August De Boeck
“Humor, gripping lyricism, magic orchestrations, those are the qualities that enabled August De Boeck to bring Flemish music on a par with the best of Europe’s composers. In Belgium, De Boeck was a leading composer throughout the first half of the 20th Century and he is still important to date.” (Text presentation ‘August De Boeck (1865-1937) componist’, 2011, Merchtem.)
August De Boeck is the best represented Flemish composer of all his compatriots. His music (especially his chamber music, songs and orchestral compositions) are present on more than 50 CD’s, of which about 10 are entirely dedicated to him. Since the 80 years that passed since his death, several books have been written about his life. The most recent one in 2011 is the most lavish publication on any Belgian composer ever; a spectacular coffee table book of 464 pages with countless unique photographs, and as bonus a CD with radio recordings. The CD closes with a song that best captures the spirit of old Flanders and the nostalgia of her older inhabitants, ‘Het kerksken van ter lande’ (The little Country Church, wonderfully interpreted by the Flemish alto Ria Bollen).
August De Boeck: 'Het kerksken van ter lande'
Ria Bollen (alto), 1983 (CD Phaedra 'Hommage Ria Bollen')
TYet 401DutchOperas honours De Boeck foremost as the composer of five operas, of which especially Winternachtsdroom (Winter Night’s Dream, 1902) and La route d'Émeraude (The Emerald Road, 1921) met with unequivocal success. From the last opera our download program offers the once famous cantilena of Francesca, sung by soprano Pauline Lebbe during a Flemish Opera Concert with baritone Joris Grouwels. The publication of this concert, the second in our sequence of concert with Dutch/Flemish opera arias, is a co-production with the artists.
Text: René Seghers
Sources: 'August De Boeck (1865-1937) componist’, 2011, Merchtem; booklets of various August de Boeck CD's, among them Phaedra ‘In Flanders’ Fields’ 40, 71, 75, and Etcetera KTC 4024; various private recordings of excerpts of De Boeck's operas from the 401DutchOperas archives.)
August de Boeck (Merchtem, Belgium, 9 May 1865 – Merchtem, 9 October 1937) would maintain the bond with his native village throughout his life and, once retired, he also returned to it. His father, Florimond, was (a) church organ player and composed occasional pieces. August’s musical talent was such that he entered the Brussels Conservatory at age 15, in 1880. He made veritable sacrifices for it, since Merchtem had no train station and to get to Brussels he needed to make a three hours walk. Apart from solfeggio, harmony, counterpoint and fugue, he made a name for himself playing the organ in the class of Alphonse Mailly. In 1886 he appointed De Boeck as his successor. This did not materialize because composer Edgard Tinel manoeuvered his own protégé Alfons Desmet in pole position, which resulted in a life long strained relationship between Tinel and De Boeck. The latter returned to Merchtem, where he succeeded his father as an organ player from 1892 to 1895. From 1894 onwards he also played the organ in the Saint-Bonifacius church in Elsene, and from 1900 onwards also in the Carmelite Church Brussels. He secured his income by means of a steadily developing career in teaching, in which composing only gradually became important. According to colleague Paul Gilson, it was a meeting with himself that inspired De Boeck to turn to composing, since the meeting resulted in De Boeck becoming Gilson’s private pupil in orchestration and formal structure. By 1893, De Boeck was then able to present his first major success, the 'Rapsodie Dahoméenne'.
August De Boeck: 'Rapsodie Dahoméenne'
N.I.R. Orchestra, conductor Franz André, 1939.
His 'Symphony in sol minor' from 1896 did not see the light of day until 1904, apparently because there was little interest in Brussels for Belgian (some would say Flemish) composers (the SVM website argues that this eventually also crushed the ambitions of Paul Gilson, composer of the hit opera Prinses Zonneschijn). While chances for Flemish composers may not have been waiting in Brussels, there was plenty of opportunity for them at the Royal Flemish Opera Antwerp (KVO), where from 1896 to 1901 Jan Blockx and Emiel Wambach had stimulated a hitherto unprecedented renaissance of Flemish musical art. De Boeck thus jumped on the running KVO train with his first four operas, produced between 1901 and 1909: Théroigne de Méricourt (1901), Winternachtsdroom (1902), De Rijndwergen (1906) en Reinaert de Vos (1909).
