Johan Wagenaar (1862-1941)

Composer Johan Wagenaar was born in Utrecht as the fourth of six surviving extramarital children of a judge and his former maid Johanna Wagenaar. At age thirteen he entered the Utrecht music school, where Richard Hol was his composition and organ teacher. After his graduation in 1885 he got an appointment as piano teacher at the same institution, continuing his organ studies with Samuel de Lange. In 1892 he perfected his skills in counterpoint with Heinrich von Herzogenberg in Berlin.

For much of his career Wagenaar followed in the footsteps of Richard Hol: in 1888 he succeeded him as organist of Utrecht cathedral, in 1896 as director of the music school, and after Hol’s death in 1904 as conductor the the Utrecht Toonkunst Choir. His Utrecht Toonkunst concerts included concertante performances of operas such as Moussorgski’s Boris Godunov. For his contributions to Utrecht’s cultural life an honorary doctorate was granted by Utrecht University in 1916.


In 1919 Wagenaar transferred most of his activities to The Hague, where he accepted the directorship of the conservatory. His ties with his native city have however always been very strong. A local artistic society, called Shelfishclub, was the platform for some of his musical jests, especially the cantata De schipbreuk (‘Shipwreck’, 1889), and the operas De doge van Venetië (1908) and De Cid (1916). The main body of his oeuvre are choral and orchestral works. Most of the orchestral compositions are programmatic or theatrical, like the overtures Cyrano de Bergerac (1905) and De getemde feeks (‘The taming of the shrew’, 1909), and the symphonic poems Saul en David (1906) and Elverhöi (1940). With great skill in orchestration and a gift for lively themes Wagenaar was a conservative representative of the romantic orchestra tradition.

Wagenaar was a dedicated teacher, who has educated a large number of pupils. Some of his Utrecht composition students are Peter van Anrooy, Emile Enthoven, Bernard Wagenaar, Alexander Voormolen, Leon Orthel and Willem Pijper.

Johan Wagenaar was married to Dina van Valkenburg and they had two daughters, pianist Nelly (1898-1985) and pianist and composer Johanna (1900-1990).

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