A person who lives his life following his passions is a very blessed person indeed. One such person is Dr Steven van der Merwe, Simon’s Town’s highly regarded General Practitioner and celebrated conductor and composer, whose choral work Eleven- a Requiem for a Parent premiers at the St George’s Cathedral on 11/11/2011. http://scenicsouth.co.za//2011/09/dr-steven-van-der-merwes-eleven-a-requiem-for-a-parent/
Steven was born into a musical family, his father a skilled concertina – player and his older brother playing the bass guitar. The three created music together, but not often enough, Steven regrets.
At the age of 6 he composed his first “music score”, a piece for the Jewish harp, recorder and “Trompie”, a percussion instrument played by mouth. He started his musical studies with the piano when in primary school and when he reached high school a teacher, recognizing his talents, set him to composing for and orchestrating the school’s cadet band, training which has stood him in good stead. At the age of 16 he became the organist at the Dutch Reformed Church in Southfield.
Steven “grew up on Beethoven” and “discovered” Mozart after being profoundly affected by the movie Amadeus. The impressionists Debussy, Ravel and Faure are amongst his favourite composers and he also enjoys jazz.
A defining moment in his musical career occurred when he attended a Mass at St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town where the haunting music of the Mozart Requiem sung by the St George’s Singers and directed by Dr Barry Smith moved him in the direction of choral works, oratorios and masses.
His dilemma after leaving school was to choose between his two passions – music and medicine. South Africa at the time was in turmoil and he felt that the Arts were not a secure environment. He also had a strong desire to heal people and so he embarked firstly on a 4-yr degree in Dietetics at the University of Stellenbosch where he played the French Horn in the university’s brass orchestra. At this stage Steven commenced studies in conducting and orchestration. His degree in Dietetics was followed by a degree in Medicine, after which, in 1994, he worked in England for a year. While studying medicine he started training in cello which gave him good insight into string players and the difficulties in writing for them.
Also in 1994, Steven began more serious studies in orchestration and composition under the tutorship of Dr Peter-Louis van Dijk, well known South African and international composer and conductor and one of the greatest influences in Steven’s life. On his urging Steven conducted his first Simon’s Town Concert at St Francis Anglican Church in 1998, which led to Easter and Christmas concerts almost every year since. Steven’s repertoire became more complex, moving into Mozart symphonies and concertos. The concerts were eventually moved to St Norbert’s Priory in Kommetjie where the “ambience and acoustics are unbelievable.”
Another turning point in his life took place in 2001when Steven spent a further 6 months in London. On a visit to the Royal Academy of Music he picked up a pamphlet about a Composers’ Forum taking place the following week, which he took part in – a “mind-blowing experience”. He subsequently became more serious about composing, writing amongst other works, Sanctus for string orchestra and Something Small (for cello and orchestra), a gift to his cello teacher who still plays in his concerts.
Based on his portfolio of compositions and performances, Steven was invited in 2009 to enroll as a M.Mus (Composition) student at NMMU where Dr van Dijk and his wife Juanita are lecturers, Juanita being a lecturer in choral conducting. He hopes to complete his degree by the end of 2012.
Steven “needs Medicine like I need Music” and aims to write music to heal, music as treatment. Asked what gives him inspiration, he said that “you can wait forever to get inspiration – you have to get your bum onto the piano stool and fiddle!” Then “the serendipity”, “those unplanned accidents”, “those beautiful moments” happen.
In between owning his medical practices in Simon’s Town, Steven worked at the Panorama Medi-Clinic, doing clinical trials in oncology and helping out as a medical officer. This experience was “an eye-opener as to where people are in time and space when they are dying and the often incredible peacefulness of death”. It was during this period, on the 11 November 2009, that his father died and Steven was given a poem about Armistice Day (the day the First World War ended) in sympathy by one of his patients. The serendipity of these events and the significance of the number 11, gave birth to his Requiem.
Asked about other sources of inspiration for his composition, Steven said that the TV series Trench Detectives on the history channel fascinated him, as did the book We will remember them, a book of letters and diary entries started on the day the First World War ended. One of the stories in the book was of an ex-soldier who three years after the war had ended took his wife to Verdun, a major battlefield, where he was struck by the incredible silence – so quiet that “you could almost hear the butterflies flap their wings”.
Having spent an hour or more chatting to Steven, having my eyes opened to aspects of music that I have not ever really considered, and having spent the past several months trying to understand “ the dying process” following the death of my mom, I could not help but cross the road to Simon’s Town Pharmacy to purchase tickets to the premiere performance of his composition, “Eleven – a Requiem for a Parent” which takes place on 11 November 2011 at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town at 7.00pm.
For more about the Requiem see http://scenicsouth.co.za//2011/09/dr-steven-van-der-merwes-eleven-a-requiem-for-a-parent/
Read about Ryno Swart in
For more about musicians and entertainers in the Scenic South see http://scenicsouth.co.za//showcasing/our-entertainers/