Welcome to Flanders with Jan Blockx
‘Blockx was one the finest masters of his native Flanders. No one better captured the spirit of the Flemish nature. He could write folksongs that made people believe they were old, real! In Baldie and Thijl there are several of them. His music is a typical Flemish dish, juicy, strong, sprinkled with beer. It makes you think of baked fish, water cookery from Ghent, ragout, rice pudding and plum pie.’ (Lambrecht Lambrechts, Muziek-Warande, December 1931, Nr. 12)
‘Blockx and Benoit both strived to give their music an authentic, Flemish signature, yet Blockx cannot be called a disciple of Benoit. Blockx’ music has a rigid personal flavour. It is abundant in colours and his operas are on a par with the oratorios of Benoit. Some critics even prefer Blockx, if not on grounds of originality then at least for his technical finesse.’ (Alf Martens, Jan Block necrology’, Ons Volk Ontwaakt, 8 June 1912.)
‘Blockx and Benoit are two native masters that are Flemish from head to toes! They sprang from Flemish soil, and wholly belong to our culture. We feel at home in their music, which became part of the Flemish family.' (Lambrecht Lambrechts, Muziek-Warande, December 1931, Nr. 12)
Reading Lambrechts’ essay in Muziek-Warande 1931 one is amazed by the fierce attacks that Blockx met with in the press of his days. Foreign composers, themselves less remembered today than Blockx, once smirked at his operas; the libretti of Nestor de Tière were crucified among ‘purists’, as if Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci had not long settled the course of opera in favour of verism. ‘Composer on wooden cloughs’, was a adjective used to put Blockx in a corner, which inspired Lambrechts to write that, ‘the world had heard far worse since the days of Stravinsky and Schönberg’. Regarding the most successful Flemish opera composer ever, we can truly say, nemo propheta in patria.
Text: René Seghers
Iets vergeten (To forget Something)
As Benoit’s most promising pupil, Blockx ultimately produced his first opera, a student work called Iets Vergeten (To forget Something). This harmless romance in one act was premièred on February 19, 1877 at the Royal Antwerp Harmony and it revealed the good natured, educative elements as propagated by Benoit. In 1877 he won another contest with his overture ‘Hulde aan Rubens’ (Praise Rubens), composed for the commemoration of the 300th anniversary of Rubens’ birthday. Other early successes were the songs ‘In t prieeltje’ (In the Garden), ‘De Spinster’ (Spinning Girl), ‘Kom lieveken’ (Come my Dear), ‘De Lente’ (Spring), and the choral compositions ‘Vredezang’ (Song of Peace) and ‘Op de stroom’ (On the Stream), as well as a sketch for four cellos, ‘Liedeken in den ouden trant’ (Song in the Old Manner). Despite his success, Blockx felt limited by the influence of Benoit. In 1879 he left to Leipzig, hoping to broaden his musical horizon. He took classes with Karl Reinecke and came also into contact with Edvard Grieg. In Leipzig he composed songs such as ‘Moederlied’ (Song for Mother), ‘Het Lied van den Boer’ (Song of the Farmer) and ‘Als de Winter voorbij is’ (When Winter has passed). Another Leipzig composition was the orchestral composition ‘Kermisdag’ (Fancy Fair), which became a popular concert piece in those days. He completed his studies with a journey to Italy, made in 1880. Although the influence of the Italian scapigliatura movement is evident in his later operas, his stay in Sorrento only produced a few songs: ‘O, waar mijn Hart’ (Where my heart), ‘Onder de Linde’ (Under the Lime tree) and ‘Avondgroet’ (Evening greeting). Upon his return he composed the ambitious oratorio Een Droom van ’t Paradijs (Dream of Paradise), which premiered on March 14, 1883 in Antwerp. Yet Blockx felt that in this genre he would always have to stand up against his teacher Benoit’s famous works, and he decided to try his luck in other genres. On October 27 of that year he married Gabrielle Collignon, to whom he had already devoted a book of songs in 1881.
Jan Blockx: Milenka 'Vlaamse kermis'
De Philharmonie van Antwerpen, conductor Léonce Gras.
