This past fall, the Calvin College Alumni Orchestra (CAO) performed Scherzo on a Dutch Nursery Song, composed by former Calvin music professor Henry A. Bruinsma (1916-1991). It was just the second performance of the piece that made a dazzling debut in 1943, courtesy of the National Symphony Orchestra.
The Bruinsma piece was one of the highlights of the CAO’s fall season, the 12th in group history and the first under new conductor Robert Nordling, who also conducts the Calvin College Orchestra.
Nordling replaced Derald De Young, who founded and led the CAO until his retirement from the Calvin faculty last May.
The new conductor was pleased to include the work in his first selection of pieces as CAO conductor.
“If there are any other alumni out there who have written musical compositions, we’d love to hear your work,” Nordling said.
As for Bruinsma, it was in his musical compositions that his brilliance was most displayed, matched by an impressive 6-foot-4, 200-pound physique and a charismatic personality. “Henry’s personality was … embodied in his music: colorful, radiating charisma, magnetic in a nonverbal way,” niece Jane DeGroot said.
Bruinsma displayed musical potential even before he was considered old enough to take music lessons, said his wife, Grace Hekman Bruinsma ’37. The preschooler would eavesdrop on his older brother’s piano lessons. After the teacher left, Bruinsma would climb onto the piano bench to practice his brother’s lesson assignment. Later on, he chose to attend Ottawa Hills High School in Grand Rapids, Mich., for its music program.
Following high school graduation in 1933, Bruinsma attended the University of Michigan for a degree in music. He stayed on to complete a Ph.D. in musicology, becoming the first musicologist to graduate from the University of Michigan. It was during his graduate work that Bruinsma wrote Scherzo on a Dutch Nursery Song. “He never lost his love for Dutch history or Dutch Reformed music,” Grace Bruinsma said.
It was also during his time at U of M that Bruinsma began taking Grace to music concerts, and in 1939 they were married.
Though he was drafted and sent to Europe to fight in World War II, the then-conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, Hans Kindler, discovered Bruinsma’s Scherzo and was so impressed that he flew Bruinsma back from the war for its first performance in Washington, D.C., in 1943.
Upon his return from the war, Bruinsma began his time as a professor of music at Calvin College (1946-55). In addition to his teaching duties at the college, Bruinsma taught the first music and theology course at Calvin Seminary. He also chaired the first Conference on Liturgy of Music.
Grace Bruinsma recalls fond memories of their time at Calvin. She reflects that Calvin “gave us an anchor and appreciation of the world around us but with an eye to the Heavenly Father.”
However, not long after his time at Calvin, Bruinsma decided he was being called to move from teaching to education administration. Of note is his time at Ohio State University (1959-64), where he served as the director of the School of Music. He also held the position of executive committee member of the College of Education.
Next, Bruinsma moved to what is now Arizona State University (1964-79), another notable mark in his education administration career. During that time, he served first as chair of the School of Music, then as founding dean of the College of Fine Arts. He is also known to have started the first religious studies program at Arizona State as part of the university’s interdisciplinary studies program.
Due to the amount of time he spent in education administration, much of Bruinsma’s musical compositions were never published. After his death, Grace Bruinsma contacted Gerry Bouma of Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. Bouma and Henry Bruinsma had met in 1969 at a Grand Rapids Christian High School concert in Chicago. “For whatever reason, Henry and Grace treated us like we were their kids,” Bouma said. Grace asked Bouma to catalog and publish the 10,000 pages of Henry’s material. Taking a semester sabbatical, Bouma began his work.
A handwritten note was found from Hans Kindler expressing his love of Bruinsma’s piece. Realizing it had been performed just once, Bouma contacted Nordling regarding the possibility of having the Scherzo performed. Nordling was delighted to accept.
“We should all be very grateful to Gerry for bringing this fine work back into our lives,” noted Nordling.
Bouma’s catalog of Bruinsma’s work can be found in the Heritage Hall Archives at the Hekman Library. The Archives also hosts additional works from Bruinsma’s time at Calvin.
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