Théroigne de Méricourt (1901)
De Boeck's first opera Théroigne de Méricourt zoomed in on the East Belgian village girl of that name who was destined to play an important role in the French revolution as leader of the sans-culottes. While this seems to ensure an effective plot, the libretto of Léonce du Catillon is said to have been rudimentary, especially also regarding the cardboard characters. However, the outline of the plot reads like Pagliacci or Carmen in reverse. The music is less spectacular, hovering between folk tunes, Tannhäuser-like choirs, and familiar French revolution songs. In between these influences, De Boeck was looking for his own style. He was rather successful in the overture, which was recorded and published by the Phaedra CD label. We present here a sample.
August De Boeck: 'Théroigne de Méricourt 'Ouverture' (excerpt)
Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ivan Venkov (2011, CD Phaedra 'In Flanders' Fields' 71)
Winternachtdroom (Winter Night’s Dream; 1902)
For Winternachtsdroom De Boeck again teamed up with librettist Léonce du Catillon who produced an effective fairy tale in one act and an epilogue, together lasting a little over an hour (‘s) length. In it’s (its) genre it can hold its own, since it does not resemble in any way the most famous example of fairy tale operas of those days, Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel (1893). It is in fact much closer to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snegurochka (1882) which of course deals with the same subject. In terms of music De Boeck came of age here, even though one may frequently hear very direct influences, such as those of Verdi’s Macbeth and Falstaff in the witches’ sabbath. Notwithstanding De Boeck’s eclecticism, Winternachtsdroom proved one of the greatest successes of Flemish operatic history. It was translated into French and German and performed regularly until well in the 1960’s.
August De Boeck: Winternachtsdroom 'Heksendans en storm'
Symfonie orkest BRT, conductor Robert Zollman (1973, CD August De Boeck biografie, Merchtem, 2011)
Rijndwergen (Rhine dwarfs; 1906)
The triumph of Winternachtsdroom strengthened De Boeck’s self confidence. With De Rijndwergen he then presented his first full scale opera, now on a libretto by Pol De Mont. Unfortunately, De Mont’s plot was drawn from an 1882 youth work of himself, with the anachronistic motto ‘Love smothers all revenge’. All revolves around the revenge of the friendly dwarf king Tiffelken-taffelken, who requests shelter from a hurricane in the castle of Count Sibo. Instead of providing the dwarfs hospitality, Sibo unleashes his bloodhounds on the dwarfs, killing many of them, devouring also the pregnant dwarf Queen and her fetus. The plot seems too violent for children and too silly in its predictable marching towards an unlikely happy end. Even with the best music of the world this libretto would presumably have failed. According to the critics, De Boeck however managed to make things worse by crushing the text with violently loud and gruesome music. However, the 20 minutes long orchestral suite published on an Etcetera CD sheds a completely different light on the music. This gorgeous piece has Wagner replaced with the late romanticism of Richard Strauss’ tone poems, mixed with Humperdinck’s refined lyricism, all blended in De Boeck's poetic idiom, resulting in a fluid of shimmering colours and natural splendor. From today’s perspective this suite makes one very curious to hear the entire work!
August De Boeck: Suite 'De kleine Rijnkoning' Part 1. Intro & Funeral March'
Ning Kam (viool), Flemish Radio orchestra, conductor Marc Soustrot (CD Etcetera KTC 4024)
Reinaert de Vos (1909)
Reinaert de Vos was premièred on January 9 1909 in the Antwerp Schouwburg and the opera proved a veritable triumph. After the first few performances though, the success eroded, much to the disappointment of the directors. De Boeck was embittered and swore never to compose for the Flemish Opera again. However, the house was not the problem, since the opera was never presented elsewhere. Only the Flemish Opera would eventually perform it again, respectively in 1941, 1953 open air) and in 1973.