In 1884 Blockx was noted for his ‘Vlaamse Dansen’ (Flemish Dances), which is still known today. In 1885 he composed a more abstract Symphony in D major. This was followed in 1888 by the ballet Milenka, which was triumphantly baptized in de Muntschouwburg Brussels. Today Milenka is perhaps Blockx best known composition in terms of music, because several recordings were made of the episodes ‘Vlaamse Kermis’ and ‘Sérénade’. Another popular composition of that year was Klokke Roelandt, for mixed choir, children’s voices and full orchestra.
From Maître Martin to De Herbergprinses (Princess of the inn)
In 1892 Blockx composed the opera Maître Martin, to a French libretto of the Antwerp author Eugène Landoy. This episode from Hoffmann’s Tales had a key weakness in the plot which was too obviously copied from Wagner’s Meistersinger, with an older men promising a girl to the winner of a contest, here between coopers; the winner was the one who produced the best barrel. In spite of the criticism, parts of the music found praise, especially the fourth act. With the 1894 pantomime Saint Nicholas Blockx proved especially gifted in combining the most naive folklore elements with orchestral grand standing and flair. His ability to unite these extremes was perfectly suited to his task of composing Nestor de Tière’s libretto for the veristic opera De herbergprinses from 1896. The work was an instant hit and spread from Antwerp all over Flanders, Belgium, France, then also Germany, The Netherlands and even South Africa. In 1909 it was performed at the Manhattan Opera in New York, where it was praised a curiosity of sorts. It remained in the Flemish repertoire until the late 1960s, and was performed in the province there until the late 1970s.
Jan Blockx: De herbergprinses 'Slot Act II (the famous scene at the Flemish fair)'
1960 SFO NIR Mina Bolotine, Raymonde Severius, Louis Devos, Tony Vanderheyden, Jacques de Boeck
The enormous success of De herbergprinses resulted in an international career with a Paris publisher, who released the work in a French translation. This was not easy to accept for the nationalist movement in the Flemish musical world, especially when the publisher made sure that the 1900 premiere of Tijl Uilenspiegel was first given in (the original) French, two days before the Antwerp premiere in the Dutch translation. This resulted in hostility among a part of the Flemish press, which was to pursue Blockx for the rest of his life. His antagonists, often followers of Benoit’s school, found his more international style a betrayal of Benoit’s ideals. They had a hard time accepting Blockx sudden international status as the most Flemish of all composers, given his mingling of a modern Italian idiom with a mere flavour of Flemish herbs. In the middle of the commotion, Uilenspiegel failed. Blockx wondered what to think of it and for a while he did not know whether Uilenspiegel would eventually be seen as his best or his worst opera, until he accepted the fact that the libretto was flawed. His career made another turn when Benoit died in the same year, and he was called to the task of succeeding him as director of the Antwerp Conservatory. The duties involved in this task may explain why he composed less frequently in the remaining years of his life.
De bruid der zee (The bride of the sea)
Blockx fortunes as an opera composer took a turn for the better with the première of De bruid der zee in 1901. It proved another blockbuster, in which he took the integration of folkloristic elements even further, turning it in certain parts almost into a folk opera. In its colourful atmosphere and orchestration, the score harks back to the scapigliatura of an Alfredo Catalani in Loreley and La Wally, while Djovita’s appearance is vaguely reminiscent of the entry of Carmen. Yet the music is always authentic, Flemish, and Blockx. Between 1901 and 1907 a mere handful of compositions followed, such as the setting of Rafaël Verhulst’s ‘Scheldezang’ and the odd opera in one act, De kapel (The Chapel).
