Lex van Delden

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Lex van Delden, born Alexander Zwaap (10 September 1919 – 1 July 1988) was a Dutch composer.

Early life and education[edit]

Born Alexander Zwaap in Amsterdam (the Netherlands) as the only child of Wolf Zwaap, a school-teacher, and his wife Sara Olivier, Lex van Delden took piano-lessons from an early age—first from Martha Zwaga and later from the celebrated pianist, Cor de Groot. He started composing at the age of eleven, when he set poems by Guido Gezelle to music since a long illness prevented him from playing the piano. He remained self-taught as a composer. Despite his artistic promise and interests (by the age of fourteen, for instance, he was accompanying the famous German Expressionist dancer/choreographer, Gertrud Leistikow, and he also moved in the circle of one of Holland's foremost composers of the time, Sem Dresden) he enrolled at the University of Amsterdam in 1938 to study medicine.

Still a student, he made his début as a composer in 1940 with the song cycle L'amour (1939; for soprano, flute, clarinet and string trio), written at the request of the young composer/conductor Nico Richter, who was in charge of the students' orchestra.

World War II[edit]

However, in 1940 the Germans invaded the Netherlands and in 1942, being a Jew, he was forced to interrupt his studies (Wouters and Samama 2001)—irrevocably, as it turned out, because his hopes of becoming a neuro-surgeon were dashed during World War II due to an exploding carbide lamp, which virtually blinded him in his left eye while in hiding.

Presently he joined the underground students' resistance movement and after the war was commended for his bravery by both the President of the United States of America and the Supreme Command of the Allied Forces. In 1953 the name he had assumed since the Liberation in 1945 (Lex van Delden—a derivation from the name he used in the resistance) was officially approved.

By the time the war was over, Van Delden had lost nearly his entire family in the Holocaust. He almost immediately found his way into Dutch cultural life, partially through contacts he had made as a member of the resistance movement—initially as the resident composer/musical director of the first post-war Dutch ballet group, Op Vrije Voeten (On Liberated Feet), which later evolved into the Scapino Ballet Company, and from 1947 as the music editor of the daily, originally underground, newspaper Het Parool (until 1982).

Musical career[edit]

The first of his works to attract wide attention was Rubáiyát (nine quatrains by Omar Khayyám in Edward FitzGerald's English translation, 1948; for chorus with soprano and tenor solos, 2 pianos and percussion), awarded the prestigious Music Prize of the City of Amsterdam in 1948. This unexpected success was soon to be confirmed by two First Prizes, awarded by the Northern California Harpists' Association, in 1953 for his Harp Concerto (1951/52), and in 1956 for Impromptu for harp solo (1955) (Wouters and Samama 2001).

Van Delden was also committed to the musical community, borne out by his readiness to hold several administrative posts, including the presidency of the Society of Dutch Composers (GeNeCo) and the chairmanship of the Dutch Performing Right Organisation (Buma/Stemra). He also sat on the Board of the International Society for Contemporary Music (I.S.C.M.) and was a member of the Dutch Committee of the International Music Council (Unesco).

Throughout the fifties and sixties Lex van Delden became one of the most widely heard Dutch composers of his generation, and a large number of his pieces were commissioned (by the Dutch government, the City of Amsterdam, Dutch radio and others) and enjoyed acclaimed performances by the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra under such renowned conductors as George Szell, Charles Münch, Eduard van Beinum, Eugen Jochum, Willem van Otterloo and Bernard Haitink, and by numerous other prominent ensembles and soloists. He was made a Knight of the royal Order of Oranje-Nassau (1972), and received the Freedom of the City of Amsterdam (1982), where he died on 1 July 1988. He is buried at Zorgvlied cemetery.


Many of Van Delden's compositions form an expression of his deeply felt social concern, such as the orchestral work In Memoriam (1953), which was written in the aftermath of the great flood disaster of 1953 in the Netherlands, Belgium and England, the oratorio The Bird of Freedom (1955), which is an emotional cry against slavery, the radiophonic oratorio Icarus (1962), which questions the usefulness of space travel, or Canto della guerra (after Erasmus, 1967; for chorus and orchestra), which is a strong condemnation of war.

A few of his works have biblical themes, notably Judith (1950; a dance score for flute, clarinet, piano and string trio) and Adonijah's Death (1986; for male chorus and symphonic wind band).

Lex van Delden loved working closely with performers, too, utilising to the full the peculiarities and possibilities specific to the instruments as well as meeting the wishes and demands of the players. If he felt at all consciously influenced by any predecessors, it was perhaps by such old Dutch Masters as Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, whose solid constructivism certainly contributed to his own highly developed grasp of form.

Musical legacy[edit]

Most of his pre-war and wartime works, some thirty in total, were destroyed by the bombing of Nijmegen in 1944, and the bulk of his approximately 125 surviving compositions was written after the war, extending over all spheres of music except opera and church music, i.a. (in addition to the pieces already mentioned): Piccolo Concerto, for 12 wind instruments, timpani, percussion and piano, orchestral works such as Musica Sinfonica, Bafadis, and Trittico, 8 symphonies (No. 1: The River—May 1940, for soprano, chorus and orchestra, No. 2: Sinfonia giocosa, No. 3: Facets, No. 7: Sinfonia concertante, for 11 wind instruments); concertos for flute, harp, percussion, piano, trumpet, violin, 2 oboes, 2 soprano-saxophones, 3 trombones (Piccola musica concertata), 2 string orchestras, electronic organ and for violin, viola and double-bass; 3 oratorios (inter al., Anthropolis) and many other choral pieces (inter al. Partita piccola, for chorus a cappella, and Animal Suite, for male chorus and wind band); chamber music, including works for piano solo and for violin and piano, 3 String Quartets, a String Quintet, a String Sextet, 2 Piano Trios, a saxophone quartet (Tomba), a brass quintet, 2 sextets (inter al., Sestetto per Gemelli), a nonet and several works for harp (solo or in various combinations: i.a. Catena di miniature, for flute and harp, and Musica notturna a cinque, for 4 violoncellos and harp); songs (inter al., Three Sonnets by William Shakespeare and The Good Death); music for ballet (inter al., Time and Tide) and for the theatre (inter al., Macbeth and Lucifer).


He was the father of actor Lex van Delden.


  • Wouters, Jos, and Leo Samama. 2001. "Delden, Lex van [Zwaap, Alexander]". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.

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