August De Boeck: The Rhine Dwarfs

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  • DeBoeckSLRijndwergenPolDeMont
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  • Charicature of De Boeck and his Rhine Dwarfs by Georges Jamotte
  • Pol De Mont, the librettist of August De Boeck's opera 'De Rijndwergen'
  • CD Etcetera 'Flemish Connection VII' holds the mesmerizing suite 'De Kleine Rijnkoning' from De Boeck's opera 'Rhine Dwarfs'

Libretto: Pol De Mont
World première: 6 oktober 1906
Cast: Conductor Edward Keurvels; stage director Henry Engelen

The triumph of Winternachtsdroom strengthened August De Boeck’s self confidence and his next composition would be his first full scale opera, De Rijndwergen (Rhine Dwarfs). He may have resorted to Pol De Mont as librettist because he was also the author of the libretto for Paul Gilson’s 1902 hit opera Prinses Zonneschijn (Princess Sunshine). That Wagnerian libretto certainly had its merits, yet De Monts Rhine Dwarfs proved a failed continuation of a short 1882 youth story that he had found back in a drawer. The title, Rhine Dwarfs, was promising enough, but the motto ‘Love ends all revenge' proved totally outdated by 1904.


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)

The action is set in the Rhine Land of the 12th century. Count Sibo wishes to marry off his daughter Blanke to knight Dankwaart, yet the girl loves the minstrel Hunold. A nightly storm erupts and dwarf Tiffelken-Taffelken and his people ask for refuge. Sibo not only refuses to lend them hospitality, but he also has his bloodhounds hunt them down, killing several of them and devouring the pregnant dwarf Queen, whose unborn baby is eaten in the process. The dwarf King swears revenge and abducts Blanke, whom he plans to execute. When she sings a song of mourning about her beloved Hunold, the dwarf King is so touched that he offers to let her live if Hunold takes her place. Hunold agrees and the duet of the two young lovers once again moves the dwarf King so, that he grants them both their lives. Hunold then carries Blanke home as his bride.


The anachronistic plot seems too bloody for children (there is a fundamental difference between the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood and graphically devouring a fetus from the womb of a pregnant woman), while the predictable plot with its unlikely happy ending is way too simplistic for adults to digest. Even the best music in the world could not have saved this opera. Speaking of music, it seems our composer was triggered to compensate for the libretto by exploiting every possible effect in terms of orchestral violence and vocal impact. Even his famous champion, the painter August Monet, who described all De Boeck’s premieres in his memoires of 1939, acknowledged that Rhine Dwarfs proved a blow to his faith in the composer. He summarized the clash between libretto and music in words that labelled his music as having crushed the immature plot under an overdose of violent symphonic noise.

With the weak spots in the libretto evident enough, the very sharp and specific criticism on De Boeck’s composition now makes us rather curious after this ‘violent music’. Fortunately, the Etcetera CD label issued a disc with a symphonic suite made from the opera by conductor/composer Frits Celis. Listening to this suite one first realizes that De Mont’s libretto, for all its evident weaknesses, did give De Boeck ample opportunity to exploit fully his orchestral talent in an array of intermezzos, funeral marches and scenic effects. The orchestral suite, including the orchestral introduction, the funeral march for the dwarf Queen, the intermezzo and the epilogue also makes it clear that De Boeck’s ‘orchestral violence ‘may well be differently perceived today, where it strikes us as perhaps close to the tone poems of Richard Strauss, but not nearly as violent as, say, Elektra. De Boeck hovers between the romantic Strauss and Humperdinck orchestras, which he merges with his own, poetic sound, a fluid of colours and gouache.

In spite of the text, Rhine Dwarfs might in hindsight actually prove to hold De Boeck’s best music till then. In his continuing search for his own musical style, it is sure that here as well as in his other operas, he produced at least a number of pieces of great beauty. Blanke’s lament in Act I, her mourning song in Act III and the love duet will surely continue where Prinses Zonnestraal in Winternachtsdroom stopped. In minstrel Hunold, De Boeck seems to have added some fine pages to the Flemish tenor repertoire. Should I be granted to choose which of De Boeck’s scores I would first want to see revived today, I would, seduced by the shimmering beauty of the orchestral suite, immediately choose Rhine Dwarfs.