New Music in Flanders (pt.1)
Author: Yves Knockaert, 2006
New Music in Flanders (part 1)
Read part 2 here.
This introduction may look longish before focusing on the actual subject, new music in Flanders. However, it is the enabling condition to put the image of new music in Flanders into the adequate and proper perspective against the international background. This contextualisation is the leitmotiv in the approach of the following text, which will concurrently attempt to characterize succinctly the most important Flemish composers.
The concept of “modernism” refers mostly to the far-reaching developments and innovations in the arts and philosophy in the period from 1860 to 1970. Typical of modernism is an anti-traditional attitude, the quest for new possibilities of expression, the emphasis on experiment and originality on the level of style and technique. These features are based on and driven by a deep-seated belief in progress, utopian ideals acting as an important motor for the pursuit of the modern and the rejection of tradition. This modernist attitude inevitably results in criticism of society, and the artist’s societal involvement will grow into a social commitment.
That a permanent modernism cannot be sustained, has been made clear not only by postmodernism’s relay of modernism after 1970, but is already noticeable in 20th-century modernism itself. In the periods 1900-1920 and 1950-1970 we can discern concentrations of intense experimenting and urge for innovation. The interbellum period, on the other hand, is more a phase of reflection and settlement, even of curbing modernism; the analogy with postmodernism taking over after the period 1950-1970 is immediately conspicuous.
Postmodernism, from its inception in the mid-1970s, has adherents in all forms of artistic expression (architecture, visual arts, music, dance, literature, etc.), furthermore in philosophy, and by extension in society at large: by emphasizing advanced technology, the industrial era is being replaced by the technological, post-industrial, or postmodernist era.
Postmodernism is not only the period after modernism, it also implies the questioning of modernism. New convictions prevail, the most important realization being the awareness that one cannot any longer be modern by reacting against the past, let alone by indulging in futile attempts to radically cut the thread with the past. This awareness is enhanced by the idea that continuous renewal and experiment is not possible, as well as by the realization that each experiment demands an incubation period. This incubation period implies that after having “experienced” the fact of the experiment itself (a typically modernist concern) one ought to dwell on the potentialities of this modernist fact, i.e. its uses and possible developments. The artist has to take the time to thoroughly work out the experiment in what could be called a “tradition formation” of the experiment. Postmodernism relativises modernism by stressing that it is feasible to be much more “modern”, much more consciously “modern” if one knows and acknowledges one’s tradition and one’s past. Postmodernism still pursues the new, but is, as it were, more “authentically” modern than “wild” modernism.
1.3. Modernism in the 21st century
After more than a quarter century of postmodernism, the situation at the beginning of the 21st century can be described as follows: by showing that it is erroneous to reject tradition wholesale, postmodernism has fulfilled its task and is now in a felicitous position to pursue innovation, hand in glove with modernism, developing a typical modernism of the 21st century that could be called moderate or tempered.
1.4. Modernism and Music
Like in the visual arts, musical modernism also started with the style of impressionism. The core of the innovations of musical impressionism consisted of shifting the point of gravity of the musical parameters. No longer were melody and metrically bound rhythm the central elements to be developed, but rather the tone colour: it was, in a free rhythm, mainly dynamically patterned in an undulating sequence of sound volume, ranging across all nuances from crescendo to decrescendo and vice versa. Not any longer did the controlled building up of climaxes and their completion determine the structure, but rather the subtly varying condition of an incessantly changing timbre. Melo-rhythmical music as carrier of ideas was replaced by the hedonism of tone colour, conveying a degree of abstraction.
That proneness to abstraction continues to develop in the music of the first half of the 20th century. But on the one hand the abstract is not the only modernist trend (see below: expressionism), and on the other hand the abstract is not really a new feature of music. Abstract or absolute music holds pride of place in the innovative evolution of music from baroque onwards, albeit always “recognizably” carried by melody (all non-programmatic and untitled works can be considered as abstract music, e.g. symphony, concerto, sonata, etc.). In 20th-century modernism that melodic support has diminished viz. vanished, so the nature of the abstract shifted to great concentration on the phenomenon of sound in its own right. Thus the instrumental works of Edgard Varèse, for example, can be called more modern than Arnold Schoenberg’s vocal work “Pierrot Lunaire”. Therefore, too, the structural innovations of the same Varèse and of Bartok are to be considered as more modern than the rerun of the variation principle and other well-known formal principles by Schoenberg and Anton Webern. And last but not least the same Varèse, in his quest for innovative sound, is once again more modern than the decomposition of tonality by Schoenberg, and also more modern than Webern in his attempt to mirror in sound a mystical and concurrently numerical and arithmetical perfectionism.
