By Alyssa Pry
It’s 8:15 on a Monday night and Grand Street Community Band is warming up for the second half of rehearsal. Mouth pieces are adjusted; a spit valve is emptied. The hollow boingggg of the tympani reverberates from the back row. Music is shuffled—the line-up for the rest of the evening is Movements I and V of Symphony No. 1, The Lord of the Rings, by Johan de Meij.
The conductor comes to the podium and holds up a slim bound score, waving it in front of the band, before dropping it onto the stand.
“I don’t really need this,” he says, to laughter. And why would you, when you’re conducting one of the most well-known pieces of wind band repertoire—that you yourself composed?
Johan de Meij stood on the podium on Monday night and will be conducting his seminal wind band work, Symphony No. 1, The Lord of the Rings at MMC Winter Winds this Saturday, December 10th at 7 PM. By his own estimation, the symphony has been played thousands of times in the 29 years since he composed it.
“It immediately put me on the map as a composer,” de Meij said. “It really started to be played all over the world. It’s fantastic. I had no idea when I was writing it that it would be such a success—I could not predict that.”
The Lord of the Rings was de Meij’s first concert band work as a composer. He transitioned to composition after playing for several years with professional ensembles throughout the Netherlands.
“May 1, 1977 [was when] I got my first job as a euphonium player in Amsterdam. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since,” he said. “I started playing in a wind orchestra, [and] that inspired me to start writing myself.”
“When I told people I was writing a 45-minute symphony, people told me, ‘Forget it. No one is going to play it, it’s too long.’”
He began composing The Lord of the Rings in 1982, but before he even sat down to write a melody, he knew what he wanted to hear.
“I knew already that I wanted to write a large-scale substantial work for wind orchestra. This was in 1982, and there weren’t really any longer works than 16 minutes in the repertoire,” he said.
At first, his idea was not met with the enthusiasm he had hoped for.
“When I told people I was writing a 45-minute symphony, people told me, ‘Forget it. No one is going to play it, it’s too long,’” he said. “I said, ‘I know works that are five minutes that are too long, so let’s see what happens.’ And it turns out I was right.”
Those instincts paid off. The Lord of the Rings premiered in March of 1988 and catapulted de Meij to musical success. Just a year later, he won the prestigious Sudler Composition Prize, further cementing his place, and his symphony, in the wind band canon.
The five-movement symphony is based on the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, and de Meij is quick to share the credit for his symphony’s success.
“I think if it was just called Symphony No. 1, I don’t think it would’ve been as popular. But making the connection with the famous book was the trick,” de Meij said.
"That piece saved my life in a very good sense."
Each movement is based on a character or event from the book, and are given themes, which are musically intertwined throughout.
“It’s really scripted—it paints the picture of the main characters in a clever way,” de Meij said. “Every character gets their own tune, which makes it very recognizable. I think that explains the success of the piece. It’s contemporary and it comes from the heart.”
The success of his symphony opened the doors for de Meij, and he leapt straight through and hasn’t looked back. He travels around the world conducting and collaborating with musicians eager to bring his music to life, and that enthusiasm is what draws him to work with the MMC.
“I think it’s important to have great music going on in all parts of New York,” he said. “So that’s why I support [the MMC] as much as I can. And the level of playing has gone up so dramatically in the last five years—they’re really playing at a high level, which I love.”
With his symphony still being discovered by musicians across the world, interest in his music shows no signs of fading. And standing on the podium, his arms up, the music swirling around him, de Meij doesn’t seem to mind.
“That piece saved my life in a very good sense,” he said. “I’m convinced that when I close my eyes forever, the piece will still be played.”