ArtWay

‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’ – that is what art does. Phyllis Novak

Short Introduction to Hans Rookmaaker

Short Introduction to Hans Rookmaaker

On the occasion of the establishment of the Rookmaaker Jazz Scholarship at Covenant College, Chattanooga, Tennessee, 12 March 2018

by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker

Music played an important part in my father’s life. He collected records since his teens. He had a broad knowledge of classical music, but especially favoured the music made by the Afro-Americans in the United States known as jazz, blues, spirituals and (black) gospel. He made an in-depth study of this music and wrote a book about it called Jazz, Blues and Spirituals. He also was very interested in rock music, when it made its appearance in the sixties. He had actually wanted to study musicology, but as he was required in order to do so to be able to play the piano, which he wasn’t, this trajectory was closed off for him. So visual art became his profession, but music remained his lifelong hobby. When he was home, there was always music in the house.

I was asked to briefly introduce my father’s approach to art, music and culture. This is not an easy task, especially to keep it short, but I will try to give you a taste of his basic views.

My father became a Christian during World War II when he was imprisoned in a prisoner of war camp for three and a half years. In the camp in Stanislau (Poland) he was mentored by the philosopher J.P.A. Mekkes, a fellow-prisoner, who was a student of the Neo-Calvinistic philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd. Because of this my father ended up joining a Reformed church after the war and when he started his studies in art history, he did so with a great interest in Neo-Calvinist thinking. Which meant first of all that he saw art as a good gift from God, as there is no square inch of life about which God does not say ‘Mine’, to quote the first Neo-Calvinist Abraham Kuyper. It also gave him a sharp sense that our western culture, which had turned its back on God, had lost a lot of its former Christian richness. And it gave him a strong conviction that we should try to be an influence for the better in our culture.

My father regarded the development of art and music as an integral part of the broader development of western culture, connected to philosophical, theological and social developments. He viewed the Enlightenment in the 18th century as the great break in western culture and he lamented the reduction of reality that was caused by it. It is in this perspective that we should place his most well-known book Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, in which he discusses how the growing alienation and loss of humanity are addressed in modern art.  

I would characterize my father’s approach as open and critical. His mission was to make people (especially Christians) see the value and importance of art and get them into the museums. The British art historian Nigel Halliday sums it up like this: “Rookmaaker wanted Christians to honour contemporary art with their serious attention, to see its deeper meanings and to engage with it from a Christian worldview.”

Now let us turn to music, to which he brought the same approach. My father’s great heroes were classical composers like Bach and Schütz, but also popular musicians like Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Blind Willie Johnson, The Spirit of Memphis Quartet and Mahalia Jackson. And someone like Distler in the field of twentieth-century classical music. My father would actually say that all of this music is related in spirit, owing to its rootedness in a Christian mentality.

While listening to Bach my father would have pointed out the deep joy of the music, its solid rhythm and its polyphony of various parts woven harmoniously together. He would have shown how the music serves the text and underscores the text’s meaning. Here is a quote by him about Baroque music. He said: “Baroque music is very different from later classical music. It is a world away from the bombast that sometimes makes 19th-century music so unpalatable – the so-called profound, the problematic, the struggle of the heroic but oh so tragic human being. Baroque music is more down to earth and at the same time much richer, because in its directness it expresses all sorts of moods – all aspects of life, even the less grand ones – humour, excitement, joy, peace, but also sorrow and yearning. It is never pretentiously sophisticated, never sentimental, never driven by mood alone – this music is deeper and it reflects the breadth of human experience rather than only the emotional side.”

My father was struck by the similarity of the African-American music of the first half of the twentieth century to Baroque music. Not technically (or only partly so), but in spirit. He would say that since the Enlightenment music was accorded too high a place. Now people had to listen in reverent silence to the great revelations of the composers’ souls. But this, my father said, was the death of entertainment, as no good composer wanted to make the so-called simple music anymore for less lofty occasions.

My father, however, considered entertainment as an important and valuable part of human life. He was actually ahead of his time in not wanting to distinguish between high and low art. Here is for instance what he said about Blind Willie Johnson, the blind African-American spirituals singing street evangelist in Texas: “Blind Willie Johnson makes pure art – one has to hear it to understand just how much depth and beauty a simple folk singer like him was able to provide.”

And my father called King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band ‘the best band ever’. He loved its emphasis on ensemble playing, the polyphony, its beautiful melodies and calm and joyful spirit. This music is all the more special when you compare it to the white popular music in America at that time, which tended to be very light, laidback and sweet, with no depth at all. My father points out how white people were looking for something more real and meaningful for their own music and found this in black music. Over and over again whites imitated the black genres. He calls black music (jazz, blues and gospel) the iron pill that was supposed to give new strength to the anaemic music of the whites. But over and over again the character of the music changed, when the black music came in the hands of the whites (and of mammon) and all the life went out of it again.

Why is this? my father asked. He said: “Because there was no basis to build on. We can weep at the way western culture made something so ugly and lifeless out of something that was so beautiful and so full of life.” Why did the whites lack the necessary basis? Because the Enlightenment and the subsequent development of western thinking had greatly impoverished their attitude to life. The blacks had escaped this development, as they had lived separately as slaves and had not followed western education. So, their spirit was a pre-Enlightenment spirit, while their mentality was a Christian mentality, as most of these jazz musicians went to church. 

So, to end here, what type of music was my father looking for and what type of music would he be looking for now? Music that is joyful and deep like that of Bach and Schütz and Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver; music that is truthful about the hardships of life like the blues; and music that is honest about the troubles we encounter but also holds fast to hope, like the spirituals and black gospel.


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