Joan (Johan, Jonas, John, Joen) Fresco was born on 18 August 1886 in The Hague as the son of the Jewish tailor Moses Fresco and Regina Frank. At a young age, he showed already an interest in music.
At the Conservatory in The Hague he studied piano, violin and composition. His violin teacher was the internationally renowned Belgian violinist Laurent Angenot (1873-1949), who introduced him as a trainee at the Residentie Orchestra, where he was second concertmaster, and with whom he passed the violin exam with distinction for virtuosity. For his Minnesold-suite for orchestra in four movements, Fresco received the Nicolai Prize, established by Queen Wilhelmina “for originality, inventiveness and brilliant orchestration”, which enabled him to continue his studies at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. There he received composition lessons from the German composer Friedrich Gernsheim (1839-1916) for several years.
In 1908 he returned to The Hague and resumed his position in the Residentie Orchestra. But not much later, he took a step that would change his life forever. He left the orchestra and decided to try to move on in a lighter genre. With a few fellow students, who had sufficient confidence in his artistic and business qualities, he founded the 'Holländisches Solisten Quartett' with the aim of performing in the German health resorts where there was a great need for such ensembles. With an impeccable sense of public relations, he succeeded soon after 1909 in winning long-term contracts in Baden-Baden, Karlsruhe, Freiburg, Eberfeld, Saarbrücken, etc., where the cultured public appreciated the high level of performance.
After working for several years in the south and west of Germany as well as in Austria and Switzerland, Fresco received an offer to play music at Hotel Kaiserhof in Berlin, one of the most renowned hotels in Germany, which was regularly visited by the Imperial family . As Stehgeiger he was in charge of ensembles of varied instruments for more than three years. In 1918 he married Gertrud Anne Kuhnigk, who - as a singer initially - made an important contribution to her husband's light music activities. After their divorce in 1928 however, she made a big career as a Wagner singer under the pseudonym Ruth Jost-Arden. In the 1930s she received opera contracts in Bayreuth and Cologne, and performed in major cities such as Milan, Venice, Paris, New York, Brussels and Boston.
One of the consequences of the lost First World War was that in impoverished Germany Joan Fresco, who as a neutral Dutchman had little to fear, had little employment left after 1918. In the autumn of that year he went back to the Netherlands where he had several long-term contracts. In 1921, however, he decided to try his luck in America and moved to New York. It came at a time when a fierce battle was being fought in the show world between employers and employees (including musicians) to secure better pay for the latter. With the help of a friend, he financially survived this first period. When work was resumed, he played arrangements for silent movies as a violinist in an orchestra. Later he founded his own orchestra and made the arrangements himself. Apart from a lucrative contract in New York at the prestigious hotel 'The Commodore' and performances in Canada, these years probably did not bring him what he had hoped for. A not unimportant incident was that his wife wanted to further develop herself vocally in Europe.
In 1924 he returned to Berlin and performed there with varying degrees of success, but he also took on several management positions at music publishers, which was of great importance for the dissemination of his own compositions. In 1930 he became editor (artistic director) at one of the largest music publishers in Germany: Anton J. Benjamin, with branches in several countries, for which he made a major propaganda tour in the Netherlands in 1931, among others.
When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, life became more and more unpleasant and dangerous for Jews. Fresco decided to return to the Netherlands with his new wife Erna Luise Meta Haase, whom he had married in the same year.
In an effort to make his music better known, he sent surveys of his work to countless orchestra leaders. This advertising campaign was very successful with the Dutch and Belgian broadcast companies.
He founded a women's show orchestra, the 'Lander Ladies' after his pseudonym Roderick Lander, with which he toured the country successfully for years, albeit in smaller shops and venues. He was not very content with the artistic level of these activities.
The invasion of the Netherlands by the German troops on May 10th of 1940 marked the end of his free performance in public and of Fresco's career as an artist in general. From May 1942 the measures against Jews became very strict, not much later the deportations to the death camps started. The fact that Joan Fresco was able to survive the war is largely due to the fact that his second wife was not jewish. Jews from mixed marriages were exempted from deportation to concentration camps. But most of the anti-Jewish measures that preceded the deportations also concerned mixed-married Jews, so that Joan Fresco had to wear the hated Star of David and had his possessions taken away. He lost his job which caused financial problems. Thanks to his savings, Fresco was able to hold out for some time, but he was forced to look for other work. He set up the art dealership 't Schilderscabinet, to earn a modest income. At the end of 1943 State Commissioner Seyss-Inquart ordered that Jews with mixed marriages had to do construction work for the government. Fresco was forced to work at the 'Bosplan', which later became the Amsterdamse Bos. However, he was soon exempted from this, thanks to the director of the employment office who knew him as an artist from the past. In the meantime, many of his relatives and other loved ones perished in concentration camps.