For the first half of the 20th century music history has adopted an eminently simple division in two styles: expressionism on the one hand and neo-classicism on the other. The peak of expressionism lies in the experimental phase of the first decades of the century. Then the neo-styles get more scope. A composer such as Stravinsky was much longer a neo-classicist than an expressionist. But nobody will deny that a hyper-individualistic Stravinsky idiom is recognizable in both styles: Stravinsky the neo-classicist has never denied the expressionist in himself. Musical expressionism can indeed be considered as the phase of the destruction of melody and of classical tonality in the explosive era of the first decades of the 20th century. The period of neo-classicism does not exclusively highlight re-sourcing from the past (this only happened in some “symphonic” works, such as Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” or Prokofiev’s first symphony, the “Classical”), but rather puts emphasis on digesting the past moment of destruction. Even so, there is no denying the fact that after 1920 there was a growing consciousness of the connection with the past (which was also the case in the visual arts, witness artists such as Picasso, de Chirico, and many others taking their cue from classical antiquity).
The second peak of modernism in music, just after the Second World War, is perhaps even more violent and more radical than the first one. Or perhaps this perception is due to the fact that this second peak is much closer to us, to “the now”, than the first one. At any rate the temporal vantage point of the perceiver is always crucial with a view to relativizing or objectifying the degree of modernity in any given phase of the past. This insight is important, determining as it does to a considerable degree our approach of the music of a century ago. The second peak is characterized by a highly paradoxical materialistic concept of music. On the one hand there is a maniacal compulsion to structure sound in all its parameters by all tendencies of serialism and formalism (Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis); on the other hand there are trends focusing on the materiality of sound by exploring all possible alternative sources of sound as well as alternative sounds on classical instruments (Luciano Berio, Mauricio Kagel, Helmut Lachenmann). Both approaches were stimulated even more by the totally new and overwhelming possibilities of electronic music (Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry). Because this second peak was all the more radical, its relativizing after 1970 was proportionally so drastic as to result in postmodernism instead of moderate modernism, reacting against modernism by revaluing maligned elements such as classical tonality and melody, as well as classical genres (opera, symphony and string quartet).
Usually the music of modernism is subdivided into three periods, based on the years that determine the dividing lines: the first period runs through 1900 or the beginning of a new century; the second period covers the first half of the 20th century; the third period starts in 1950 or, alternatively, after the Second World War and with the ascension of the new generation of composers, born between 1920 and 1930. This classification is supported by a number of deaths: Webern and Bartok in 1945, Richard Strauss in 1949, Kurt Weill in 1950 (born in 1900), Schoenberg in 1951, Prokofiev in 1953. Looking back from the 21st century, this division turns out to be rather arbitrary: important composers continued to write in their own idiom, ignoring these symbolic events without change of style to the end: Stravinsky until 1971, Shostakovich until 1975, Messiaen until 1992. However, for other composers the great divide around 1950 is relevant for their oeuvre: Bernd Alois Zimmermann, for one, started composing in a totally different way from then onwards (until his death in 1970). The same holds true for Witold Lutoslawski, who died in 1994. But both for the first group and for the second one there is no fundamental reason to see 1950 as a cleavage: technically the atonal system of dodecaphony was carried over into serialism; stylistically expressionism and neoclassicism continued to thrive, also with new generations. Therefore our discussion of music in Flanders (see 2.3) will not be predicated on the divide of the mid-20th century. Instead we will opt for categorizing the concept of modernism in relation to a refining of the stylistic differentiation.
