Wim Henderickx, the composer who never lost his laugh

With the sudden death of Wim Henderickx, classical music loses one of its most creative composers. And no one will forget that smile. Always the loud laugh.

Our eyes crossed on Friday after the premiere of ‘Ernani’ in Antwerp. I looked doubtful. Wim Henderickx started to laugh out loud. Sometimes you don’t need words to make things clear to each other. He died unexpectedly on Sunday afternoon. Something with heart. He was 60.

At first you think: it’s not possible, because I saw him last Friday. And also three days before, at the premiere of ‘On burge bébé!’ in the mint in Brussels. He was enthusiastic at the reception afterwards.

‘What fantastic music Philippe Boesmans has composed. It makes me so excited to compose an opera myself again. But first I must finish my fourth symphony. I’ll start again tomorrow. That’s why I’m not drinking a drop of alcohol tonight. My head must be fresh.’

And then he started talking about ‘De bekeerlinge’, his opera that had its world premiere at Opera Ballet Vlaanderen in May. Stefan Hertmans’ book of the same name served as a source of inspiration. Negotiations are underway with Germany. Maybe it will be listed there too. Anyway, the music. Did you know that ‘De converte’ was originally intended for De Munt? But that didn’t happen because of the ongoing renovation of the theater. In the end it could only be planned for 2025. That was too late for me. Then the momentum was gone. Once you’ve composed an opera, you want to see it performed quickly.’

And then he told his wife and manager Bea – they have three children together – that it really was time to go home. She smiled at me. Because she probably knew better. Half an hour later he was still saying goodbye to everyone he knew there at De Munt.

Entrepreneurial blood

Wim Henderickx did not come from a musical family. His parents ran a couple of leather goods shops. ‘But the entrepreneurial blood is in me, you know. From the beginning of my career, I wanted my music to be published. My scores are for sale everywhere. I also think the use of social media is important. I’m not afraid of that. Perhaps here and there there is still the romantic idea that a composer works alone and a little unearthly in an attic. It’s not right for me. I am a person of today’, he said in an interview with De Tijd earlier this year in response to ‘De convertinge’.

It was written in the stars that he would go into music. ‘In one of my very first photographs – I was four at the time – I’m drumming. It was already in me then. In my younger years I was mainly oriented towards jazz and lighter music. I made arrangements. Then I went into the conservatory. First for percussion training, then composition.’ He also studied sonology at Ircam in Paris and at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague.

Wim Henderickx composed as he lived: in search of communication and connection. Music has no meaning if no one wants to hear it, he knew. ‘We no longer live in a time where as a composer you can say: they don’t understand my music, so that’s good. I may have sinned about that sometimes when I was younger. But I have felt liberated for a long time now. I no longer write in the straitjacket of necessarily wanting to be innovative’, he said in the interview.

Wim Henderickx composed as he lived: in search of communication and connection.

But make no mistake, he never sought the easy way out in his compositions. As a percussionist, he was very attentive to rhythm. His music was full of elements from other musical cultures. Henderickx fell under Eastern philosophy and spirituality after long travels through Asia.

At the beginning of this year, it resulted in the concerto for basset clarinet ‘Sutra’, which he composed for clarinetist Annelien Van Wauwe. The work is based on the principles of yoga.

Henderickx’s musical palette was extensive. He wrote works for opera, musical theatre, orchestra, choir, concert band and chamber music. Electronic music is an essential part of his compositions. He never shied away from experimenting. He never made it easy on himself in that regard. In 2019, he made his ‘Balance’ in our newspaper. “Artistically, I often go through hell. Experience teaches me to channel it. It is important that you regularly distance yourself.’

Wim Henderickx taught composition at the Royal Conservatory in Antwerp and the Conservatory in Amsterdam. Like no one else, he knew how good music was put together. But composers listen differently – more expertly, not to use that word – than music lovers.

In November, we saw each other after the extremely rare performance of ‘The War’ by Peter Benoit in the Queen Elisabeth Hall. “Benoit still lacks a touch of genius,” I told him. William was silent for a moment. ‘You may be right, but I’ll think about it for two days first. Maybe it could have been a little shorter. Let me think. But I think it is so important that works by Flemish composers like Benoit are performed. I myself intend to make the compositions of one of my composition teachers better known. Willem Kersters. He deserves it. Great composer, but too few people know him.’ Someone must also take over that plan.

In the interview about ‘De Bekeerlinge’, I asked him what he would do if the drummer from a cover group had to urgently go to a café. “Get behind the drums of course,” he replied. Certainly with a big smile on his face.

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