- Reina van Nieuwkerk-Rácz meets an accomplished pianist, gifted composer and much more
was recently visiting the Netherlands for just ten days and his grueling schedule allowed time for neither jet-lag nor leisure. He had come to perform in a television programme where Dutch author, Jan Brokken, was going to speak about his book on the relatively unknown, yet rich history, of Antillean music and on the surprising influence Chopin’s music has had on its development.
Statius Muller, Curaçao’s pater potestas in this field, illustrated on the piano, the very rhythmical and emotional but often upbeat characteristics of the music of the islands by performing some of his own compositions. This was followed by a week in Belgium recording a new CD and visits to family and friends were squeezed in where possible – and to think that this man is in his eighties.
On the day, in 1972, that Wim Statius Muller relocated, with his wife and children to the Netherlands, an ominous grey sky and the imminent downpour that followed contrasted sharply with the seamless blue skies and ever present sunshine of the Caribbean island he had left behind.
‘This was in the days of the Cold War and I had been appointed to head a team of academics in the Dutch Counterintelligence Service that analyzed the policies of the various communist countries. Our job was to slip into the skin of the opponents’ ideologies and figure out their intentions,’ he explains in his pleasant Curaçao accent.
His neighbours, in the affluent Statenkwartier of The Hague,could not have guessed that this distinguished looking gentleman living next door to them was an exceptionally gifted pianist and composer. His new career required that he keep a low profile, something of a contradiction for a man who only a few years before had performed to large audiences in New York and had stood on the verge of making a name for himself as a concert pianist.
Born in 1930, on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao, Willem Statius Muller was the youngest son of an established local family. They lived in Otrobanda, a district of Willemstad that was home to a surprising number of talented musicians and composers. With music being heard so much at home and all around him it was no coincidence that the young Statius Muller started experimenting on the piano at the tender age of four.
In the 1930’s Curaçao had a rich salon music culture and dancing to music mostly played by local pianists was part of an evening’s entertainment. The music of the former Netherlands Antilles is a mix of African and European elements and is influenced by the rhythms of neighbouring countries Venezuela and Colombia as well as the surrounding Caribbean islands. Curaçao and Aruba are known for their waltzes, danzas, mazurkas and tumbas. The dance soirees were held in the many country houses scattered around the island and it was not long before the grown-ups were dancing to music played by young Wim himself.
Receiving a waltz as a birthday gift from family or friends was not unusual. Asking one of the many musicians to compose something new for the celebrant was a typical Curaçao tradition – in fact Statius Muller to this day still dedicates a waltz every now and then to a dear friend or family member.
At nineteen, Statius Muller was the first Dutch Antillean to enter, and to this day remains the only one to have graduated from the famous Juilliard School in New York City. Studying under the distinguished Russian-American pianist and professor of music, Josef Raieff, he received his Bachelor’s degree in 1953 and his Master’s cum laude in 1954. In that same year he returned to Curaçao with his then fiancée, Sally Führing, herself a Pre-Medical science graduate from Barnard College. They married and spent their honeymoon on the family’s estate, the former plantation of St. Sebastiaan. The happy arrival of their baby son changed their plans to remain in New York where Statius Muller had won a teaching fellowship and a scholarship to study for a Doctorate of Music at Juilliard and Sally was to continue studying medicine. Instead, he accepted a teaching position at the Ohio State University and the family moved to Ohio’s capital, Columbus.
Whilst in Ohio, Statius Muller also performed in New York. He left the university after five years when offered a teaching post in Puerto Rico at the Casals Conservatory. Unfortunately, lack of funding resulted in the job falling through and the family was forced to return to Curaçao. There he was approached by the government to participate in the founding of a security service, and Statius Muller the musician became ‘James Bond’.
It was this new career in Security and Intelligence that later brought him and his family to The Hague and abruptly put a definite end to a promising music career. No longer able to perform, Statius Muller turned to composing and it was in this period, living in The Hague, that some of his best known works were composed. Later, he would move to Brussels and work for NATO.
After retiring in 1995, he returned to Curaçao and dedicated himself to his first love, music. Since then he has performed at numerous prestigious venues such as the Kosciusko Foundation’s concert hall on several occasions and in 1999, at the Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Chopin’s death. Statius Muller was asked to perform his waltz ‘Nostalgia’ at this occasion, which prompted Billy Joel, announcing him, to say that ‘this is what our evening is all about’. A couple of years ago Statius Muller had the privilege of performing in Chopin’s family home in Zelazowa Wola where he performed several of Chopin’s mazurkas.
Today he is in constant demand for radio and television interviews, sits in judging panels inspiring young talent, and his unique life and family history has been documented in many books on Curaçao. A documentary film made by Dutch film maker, Alaric Smeets, was recently completed under the title ‘Nostalgia’ named after what has become his most famous signature piece. The documentary is due to be released shortly.
What makes his music so unique?
‘My music is based on rhythms of two origins – Afro-Caribbean and European – the connection I make has a personal nature. On the whole, African rhythms are duple meter and full of syncopation which is an accent or stress in a musical phase placed in a spot where one does not expect it or lack of stress in a spot where one would have expected it. In dance music syncopations are responded to physically during the dance – the body corrects the absence or unexpected inclusions of accents. What I do is take a basic dance rhythm, but I do not play it in the strict manner that would be necessary if it were to be danced to. Dance music requires strict adherence to the rhythm.’
‘Characteristic of my music is that the melodic themes used are best placed within the framework of musical miniatures. My pieces rarely extend beyond the length of three minutes and are complete works in themselves. They are played with the freedom of rubatos, allowing for lingering in a particularly romantic moment and returning time that was borrowed from it before, and giving it back to restore the balance. Of all romantic composers, none had a more perfect perception of the importance of rubato than Chopin.’
He digs deeper into the forms and history of African rhythms and explains how Chopin’s mazurkas came to the Caribbean, how the Habanera moved from Cuba to France, and what are the basic rhythms of a danza, tumba, rumba . . .
His mobile beeps and he shares that his next port of call is dinner with friends, so it’s time to leave and I say goodbye to an extraordinary man.