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Col. Van Heuvelen’s Opus

Destiny is a hell of a thing.

In 1945, a young Harold “Van” Van Heuvelen, the son of a Dutch minister from North Dakota, began composing his first symphony. At the time, he was a young GI teaching at an Army officer candidate school. For almost 70 years, the master score of this symphony was tucked away in his home — until his son found it in the early 2000s.

This week — 67 years after it was completed — Van Heuvelen’s Symphony No. 1 was performed for the first time at the U.S. Army Orchestra’s Veterans Day concert. The composer, retired Col. Van Heuvelen, now 93, sat in the audience, flanked by his wife, Alma, and more than a dozen family members and friends, including his son and the symphony’s champion, Bob Van Heuvelen.

And the symphony is good. It is really good. So good, it will make you cry.

World Enough and Time

Van Heuvelen began composing his symphony in the weeks and months after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. World War II was drawing to a close with a jarring finality. Suddenly, the young instructor at the New Orleans Army Air Base found himself with nothing but time.

“We were all sitting around, twiddling our thumbs because all our officer candidates stopped coming to our school and we didn’t have anything to teach,” he said. “So we just sat around, and it was perfectly OK for us to do something worthwhile with our time. A lot of the men started to draw house plans, and I decided to write a symphony.

“I could just go to work every day and work on my symphony and come home at night and work on my symphony,” he said. “I had the time to do it.”

Van Heuvelen, a concert violinist, conductor and composer, describes the movements as follows: “The first movement has a beautiful aura of sadness.” The first movement depicts the years before America entered World War II, while Adolf Hitler was tightening his grip on Europe.

“The opening bars of the first movement portray the depth of sadness experienced in those years prior to World War II,” he said. “I’ve expressed a yearning for peace that somehow [was characteristic] of that period of history. Everyone wanted to do something — to put an end to the atrocities in Europe — but there was an intense feeling of futility. In America, in that time, there was an aura of being removed and far away from the disastrous happenings taking place in Europe.

“Our desires and the depth of yearning for peace mired us in wanting to do something but not being able to do it,” he explained. “Therefore, the music of the first movement depicts a wandering and a searching for an answer. ... Then [the bombing of] Pearl Harbor came along, and that seemed to be the answer. As terrible and devastating as it was at the time, it became sort of the exclamation mark.”

The symphony’s second movement begins with the “hustle and bustle” of preparing for the war. The music depicts the intense activity of the time. The third movement describes the raucous cacophony of the war itself.

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