The recovered music that told the story of Dutch revolutionaries over 200 years ago

Besides protest songs, cartoons were a popular ’weapon’ as well. Thi
Besides protest songs, cartoons were a popular ’weapon’ as well. This one depicts Stadholder William V as Cupid.

Around 1800, political and social unrest swept through Western Europe. The Netherlands, or more correctly, the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, was also the scene of civil war and coups. Music played an important role in this, Assistant Professor of Intangible Heritage Renée Vulto says. She brought the revolutionary music of the time back to life, together with the ensemble Camerata Trajectina. What was the relation the eighteenth-century Dutch had with music? How did it sound? And what is it like today?

The ’fire of revolution’ in music

The Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, the Batavian Republic and the French Empire. Around 1800, the changes of power rapidly succeeded one another, and the hatred, envy, and violence that accompanied them reigned supreme. "Back then, song culture was already deeply embedded in people’s daily lives," says Vulto, who researched music from this revolutionary era (1780-1815). "It gave an opportunity to become part of a community, a collective."

"The songs had to fuel the ’fire of revolution’ in their singers, ’electrify’ their listeners and make all hearts burn for the fatherland. Politics was an emotional business. Patriots and princelings, Batavians and Frenchmen, a stadholder, an emperor, and a king - they all entered the political stage and tried to appeal to people’s feelings. In mockery songs, they scolded each other, which eventually led to mutual hatred and even armed conflict."

Music and imagination

In her research, Vulto observed that one ingredient was indispensable for an effective song culture: imagination. "In songs, people could visualise their ideals through imagination," she explains. "A Dutch Republic without a despotic stadholder, for example, or a new kingdom with a strong prince of Orange."

"And a memory of a real gathering, where people sang together, is more concrete than a representation of a possible community. On the basis of such memories, communities driven apart could be continued even at a distance, in the imagination," Vulto says, pointing to, for example, the Patriots who lived in exile between 1787 and 1795.

The revolutions of around 1800: a quick recap

"The Dutch revolutionary period largely laid the foundations for the Netherlands as we know it today," Renée Vulto explains. The years around 1800, roughly 1780 to 1815, marked a period of great political and social instability. "In the Dutch Republic, old quarrels between state supporters and prince supporters flared up again, so much so that in 1787 it even came to a real civil war."

"The stadholder enlisted the help of Prussia and many patriots were forced to flee. Some of them headed to France and returned in 1795 with the help of the French. In the meantime, they had started calling themselves ’Batavians’ and the Batavian Republic was declared. But Napoleon came and soon swallowed up the new republic. The emperor’s power was not long-lived either and in 1813 the son of the expelled stadholder returned, as King William I of the Netherlands."

Imagination also helped confirm a new regime after yet another political shift. Vulto mentions the many festive songs of the Batavian Revolution after 1795 and the songs of welcome to king William I in 1813. "So music was not only used to curse and polarise. Eventually, the Dutch also sang songs to erase the disputes of the revolutionary period."

Protest songs of today

"From street songs to hymns - songs allowed people to express and share their feelings," Vulto says. And to some extent, this is still true today. She points to the research of her colleague Laurens Ham. Ham shows that whereas it was struggling for a while in the 1990s and early 21st century, protest songs are now back on the scene.

Nevertheless, the differences between then and now are great. "The use of political or protest songs is a much smaller part of public debate today," Vulto points out. "Now a lot of discussion is taking place through online media like Twitter. Eighteenth-century revolt songs can be seen as the social medium of the time. Through songs, people proclaimed their opinions, tried to gain support for their views, and engaged in discussions."

The ’Revolutie!’ album: the sound of history

’Revoluti­e!’, the album Renée Vulto recorded with Camerata Trajectina, features the diverse voices of the revolutionary period (1780-1815). "Together we made a selection of songs that not only tell the Dutch story of the time, but are also musically very interesting. The album has thus become a fine audio documentary of these turbulent times."

The album stems from Vulto’s PhD research on the political song culture of the Dutch revolutionary period. "I wanted to know what effect the songs had on the feelings of the singers and listeners, so I started singing them and enlisted the expertise of Camerata Trajectina. They have been the leading ensemble dedicated to Dutch song culture for almost 50 years."

Listen to the ’Revolutie’ album