Music News
10:10 pm
Fri November 9, 2012

A Veteran's Standing Ovation, 70 Years In The Making

Originally published on Thu November 15, 2012 8:55 am

When you reach a certain age, big life surprises tend to come few and far between, unless you're Harold Van Heuvelen. Van, as everyone calls him, has had a blockbuster week full of dreams fulfilled. The story of his dream starts more than 70 years ago, on Dec. 7, 1941.

Van Heuvelen enlisted in the Army after Pearl Harbor. He was posted to a base in New Orleans as an instructor for recruits. He spent the war stateside, training men who were being shipped out to Europe and the South Pacific.

"When the peace came along in Europe in April of 1945, we just practically sat there without anything to do," he says. "Most of the gentlemen drew house plans because they were thinking they were going to get out of the service pretty soon. And I wrote a symphony."

Van Heuvelen started composing at age 8 and studied music in college, writing a violin concerto when he was only a junior. The symphony, though, was a huge undertaking: more than 200 pages of music, which he wrote thinking he might still be sent overseas.

"The rumor was that we were going to be shipped to Japan," he says. "And then Hiroshima/Nagasaki came along, and that ended the war completely."

Van Heuvelen finished the symphony and even got it in front of Leonard Bernstein a few years after the war. But he wound up getting a job teaching music in the public schools of Bismarck, N.D.

"So I didn't have a lot of time to promote it," he says. "It pretty much sat on the shelf for 70 years."

The story could have ended there. Click the audio link on this page to learn how Van Heuvelen's opus was revived decades later and finally saw its debut.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

As we look forward to Veterans Day, we turn now to the story of one veteran for whom this week was more than he ever dreamed. Tina Antolini has our story.

TINA ANTOLINI, BYLINE: When you reach a certain age, big life surprises tend to be few and far between. Unless you're Harold Van Heuvelen.

HAROLD VAN HEUVELEN: I'm a 93-year-old codger. Still kicking.

ANTOLINI: Van, as everyone calls him, has had a pretty blockbuster week. A week of dreams fulfilled. The story of Van's dream starts more than 70 years ago.

HEUVELEN: December 7, 1941.

ANTOLINI: Pearl Harbor. Van enlisted. He was posted to a base in New Orleans as an instructor for recruits, training men who were being shipped out to Europe and the South Pacific.

HEUVELEN: When the peace came along in Europe in April of 1945, we just practically sat there without anything to do. Most of the gentlemen drew house plans, because they were thinking they were going to get out of the service pretty soon. And I wrote a symphony.

ANTOLINI: Van started composing at age eight, and studied music in college, writing a violin concerto when he was only a junior. But the symphony was a huge undertaking - more than 200 pages of music, which he wrote thinking he still might be sent overseas.

HEUVELEN: The rumor was that we were going to be shipped to Japan. And then Hiroshima, Nagasaki came along and that ended the war completely.

ANTOLINI: Van finished the symphony, even showed it to Leonard Bernstein a few years after the war. But he wound up getting a job teaching music in the public schools in Bismarck, North Dakota.

HEUVELEN: And so I didn't have a lot of time to promote it, you know. So, it's pretty much sat on the shelf for 70 years.

ANTOLINI: Literally, on the shelf.

BOB VAN HEUVELEN: He had it on the bookshelf in our living room and I would see it. And, of course, as a kid you see a lot of books, and so you don't really take notice.

ANTOLINI: That's Bob Van Heuvelen, Van's son. It wasn't until 2003 when Bob was helping his dad go through the house after Van's wife died, that they stumbled on the symphony again.

HEUVELEN: So, I said when are you going to have this played? And he said, well, you know, maybe that's something you boys will have to do after I'm gone. And I said, well, that's not OK.

ANTOLINI: The first thing Bob did was find someone to create a computer music version of the symphony score.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANTOLINI: Now, Bob Van Heuvelen is a lobbyist and consultant in Washington, D.C. And he happened to be in a meeting with Michigan Senator Carl Levin.

HEUVELEN: He said I'm a great classical music lover. Would you send me a disc?

ANTOLINI: The next thing Bob knew, Senator Levin had written to the Pentagon, asking if they'd get the symphony performed.

MAJOR TOD ADDISON: We're always grateful when people on the Hill think of us.

ANTOLINI: Major Tod Addison is the deputy commander for the United States Army Bands, and conducts its orchestra. When a senator asks you to perform something, you don't want to say no, but what if this music just wasn't any good?

ADDISON: I was pretty worried, to tell you the truth. And thankfully, as soon as I looked at it, it was tonal. It was accessible. It was very neo-romantic. And I think I said the word Brahms right away, because it was just so broad.

ANTOLINI: And so Bob Van Heuvelen got a letter back saying the concert was on, and asking...

HEUVELEN: Do you think your dad can make it? I said I don't think all the horses in the country could hold him back.

(APPLAUSE)

ADDISON: And now we will perform for you the world premiere of the Van Heuvelen Symphony No. 1.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANTOLINI: Van is in the front row as the symphony begins in a concert hall on Fort Meyer in Northern Virginia. He's wearing his old World War II army uniform, which he insisted on resurrecting for the occasion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANTOLINI: Each movement of Van's symphony addresses a different era of the war: from Hitler's rise to power to America's entrance into the war, to the peace following Japan's surrender.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANTOLINI: Major Addison says there are glorious, uplifting moments in the music.

ADDISON: But at the same time, right about the time you're getting used to the glorious full chords, he changes back to, yes, but it was uneasy. Even after the war, it might have been wonderful that we were finished, but there was a great uneasiness as to now what?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANTOLINI: Van's expression is serious - until the theme of his favorite movement is played. Then his face is transformed by a wide-mouthed grin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANTOLINI: At the end, he gets a standing ovation, and is led to the front, leaning on his cane to address the audience.

(APPLAUSE)

HEUVELEN: Thank you for coming, and God bless you. And I hope that God will bless you as much as he's blessed me.

(APPLAUSE)

ANTOLINI: It was a day that Harold Van Heuvelen says is proof, your dreams can come true. It just might take - 70 years. For NPR News, I'm Tina Antolini.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.