Emiel Wambach (1854-1924)
Emiel Wambach is a rather peculiar figure in Flemish fin de siècle opera. According tot the critics his music lacks the exuberant fire of Jan Blockx or Peter Benoit, Wambach’s teacher and predecessor as professor of composition and harmony at the Royal Flemish Conservatory. Benoit is usually thought to have been more original. Yet Benoit’s operas did not last long and today they are completely forgotten, while Wambach’s Quinten Massijs proved to be one of the very few true repertoire pieces of Flemish opera. The strength of it lies perhaps in its balanced mix of the recipe of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, with the sentimental undertone that permeates the work, an undertone that in Floris’s final aria makes one think Kienzl's Der Evangelimann. The mixture of craftsmanship combined with an authentic Flemish subject and a musical clam sauce catapulted Quinten Massijs to becoming a Flemish blockbuster.
Text: René Seghers
Emiel Xavier Wambach (Aarlen, November 26, 1854 – Antwerp, May 6, 1924) came from a musical family. His father Paul played bassoon in the army. In 1858 the family moved to Antwerp, where father Wambach became a bassoon player in the Royal Theatre. From the age of six onwards Emiel attended violin classes and distinguished himself in such a way that Henri Vieuxtemps recommended him to go tot to the conservatory. In 1866 Wambach first studied in Brussels, with Colijn as professor violin and with Gevaert as professor composition and harmony. In 1867 Wambach followed Benoit to the Antwerp Conservatory. Benoit taught him violin there, Mertens piano, and Callaerts organ. Wambach further took private lessons in composition by Adolphe Samuel.
In 1876 the exceedingly young Wambach already presented himself as an opera composer with the lyric drama in one act, Nathans Parabel. In 1877 he produced his first true success with the cantata 'Ode to Rubens', composed for festivities around the painter Rubens. In 1880 he presented the nationalist cantata Het Vaderland (Fatherland). According to Hedwige Baeck-Schilders, who presented a lecture on Wambach in 2004, the young composer's elegant style and his artistry won him the support of many of the more fortunate catholic citizens among Antwerp’s high society. From 1881 onwards Wambach also promotes the works of old masters such as Palestrina within the Antwerp St.-Gregorius foundation, where he took a post among the board. In the same year his modest oratorio Mozes op de Nijl (Moses on the Nile) was premièred, an oratorio that was particularly valued in The Netherlands.
The road to Quinten Massijs
In 1884 Wambach composed the lyric legend Yolande, which was performed in the festive hall of the World Expo in 1885 – a pièce d’occasion, but still his second attempt to manifest himself as an opera composer. In 1887 followed a Children’s Cantata and in 1887 the ballad ‘Blanchefloor’. In the following years Wambach mostly produced routine works for specific occasions, such as the popular concert arias 'Fredegonde's verloving' (Fredegonde’s engagement), 'Terugvaart naar het Moederland' (Return to the mother land) and 'Kerstnacht' (Christmas Eve; still one of Wambach's best known compositions today). In 1894 he published an 'Overture in the Old Style’, once again on behalf of the World Expo, which was followed by the lyrical fairy tale in four acts, Mellusina, een lentedroom (Mellusina, a Spring dream).
On December 16, 1899 Wambach took his place in the Flemish opera pantheon with the creation of Quinten Massijs at the Dutch Lyrical Stage Antwerp. The libretto was by Raf Verhulst. Until Wambach’s death it was annually performed in Antwerp, and thereafter it remained in the repertoire until the final performances in the Flemish Festival 1967/68. That success was only eclipsed by Jan Blockx’s operas De herbergprinses en De bruid der zee. Fortunately, the Flander’s Festival performance of Quinten Massijs was preserved in an obscure live recording, which is available from our download pages here. In addition there is a 1975 recording of Quinten's tenor aria ‘Er is in't woud geen bloem’ with Joep Weijs; Joris Grouwels sings Floris’ hit-aria ‘De moeder maged en haar godlijk kind’ in our own 401Concerts Nr. 2 with Flemish opera arias and duets, recorded in Museum Vleeshuis, Antwerp on January 27, 2016. Through these recordings we can still enjoy Wambach’s ‘Meisterwerk’ to date! ‘
Download fragments from Quinten Massijs
Our download program with Flemish opera arias and duets 401Concerts Nr. 2 was filmed and recorded on January 27, 2016, in Museum Vleeshuis, in a coproduction with the artists, soprano Pauline Lebbe and baritone Joris Grouwels. Lebbe sang the aria ‘De moeder maged en haar godlijk kind’. Other arias and duets include Jan Blockx' operas De herbergprinses and De bruid der zee, and operas by François-Auguste Gevaert, Armand Limnander van Nieuwenhove and August De Boeck. Some highlights can be seen in the video trailer above. The complete concert is downloadable from our Flemish Opera Arias & Duets Concertpage.
Career at the conservatory
Surprisingly Wambach never composed an opera after the triumph of Quinten Massijs. Instead his career in the conservatory world takes wings, first at the Antwerp Conservatory (from 1899 onwards) and then also as inspector of the Belgian Musical Schools (from 1900 onwards). Finally, he became director of the Antwerp Conservatory in 1912. Noteworthy among his post Quinten Massijs compositions is the cantata Aan Belgenland from 1905; in 1909 he has a modest success with the hybrid oratorio Jeanne d’Arc, which was premièred in Arras and then also performed in São Paulo and Montréal.
Interesting for our Dutch audience is perhaps that Wambach spend World War I in The Netherlands, where he composed amongst others the cycle '25 Oorlogsgedichten' (25 War poems). After the war, in 1919, he returned to his post as director of the Antwerp Conservatory. At the end of her lecture, Baeck-Schilders reveals that Wambach’s final years were marked by evil tongues, mockery and bashing by ‘Antwerp activists’. That being the case, one wonders if his fleeing to The Netherlands might have played a role there? Regardless, when Wambach died on May 6, 1924, Muziek-Warande fittingly summarized his career as the career of a fruitful composer who explored all different genres of composition, with one binding element that one can see as his style:
‘…a lovely, charming, at times bittersweet vocality, yet unmistakably fresh. As a personality he could perhaps not compete with Benoit and Blockx, yet he was a fine craftsman that at times found surprising harmonies and colours. Wambach holds an esteemed place among the ranks of Flemish composers.’
– Quinten Massijs, Elseviers Tijschrift, 1899. Nr. 7.
– Emile Wambach, Allerlei, Weekblad voor het Vlaamsche Volk, 8 september 1918.
– Necrologie, Muziek-Warande, 1924, Nr. 6.
– Hedwige Baeck-Schilders, Roem en verguizing van een componist: Emile Wambach (1854-1924), 150 jaar geleden geboren (Lezing, 9 november 2004)
– Annelies Fouquaert, Wambach, Emiel, Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek, 2015.
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