The indestructible bond of Jean Sassen (84) with the Rieu family: 'Pierre is still the first to call us every year on the anniversary of our son's death'Jean Sassen still practices at home for an hour every day on the nearly 180-year-old double bass that his parents gave him seventy years ago.Borgharen (village in Limburg)Jean Sassen is by far the oldest musician of the Johann Strauss Orchestra. The relationship of the 84-year-old double bass player with the Rieu family goes back more than sixty years. A bond that has only become stronger after the accident of his youngest son Richard. Yet it was not until the age of 61 that the native of Borgharen joined the Johann Strauss Orchestra.“Despite the fact that André firmly believed in it, I never dared to quit my permanent job with the Limburg Symphony Orchestra.” He has known the Rieu family for over sixty years, played in the Limburg Symphony Orchestra for forty years, was involved with the Maastricht Salon Orchestra almost from the start and has been a member of the Johann Strauss Orchestra since 2000. Age does not prevent double bassist Jean Sassen from continuing to perform at the Vrijthof concerts. The counter of the 84-year-old resident of Borgharen now stands at 106 performances on the square in the heart of Maastricht. “Everything is set up for me, all I have to do is play.” BugleSassen was nine years old when he started playing the bugle with the Sint Cornelius brass band in Borgharen. “My uncle Lambert Kengen was a bassoonist with the Limburg Symphony Orchestra and decided to take care of the fanfare, at the time no more than a glorified “drunken marching band”. He started giving lessons in solfeggio and music theory. I wasn't too thrilled about that, but playing the flugelhorn myself was wonderful. I mastered the first tune (“The little shepherds lay at night” = a Christmas song) and didn't need to be motivated to practice. What fascinated me even more as a young boy was that my uncle Lambert made money making music. He even owned a car at that time, in the late 1940s." AdviceThat is why, after secondary school, Sassen decided to study at the music lyceum in Maastricht, the forerunner of the conservatory. “There they advised me to choose a secondary instrument in addition to the trumpet. Most students chose piano at the time. They advised me on the double bass. "There aren't many players out there. Then you also have a better chance of a place in a symphony orchestra. I followed that advice.” After a short employment with the Dutch Radio Union in Hilversum, Sassen joined the Limburg Symphony Orchestra in 1963. “Years later I met André there, who was a violinist in his father's orchestra before he founded the Maastricht Salon Orchestra in 1978, an orchestra that I was not part of from the first minute, but right after that, I was.” BlessedSassen was able to combine his job at the LSO and playing in the Maastricht Salon Orchestra very well. He did not dare to exchange his permanent job at the LSO for an uncertain existence with the Johann Strauss Orchestra. “Despite the fact that André firmly believed in it, it was until I took early retirement at the age of 61 and André said: 'Now you can join us.' ” For two years he traveled all over the world with the Johann Strauss Orchestra. “Until I started to feel remorse because my wife was always alone at home.” That feeling was partly built up by the fact that Sassen and his wife Riet lost their youngest son Richard in 1981, due to a fatal accident. Richard was thirteen. “He was run over by a truck on the Franciscus Romanusweg in Maastricht, two days after the birth of Pierre, the son of André and Marjorie. Since that day, our lives have been before-and-after June 26, 1981.”
The Limburger, July 19, 2023. By Ronald Colée.Translation: Ineke, edited by Alice Leung.
Photo from 2007, The Efteling Concert, with Franco Vulcano.
