Johan Adriaan Zwijsen (aka Toon, Antoine, Jan or Johan Antoon) worked as a pianist, accompanist, adapter and conductor mainly in the Antwerp music world of the 20th century. His work covers the whole gamut from the developments of the silent movie to the first Flemish sound movies, the Antwerp entertainment and revue life, classical music, operetta, ballet, opera and theatre. He wrote schmalzy pop songs, incidental music, soundtrack, revue and theatre music, while concurrently composing more than a hundred songs, chamber music, a piano concerto, cantatas, Masses, symphonic music, dozens of children’s songs, and four operettas for children.
Zwijsen was initiated into music by his father, a chorister. At age twelve he conducted the choir of his parish church of the Sacred Heart at Lange Beeldekens street. Already at a tender age he began accompanying silent movies as a pianist. We are not well-informed about the remainder of his musical education, due to the war years. At any rate he was taught by Jan Broeckx and from 1915 on studied solfège (Albrecht De Schacht) and harmony (Edward Verheyden) at the Royal Flemish Music Conservatory of Antwerp, where he graduated in solfège in 1918. Furthermore we know for sure that he attended piano classes, but several biographical notes nevertheless profile him as self-taught. In the years 1920 he played in diverse orchestras, went as a musician on a voyage to New York with a ship of the Red Star Line, and worked as a conductor at several cinemas in Antwerp.
At the beginning of the 1930s Zwijsen played as a pianist, arranger and composer in André Felleman’s orchestra at the Grand Hotel at the De Keyser lane. At the Royal Flemish Opera he conducted in 1930 a concert of tribute to Flor Bosmans, where his composition Doorheen de werken van Flor Bosmans (Traveling through the Works of Flor Bosmans) was executed. In 1934 he composed the music for the silent movie De verloofde uit Canada (The Fiancé from Canada) by François Frijters. He also started composing revues for the Hippodrome, where he conducted the orchestra to boot, from 1935 through 1944.
Zwijsen taught music at St Lambert’s school in Ekeren and the Brothers’ school St Henry at the Oude Steenweg. There he also published several volumes of children’s songs for school and home. He composed some operettas for children as well, performed by the pupils between 1933 and 1940, and music for an open air production of Vondel’s Lucifer (1937).
In 1939 Zwijsen signed his first contract with movie director Jan Vanderheyden for the composition of the film music for Janssens tegen Peeters (Janssens vs Peeters), followed by music for a number of other Flemish movies. After the war he composed for the film Baas Ganzendonck (1945) by Gaston Ariën, and some documentaries by Gerard de Boe. From 1941 to 1944 Zwijsen was repetiteur-pianist at the Royal Flemish Opera (KVO). His ballet Feestdag op het Land (Feast-day in the Countryside) was performed there in 1943.
After the war Zwijsen was musical adviser at the Koninklijke Nederlandse Schouwburg (KNS), mainly for the lighter genre. He composed there for the Youth Theatre and for performances such as Elk wat Wils (To each his own, 1949), Trijntje Cornelis (1950) and Dievenbal (Burglar’s Ball, 1951). From 1945 to 1953 he also wrote and conducted the music for the comedians’ revue which always closed the season. In addition he was part of the orchestra which after the war executed French opera performances at the Hippodrome, where he also served as conductor for a while.
Zwijsen did pioneering work for the establishment of the Philharmonie in Antwerp: initially as unpaid régisseur of the orchestra, but in 1957 he was hired as ‘administrator-régisseur’. Until his retirement in 1966 he worked there as régisseur, accountant, pianist for the auditions, and as a playing member (plucked instruments such as the celesta).
In the 1960s Zwijsen became conductor of the operetta company ‘De Gildebarden’ (The Guild’s Minstrels). With this group he brought in addition to his own compositions, such as his operettas for children, also numerous popular light operas. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of this society in 1965 he conducted his own cantata Sinjorentrots (Antwerp’s Pride).
In 1961 the Philharmonie premiered at the Queen Elisabeth Hall his Preludio Dramatico, under the baton of Rafaël Frühbeck de Burgos. In 1966 the same orchestra executed Zwijsen’s Preludio Festivo on the occasion of its tenth anniversary. Even after his retirement Zwijsen remained active as a pianist.
© Erik Zwysen (translation: Joris Duytschaever)