August De Boeck: Reinaert de Vos 'Orkestintro & koor'
Chorus & Orchestra KVO, conductor Frits Celis (401DutchOperas archives)
The Merchtem chronicle points to the libretto as the reason for the oblivion that struck the opera. However, if one passes over certain lyrical parts (such as the wonderful part of Hermelijn) and some Flemish folk scenes, it is the music that is seldom very original. De Boeck doesn’t manage to stay away from the atmosphere of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Act II and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. His greatest merit is perhaps that he succeeds in melting all the influences down into a work that sounds consistent in its eclecticism. The triumph at the premiere therefore seems best explained by the effective libretto of Verhulst, a librettist who had earned his spurs in Flemish opera with libretti for Emiel Wambach's Quinten Massijs (1899) and Arthur van Oosts ’t Minnebrugje (1899). A detailed analysis with excerpts in MP3 can be found on our Reinaert de Vos-page.
De Boeck did keep his word and never again composed for the Flemish Opera. In fact, until his final opera, La route d'Émeraude, in the French language and premiered in 1921, he would not produce any opera again. The years running up to World War one (I ipv one) seem to have primarily been occupied by his career at the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp, where in 1909 he followed Paul Gilson as teacher of harmony. Among his pupils there were Renaat Veremans, August L. Baeyens and Renaat van Zundert.
La Route d'Émeraude (1921)
Before, during and immediately after the First World War, De Boeck’s last opera was being composed, the comédie lyrique in 4 acts and 5 scenes La route d'Émeraude, on a libretto by Max Hautier after the novel by Eugène de Molder. The opera was immediately recognized as De Boeck's master piece. La route d'Émeraude also has the best of his libretti, along with the one of Reinaert de Vos. Finally, the composer managed to find all inspiration in himself for this plot around a village boy who desires to become an artist, leaves to Amsterdam to become Krul’s apprentice only to engage in an ill fated (ill-fated) love affair with the model Francesca who breaks his heart. For her new lover, a Spanish pirate, she sings the still famous aria 'Comme une fleur', sung here by soprano Pauline Lebbe and downloadable from 401 Concerts Nr. 2. In a church the village boy finds consolation, and returns home, where his parents forgive him his sins.
Download fragments from La Route d'Émeraude and other Flemish operas
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 'Comme une fleur' from La route d'Émeraude. 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 Emiel Wambach. Some highlights can be seen in the video trailer above. The complete concert is downloadable from our Flemish Opera Arias & Duets Concertpage.
Following La route d'Émeraude De Boeck returned to orchestral compositions with 'Fantasy on two Flemish Folk Songs' (1923), 'Concerto for Piano and orchestra' (1929), 'Nocturne' (1931), 'Violin Concerto' (1932) and the symphonic poem 'In the Barn' (1937, posthumously completed by Paul Gilson). In between De Boeck progressed to numerous significant posts in the musical world, which are summed up below.
August De Boeck: Sept melodies 'Elegie'
De PhNina Stemme (soprano), Jozef De Beenhouwer (piano) (2004, CD Phaedra IFF-40)
Tussendoor volgen nog enkele belangrijke benoemingen, die hieronder worden opgesomd.
1920 Transfer to the Royal Conservatory of Brussels. Joins the Belgian Royal Academy.
1921 Director of Municipal Music Academy Mechelen, which then is promoted to a Conservatory.
1926 Refuses a post as general manager of the Royal Conservatory of Brussels.
1930 Returns to his native Merchthem, where he devotes himself to gardening. De Boeck never married and lived there with his likewise unmarried sister.
August De Boeck passed away on October 10, 1937, suffering a cardiac arrest. He left more than 350 compositions. These were catalogued by René de Maeyer around 1950. Many of the works proved unpublished and a number also unperformed. Where normally we lament such neglect, this is not entirely the case with De Boeck, due to the plenitude of publications available. Precisely because of the rich catalogue, we are sure to enjoy new discoveries from time to time, which will only be beneficial for the reputation of this intriguing composer, who, at his best, could be one of the great late romantics.