At the end of the war, Fresco had to find work again. During the last winter (the hunger winter) he had spent his last money and was forced to take out loans. He brought his Painter's Cabinet back to life, and also tried to sell textiles. His attempts to get back to work as a musician and teacher at the age of 60, did not bring him the successes he had known until 1933. There was hope for financial improvement when the 'Entschädigungsamt' was set up in Germany in 1952, where victims of the Nazis could submit a request for compensation. Fresco had to fight a paper battle with this institution for eight years to finally qualify for payment, which was called ‘Wiedergutmachung'. Although the compensation was adequate, it only amounted to a fraction of the actual material and immaterial damage that he had suffered.
In 1953 he was involved in the preparation of a report by the Art Committee on the presence of typical elements in Dutch entertainment music and their further development. This was a provisional publication of the 'Our Light Music' Foundation (OLM) in Amsterdam.
Joan Fresco passed away on March 6, 1964 in Amersfoort.
Joan Fresco had been composing since he was a teenager. Even in his very first works he uses a pleasant, easily appealing idiom. His oeuvre includes concert music as well as vocal dance music. He wrote a lot of ‘entertainment music’, which he was able to perform during his countless concerts and performances.
The category 'concert music' includes several orchestral suites, dances, marches, waltzes, tangos, foxtrots, intermezzi, etc., always based on catchy melodies. He wrote parts (piano scores) of many works, but there are also independent piano works that he later orchestrated. Often his music was arranged by others. Well-known Dutch arrangers of Fresco's work were Pi Scheffer, Dolf van der Linden, Hans Lachman, Paul Godwin and Bert Paige. To mention a few: the 4-part suite Minnesold, Dutch Fishergirls, In the Flea Circus, Tockey Bockey, Tango dramatico, etc. These works were very popular and were published by major music publishers in Amsterdam, Berlin, Leipzig, Hamburg, London and New York.
The category 'vocal dance music' includes countless popular songs, often on own lyrics, originally with piano accompaniment and then later orchestrated more than once.
Titles are, for example, Ich will nur einen Kuss von Dir, Wenn man verliebt ist, ist der Himmel blau or Das Blumenmädchen van Neapel. The constant demand for these works, which were often published in translations under various pseudonyms such as Roderic Lander, Percy Cleaver or Leo Kwant, confirm Fresco's great popularity abroad.
Around 1925 his arrangements for silent films were also published, such as Agitato dramatico (1925 – for man hunt, battle scenes), Orientale (for oriental scenes or fairy tales) or Tragicomica (1926 – for drunken scenes, seasickness), etc.
A special composition is the Dutch Ballade written in 1961 on a text by Pieter Goemans, which he dedicated to Princess Wilhelmina. Not only did he want to show his gratitude to her for the Nicolai Prize that had stimulated him so much at the start of his career, he also made a warm plea for the Dutch national folk music. He brought this song to the attention of newspapers and radio, and also made the work available for free to a large number of schools.
Joan Fresco received a number of awards. In 1918 this was the aforementioned Nicolai Prize of the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. In 1938 he received a first prize from the 'Vereeniging Woord- en Toondichters der Lichte Muziek' in Amsterdam for his 4-part orchestral suite Dancing stars. In 1951 Fresco received the first prize from the ‘Onze lichte Muziek’ ( Our Light Music) foundation for his song Today I have an appointment. In response to this, Lex van Delden wrote in newspaper Het Parool: “Everyone who knows the work of this composer will be delighted that this prize, which aims to raise the level of Dutch popular song, has been awarded to Joan Fresco. Because Fresco is one of the few who combines excellent technical mastery with real compositional invention.” In 1953 he won this prize again, this time for the song Gouden Zonnestralen ( Golden Sunbeams).
Translation Eleonore Pameijer