Downloads of excerpts from Herbergprinses and Bruid der Zee
Voor ons unieke downloadprogramma met Vlaamse Opera Aria's & Duetten Concert gebruikten wij de Antwerpse opname van 27 januari 2016 uit museum Vleeshuis, door onszelf gemaakt in coproductie met de solisten. Daarin zitten Jan Rabo's aria 'Ik keek te diep in 't glas' uit De herbergprinses en het centrale duet uit de tweede akte van De bruid der zee tussen Free en Kerdien, 'Ach liefste comt', vertolkt door Joris Grouwels en Pauline Lebbe. Dit duet behoort zonder meer tot de allerfraaiste stukken uit de Nederlandstalige operaliteratuur. De video van dit concert omvat verder aria's en duetten uit opera's van Armand Limnander Van Nieuwenhove, François-Auguste Gevaert, Emiel Wambach en August De Boeck. Korte fragmenten hieruit zijn te zien in bovenstaande video trailer. Het complete concert is downloadbaar van onze Vlaamse Opera Arias & Duetten Concertpagina.
The acclaim for De bruid der zee seems to have strengthened Blockx in his ambition to complete the trilogy that De herbergprinses (city life) en De bruid der zee (the sea) was to form with Baldie (countryside). By the time of the Baldie première in 1908, the Italian operatic fashion had already shifted in favour of Puccini’s sugar-verism, whereas the German operatic world was revelling in the decadent eroticism of Richard Strauss’ Salomé. De herbergprinses and De bruid der zee remained staples of the Flemish repertoire, but Baldie failed to make an impact. The critics condemned the harsh libretto by De Tière and the music was also criticized. Blockx and De Tière must have agreed on points, since they decided to soften the tone of the opera. The score was largely recomposed and premièred on January 6, 1912, under a new title, Liefdelied (Love Song). The opinions were divided. Some judged the score an improvement, others found it even less convincing than the original. The happy ending was considered absurd, and the audience remained indifferent. By then, the world already had Eugen D’Albert’s Tiefland, an opera that sounds surprisingly close to De herbergprinses, and that, apart from the non-Flemish setting, might easily be taken for the third part of the trilogy.
Blockx passed away on May 15, 1912. He was then in the middle of revising Tijl Uilenspiegel. Paul Gilson then completed the vast task. When the opera was posthumously premièred in 1920, it was a resounding success, writes Blockx first biographer, Lucien Solvay. Nevertheless the opera was taken from the roster after five performances in favour of Verdi’s Falstaff, in order to accommodate a famous international opera singer that had arrived (again by Solvay).
Since 35 years these operas have not been performed. At best one could have heard an incidental aria or duet at a student performance. This neglect is stunning since Blockx has long surpassed the polemics that revolved around him during his life. His reputation as Flanders’ greatest opera composer is unchallenged, yet it comes at a time when his music is completely forgotten. The question to why no Flemish house is performing his operas today was answered by Luc Joosten of the Flemish Opera Ghent, during an October 26, 2015 symposium of the SVM there. Joosten called operas such as De herbergprinses‘challenges that modern opera houses couldn’t handle’. The Ghent Opera House did not have the means and the knowledge, Flanders had no suitable singers, and the house’s artistic director, the Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowsky had of course never heard of ‘Jan B…’ We do not wish to start a dispute over the need for quota regarding Flemish singers and Flemish operas in state subsidized opera houses in Flanders, but it seems to me that the more important creations of Blockx should at least be presented once in every ten years or so. At the mentioned SVM symposium soprano Pauline Lebbe and baritone Joris Grouwels sang the duet from the second act of De bruid der zee, ‘Ach liefste comt…’ Grouwels also sang the monologue of Jan Rabo from De herbergprinses, ‘Ik keek te diep in ‘t glas’. Apart from a mere handful of 78RPM recordings, all that remains of Blockx’ music are a few minor instrumental pieces on a few vinyl discs and cd’s (‘Vlaamse kermis’ uit Milenka on Decca 10”, ‘Vijf Vlaamse Dansen’ on Naxos, a piano quintet on Phaedra, a children’s song on Klara4Kids and the ‘Sérénade’ from Milenka on a cd with composers of the Antwerp Conservatory. A meagre harvest for the man to whom the Flanders Opera House literally owned her naked existence during the first decades of the 20th Century. De herbergprinses and De bruid der zee, as well as the revised Tijl Uilenspiegel are unique and authentic Flemish masterpieces. They can hold their ground against the best works composed abroad during that epoch, something which can be said of only very few Flemish and Dutch operas.
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