1.5. Postmodernism and Music
Specifically in the field of music postmodernism has re-invigorated the connection with tradition, after modernism’s rejection of tradition. Melody and consonantism are acceptable again. But postmodernism is not merely a throwback to the past and a fawning on it. Postmodernism also asks questions in matters of the arts, rather than issuing statements or inflicting affirmative answers on the audience. It questions the present, from the locus of familiarity with and backbone in tradition. Questions such as: what can an opera, a concerto, a symphony signify and mean as of today? For the search for a possible (provisional and never definitive) suggestion of an answer postmodernism takes its cue from all possibilities offered by the past. That postmodernism itself, too, represents a possibility from the past, goes without saying. In other words: postmodernism is by no means anti-modernist (György Ligeti, Luigi Nono, Wolfgang Rihm).
1.6. Music in the 21st century
At the beginning of the 21st century music evolves both in a modernist and in a postmodernist vein at the same time. Modernist are the trends that search for new possibilities for high-tech developments and apply them experimentally in their compositions (Jonathan Harvey, Tristan Murail). Modernist, too, are the trends that remain attached to the complexity of modernism in post-serialism, which continued to exist throughout the last quarter of the 20th century (Brian Ferneyhough).Under the label of postmodernism, on the other hand, the trends are to be subsumed that take their cue from the traditional genres to feed music corresponding to what contemporary humankind feels and experiences in the new century (Wolfgang Rihm, Salvatore Sciarrino). Drastically new are also the trends that combine music with the other arts, in the first place with dance and theatre; rather than offering a background for the visual genre, the different disciplines coalesce and interact with each other intensely and with equal power so as to result in a total artwork (Heiner Goebbels, Michael Gordon, Steve Reich).
2. Music and Modernism in Flanders
2.1. Comparability with international developments.
If we turn to music production in Flanders during the period of modernism, a first observation is that it does not differ from other areas in Europe in most respects, such as the proportion of internationally famous composers versus those who were only regionally recognized, or the proportion of thoroughbred modernists versus less aggressive, critical, and therefore more moderate modernists and traditionalists, respectively. As a matter of fact Flemish composers were hardly to be found among the pioneers of new techniques, of new genres, or of daring stylistic experiments. In the 19th century many of them followed first and foremost the impressionist example of Debussy. In the 20th century many composers remained “tempered” modernists. Nonetheless Flemish composers wrote music of quality, to be described in terms of impressionism, expressionism, neo-classicism, and eclecticism. Moreover, their attitude testified to a sensible realism: they realized that the extremely experimental was marginal, and doomed to remain marginal forever. They rather sounded out modernist possibilities, tried out by their colleagues abroad, with a view to assimilating them in their own right.
More than once the development of a composer shows a short and intense expressionist phase with outspoken modernist elements, under the influence of the second Viennese School, followed by a more eclectic phase in which he allows the innovations to sink in. This type of development is not different from that of Stravinsky and of many other composers in the early 20th century. What’s more, this kind of development occurs with most composers, also in Germany and France. This shape of a career, albeit slightly modified, will recur throughout the mid-20th century: e.g. in the case of Olivier Messiaen there is an occasional experimental peak, preceded and followed by his unmistakably personal, exceptionally colourful and instantaneously recognizable style. If Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok or Messiaen are without a shadow of doubt subsumed under the category of modernism, it is equally valid to apply the same term to their Flemish contemporaries.
Paul Gilson (1865-1942) entitled his most important orchestral composition “The Sea”, an interesting coincidence with Debussy’s “La Mer” being considered by many as his greatest impressionist work for orchestra. Gilson wrote “The Sea” in 1890-92, more than five years before Debussy’s “Nocturnes” and more than ten years before “La Mer”. Gilson’s impressionism was romantically coloured and close to Richard Strauss’ sense of the picturesque, while concurrently showing affinities with Maurice Ravel. There is no doubt at all that “The Sea” was a key composition in the musical development of Flanders: many musicologists consider this work as the definitive rift with the 19th-century musical concepts of Peter Benoit (1834-1901) and his followers, and they stress that Gilson joined in with international trends, as did Lodewijk Mortelmans (1868-1952) and August de Boeck (1865-1937) afterwards. The first movement of “The Sea” was entitled “Dawn”. Mortelmans wrote a work with a comparable title, “Daybreak Mood”: a colourful, evocative and subtle composition, romantic with references to impressionism.