August De Boeck (1865-1937) componist’ (2011, Merchtem, 464 pages, hundreds of photographs + CD)
August De Boecks geboortestad Merchtem eerde deze illustere Vlaamse toondichter in 2011/12 met een kroniek die zijn weerga in België of Nederland niet kent. Het boek werd uitgegeven ter gelegenheid van zijn 75e sterfdag, waaromheen een jaar lang tal van concerten en activiteiten plaatsvonden. Het is een groot formaat koffietafelboek van 464 pagina’s, samengesteld aan de hand van uitputtend onderzoek maar tegelijkertijd heel toegankelijk geschreven. Via diverse invalshoeken wordt het leven en werken van De Boeck daarin uitgelicht. Het boek, waaraan liefst 11 auteurs meewerkten, opent met een chronologie van de belangrijkste gebeurtenissen in De Boecks leven. Daarmee zijn de eerste, rijk geïllustreerde 122 pagina’s gevuld. Daarna volgen thematische hoofdstukken, zoals ‘Verbondenheid met zijn geboortestreek’, ‘De Boeck als Vlaming en Belg’, ‘De Boeck en de Conservatoria van Antwerpen en Brussel’, ‘De Boeck als Directeur van het Stedelijk Conservatorium Mechelen’, enzovoorts. We zien De Boeck in zijn tuin, met zijn ouders, zijn vrienden, de pastoor, collega-bestuurders, componisten, zangers enzovoorts. Het is werkelijk ongelofelijk hoeveel liefde en studie er in deze monumentale kroniek is gestopt.
Fascinerend voor 401NederlandseOperas is natuurlijk het prachtige hoofdstuk over al zijn opera’s, waarin wederom tal van afbeeldingen zijn opgenomen. De opera’s worden samengevat, geanalyseerd en hun ontstaansgeschiedenis en ontvangst bij pers en publiek wordt beschreven. En dat is allemaal nog slechts het begin, want het boek gaat verder over zijn cantates, zijn kamermuziek, zijn liederen, zijn autografen… Ieder hoofdstuk is steeds geschreven door een specialist op het betreffende terrein. Hoewel zo’n lijst eigenlijk te lang is mogen we hier niet besluiten zonder alle elf auteurs te noemen en roemen: Walter Callaert, Frits Celis, Jozef De Beenhouwer, Jan Dewilde, Sus Herbosch, Pieter Mannaerts, Jan H. Melsen, Vic Nees, Michael Schenk, Frank Teirlinck en Kristin Van Der Buys.
Heel bijzonder is tot besluit de CD die het boek begeleidt. Deze brengt ons in 70 minuten een dwarsdoorsnede uit De Boecks werk. Er is het eerste succes, de 'Rapsodie Dahoméenne', maar er zijn ook twee fragmenten uit Winternachtsdroom, te weten de aria van Prinses Zonnestraal 'O Zonnebloem' (vertolkt door Liane Jespers) en de 'Heksendans en stormscène'. De Boecks liedkunst leeft hier in het indringende slotnummer, 'Het kerksken van ten Lande', ontroerend mooi vertolkt door Ria Bollen. Het meest bijzondere stuk op de Merchtemse boek-CD is wellicht de kindercantate Gloria Fiori, die met zijn zeven delen ruim twintig minuten in beslag neemt. Het boek heeft hierover een fascinerend essay, waarin ons een blik wordt gegeund in het zieleleven van De Boeck en zijn muze Marguérite le Maire.
August De Boeck: Gloria Flori 'Stil' (VI)
Diverse kinderkoren en het Omroeporkest van de BRT o.l.v Fernand Terby, 1962 (CD August De Boeck (1865-1937) componist’, 2011, Merchtem)
Naar verluidt is dit prachtige boek op het Stadhuis van Merchtem nog steeds te krijg voor de vriendelijke prijs van slechts 30 euro.
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