In November, Kölner Akademie will give several concerts in NRW, on occasion of the 250th birthday anniversary of Johann Wilhelm Wilms. Be part of our musical celebration for an outstanding composer and artist. Check out the dates of our 2022 NRW tour: koelnerakademie.de/event
In 1807, the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung described the German-Dutch composer Johann Wilhelm Wilms as “one of the wittiest, liveliest and most educated artists. But while this contemporary of Beethoven was one of the most important composers in the Netherlands during his lifetime, he is – unjustly – rather less well-known in today’s musical and concert landscape.
Born in 1772 as the son of a Lutheran schoolmaster and organist in the small village of Witzhelden in the Bergisches Land, he received his first music lessons from his father, and later from his brother as well as a pastor of the small town. Flute and piano were his instruments, but he also discovered composing early. After taking his first steps as a music teacher, he took the big step in 1791 and went to Amsterdam, which was one of the most important northern music capitals at that time. He quickly made a name for himself there, especially as an outstanding improviser on the piano and as a flutist in various orchestras in the city. He also increased his reputation with the interpretation of his own and other people’s piano concertos, especially together with the Felix Meritis Orchestra. He himself took lessons with Georg Casper Hodermann during this time, but also taught piano and composition himself, which was especially popular after the publication of his first compositions from 1793.
Throughout his life, Wilms was committed to improving conditions in orchestras and for musicians. In 1796, for example, he and other musician friends founded the Collège Eruditio Musica, a self-governing ensemble that represented an interesting alternative in Amsterdam concert life. Wilms wrote numerous works for this ensemble, including his Opus 9, a symphony in C major, which immediately brought him international recognition. From then on, requests for his compositions began to pour in, and the composer’s new works were eagerly awaited. However, Wilms was only able to partially satisfy the desire for new works, since he had to fulfill other duties in addition to his work as a teacher and flautist, which ensured the livelihood of his family.
In the following years, successes and awards accumulated, starting with his appointment to the Academy of Sciences, Literature and Fine Arts in Amsterdam, the success of his Wilhelmus Variations and his victory in the competition for a national anthem. Fame and honor, however, were not all to Wilms’ advantage, for the numerous honorary posts that came his way, as well as the occasional compositions that were expected of him, left him little time to compose freely. Thus he gradually withdrew from public concert life, giving up his position as flautist in the Felix Meritis Orchestra and taking on the post of organist of the Mennonite congregation instead. In addition, he took on the commission to regularly compose large-scale festive cantatas. From then on, in addition to his service as organist and his compositions, Wilms concentrated on his numerous private students, for whose benefit he even turned down an offer to teach at the Royal School of Music.
From 1830 on, Wilms seemed to become increasingly inconvenient for the public institutions in which he was involved: as a member of the Maatschappij tot Bevordering der Toonkunst, he served as an appraiser, but as a juror he was not always popular. For example, in 1834 he pointed out in a letter that it did not matter what nationality a composer was – as long as his music was good. In 1841, he resigned from the society after a disagreement over financial matters. Wilms was able to record a small triumph with regard to his social commitment in 1840, when the next generation founded the Caecilia cooperative, which was committed to the artistic and social emancipation of professional musicians. He joins the cooperative as member No. 1. Wilms became increasingly quiet – after a few outstanding but little-noticed works were composed in the 1830s, including his seventh and last symphony, the last performance of a work from his pen during his lifetime is recorded in 1844.
In 1846 Wilms also gave up his post as organist – at the age of 74 he was exhausted and almost blind, and had already had to be replaced repeatedly in previous years. Only one year later, on July 19, 1847, Johann Wilhelm Wilms died in Amsterdam. Numerous friends, relatives and colleagues escorted him, affectionately known as “Vader Wilms”, to his final resting place in Amsterdam’s Zuiderkerk, well aware of what he had achieved for music and beyond.