Moved After a concert in the USA, he decided to inform André about his intention to quit. He responded by asking if I didn't like it anymore. The next day André came to me and said: Jean, I have the solution. Then Riet will come with us after all. For twelve years she was allowed to travel the world with us free of charge. Including to America, Japan, Korea and Australia. That really did us good, we were completely revitalized. He is still moved by it." Which boss would do that? We never got any message from the driver who overlooked our son or from the company he worked for. But every year on June 26, Richard's death anniversary, it is Pierre who calls us first, at eight in the morning. When we have recordings in the studio that day, André always grabs me, without saying anything. And for 42 years, he and Marjorie always have flowers delivered that day. Riet and I think that's fantastic. Richard is still commemorated in this way.”Step backAround the age of 75, the many travels began to take its toll and Jean took a step back. “Since then, I only perform in the area: Antwerp, Amsterdam, of course the Vrijthof concerts and of course the Christmas concerts in the MECC.” Besides Sassen, the Johann Strauss Orchestra has two bass players: the Belgian Roland Lafosse and the Italian Franco Vulcano.“ Franco said to me at one point: ‘I will prepare the instrument for you and clean it up for you afterwards. You just have to play." I'm glad about that, because I'm 84 now. And you have to go up and down the stairs with a double bass like that, something that had no difficulty ten or fifteen years ago, when you could handle it without holding onto a railing. Not because a double bass is so heavy, it weighs less than twelve kilos, but mainly because it is so clumsily large.”BowThat is why Sassen only carries his own, handmade bow, walking through the Vrijthof audience to the stage. “As a member of the Johann Strauss Orchestra you don't have to take care of anything anyway, just the black socks! The rest is arranged for you. And bows come in all shapes and price ranges. Literally from a hundred to a hundred thousand euros. I paid four thousand euros for mine because it has such a nice balance; keeps hopping over the strings so nicely and not like a factory stick that wants to jump in all directions all the time.” The basses that the trio play on during the concerts are all owned by André Rieu. At home, Sassen still plays every day on his very first double bass, which he received as a gift from his parents when he was fourteen. An almost 180-year-old Markneukirchen from Germany.“ Seventy years ago, my parents had part of their endowment insurance paid out early in order to be able to purchase this instrument for me. Because at the time this bass cost about eight hundred guilders (363 euros). A bourgeois fortune for a family whose breadwinner was just a hardworking construction worker. I will never get rid of this bass. I secretly hope that my grandson Javier will play it later.” Great grandfather Now the father of Wilfred (60), grandfather of Dafna (32), Javier (30) and Yannick (26), and great-grandfather of Noa (3) and Mila (1) still practices for an hour every day. “ That is just part of my life, I have never done anything else. Because playing precisely is the most important and the most difficult thing on a double bass. A guitar has frets, so you know where to put your hands, a double bass doesn't have those lines. So, even after seventy years, you have to practice every day how to pinch the strings and how to make jumps between high and long notes with your left hand. And unlike a violin, a double bass has a long fingerboard, so you have to make many jumps. To find those distances blindly, you have to keep practicing.” Because he suffered from an increased heart rhythm and an iron deficiency last year, which meant he had to miss five Vrijthof concerts, Sassen was out for almost a year. But out of sight does not mean out of mind with the Johann Strauss Orchestra. “In April I was called by Pierre: are you participating again? When I then appeared at the first rehearsal, where André introduced the new soloists and said that I would be there again, I received a loud round of applause. No one asked: what will he do next?” HighlightAnd so, this year he will be on the Vrijthof stage again every day for three hours. "Standing? No, Sitting. I couldn't stand anymore. Fortunately, we have bass stools with footrest and backrest. Performing in front of such a large crowd remains inspiring. Although I also loved making music for a hundred people with the Maastricht Salon Orchestra in a very quiet hall.”Sassen enjoys the most beautiful melodies such as “You raise me up” by Secret Garden. “The highlight of this concert is of course the performance of Emma Kok. You just feel the tension in the audience. She also sings fantastically well.” Sassen finds the encores a little less challenging to play.“ But I also want to make the bass parts sound good there. Because that's my job. Just like with the Radetzky March which I have played more than a thousand times. You have to make sure that it does not become routine, doing your utmost every day. André also expects that of you.” Inseparable His wife Riet, with whom he has been married for 61 years, is in the audience every evening. “Sometimes next to Marjorie, or next to Pierre's wife or at the ambulance service. They always find a place for her. We are inseparable in that regard.” Jean and Riet skip the after-snack after each concert.“ It is too tiring for us. Now we are home at one o'clock at night, we drink a cup of tea together and we go to sleep. But we will certainly be there on the after party of the last concert on Sunday July 23rd.How long will he continue to share the stage with the Johann Strauss Orchestra? Sassen laughs. “I wonder that myself. That partly depends on how I feel and whether Franco continues to prepare everything for me. In my head I still feel young enough, only my body is getting older. A day will come when I really stop. Then I can look back on a good life. Apart from what happened to Riet and me. So far, I've been part of them every time.
Maastrichts Salon Orchestra with Jean Sassen. 1978.