About this Recording
8.223418 - Flemish Romantic Music

Flemish Romantic Music


The musical traditions of the Low Countries are ancient and distinguished, from the time of Charlemagne to the great flowering of the High Renaissance. Belgium became an independent country in 1830 and national musical institutions were immediately set up, while a consciousness of national identity led to a distinct national school of composition, enhanced by the importance of the Liège school of violinists, although it was natural that there should be an early French influence, followed by Wagnerian tendencies.

Among the most distinguished Belgian composers of the present century is Marcel Poot, who was born at Vilvoorde, near Brussels, in 1901, a son of Jan Poot, director of the Royal Flemish Theatre. His earlier musical studies were at the Conservatory in Brussels, followed by a period at the Royal Flemish Conservatory in Antwerp, where his teachers included Lodewijk Mortelmans. In 1916 he took lessons from Paul Gilson and nine years later joined some Gilson pupils who formed a group under the name of Synthétistes. The award of the Rubens Prize in 1930 enabled him to move to Paris, where he took lessons with Paul Dukas, before returning to Brussels. There he established himself as a teacher critic and composer, serving from 1949 until his retirement in 1966 as director of the Brussels Conservatory. The well known Vrolijke Ouverture was written in 1935, cheerful, as its title suggests, and deftly crafted.

Jan Blockx belongs to an earlier generation. He was born in Antwerp in 1851 and had musical training as a chorister, continuing his studies with some difficulty after the death of his father in 1864. He entered the Ecole de Musique in Antwerp, the future Flemish Music School, and was a pupil there of Benoit, before moving to Leipzig, where he was a contemporary of Grieg and Christian Sinding, under the tuition of Reinecke. By 1885 he was again in Antwerp, teaching at the Flemish Music School, his pupils including Lodewijk Mortelmans. He became director of the Vlaamsche Muziekschool (now the Royal Flemish Music Conservatory) in 1901. With his operas in both Flemish and French, he won a more than local reputation, the founder of national opera in the former language. His Flemish Dances were written in 1884, at the time of his return to Antwerp from Leipzig and travels in Italy.

The Group of nationalist composers in Russia in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Five, including the prolific Rimsky-Korsakov, had some influence in Belgium, particularly on Paul Gilson and his friend and contemporary August de Boeck. The latter was born in Merchtem in the province of Brabant in 1865 and studied at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels, with the intention of becoming an organist in his native village. The meeting with Gilson directed his work as a composer towards a form of impressionism, while his subsequent career brought employment as an organist in major churches in Brussels and as teacher of harmony and organ at the Royal Flemish Conservatory in Antwerp and of harmony at the Conservatory in Brussels. In 1930 he retired to Merchtem. In addition to operas in Flemish and in French, de Boeck wrote for ballet and for the concert hall. His Fantasy on Two Flemish Folksongs was written in 1923 and makes imaginative use of its melodic material in music that is firmly national in feeling.

Lodewijk Mortelmans was a pupil of Peter Benoit and Jan Blockx at the School of Music in his native city of Antwerp, where he was born in 1868. At he age of 25 he won the Belgian Prix de Rome with his cantata Lady Macbeth and in 1902 joined the teaching staff of the Antwerp Conservatory as professor of counterpoint. He was an enthusiastic champion of Flemish music and was for some years President of the Society of Flemish Composers. Among his pupils were Marinus de Jong and Flor Peeters. Morning Mood is an evocative piece, in the impressionist manner favoured by some of his contemporaries.

The lnstitut Lemmens was established in Mechelen (Machlin) in 1879 as a centre for liturgical music. The founder Nikolaas Lemmens died in 1881 and was followed by Edgar Tinel, among whose pupils was Arthur Meulemans, a later teacher at the institute. Meulemans was born at Aarschot in 1884, and in 1914 joined the Koninklijk Atheneum at Tongeren. In 1917 he founded the organ and song school of Limburg, at Hassell, which he directed until 1930, when he took over direction of the symphony orchestra of the Belgian broadcasting service, a position he held until 1942, when he resigned in order to devote himself to composition. As a composer he was influenced by Debussy, while drawing inspiration always from his own country and its artistic traditions. He was elected President in 1954 of the Royal Flemish Academy, of which he had been a member since 1941. He wrote some fourteen symphonies, operas that included a treatment of the subject of the national hero Egmont and a characteristic Serenata for that most Belgian of instruments, the carillon. His qualities as a composer are immediately apparent in his skilfully orchestrated Fir Symphony, a work inspired by the landscape of the composer’s native region. Meulemans offered his own explanation of the work:

  1. Moonlit Night—summer haze hangs over the meadows and over the River Demer—four little trees strangely illuminated—horsemen in the night.
  2. The fir-trees gently rustling in their mysterious loneliness.
  3. Midnight Dance of gnomes and nymphs.
  4. The rays of morning light shine on the fir-tress.

The four movements follow each other without a break.

Gilson, with Blockx and Mortelmans, represent the principal influences on Flemish music at the turn of the century. Gilson was born in Brussels in 1865 and studied at the conservatory there under Gevaert. He was strongly influenced by Wagner and by the Russian nationalists, and after travel abroad to Bayreuth, Paris and Italy, made possible by victory in the Belgian Prix at Rome, he returned with an established reputation to teach at the conservatories in Brussels and then in Antwerp, positions he later abandoned to succeed Edgar Tinel as inspector of music education. In 1925 his pupils celebrated their teacher’s sixtieth birthday by establishing a loosely united group known as the Synthétistes, and the influential Revue musicale beige. Gilson’s fame as a composer was principally due to his early work La mer (“The Sea”) (1890-92), four symphonic sketches on a poem by Eddy Levis. The popular Sailors’ Dance, a kind of scherzo, forms the second movement of this program-symphony.

Close the window