Ignace Lilien: Beatrijs (1928)

nate coincidence of having a Dutch composer and a Flemish librettist was the prime argument that sparked the event. Coincidence most likely did not play a part in Teirlinck being awarded the Dutch literature price, in the period just before the reprise in The Hague.

Lilien first read Teirlincks’ Ik dien in 1924. In close collaboration with Teirlinck, he then reworked the play into a libretto, mostly by cutting a few scenes from the play, according to the rules of German Literaturoper. Wouter Paap, in ‘Mens en Melodie’ 1956, rejects the libretto as ‘dated,’ while musicologist and pianist Lodewijk Muns praises it as highly original in its multi layered complexity. Muns said this during a unique lecture that included excerpts performed by him on the piano, with soprano Nathalie Mees singing Beatrijs. Where Paap writes that Lilien’s libretto deliberately wanted to be ‘anti-literature,’ Muns upholds that precisely ‘the high literary level of the libretto’ may present the main obstacle for staged performances of the work, since the language is ‘almost too rich and metaphoric to be sung and understood in the same time.’ Even in his stage directives, Teirlinck reveals a poetic inclination; they are rather formulated more as reports of a visual dream, than as clear instructions for the stage director’

Paap was greatly disturbed by what he regarded as the neurotic-expressionist concept, which indeed marks Teirlinck’s play. The fact that Muns, circa 55 years later, comes to the exact the opposite conclusion can easily be explained by the great change of the  perception of music and opera. During the 1950’s, opera went through a significant change from a living art to an art form that increasingly favored established operas by composers antedating modern times. At the same time the great rediscovery of forgotten repertoire was just about to begin. Today opera is an eclectic art mausoleum, where world premieres and rediscoveries of forgotten operas by great or completely unknown composers alternate with the iron repertoire as in a tombola. There is a great interest in historic style periods, not least in an expressionism. Where Paap was fed up with precisely that musical genre, this generated great curiosity today, at least with Muns. His lecture inspired us to include this work here, because we were greatly impressed by its combination of expressionism, symbolism, and refined declamatory-melodic signature. The exalted visions of Beatrijs invoke the paintings of Edward Munch and Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Some dramatic passages from Liliens drama could actually have served as models for Reinbert de Leeuw and Jan van Vlijmen’s 1970s opera Axel.

According to Muns, Teirlinck knew the most important earlier Beatrijs-based works, among them the one by Felix Rutten, as well as Maeterlinck’s Soeur Béatrice. His first source was, however, the Middle Dutch original text, which contradicts further Paap’s misgivings regarding time based expressionism, since this ‘expressionism, translated into ‘the human expression of anguish and delirium,’ is precisely the element in the Middle Dutch text that made it so famous. Even though this is the element which eventually attracted the bulk of attention, Muns points out that the poem was originally conceived as a tribute to Maria rather than Beatrijs: “The celebration of a character who in reality’s a sinner throughout, even though she found forgiveness in a special manner, is unorthodox.”

LilienBeatrijsSignThe psychoanalytic nature of precisely that element of the legend opened intrinsic dramatic possibilities that quickly inspired artists, playwrights and musicians alike. Muns also points out that within the German literature opera setting Teirlinck’s Beatrijs is far more complex in structure than the renditions of Rutten and the opera by Willem Landré, who both have a simple, linear action. Teirlinck’s stage music already distinguishes itself by a wild variety of dramaturgic techniques. His personages are more archetypical figures than living characters with an individual psychological nature. Teirlinck also employs different layers of action, and in his playhe already demanded a multitude of stage music in order to accentuate the difference between the profane and the religious spheres. The work includes illusionistic theatre, and in spite of the paradoxical chaos, it breathes a stylized monumentality. Muns points out that Lilien kept precisely the archetypes, such as the devil, the stylized gestures and the monumental mass scenes with soli and stage music. Paap, on the other hand, seems to have been present at a completely different opera, when he writes:

“Teirlinck turns Beatrijs into a piece of verismo, in which the degradation of a nun, her downfall into the mud of Earthly filth is accentuated by the merry sounds of a kermis”

The paradox here is that Paap’s summary is as correct as the one provided by Muns. Muns further points out that Lilien employs some unusual theatrical techniques, such as involving the audience at the point when Beatrijs addresses the audience directly in her tormented outcry: ‘Ben ik uw Spiegel niet? Reikt niemand mij de hand? Mijn smet is, Mens te zijn…’ (Am I not your mirror? Will no one offer me a helping hand? I am infected, with humanity…’) Paap subsequently dubbed this moment the cheapest point of the mentioned guttural tendencies in the work, and he explains Lilien’s fascination for Teirlinck’s play by pointing to his earlier fascination for themes of downfall and resurrection. The can be seen, among others in his song cycles ‘Quatre Chants de Mendiants,’ and the ‘Fünf Trunkene Lieder.’ Paap:

“With even more heated ardor than Teirlinck had suffered from when writing his play, the young composer threw himself on the colorful material. He wrote in feverish passion, not too concerned about where certain effects originated from, while handing out dramatic effects in a free-for-all mode, while he postulated his idea of dramatic truth in human relations superior to any concept of musical beauty. Given the context of the post World War I period, it was only logical that his opera was a short lived smash hit that made its rounds along the European stages.”

