STEPHEN HARRY EYSSEN, composer and baritone, born Montagu 23 May 1890, died Pretoria 11 April 1981)
Stephen Eyssen spent most of his formative years in Stellenbosch. The enthusiasm for the Afrikaans language of Gordon Tomlinson and Dr Tobie Muller became a decisive moment in shaping his career. After matriculating at the Jongens Hogere School in Stellenbosch, he entered the Normal College in Cape Town as a student for the teacher’s diploma. He taught for a while, then entered for the BA degree at the newly constituted University of Stellenbosch in 1918. He graduated in 1920. During the early years he was also trained in music at the Stellenbosch Conservatoire of Music, resuming an interest which had been rooted in his childhood by his parents. His enthusiasm for Afrikaans found a musical outlet when he was approached by the Werda Commission for a vocal contribution for a festival of Afrikaans culture in the Cape Town City Hall. There were no suitable songs in Afrikaans, so he composed what became known as his Segelied (Victory song) for the occasion. At a later date (1920) he acted as the leader of a concert group of students who toured in aid of charity. Eyssen ensured that all the items on their programme were printed in either Afrikaans or Dutch.
From 1921 to 1933, Eyssen taught Afrikaans at the Hoër Volkskool in Heidelberg, and from 1934 until 1948 he was the principal of this school. A few years later, he resigned to enter politics and became, for the next ten years, the Member of Parliament for the Heidelberg constituency. In the latter year he surrendered his seat to Hendrik Verwoerd, and then settled near Pretoria where he occasionally acted as a locum in the teaching profession and became a respected personality on the local cultural scene.
Folk song was his particular forte. He became well known in South Africa as a leader of mass singing at Kruger Festivals, at the inauguration of the Voortrekker Monument in 1949, and at numerous cultural gatherings. This identification with the Afrikaner cause is reflected in many of his own songs and large-scale compositions. As a baritone singing solo, at times in duets with his wife, but also as a public speaker and lecturer, he championed the cause of South African composers and of the emerging art song in Afrikaans. In 1930 and 1932 he recorded Afrikaans national music for the companies Columbia and His Masters Voice. Eyssen served on the Music Commission of the FAK and was an obvious choice to act as co-editor of the first FAK Volksangbundel (1937). He was also actively involved in the preparation of the New Sangbundel, published in 1961.
The South African Academy of Science and Arts awarded him a medal of honour in 1969 for his musical contribution to Afrikaans culture.