“Plinius’ Fountain” by Arthur Meulemans (1884-1966) starts with the same undulating melodic lines as “Nuages”, from Debussy’s “Trois Nocturnes”. “Plinius’ Fountain” was composed in 1913, while Debussy’ s “Nocturnes” date back to 1897-99. Meulemans admired Debussy and Ravel as his great models. Unmistakable the vestigial remnants of romanticism are audible in his impressionist works. On the other hand he was a modernist because after the First World War he developed a more aggressive style, in contrast to the mainstream international movements: his rhythm and harmony became sharper and more angular.
August de Boeck, too, was receptive to innovations that he had been exposed to in Brussels at the beginning of the 20th century, mainly through his contacts with Gilson. Here and there expressionist features are conspicuous in his music, which remains basically romantic in its colours, and <hich attests to what will be defined below (see 3) as “authentic Flemish character”: De Boeck’s music is pontaneous and sensitive, brimming with life and hedonism, with a sense of humour that ranges from playful to ironical. His Symphony in G and his “Dahomey Rhapsody” are fine examples.
2.3. Modernist Tendencies
Broadly speaking musical modernism in Europe can be subdivided into five tendencies, including expressionism and neo-styles. Each tendency had followers in Flanders.
2.3.1. Modernism allied with Romanticism
Richard Strauss fits perfectly into the picture of modernism as sketched above (see 1.4). In the first decade of the 20th century he broke away from his romantic formative years, exploring before anyone else a violent expressionism. By 1910 he said laconically that he wanted something else: he opted for a return to the romantic idiom, albeit with neo-classical weft, without there being a consistent stylistic development or a revolt.
Robert Herberigs (1886-1974) was a versatile talent: as a singer he performed the leading role in the premiere of August de Boeck’s opera “Reynard the Fox”; concurrently he was an author of regional novels and a painter. His music has been compared more than once with that of Strauss because of its expressive power and intense feeling. Moreover, his evolution runs parallel with Strauss’s: after having undergone some impressionist influence, his style becomes sharper and less tonal, combined with an intensification of the expressionist style, e.g. in the Second Piano Concerto and in some passages of his Horn Concerto, entitled “Cyrano de Bergerac”. But Herberigs did not want to be pegged down to one style, gradually giving way to eclecticism. His personal eclecticism, however, is alien to neo-tendencies. It is rather to be defined as a mixture of romanticism, impressionism, and expressionism, neo-styles being conspicuously absent.
In Flanders a comparable attitude is found in Jef van Hoof (1886-1959), who wrote ironically and sarcastically in the expressionist vein after the First World War, such as the First Symphonic Suite, which he subtitled “Impressions, Sensations and Emotions of the Prisoner”, or in “Mockery”, based on a destructive kind of aesthetics. Later the romantic style is restored and confirmed in five symphonies, modernism recurring tragicallyand heroically in the Third (composed in 1944-45), and sarcastically in the Fourth.
Composers whose primary aim is the emotional strength of their music are able to combine a romantic stylistic drive with a controlled modernism even as of today. Raphael D’Haene (1943) sees romanticism as a traditionally valuable basis for his music. Implicitly rejecting the compulsive urge to innovate for the sake of innovation, he prefers to build his music on the pillars of tradition. One of these pillars is respect for classical craftsmanship: his compositions abound with contrapuntal and fugal moments. In an older generation, Godfried Devreese excelled mainly in compositions for orchestra: concertos for piano, for violin and for cello, four symphonies. Furthermore, there are songs, works for string orchestra and chamber music. His most famous work for orchestra is the ballet “Tombelène”, after a Celtic saga. The first symphony, called “Gothic”, exudes grandeur; the second, the “Goethe Symphony”, uses a mixed choir. These themes reveal a universal attitude on the level of ideas. Musically speaking, there is a clear connection with Romanticism, evident also in the concertos. Devreese combines the romantic sense of melody with a classical structure, with a colourful orchestration, evoking Rimsky-Korsakov and Ravel as well with vehement, rhythmical passages reminiscent of Stravinsky. That makes him into a modernist, looking for an international synthesis.
