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Col. Van Heuvelen’s Opus

Destiny is a hell of a thing.

In 1945, a young Harold “Van” Van Heuvelen, the son of a Dutch minister from North Dakota, began composing his first symphony. At the time, he was a young GI teaching at an Army officer candidate school. For almost 70 years, the master score of this symphony was tucked away in his home — until his son found it in the early 2000s.

This week — 67 years after it was completed — Van Heuvelen’s Symphony No. 1 was performed for the first time at the U.S. Army Orchestra’s Veterans Day concert. The composer, retired Col. Van Heuvelen, now 93, sat in the audience, flanked by his wife, Alma, and more than a dozen family members and friends, including his son and the symphony’s champion, Bob Van Heuvelen.

And the symphony is good. It is really good. So good, it will make you cry.

World Enough and Time

Van Heuvelen began composing his symphony in the weeks and months after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. World War II was drawing to a close with a jarring finality. Suddenly, the young instructor at the New Orleans Army Air Base found himself with nothing but time.

“We were all sitting around, twiddling our thumbs because all our officer candidates stopped coming to our school and we didn’t have anything to teach,” he said. “So we just sat around, and it was perfectly OK for us to do something worthwhile with our time. A lot of the men started to draw house plans, and I decided to write a symphony.

“I could just go to work every day and work on my symphony and come home at night and work on my symphony,” he said. “I had the time to do it.”

Van Heuvelen, a concert violinist, conductor and composer, describes the movements as follows: “The first movement has a beautiful aura of sadness.” The first movement depicts the years before America entered World War II, while Adolf Hitler was tightening his grip on Europe.

“The opening bars of the first movement portray the depth of sadness experienced in those years prior to World War II,” he said. “I’ve expressed a yearning for peace that somehow [was characteristic] of that period of history. Everyone wanted to do something — to put an end to the atrocities in Europe — but there was an intense feeling of futility. In America, in that time, there was an aura of being removed and far away from the disastrous happenings taking place in Europe.

“Our desires and the depth of yearning for peace mired us in wanting to do something but not being able to do it,” he explained. “Therefore, the music of the first movement depicts a wandering and a searching for an answer. … Then [the bombing of] Pearl Harbor came along, and that seemed to be the answer. As terrible and devastating as it was at the time, it became sort of the exclamation mark.”

The symphony’s second movement begins with the “hustle and bustle” of preparing for the war. The music depicts the intense activity of the time. The third movement describes the raucous cacophony of the war itself.

“The third movement finally draws to a glorious close with a celebration of victory,” Van Heuvelen said. “One of my favorite themes comes into play at that time. Then the fourth movement settles down to the celebration of peace and getting on with our lives.”

The symphony is deeply romantic — young, hopeful, heartbreaking. It wonderfully reflects the young composer poised at the brink of a post-war adulthood, while also expressing the feeling of a still-young country in transition.

Way Leads On to Way

In the early 1950s, Van Heuvelen was accepted to Tanglewood, the summer residence of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a prestigious music academy in Lennox, Mass. Tanglewood’s alums include composer Aaron Copland, who was a student at the same time as Van Heuvelen, and Leonard Bernstein, who taught at the center while Van Heuvelen was there. Van Heuvelen studied conducting under the flamboyant Bernstein.

“I had the opportunity to present my symphony to Leonard Bernstein one time after class,” Van Heuvelen recalled. “I asked if he would look it over, and he made an appointment for me to come to his place and to bring the master score. He spent from 1 o’clock in the afternoon to 4:30 looking at it. He went through it page by page.”

Bernstein’s reaction was very flattering, Van Heuvelen said. The legendary conductor and composer went through all 208 pages of Van Heuvelen’s master score with the younger man.

“One of his basic comments was, ‘Your music sounds a lot like [composer Johannes] Brahms.’ Of course, at the time, I thought that was very flattering, you know,” he said. “Looking back at it, it wasn’t quite that flattering because you’re supposed to be your own man. The only clue that I had done anything like Brahms is that I would go on long walks and I’d think of my themes as I walked along and they say that Brahms did the same thing.”

