Johanna Roepman was born on 4th August 1892 in Rotterdam and grew up in The Hague. She had piano lessons when she was young but otherwise no musical upbringing: her family could hardly be described as musical. After leaving secondary school she studied English. She had artistic leanings towards the plastic arts and followed a course at art school. The one day she heard a rehearsal of The Hague Philharmonic Orchestra; her desire for music was awakened and she dropped her art lessons. When she was twenty Johanna Roepman married the writer Bordewijk; with two small children, her musical activity in the first few years was restricted to going to the occasional concert. She began to compose when she was reading an illustrated book of verse out loud to her children - Rie Cramer’s Mijn eigen tuintje (My very own garden) – and she thought it a pity that the rhymes had no tunes. This gave her the taste for composition: she decided that her next project would be a sonata for piano and violin. She consulted books on musical form (not really having a very clear idea of what a sonata is!) and in 1923 she wrote her Violin Sonata, which was performed at a concert given by the Vereeniging voor Moderne Muziek (Modern Music Association).
Inspired by orchestral music Bordewijk-Roepman then set about writing a 'symphonic poem', The Garden of Allah, which was performed in Groningen with Kor Kuiler conducting. She studied the required literature and also quizzed orchestral players to acquire a better understanding of colour and tonal possibilities. From 1936 to 1937 she studied under Eduard Flipse. On 9 March 1940 the Rotterdam Philharmic Orchestra under Flipse played Bordewijk-Roepman’s symphonic poem Les Illuminations, based on three poems by Rimbaud. Shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War Bordewijk-Roepman wrote a piano concerto (performed by the Utrechtsch Stedelijk Orkest) with George Enderle as solo). In the spring of 1942 she completed her first symphony, which had to wait until after the war for its first performance by The Hague Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jan Out. In 1949 Bordewijk wrote the text for his wife’s symphonic poem Plato’s Death and in 1941 he wrote the libretto for her opera Rotonde.
Johanna Bordewijk-Roepman was much affected by the war. During the bombing of The Hague on 3 March 1945 the Bordewijk house collapsed over their heads; they just managed to escape. In 1942 the Piano Concerto was again performed by USO with George Enderle as solo, but as both Johanna Bordewijk-Roepman and her writer husband refused to become members of the Kultuurkamer, (the official arts body enforced by the occupying Nazis) her work could not thereafter be published or performed. Wouter Paap commented on her wartime compositions, "The emotional content of the Epilogue (1943) relates to the hope on the part of the optimistic composer that the War would soon be over. On reading the score, which is rich in colour and tone, you become aware of her impatient longing to be rid of the psychological pressures of war."
After the war Bordewijk-Roepman sat on the Music Committee, where she judged the works of 'faulty' colleagues. Many musicians held this against her and she herself thought that it greatly hindered performance of her work after the war. She felt there was a conspiracy against her. True or otherwise, we shall never know. We do know that up until the end of the 1950s her works were widely performed, all over the world.
Source: Wouter Paap "Nederlandsche componisten van onzen tijd (Dutch composers of our time)" in Mens en Melodie
With acknowledgements to Elly Kamp
You can download various works by Johanna Bordewijk-Roepman from the website of Muziekcentrum van de Omroep www.muziekschatten.nl
Les illuminations 1940 orchestra
Rotonde 1941 opera in one act, libretto F. Bordewijk
Symphonie 1942 orchestra
Sonate 1943 piano
Wederopbouw 1954 a capella male choir, text A.M. Bakers
High flight 1956 female choir and piano, text J.G. Magee