Emotionalism is certainly the hallmark of Frédéric Devreese (1929, son of Godfried Devreese), who through his film music wants to open up the sphere of the image to multidimensional possibilities of interpretation for the audience. Devreese’s favourite technique, also used by him outside his film music, is the dance model. Waltz and tango have become in his aesthetics archetypes of emotional predicaments. The ballet music “Gemini” is autobiographically inspired, and Devreese considers it as the central composition of his oeuvre. “Gemini” starts with a strange scene: the first half of a twin sees how the second half is born, his “double”. This “de-doubling” is the enabling condition for a specific kind of social behaviour: the twins can perfectly survive as a self-sufficient entity. One half recognizes itself in the other half, mirrors itself in the other, can rely on the other as a partner for socializing and for confrontation, in other words: for all needs that an individual person can find only in the mirror or in the world of the “others”, the “different ones”. The twins also do the same things: they teach each other how to dance, and dance together in the ballet suite. When eventually one half of the twin dies at the end of the ballet, the other half has to follow: he cannot live by himself. Between the sustaining ideas of the ballet “Gemini” two narrative scenes are integrated: the twins seduce the girls of the moon. Their jealous lovers start a fight, and one of the twins is hurt. Thus “Gemini” sketches the human life cycle: birth is followed by youth, with all the seducing beauty of the world, with the carelessness of a dance, then comes adulthood with its struggles, and inevitably life ends with death.
More and more Piet Swerts (1960) has also been emphasizing traditional music language with a romantic idiom as the aesthetic foundation for his compositions. That does not prevent the modernism of his enduring example and mentor Witold Lutoslawski from remaining conspicuously present in the use of sound fields and of expressively coloured and multiply applied chromaticism. In addition, Swerts increasingly stresses a romantic content in his works. His second symphony, “Morgenrot”, takes the listener into a Mahlerian world. The choir begins with some texts from the Requiem, followed by daybreak. Significantly, the composition originated in the year 2000, and wanted to be a farewell to the past and a hopeful looking forward to a new future in a new millennium.
It is striking how fond Flemish composers are of works with a touch of philosophy, striving for a synthesis of their vision on life and death, as if their composition is a vehicle for their questing for the meaning of life. Even more striking is the overriding optimistic vision. Abroad a comparable kind of aesthetics was shared by Mahler and Strauss, Messiaen and Stockhausen, Varèse and Bartok. Not only Devreese and Swerts are cases in point, but also Roland Coryn (1938), whose greatest works are the oratorium-like compositions “Opus: Man” and “Winds of Dawn: Missa ‘Da Pacem’”(the second title being very close to Swerts’ “Morgenrot”). The style of these compositions is lofty without becoming pompous. On the one hand Coryn expresses the universal by adopting the traditional parts of Mass in his “Missa ‘Da Pacem’”, on the other hand he subversively incorporates into the same Mass more anecdotal numbers such as “O What is That Sound”, “Lullaby”, and “Courage”. Listeners familiar with Coryn’s style will not be surprised by his sense of relativity: he uses a fragment from Dante’s “Hell” (from “La Divina Commedia”) to precede the Kyrie. The all-embracing scope of his enterprise, including hope, transpires from the titles that present the work as a diptych: “Despair and Protest” and “Fear , Meaninglessness and Liberation”.
Martin Valcke (1963) for his part works mainly from melody, in his view the very basis of music. By deriving from melody the possibilities for the other parameters, he develops an organically composed kind of music. With this music he wants to elaborate a fundamental philosophical message, conceived as an answer to questions about the meaning and significance of life.
2.3.2. Eclecticism and moderate modernism.
When Igor Stravinsky left Russia, he also left behind his romantic education, preferring to compose in an expressionist style from 1910 on. His excursion into advanced modernism came exactly one decade after that of Strauss. By 1920 he changed tack, exploring the possibilities of all past musical periods in neo-styles, resulting in an everchanging metamorphosing eclecticism. This eclecticism was not only retrograde, it also took advantage of jazz rhythms. Paul Hindemith, for his part, wrote a number of bitingly ironical expressionist works, as shocking as the modernism of his contemporaries. He became rapidly aware of the fact that the audience was not capable of following the fast pace of modernist evolution. He tempered his modernism to a music that made an attempt to remain understandable and enjoyable for the listener. Other composers, too, confirmed in many statements that they were concerned about keeping in touch with the audience (Groupe des Six, groups around Satie and Messiaen, also Weill and Orff).
