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8.225101 - Romantic Orchestral Music by Flemish Composers, Vol. 2

Romantic Orchestral Music by Flemish Composers, Vol. 2


Jef Van Hoof was born in Antwerp in 1886 and died there in 1959. He was a student at the Royal Flemish Conservatory in Antwerp where his teachers included Lodewijk Mortelmans and Paul Gilson. He taught harmony there from 1936 onwards and was director from 1942 to 1944. In 1911 he won second prize in the Belgian Prix de Rome. Although he was mainly influenced by Gilson and by the late German romanticism of Richard Strauss, he soon showed himself to be the spiritual heir of Peter Benoit. His songs and choral works made him very popular as did his work as an organizer and inspiring conductor of Flemish song festivals. He started writing orchestral music relatively early in his career, but the full development of his symphonic talents came in later years. The première of his First Symphony in 1939 caused quite a stir. Five more symphonies followed, written in a post-romantic idiom but without abandoning classical form.

Van Hoof’s Second Symphony in A-flat major dates from 1941 and although entirely abstract may appropriately be called a “war symphony”. In the margins of the first pages of the manuscript the composer wrote the following words, in Dutch and in French: de gantsche weirelt is weg—effacé de ce monde (the whole world has gone—wiped from the face of the earth). The two-theme opening movement gives a general impression of elegiac reveries with rarely a strong accent. This introvert character explains why the Scherzo is placed second, for the only time in his six symphonies, and it sounds determined and rebellious, rather than exuberant. The slow movement, in 5/4 time, bears the direction “with bitterness”. The first theme sounds like a cry from the heart and contrasts starkly with an almost ghost-like chromatic passage in the further development. Only in the finale, balanced between sonata and rondo form, do the mists lift to reveal a kind of gentle processional march. Jef Van Hoof’s Second Symphony was dedicated to the Antwerp Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor Hendrik Diels, who gave the first performance on 30th July 1941 at the Royal Flemish Opera in Antwerp.

Lodewijk Mortelmans, who was born in Antwerp in 1868, was Peter Benoit’s favourite student and he in turn showed a lifelong admiration for his master. Like Benoit, he won the Belgian Prix de Rome in 1893 and started teaching counterpoint and fugue in 1901. From 1924 to 1933 he served as director of the Royal Flemish Conservatory. In 1903 Mortelmans co-founded the Nieuwe Concerten (New Concerts), which he also conducted until 1914 and which contributed greatly to musical life in Antwerp. It was mainly during the first part of his career, until 1898, that Mortelmans concentrated on orchestral music and this was also the period when Richard Wagner’s influence was at its strongest, noticeable in the symphonic poem Mythe der Lente (The Myth of Spring). This was written in 1895 and first performed, as an allegorical poem called Le Chant du Printemps, the same year on 24th November in the Volksconcerten (Popular Concerts) in Brussels under the baton of Auguste Dupont. This work serves to illustrate a passage of the Proto-Germanic Edda where Gerda, the earth-goddess, is woken from hibernation by her bridegroom, the sun-god Frey. Rather than a literal description, the score creates more of an atmospheric image.

After 1900 Mortelmans concentrated on song and his greatest achievements were in this genre. He was less fortunate, however, in his opera De Kinderen van de Zee (The Children of the Sea), which took him some ten years to complete. This explains why it was not until 1917 that he returned to purely symphonic music. That year, however, was disastrous on a personal level, with the death of his wife and of two of his children. In his later career Mortelmans increasingly favoured intimate genres such as songs, short choral works and piano pieces. He died in Antwerp in 1952.

Peter Benoit was born in Harlebeke in 1834 and died in Antwerp in 1901. He was the founder of the Flemish romantic school, but had no great interest in symphonic music. His musical studies were at the Royal Conservatoire in Brussels where François Joseph Fétis was his most influential teacher and in 1857 he was awarded the Prix de Rome which allowed him to undertake a study tour of Germany. Between 1860 and 1863 he worked mainly in Paris where he became conductor at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens. His oratorio Lucifer, set to a Dutch text, was first performed in 1866 and established him as the most distinguished musical figure in Belgium. The following year he was appointed director of the Flemish Music School in Antwerp. His aim was to create music in a specifically Flemish style, based on language and folk-song, and as a result he rarely wrote purely instrumental music such as the modest In de Velden (In the Fields) of 1869, which he described as a song for oboe and string quintet. He concentrated rather on vocal-instrumental forms such as oratorios, cantatas, songs and also on lyric drama, spoken drama with orchestral accompaniment. Some of his most outstanding orchestral writing is to be found in this genre. Peter Benoit was a charismatic figure in Flanders, whose popularity became legendary and was particularly enhanced by the fact that he managed, despite strong political opposition, to have the status of the Antwerp Music School raised to that of Royal Flemish Conservatory in 1897-1898. He also impressed an inspiring romanticism on the next two generations of Flemish composers, who did, however, develop a more independent symphonic style.

Amongst the composers presented here Arthur Meulemans, who was born at Aarschot in 1884, stands apart. Although one branch of his family had personal contacts with Peter Benoit, he had no direct links with the Royal Flemish Conservatory in Antwerp. He studied at the Lemmens Institute in Mechelen, where Edgar Tinel was his chief mentor and he also took orchestration lessons with the widely acclaimed Paul Gilson. After completing his studies, Meulemans settled in the town of Tongeren from where he contributed greatly to the musical development of the province of Limburg. He always had a keen interest in French impressionism and was without doubt one of the first composers in Belgium who fully understood Debussy and Ravel. On the other hand he was not averse to Peter Benoit’s Flemish ideals and he repeatedly expressed his appreciation of Benoit’s music. In 1929 Meulemans moved to Brussels where he was appointed conductor of the Belgian Radio Orchestra, a post he held until 1942 and which he found very stimulating. Between 1931 and 1964 he wrote no fewer than fifteen symphonies, besides many other orchestral works and numerous concertos.

Several of Meulemans’s symphonies refer to nonmusical subjects. Symphonies Nos. 6, 7 and 8, for example, could be said to form a kind of nature triptych, with their titles Zeesymfonie, Zwaneven and Herfst symfonie (Sea Symphony, Swan Fen and Autumn Symphony). The seventh, Zwaneven, Een heide symfonie (Swan Fen, a Heathland Symphony), is the only one with no vocal element. It was written during an eventful and sombre period, namely between April and August 1940, when the Second World War was enveloping the country. Those events, however, are not reflected in the music—on the contrary, it is a particularly happy composition with a pronounced impressionistic slant to it. Although Meulemans did not deviate from the traditional four-movement scheme, the development was very free and without the usual thematic shaping, the focus being on a particularly rich and subtle orchestral palette. The composer conducted the first performance at the Brussels Palais des Beaux Arts on 20th October 1940.

Luc Leytens
Translation by Paul Rans & Nell Race

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