If you ask a lover of orchestral music which of the world’s concert halls have the best acoustics, you can expect their top three to include the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. But in 1881, when six citizens came together to plan a new hall on the outskirts of their city, that outcome seemed unlikely. For centuries, the Dutch had been regarded as an unmusical people: as long ago as the first century AD, Tacitus had quipped Frisia non cantat (“Frisians don’t sing”). Before the arrival of the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam had no tradition of serious concert-going. Local orchestras were poor both in finances and quality. And the architect selected for this project had never even designed a concert hall. The omens were not good.

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The Concertgebouw in 1893
© Amsterdam City Archives

But somehow, it all worked, and Amsterdam’s musical life was transformed. Simon Reinink, the Concertgebouw’s General Director, calls it “cluster luck”: in a combination of fortunate circumstances, the right hall was built, the right musicians came to Amsterdam, and great composers personally conducted their own works or performed as soloists. The only major conductor who refused to appear was Toscanini – jealous of the popularity of WIllem Mengelberg, the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s charismatic principal conductor.

Reinink has been attending concerts at the Concertgebouw since he was eight. “I grew up in Utrecht, in the centre of the Netherlands, and I stem from a traditional bourgeois family. My father went to concerts all the time – every month, he and I went to the Concertgebouw. Later, in the 1980s, we had the Festival of Early Music in Utrecht, which is one of the most important Early Music festivals in the world. Sometimes we went to three or four concerts per day.”

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The Concertgebouw stage
© Eduardus Lee

Today, he still attends five or six concerts per week: “it’s like being a farmer – you have to smell the smell of the stable, you have to get a sense of what’s going on under the roof.” Still, music wasn’t his choice of profession – he became a lawyer, later working in publishing and sitting on several boards of arts organisations – until the post of General Director fell vacant and an acquaintance put his name up for the long list (without his knowledge).

Back in 1881, the science of acoustics did not exist: the first hall to be designed using calculations made by an acoustician would be Wallace Sabine’s Boston Symphony Hall, which opened in 1900. So the Concertgebouw’s architect, Dolf van Gendt, went for a simple process of imitation. The project committee’s first choice of halls to imitate was the enormous Kaisersaal in Düsseldorf’s Tonhalle, but mercifully, that idea was abandoned when the influential Dutch composer W.F. Thooft pointed out how poor its sound was.

Eventually, van Gendt chose to blend the designs of two acoustically superior halls, the Vienna Musikverein and Leipzig’s Altes Gewandhaus. He included many more seats than either of these – but this caused a problem. Reinink explains: “the hall he designed was too long for the plot of land allocated by the city authorities. So he decided to make it shorter and broader. That’s why we have a relatively square hall, a shape that is very uncommon.”

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The view from the Concertgebouw stage
© Eduardus Lee

The Concertgebouw’s grand opening in 1888 featured an orchestra of 120 and a choir of 500. The acoustics were unexceptional. But in the following years, changes were made that turned out to be significant. In 1890, an organ was built. Then, in 1900, the seating was fixed to the floor and the number of seats reduced, at the behest of the city’s fire brigade. The angle of the seating behind the stage was also altered. According to Reinink, “these three changes did the trick.”

“If you look at Boston Symphony Hall,” Reinink continues, “that was science-driven architecture: the acousticians were in charge. We did not have acousticians in charge in Amsterdam, it was just a lucky shot. The acoustic in our hall has a unique combination of precision and warmth: you can hear every individual instrument and it is overlaid with a velvet warmth of the whole orchestra. It’s a unique and magical acoustic.” The building’s smaller Recital Hall, he says, is just as good acoustically.

In the years since that “lucky accident”, the Concertgebouw has undergone various renovations. At every stage, preserving the acoustics of the two halls has been considered paramount, because there is only a limited understanding of why the halls sound the way they do. The most significant renovation was in the 1980s, when the building was found to be sinking into the soft Amsterdam earth. Like many buildings of the period, it was built on wooden piles: these were rotting and had to be replaced by concrete-filled steel pipes. Acoustic consultants Peutz recommended that the Main Hall be left untouched during the project. Indeed, it was kept open through the renovations, not least, Reinink explains, “because Bernard Haitink was afraid that the orchestra might lose its unique sound”.