Quite a lot of Flemish composers can be easily subsumed under the category of “eclecticism”, this term being so eminently large. The same holds true for the label “moderate modernism”, referring to a critical moment of testing modernism with special consideration for the possibilities, but even more for the limitations of experiments, with a view to applying the latter with a well-balanced sense of proportion. While this terminology may have been used pejoratively in the past, today this is definitely not the case anymore.
The leading exponent of eclecticism and of moderate modernism in Flanders was without contest Vic Legley (1915-1994). In his early work the influence of Hindemith was conspicuous. He came into his own in a powerful way from his Suite for orchestra (1944) onwards, modelled after a baroque suite. After some experiments in atonality and dodecaphony, he turned away from these techniques. “The Steel Cathedral”, inspired by Fernand Steven’s painting, symbolizes in three movements a humanitarian vision of the future, a profession of faith in the technological world of the future. Vitalism is the hallmark of Legley’s aesthetics. He summed up his intention in a forceful slogan: “Contemporary music that is both contemporary and music”. By continuously playing with major-minor modal contrasts and by tonality-denying turns his technique can be defined as tonally broadened or “soft” atonal: it is all about exploring the edges of tonal possibilities, without however loosening the grip on tonality, let alone losing it.
Eclecticism is actually a concept to be defined in a positive way in the context of the evolution of music in Flanders. This insight has been aptly put by Frits Celis (1929) in terms of having composed until the mid-1950s within tonal constraints and with a romantic sound idiom. In the mid-1960s he wrote a number of works that were rather atonal, and with a strong expressionist orientation to boot. But when he wanted to move on to an even more radical style, he was paralysed by composer’s block: “It transpired that serialism as writing method did not correspond to my creative make-up: the serial procedure of composing increasingly turned out to stymy me, sending me gradually back to freer forms of expression in which – mainly in the slow movements – the element of lyricism is often foregrounded”. Consequently eclecticism is seen as an element of freedom, enabling the composer to use that particular way of expression which looks to him like the best choice at a given moment. The lyrical aspect of Celis is often hand in glove with a remarkable degree of consonance. Celis puts it in a nutshell, while almost indulging in an internal contradiction, when he describes his “Quartetto d’Archi”(1992) as follows: “Like in almost all of my compositions, I have consciously tried to develop a musical language that does not exclusively appeal to the eclectic connoisseur who has the avant-garde on call.”
More eclectic in the sense of a collection of possibilities that are always deployed very adequately and effectively, is the music of choir composer Vic Nees (1936). In some works he even manages to show that avant-garde voice technique, repetitive elaborations and clusters can be considered as elements of eclecticism, by using them in a well-balanced combination with normal singing as well as in the right degree. Nees’ attitude in these matters is always the same: he composes imaginatively and expressively, capitalizing on key words in the text, and takes into account as many “players” in the musical field, such as: structure, tempo, accumulation of sound layers, in addition to the more classical possibilities of melody, harmonization, rhythmics, and voice-leading or part-writing.
Flanders has built up a considerable tradition in contemporary choir music. Even very young composers such as Annelies van Parys (1975) have a remarkable predilection for the choir as medium. In this context Kurt Bikkembergs (1963) deserves pride of place as well. Better than anybody else, Bikkembergs knows how to make voices sound together, and how to combine them with a view to creating new sound experiences. That his repertory of composition techniques is inexhaustible sounds unlikely, but it is near the truth nonetheless. Even simple “interventions” are composed with such craftsmanship that they always touch the listener. He knows how to alternate natural speech rhythm and singing with sound experiments in a perfectly balanced way, witness his large-scale compositions such as the cantata “Debarim”, the “Missa Transfigurationis”, and the “Arenberg Motets”.
The name of Wilfried Westerlinck (1945) is undeniably linked in the first place with his series of compositions entitled “Landscapes”. The listener is not so much treated to a picture as to a sonorous exploration of a number of possibilities, encompassing both bitonal and major-minor ambiguities as well as flirtations with the dodecaphonic and the aleatory. Even so, Westerlinck remains an eclectic who claims his roots in the music of the first half of the 20th century, resulting in a modernist sound shape inspired by Bartok and Messiaen. A first reference point was offered by Bartok’s String Quartets, because of their structure and their “beautiful” language, hardness not interfering with beauty. A second point of reference was the technicity of Messiaen’s method, with its typical presence of colour from the beginning. Instrumental colours in the greatest possible variety, in refined blended timbres and in rapid alternation are of crucial importance for Westerlinck.
