About this Recording
8.223809 - GILSON: The Sea / Melodies Ecossaises

Paul Gilson (1865–1942)
The Sea • Melodies Ecossaises


Paul Gilson, theorist, teacher, conductor and composer, was the most important figure in Belgian music at the turn of the century. Although no revolutionary, he was versatile enough to turn his hand to music for the cinema. His particular interest as a composer was in orchestral music and here he had considerable technical ability, coupled with good taste, and an internationally oriented style. Now, however, his work is very much neglected, so that even a masterpiece like Tile Sea is seldom performed.

Gilson studied fugue and composition in Brussels with F.A. Gevaert, but in other respects he is self-taught. He himself taught harmony in Brussels from 1889 and in Antwerp from 1906 and had considerable admiration for the music of Wagner and the Russian Mighty Handful. He made piano transcriptions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Slielzerazade and Russian Easter, closely followed the innovations of Schoenberg and admired Debussy, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky. His cantata Sinaï won him the first Prix de Rome.

With his love of instrumental and orchestral music, Gilson was in many ways exceptional in Flemish tradition. The preceding generation had shown an interest mainly in vocal music, with songs, cantatas and choral works, although these older composers were forward-looking. Liszt respected the Flemish musician Peter Benoit as a leader of Flemish music in his generation. Gilson in fact occupied a similar position, although this was not always recognised by his compatriots, largely through his predominant interest in orchestral music when this was not fashionable. It was the triumvirate of Gilson, de Boeck and Mortelmans that established a Flemish symphonic tradition.

Gilson was born in Brussels in 1865 but grew up in Ruisbroek, where he fell under the spell of the music of brass bands and ensembles of wind and percussion instruments. He had his first music lessons from the local church organist and by the time of his first compositions, at the age of sixteen, the family moved back to Brussels. His versatility and productivity were evident in the first forty years of his life, with music that included compositions for brass band. Later he was obliged to give private lessons and work as a music critic, notably, from 1924 to 1940, for La Revue Musicale Beige. As a teacher he trained many Belgian composers between the years 1920 and 1940. In 1925, on the insistence of Maurits Schoemaker, a group was formed round Gilson, the Syntliésisten, all of them composers whose skills had been learned from him. The formation of the group coincided with Gilson’s sixtieth birthday and was a tribute to him from composers such as Theo Djoncker, Jules Strens, Marcel Poot, Francis de Bourguignon and René Bernier. He died on 3rd April 1942.

The Sea is a series of four symphonic sketches which together form a sort of programme symphony. The seeds for this were sown during summer holidays in 1891. Gilson was in Blankenberge on the Belgian coast and there met Eddy Levis, who asked him to write some background piano music for four hands to be played during his reading of his admittedly rather mediocre poems about the sea. Gilson’s inspiration led him to write a piece for orchestra, which he dedicated to Joseph Dupont, who directed its first performance on 20th March 1892. The poems were to be read before the performance of each part, a practice thankfully discontinued. An additional section for brass, including saxhorns, and for a male voice choir, ad libitum, are also usually left out, as they have been in the present recording.

The Sea is built round a cyclic main theme immediately evident in the first part, Sunrise. It is heard in the woodwind and continued in the soft shimmering tremolos of the strings. The Sea is broadly revealed under the rising light, with the gentle rolling of the waves, but from the depths forces will soon emerge which will sweep up the theme as it develops. This theme itself is simple and limited in range. The sea is near at hand but the theme itself is clothed ever more richly, developing in wider swirling movements, as if by the force of magic. The force of the sea becomes more insistent, with the brass, in a brighter light, and the rocking movement gives the feeling of the rolling of a ship. After this moment of intensity peace returns with the woodwind and the first movement ends in serenity.

The Sailors’ Dance which follows is an Allegro in triple time, brash and exuberant in character. The theme is related to the cyclic theme. There is a modulation towards a central Presto with staccato motifs, contrasted with a concurrent flowing poetical motif. The middle section gradually reaches a climax. After an exciting transition, the main key returns in a Molto presto, this time in duple time. The cyclic theme can here be clearly distinguished. The dance ends in a brilliant coda.

In Twilight the cyclic theme appears again, first ebbing away with phrases in reverse order and then completed. There is a transition with muted strings and the cor anglais takes up a new theme, with a 5/4 metre that recalls Tchaikovsky. The development is worked out thoroughly, varied and with rich orchestration. The cyclic theme has a large part to play and the final section of the movement is again built on it.

In the fourth movement a Storm threatens. Gusts of wind, the flung spray and the blown spume, are helped by the resounding cyclic theme from the brass, fast chromatic figures from the woodwind and the intervention of the percussion. The Sailors’ Dance also returns. The swelling sound recalls the prelude to Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, without being itself an imitation. A contemporary remarked that this was a score which one could not open without the storm wind blowing round one’s ears. The storm dies down with the cyclic theme, after which the work ends without more ado.

The Mélodies écossaises, completed in 1892 and scored for strings, is among the best of Gilson’s compositions. It is designed for a full string section of twelve first and twelve second violins, eight violas, eight cellos and six double basses. This size of ensemble is now somewhat outmoded compared with the smaller groups, which lean towards chamber music, based on the ensemble size normal in the eighteenth century. Gilson’s string orchestra has much in common with that of Tchaikovsky, who preferred to have his Serenade played by as large a string section as possible. Gilson’s Mélodies écossaises is a work that can easily take its place by the side of the well known Serenades of Tchaikovsky and Dvořák or the music for string orchestra by Grieg. Divided sections add colour to the texture, with a finale that is a feast of exciting rhythms.

Gilson’s Symphonic Overture, No. 3 was written in 1903 and 1904 and first performed, under the composer’s direction, in Ostend. The original score includes a lavish use of clashing cymbals, here rightly omitted by the present conductor Frédéric Devreese. The memorable theme, full of contrasts, is developed less fully than that of The Sea.

Alvar, incidental music for a play by E. Béde, was written in 1893. It was performed only once, in Brussels on 15th December 1895, and then only for a Dutch version of the drama by Emmanuel Hiel (1834–1899), who also wrote words for Peter Benoit’s Lucifer and The Scheidt. Gilson’s music has a sombre and resigned atmosphere, a mood of oppression comparable to that of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Threatening chords, plaintive woodwind, rich orchestration and Wagnerian harmonies make these pages not only sonorous but also a moving emotional experience. The music calls up the darker sides of Gilson’s life, for in his own time, as today, he was never granted the understanding and respect he deserved.

André De Groeve

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