LileinBeatrijsNotesAdmittedly, Paap is right in that Lilien and Teirlinck hand out the drama with a rich bloodshot sauce, however… the same goes for Aida, Rigoletto, Der Ring des Nibelungen or Parsifal, to mention but a few. In turn, Muns has a point when he analyses the refined theatrical mechanisms that provide the fundamental layers under the work, elements that Paap, in his negative tone, completely ignores. Perhaps 1956 was not the right moment for a revival of Liliens’ Beatrijs, either in The Hague or in Ghent, where Maurits Veremans conducted. The performance of Beatrijs’ three solos by soprano Nathalie Mees and Muns at the piano in 2011 nonetheless reveals that Lilien produced meaningful, interesting music which forms an essential element in the chronology of Dutch opera in time.

In the remainder of his dissertation, Muns delves much deeper yet into the dramaturgic nuances of the libretto. Those interested can find these (Dutch language only) on this link to the website of Nederlands Muziek Instituut (NMI). Regrettably, we could not obtain permission to show here the excerpts filmed by us during the 2011 performance with soprano Nathalie Mees. Therefore we are now planning to perform and record these excerpts, especially the central duet between Beatrijs and Gratiaan. We will perfom this duet at our first 401DutchOperas concert of April 26, 2015, in Hoog-Keppel, where it will be heard for the first time in 60 years. Following, we will publish the performance here by means of a download option, so that those interested can get to know this music. Our philosophy was and is to disclose the Dutch Operatic history not just by a written anthology, but also performances and recordings that subsequently bring all those beautiful works and notes to life!

Forgotten today, Liliens Beatrijs still must rank among the more important and internationally successful operas within Dutch musical practice. The work was performed in Hannover, Brno (Brünn), Prague, and Liberec (Reichenberg), also published by  Universal Edition. The premières took place under much dispute and court rules over the question which theatre had the right to perform the world premiere, between Antwerp and Brussels.

On balance

Where Pape groveled from the symbolist-expressionist overload in Beatrijs, Muns experienced precisely those elements as testimonies of a deeper relevance. In his turn, Muns points to shortcomings on a different level: ‘The structure is overtly based on redundant elements and basic contrasts.’ He then explains the success from the ingenious use of dramatic elements that constitute the original legend, such as the trinity cloister-world-cloister and the contrast of religious and secular music. Throughout this work a certain popular and folk based inspiration permeates the music of both worlds. The cloister world is brought to live up and to chiming bells, and a choir of black nuns; the profane world is highlighted by the kermis, including choruses of madmen and children, lovers and elderly people.

A mere glance at the score will reveal the points for Muns’ ideas, while Paap’s criticisms are immediately clear mostly from a glance at the overlong written introductions with directives describing the stage in a very pathetic and outdated language. Any modern production would do wise to balance this overload with the stronger inner beauty of the work as such.

CD SONGS 1920 - 1935

LilienCdLiederenIn 1989 the illustrious Atacca label released a unique CD with a retrospect of Lilien's songs composed between 1920 and 1935. Among them the 'Vier Lieder für eine Singstimme mit Klavierbegleiting' (1920), the 'Quatre chansons des mendiants' (1923; an mp3 can be found at the beginning of this text), 'Herbst' (1923), the cycle 'Mietskaserne' (1932) and 'Les indolents' (1934) on a poem by Verlaine. A splendid retrospect. excellently performed by mezzo-soprano Anja van Wijk and intimately accompanied from the piano by Frans van Ruth. This is a performance in the shadow of Reinbert de Leeuw's famous Satie interpretations, with their slow, introvertet nature. Thus the empasis rsts with the text, while the music takes its time to heat. This is music for the twilight at dawn, music that never goes beyond the first rays of Sun. Light never shines upon these songs, the air is thin, and we are left on a crossroad of emotions that come with very personal questions. The answer is never given, neither in the music nor the text. It is for those listening to take things further where the music ends. Liien's music is never 'easy', it doesn't aim to please in ways we are accustomed to.

Ignace Lilien: Mietskaserne 'Mädchen am Fenster' (final section)
Anja van Wijk (mezzo-soprano), Frans van Ruth (piano) (CD 1989 Attacca Babel 8742-5; Ignace Lilien Songs 1920-1935)

I already referred to Satie, a paradox, given that the pianist of the first 401DutchOperas concert of April 26, 2015, Pieter Dhoore, noted a strong influence of Debussy in Beatrijs, and Debussy is of course an exuberant impressionist composer. Muns and Paap, from opposite perspectives, focused on Lilien's expressionism. Satie, Debussy and expressionism are three opposite points of a triangle, that are difficult to bring in line, and yet that is precisely what Lilien does: he composes on the point where these three extremes cross lines, and thus reveals how they are ultimately linked.