The eclecticism of Willem Kersters (1929-19998) follows different lines: it derives from the continuous quest for new technical composition procedures, balancing between classical tonality on the one hand and atonal experiments on the other. Without internal contradicition Kersters could develop tritone intervals, or a “tonality of dodecaphony”, his personal settlement of accounts with the twelve-tone system developed from atonality. However, as far as themes are concerned, Kersters remains a thoroughbred Flemish composer with a preference for Flemish authors and subjects, such as the poet Gezelle, the ballad of Halewijn, or the rogue story of Ulenspiegel’s adventures, etc.
Younger composers, such as Luc van Hove (1957), Jeroen D’hoe (1968) and Petra Vermote (1968) combine their sense of tradition and their freedom of expression with a more structured composition technique. Making these very diverse elements coalesce can be seen as the basis of contemporary eclecticism in Flemish music. The structured method is based on the set theory, implying that the composer for the melodic, contrapuntal and harmonic dimension of his music starts from a limited number of basic notes (called “set”, “reservoir” or “basic chords”) which will be freely used in the course of the composition, according to the composer’s own rules and principles. This method may be the reason that Van Hove’s music leans to the abstract rather than being programmatic or narrative. Vermote, for her part, shows how the same method is also eminently suitable for vocal and evocative music.
2.3.3. Modernism and Folklorism/World Music.
Bela Bartok composed in a world steeped in modernism. His modernism stood midway between expressionist means and neo-trends. He was not alone in this respect: Kodaly, Vaughan Williams, and many others took the same road. Later in the 20th century Luciano Berio stressed the indissoluble tie between new music and folk music (the latter getting the labels of “ethnic music” and later “world music”). Berio had developed a very specific technique to keep the traditional, borrowed melody intact with due respect, while concurrently adding a sort of commentary in his own style. Thus he appreciated folklore in its own right, while at once enriching it with a new dimension
The Flemish inspiration of composers is not exclusively limited to folklorism or traditional folklorism: many composers take their cue from poetry and literature. Frequently compositions refer to Flemish painters as well. Thus Flor Alpaerts (1876-1954) wrote a “James Ensor Suite”. Renier van der Velden (1910-1993) combined Ensor with a pantomime by Michel de Ghelderode in his “Ostend Masks”. Luc van Hove’s “Carnival on the Beach” is in the same vein, as is “Carnival in Ostend” by Brussels composer Raymond Chevreuille (1901-1976), while conductor-composer Jules Strens (1892-1971) wrote “Ensorciana, Choreographic Scenes after Works by James Ensor”. Chevreuille is one more typical example of the development of the Flemish composer who first has strong feelings for atonality and the techniques of the second Viennese School, only to turn away from them as strongly later on. Even so, he can be called an expressionist by and large. The autodidact Jules Strens, for his part, gratefully learnt from Gilson’s advice and mixed the grotesque with more impressionist colours in a style that remained basically romantic.
Flor Alpaerts was friendly with Ensor. In his “James Ensor Suite” he went beyond his earlier late romantic and impressionist style, developing a powerful kind of expressionism instead. For “Pallieter” he found inspiration in three passages from the novel with the same title by Felix Timmermans. The augmented orchestra is used with dazzling virtuosity and is much closer to the colours of Richard Strauss. Alpaerts used several Flemish folk songs in this work, among them “Giants’ Song”, “They were two royal children”, and “Pierlala”.
Flemish literature, painting and history as sources of inspiration are actually not tied to a particular trend within modernism. Also the radical modernists (see 2.3.4) chose Flemish themes, hence we have to conclude that Flemish consciousness was always a point of honour and pride for composers, even in a militant kind of way. Karel Albert (1901-1987) wrote the stage music “Marieken van Nymeghen” and “Tijl”. August Baeyens (1895-1966) wrote songs on poems by Paul Van Ostaijen and a “Cantique du Port” (Hymn to the Port). In the oeuvre of Jef van Durme (1907-1965) we notice “Beatrijs” and the “Brueghel Symphony”. In the following generations, too, this Flemish inspiration remained conspicuous, e.g. in the opera “Baas Gansendonk” and in the “Gezelle Symphony” by Willem Kersters.