Bernard Haitink conducts Debussy’s La Mer at the Concertgebouw in 2009.

The Main Hall was eventually renovated some ten years later, with scrupulous attention to detail from Peutz, who went as far as measuring the sound absorption of the new paint at different frequencies and closely analysing apparently minor changes to plasterwork. Seats and cushions have been replaced, and the row spacing increased (“people are much taller now than 100 years ago”). The latest work has been the replacement of the stage floor in 2007. Measurements of the hall’s reverberation time today (around 2.4 seconds at 1 kHz) show almost no change from 1958, when Leo Beranek, one of the pioneers of acoustics, first measured it.

Reinink is unequivocal about the Concertgebouw’s impact on Amsterdam’s cultural life, alongside the other great institutions built at the time. “In the Netherlands, we always tend to say that the 17th century was the golden age. But if there is an artistic golden age, it was the last part of the 19th century. And this institution was not vested by a government or a king: no, it was started by citizens, and that’s typical for the Netherlands. In the same period, new institutions such as the Rijksmuseum, the City Museum, the Royal Theatre Carré, the other theatre at Leidseplein, were founded within 20 years of each other. It’s unbelievable what happened in these two decades.”

Before 1888, Amsterdam’s music scene was not to be envied. The cream of concertgoing consisted of the Sunday matinees at the Parkzaal (“which was smaller and, I think, a lousy concert hall with a similarly lousy orchestra.”) Contemporary reports show that these were convivial events where the music was decidedly secondary to smoking, conversation and refreshments – waiters would take food and drink orders during the performances.

Daniel Harding conducts mvt. III from Mahler’s First Symphony at the Concertgebouw.

The first music director of the Concertgebouw, Willem Kes, shook things up. “From the start, he was very strict when it came to discipline and selection of musicians. Also, he disciplined the audiences. He said ‘either you talk, and we leave, or you’re silent, and we play’, more or less the same as Mahler did in Vienna at that time. He also started an orchestra academy, which enabled young musicians to prepare for a musical profession. Then, in 1895, he was succeeded by Willem Mengelberg, who stayed for 50 years: he was the one who brought this orchestra to a world class level and made it internationally famous. He invited many top composers such as Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Ravel, Debussy, to name just a few.”

Not everyone was happy: after the inaugural concert, a letter was published in the press signed by “A Music Lover and Shareholder”, complaining at how his pleasant Sunday afternoon had been ruined. But there were swift rebuttals, and the proponents of the Concertgebouw as “a temple of music” came out on top.

The resulting turnaround in Amsterdam’s musical fortunes was comprehensive and fast. In 1885, the Meininger Hofkapelle had visited Amsterdam, a visit that left commentators cruelly aware of the gulf in musical quality between the Netherlands and one of Europe’s top orchestras. Just twelve years later, in 1897, no less a figure than Edvard Grieg would write of the Concertgebouw Orchestra that “Amsterdammers should be proud of possessing such an orchestra”.

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The Grote Zaal, empty, c. 1956
© Amsterdam City Archives

Today, the building and its orchestra are at the heart of Amsterdam’s musical life and a huge part of its reputation abroad. In 2015, a Bachtrack poll of top critics placed the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra as the second best in the world, behind only the Berliner Philharmoniker. And it’s not just about the orchestra, says Reinink: “What makes it special nowadays is that it is a vibrant, wonderful institution that I dare to say is still of a world class level and is very varied, musically and artistically.  It’s not only about classical music – it’s also about pop music, jazz, children’s concerts, education participation programmes.”

Reinink isn’t even sure if his phrase “cluster luck” is proper English. But in the case of the Concertgebouw, it seems invitingly apt.

See forthcoming performances at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam.
This article was sponsored by Het Concertgebouw.