in Amsterdam. Kattenburg used the pseudonyms ‘van Assendelft van Wijck’ and ‘K. van Drunen’. Kattenburg was arrested on 5 May 1944, probably during a raid on a cinema. In Camp Westerbork he had one last opportunity to send a letter to an aunt in Amsterdam. Shortly afterwards, on 19 May 1944, he was deported to Auschwitz, where he was exterminated sometime between 22 May and 30 September, at just twenty-five years old.
In the course of his short life Kattenburg wrote some thirty compositions for various instruments. Most of these were written during the Second World War. During these dark years he was in contact with Leo Smit and wrote a letter to his elder colleague with technical musical questions. Smit’s reply has been preserved. Kattenburg had a liberal upbringing, but it is noticeable that during the war years he became ever more conscious of his Jewish background: we see this for example in his series Songs of Palestine (1940-45), which are zionist in character and praise the Promised Land. (At that time the old Jewish territories were still called Palestine). "Onward, comrades, to the Promised Land", we hear in the words of Kadima Hapoel (Onward comrades). Kattenburg gave this song cycle the title “Songs of Romania”; and on the cover of the Hebrew song it says, "Roemeense melodie" (Romanian melody). In both cases these were covert titles, intended to draw suspicion away from the manuscripts and keep them safe at a time when Jews were in hiding.
Kattenburg’s instrumental works are influenced by contemporary French music. His style is often frankly romantic. The piano duet ‘Blues’ (1940), written for his mother’s 50th birthday, has a jazzy feel. There is also ‘Tapdance’ (1936), for duet piano and tap dancer or percussion.
Kattenburg’s music was never performed during his lifetime. The sole exception was the Sonata (1937) for flute and piano. Kattenburg wrote this work for a flauitist friend of his, Ima van Esso. Just like Kattenburg she was deported to Auschwitz, but she survived. She kept Kattenburg’s manuscript and in 2000 sent it as a birthday present to flutist Eleonore Pameijer. Pameijer was struck by the power of the music and the story behind it, and since then she has regularly played the piece in public recitals. In 2004 it turned out that this work was not the only composition that survived. Prompted by the announcement of a concert by Eleonore Pameijer and the pianist Marcel Worms which featured Kattenburg’s Sonata, the daughter of Dick Kattenburg’s sister Daisy, Joyce Bergman-van Hessen, decided to search through her late mother’s possessions. She imagined that if she went through the stuff in the attic she might learn more about her family. The result was spectacular: a host of manuscripts with a large quantity of music by Dick Kattenburg. The Sonata for flute and piano is after all not a one-off: the other compositions are also outstanding.
Wim de Vries / Jochem van der Heide
This article is based on research done by Wim de Vries and Ger Poppelaars for a radioseries on suppressed composers, broadcast in 2005.
Tapdance 1936 piano duet and tapdancer/percussion
Sonate 1937 flute and piano
Blues 1940 piano duet
Romanian Melody 1941 violin, cello and piano
Songs of Palestine 1940-45 soprano and piano