Evidently the overwhelming vogue of world music did not bypass Flemish composers. The interest in world music has been assimilated in very different ways, mirroring the great diversity within the trend of eclecticism described above. Dick van der Harst (1959) has been affiliated with Het Muziek Lod ever since it was founded in 1989, proving his mettle as performer (mainly on the bandoneon), adapter, and composer. In his work he uses jazz as well as classical and folk music, looking not so much for the newfangled as for what can constitute authenticity today. Van der Harst flits through a great variety of folk music and performs it in arrangements of his own. For that purpose he surrounds himself with folk musicians, specialists of ancient music, jazz musicians and classically trained performers, depending on the nature of the project. His adaptations of that folk music, more adequately described as “creations on the basis of folk music”, always aim at a sensitive and at once perceptive grasping of the “roots” of his music. What’s more, Van der Harst is not afraid to push the borders to the cutting edge and to mix re-invigorating clusters (easily performed on bandoneon and accordion) or unsettling, slightly chaotic polyphony with the original folktunes.
Dirk Brossé (1960), composer and conductor, is mainly known for his film music and his musicals. But he has also composed a series of works for programmes lasting a whole evening, striving for a universal dimension through their instrumentation and their adaptation of world music. With “La Soledad de América Latina” (1992) Brossé took an interesting turn to committed music. The piece is based on a text by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and deals with oppression in South American dictatorships. During the elaboration of this composition Brossé discovered the beauty of ethnic music. In his following pieces he used three elements in everchanging combinations: world music, social commitment, and human creativity. Pride of place is deserved by the two great ethno-classical symphonies: “Artesia” and “The Birth of Music”. The title “Artesia” has a multiple meaning: art in the sense of the Fine Arts; an object from the past, artfully fashioned or not (artefact); a well (artesian well); the musical terminology for upbeat and downbeat (arsis and thesis). In the third movement the human being, with childlike susceptibility, makes contact with other cultures, symbolized by ethnic instruments. “The Birth of music” departs from the Big Bang as the first sound from which all musical languages originate. As a seasoned globe-trotter Brossé has been collecting ethnic instruments. In his pieces the ethnic instruments play in separate passages, alternating with the classical instruments. However, the ethnic passages go far beyond improvisation: this music has been thoroughly elaborated by him, and completely integrated into the whole to boot. This means that it is to be regarded as very impressive “ethno-classical” music.
How fundamentally different the connection with world music can be among Flemish composers, becomes clear when Wim Henderickx (1962) is juxtaposed with Brossé and Van der Harst. Henderickx has composed a series of “Ragas”, referring by the sequence of their movements to the typical structure of the Indian raga. In the instrumentation of several works he has taken advantage of percussion instruments of Asiatic and African origin. In “Raga I” the solo percussionist handles an immense instrumentarium, collected all over the world: dobashi (Japanese temple bell), hyoshigi (Japanese wood block with a very high sound), small Indian bells, Pekinese gongs, finger cymbals, and crotales. These Asiatic instruments are combined with African drums (such as djembe) and classical European percussion. Even so, Henderickx keeps maintaining that what music is all about, is not ethnicity but rather the appeal of Oriental philosophy. This experience has lately become so strong that it results in a more profound Occidental religious consciousness. Henderickx sees the East to a certain extent like John Cage (although his music is not comparable with Cage’s in any respect): what is at stake is not the escape to the Orient, but the power of a philosophical style. Evidently Western people cannot appropriate this, but surely they can “translate” it into their own Western world. Henderickx combines his Oriental inspiration, for example, with something particularly topical: high tech live electronics, and at the same time with something very old: modes, but to be sure self-designed modes. As an antidote and with a view to defining the Oriental dimension even more precisely, Henderickx will from time to time write a consciously Western work, in which he will push off the Orient in an exorcising way. But people steeped in his work realize that even there the spirit of the East keeps hovering. His first full-fledged opera “Triumph of Spirit over Matter” dealt with an artist whose “spirit” overcame materialism. In many Oriental philosophies and religions this is exactly what they are all about.
Continue reading: Part 2