In fact, Brahms was the soundscape of Van Heuvelen’s war days. Van Heuvelen and his first wife began their married life during World War II, while he was in the Army. Every morning she would say goodbye to him and not know if he would be shipped out that afternoon. During those uncertain days, the young couple had a small Victrola and four records, including a recording of Brahms.

“She loved to play the Brahms first symphony, so I probably heard quite a bit of Brahms at that time,” he said. “But, like I say, I never copied anything note for note. It was just in the background.”

Brahms, a wildly romantic composer, leaves a lovely imprint on Van Heuvelen’s work, an expression of the young, uncertain romance and simple joy of early married life, the backdrop of the larger narrative of the country at war.

Toward the end of his interview with Bernstein, Van Heuvelen remembered, he asked his teacher for advice on whether he should make a go of composing.

“‘Would you be able to advise me to become a composer full time? To earn my living that way?’” Van Heuvelen said he asked. “And [Bernstein] had a kind of a cute little smile on his face, and he said, ‘Well, it’s kind of like this: If you would be willing to sell your violin, your belongings so you could put food on the table, then I’d advise you [to become a composer full time], but I think it would be well if you could continue your music teaching and use that as a source of income and then do your composing on the side.’

“But that’s kind of hard to do,” Van Heuvelen said. “You get so involved in your work that you don’t have the time.”

Ultimately, Van Heuvelen took the conductor’s advice and, as he said, life became busy.

He served more than 30 years in the Army Reserve, rising to the rank of colonel. He had a celebrated 40-year career as a music educator. He was married for 60 years, raised a family, lost his wife. Then at 87, he fell in love again and married his second wife, Alma, a concert pianist and his college accompanist. 

Even after all the wonderful twists and turns of life, Van Heuvelen said, he wishes he hadn’t taken Bernstein’s advice.

“You know, I think I could have made it as a composer,” he said. “But it would’ve taken a lot of courage. With hindsight, I wish I would have gone right to work [promoting the symphony] and had it played. I should have just somehow taken a leave of absence from my teaching job or something, taken the time to do it. But that’s hindsight. You can’t go back and do it.”

Second Chances

“I remember seeing the symphony in the house where I was growing up, and then I never thought another word about it until my mother passed away,” Bob Van Heuvelen, Harold’s son, said. “We were putting things together and I found the symphony again and I asked my Dad about it and he told me the whole story.”

Something about his father’s never-performed score captured the younger Van Heuvelen’s imagination. In 2011, he had the score computerized, so some recording of his father’s symphony could exist. Then, earlier this year, Bob Van Heuvelen, former chief of staff to Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), was at an event and mentioned his father’s lost symphony to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Levin, a classical music enthusiast, asked for a copy of the computerized score. 

If Levin hadn’t been taken with the music, or the story, perhaps that would have been the end of it. But the Senator, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, wrote to the Army requesting that the orchestra consider performing the Van Heuvelen symphony.

Soon, several other Senators, including Levin’s fellow Michigander Debbie Stabenow and Montana Democrats Jon Tester and Max Baucus, began working toward getting the symphony to the stage.

“I am very excited to hear it,” the elder Van Heuvelen said several weeks before the performance that was 67 years in the making. “I’ll be able to hear all the beautiful violin sounds, the cellos, the chimes, the bells, the wonderful French horn sound and English horn sound and the clarinet and oboes and all the tone qualities, which I have in my hearing. My musical ear can hear all of that, but not in reality. It will be wonderful to hear it.”

The afternoon of the symphony’s world premiere, Maj. Tod Addison, the conductor of the Army Orchestra’s “Pershing’s Own,” paused between the third and final movements and said: “We certainly hope you’re pleased, Mr. Van Heuvelen.”

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