Ton de Leeuw

Photo of Ton de Leeuw Ton de Leeuw (Rotterdam, 16 November 1926 - Paris, 31 May 1996) studied composition with Louis Toebosch, Henk Badings, Olivier Messiaen and Thomas de Hartmann. In 1959 he became teacher in contemporary music at the University of Amsterdam, where he studied earlier with Jaap Kunst. He also taught lessons in composition at the Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam. Since 1954 he made radio programmes about contemporary music and in 1964 he published the book Muziek van de 20ste eeuw (Music of the 20th century).
His first compositions were still strongly influenced by Bartók, in the sixties he used serial techniques. The study in ethnomusicology with Jaap Kunst in 1950-54 and the study tours to India and Japan in 1960 and 1968 have been of great influence on the way of composing of Ton de Leeuw. Since then he propagates in his lectures and writings the emergence of a kind of "world music" in which different cultures melt together to form a completely new kind of music. De Leeuw did not only make himself familiar with an Eastern way of composing, but also an Eastern way of thinking. In the Eastern philosophy experiencing the moment itself in music is more important than experiencing an arc of tension. A great part of de Leeuw's music therefore carries a static character. He also wrote electronic music and a radiophonic oratorium. His microtonal works have mainly been written during the 1960s. Although de Leeuw employs microtones in a functional way, he used in only one composition a microtonal system, namely the 31-tone system in the tape composition Electronic Study (1957, 6'47") written in commission of AVRO-Radio.

In Stringquartett II (1964) microtones are being applied in two ways: by equally dividing an interval - for example dividing a minor third in four steps of 75 cents each or a major second in three steps of 67 cents - or by a raise or lowering of a given tone by approximately 70 cents (25/24) or the double amount (150 cents which is equal to the Arabic 3/4-tone). The string quartet consists of 12 short parts with each a separate character.

Music for trombone (1973/74) consists of seven parts which are performed without interruption. The music has subtle contrasts and variations in tuning, such as the natural seventh harmonic against the tempered seventh, the minor second against the Pythagorean comma (about one eight part of a semitone), quartertones, "flatterzunge" versus trills. The music begins as a small point and grows from there to a large movement around it. This work was written in commission of the Internationale Trombone Association and went in 1974 into premiere.

In Music for violin (1967) Ton de Leeuw has used intervals such as a semitone minus two commas (± 50 cents), a semitone minus one comma (± 75 cents), a semitone plus a comma (± 125 cents), the 3/4-tone (± 150 cents), a whole tone minus a comma (± 175 cents) and the 5/4-tone (± 250 cents). But not a quartertone or comma as an independent melodic interval. The micro-intervals which have their own meaning in each tradition have degenerated here, just like the tones, into abstract quantities.

Although Ton de Leeuw did not employ a microtonal system in Saxophone Quartet (1993), the microtones are functional: without them the music would sound different. In Saxophone Quartet there are only three quarter tones, which, when they sound, end in a chorale and are very prominent. De Leeuw often uses the same work method: he creates a model of the tones he wants to use, determines their sequence and developes an analogous model for the rhythm. This model is repeated a couple of times in the composition, without being repeated literally. Some tones are omitted, placed in another register, or replaced by a rest. It gives a cyclical process of endlessly varied repetition. A good example is the return of the beginning melody of the Saxophone Quartet at the end of the piece: by the changed rhythm and register, the melody gets a new character.

In 2000 the award-winning Car nos vignes sont en fleurs (1981) for 12-voice mixed choir has appeared on CD in an excellent performance by the Netherlands Chamber Choir conducted by Ed Spanjaard. This work makes use of his typical "broadened modality" with 3/4-tones. NM Classics 92102


  • Rokus de Groot. Compositie en intentie van Ton de Leeuws muziek. Doctoral thesis, University of Amsterdam, 1991.
  • Ton de Leeuw. Muziek van de twintigste eeuw. Oosthoek, Utrecht, 1964. 3e druk Bohn, Scheltema & Vermeulen, Utrecht, 1991. Translated to German, English and Swedish.
  • Wim de Ruiter. Compositietechnieken in de twintigste eeuw. De Toorts, Haarlem, 1993.
  • Jurrien Sligter (ed.) Ton de Leeuw. Centrum Nederlandse Muziek / Walburg Pers, Zutphen, 1992, 240 pages.
  • Ernst Vermeulen. "Lamento Pacis van Ton de Leeuw", Sonorum Speculum no. 39, Amsterdam, 1969, pp. 23-32.
  • Biography at Donemus