The 1947 dress rehearsal was a success. ‘High Arts in the Low Lands’ was to be a one-off summer festival, bringing together music, theatre and visual arts in The Hague and Amsterdam. There was a real hunger for art in the years following the Second World War – efforts to rebuild the country’s cultural scene were underway. The key figure in this project was Henk Reinink. He hoped that ‘combined forces would be able to accomplish something great’. This happened a year later: the very first Holland Festival began on Tuesday night, 15 June 1948, at the Stadsschouwburg theatre in Amsterdam with Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande.
The idea was to focus once again on international cooperation and exchange by showcasing art from the Netherlands and beyond. It was also hoped that ‘summer festivals with opera as the main course’ would begin to draw tourists back to the Netherlands again. The intention was for art and artists to heal a Europe that had been torn apart. Similar initiatives were launched in other countries. 1947 saw the founding of the Festival d’Avignon and
the Edinburgh International Festival, with the Aldeburgh Festival and the Wiener Festwochen following in 1948. There is one significant difference, however – the Holland Festival has always had to make do with a fraction of the funding most of these festivals receive.
And yet the Holland Festival was a huge success right from the start. The festival initially focused on Amsterdam and The Hague Scheveningen, with the beachfront Kurhaus as the main venue, and from 1954 onwards events also took place in Rotterdam. Reinink appointed Peter Diamand as the first artistic director, a position he retained until 1965, when he left to direct the Edinburgh Festival. Under Diamand, the Holland Festival grew to be one of Europe’s most important cultural events. ‘Peter Diamand gave Holland the Festival,’ as Dutch newspaper Trouw later put it. Thanks to his many contacts in the upper echelons of the international arts scene, he was able to draw all the big names to the Netherlands, such as Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, the New York City Ballet, the Old Vic, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Kathleen Ferrier and Katherine Dunham. Diamand was not afraid of experimenting and innovating. Thanks to him, the Holland Festival featured the Dutch premiere of Alban Berg’s Lulu (1953) and Pierre Boulez’s debut in the Netherlands with Pli selon pli (1958/1962). The 1959 festival ended up being his greatest achievement – Diamand managed to bring the peerless Maria Callas to The Concertgebouw stage. Diamand sought to bring art of the very highest level of quality to the Netherlands.
But from the mid-1960s onwards, people’s opinions about the arts began to shift. The Dutch cultural scene wanted to modernise – less elitism, less red velvet. Diamand’s distinguished festival rode the waves of flower power, democratisation and art for the masses. Amsterdam became the festival’s sole home city. Diamand was eventually succeeded by Jaap den Daas (1965-1975), then Frans de Ruiter (1975-1985) and Ad ’s-Gravesande (1984-1990). Along with recurring avant-garde headliners such as Luciano Berio and Karlheinz Stockhausen (who, in 2019, was posthumously responsible for one of the highlights in the festival’s history with aus LICHT), stand-up comedy and other non-conformist artists were also given a stage.
The Misha Mengelberg Quartet, Rita Reys and Willem Breuker performed. Dutch singer and comedian Adèle Bloemendaal sang Malle Babbe, a well-known Dutch song in which a prostitute tells her story. Festivalgoers could see the Metropole Orchestra as well as comedians like Freek de Jonge and Gerard Cox.
Even with all these changes, the Holland Festival continued to regularly make waves. In 1969, the festival brought about a turning point in the history of Dutch art. In the piece Reconstructie (‘reconstruction’), an artists’ collective including Louis Andriessen, Reinbert de Leeuw, Misha Mengelberg, Hugo Claus and Harry Mulisch erected a statue of the socialist revolutionary and guerrilla leader Che Guevara in an overt gesture of activism. Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, in particular, railed against this event.
The piece even sparked a parliamentary debate about this use of government funding.
In the ’90s, the festival went through a rough patch. Politicians began to question whether a large-scale arts festival was really necessary. Wasn’t there enough art already? What added value did the Holland Festival offer? The festival came close to being permanently axed several times, but on each occasion disaster was narrowly averted. Prominent artists, other festivals and patrons of the arts such as Prince Claus made the case for a permanent breeding ground for innovation and internationalisation. The artistic leaders during these years – Jan van Vijmen (1991-1997) and Ivo van Hove (1998-2004) – were forced to put on smaller festivals. Van Hove focused on theatre and largely sidelined the other disciplines because he considered the stage to be the main hotbed of innovation and experimentation.
It wasn’t until the decade-long tenure of Pierre Audi (2005-2014), Van Hove’s successor, that the Holland Festival regained its lustre. Audi once again made music and musical theatre key parts of the programme. The festival had a larger budget at its disposal, enabling it to present work from outside the Western world again. In 2011, for example, Audi brought the Arab singer Fairuz to Amsterdam. In doing so, he made a link between the festival’s history – studded with luminaries such as Maria Callas – and the diverse population of the Netherlands today. His successor, the Briton Ruth Mackenzie, continued this trend and increased the festival’s social engagement. She referred back to the founding principles from 1948 with themes such as ‘Europe’ and ‘democracy’. During her tenure, the latest developments in digital technology also found their place in the festival programme, with purely ‘virtual’ works such as Michel van der Aa's interactive song cycle The Book of Sand (2015).
Throughout the festival's history, the artists and their work were central to the curation of the festival programme. The festival calls this approach ‘artist-driven’. It was with this idea in mind that, when Mackenzie left in 2018, the decision was taken to no longer appoint a single artistic director for years at a time. Instead, one or two artists are invited to serve as each year’s ‘associate artist’ and to curate a relevant part of the programme, including some of their own work and other relevant pieces. William Kentridge and Faustin Linyekula (both in 2019) and now Bill T. Jones (2020) are the first artists with whom the festival entered into this adventure. Topicality and diversity remain the bedrock of the festival, with the link between national and international, large-scale and intimate, known and unknown being the main focus of the future. For almost 75 years now, the festival has excelled at surprising the public with unforgettable art that cannot be seen anywhere else in the Netherlands.
Photo's: © Maria Austria/MAI