Academic journal article Journal of Singing

A Thousand Nineteenth Century Belgian Songs

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

A Thousand Nineteenth Century Belgian Songs

Article excerpt

SINCE BELGIUM'S INDEPENDENCE from the Netherlands in 1830, vocal music has played an important role in the country's cultural life. Belgium's original art song repertoire, whose style can be seen as linking German lied and French mélodie, rarely appears on concert programs. The following concise overview aims to revisit Belgium's neglected 19th century art song heritage of over a thousand songs. Along the way, it provides some historical and cultural information about Belgium, as well as music examples and practical information for performers. The essay consists of two sections. The first part discusses chosen works of a few prominent composers of the early generation born before 1840. The second part looks at selected composers of the second generation born between 1840 and 1870.


César Franck (1822-1890) * Adolphe Samuel (1824-1898)

Eduard Lassen (1830-1904) * Peter Benoit (1834-1901)

Jean-Théodore Radoux (1835-1911)

When César Franck and Adolphe Samuel were born, Belgium was under Dutch rule and did not yet exist as a sovereign country. It earned its independence only in 1830, shortly before Franck entered the Royal Conservatory of Liège. Belgium's official language in the 19th century was French. The Flemish language spoken in the north was discarded as the language of the peasants and the poor, which, unsurprisingly, triggered a strong Flemish national movement against this unjust situation. Belgium's ethnic mixture and its linguistic tensions were present from its very beginnings. The country's territory at that time did not yet encompass the German-speaking community. Today's Belgium lies at the cultural crossing where Flemish-speaking and French-speaking traditions mix with those of a German-speaking minority. Belgians speak one or more of the three languages: Flemish, French, and German.1

In 1835, a few years after Belgium became an independent nation, César Franck's ambitious father organized a series of concerts for his pianist son before moving with his family to Paris. Once there, César Franck (1822-1890) commenced harmony and counterpoint studies with Anton Reicha, the teacher of Berlioz, Liszt, and Gounod. Even though he visited his homeland on several occasions, Franck would never move back to Belgium.2 He embarked on a tour through Belgium as a virtuoso player in 1843. It was around that time that he composed his first songs: "Souvenance" (Remembrance; F.-R. Chateaubriand), "L' émir de Bengador" (The Emir of Bengador; J. Méry), "Le sylphe" (The Sylph; A. Dumas père), for voice and violoncello, and "Robin Gray" (J.-P. de Florian). His early songs show influences from the French romance, as well as Beethoven and Schubert. Franck's later and better known songs from the 1870s and 1880s clearly exhibit Wagner's harmonic influence. Songs from that period include "Lied" (L. Paté), "Le vase brisé" (The Broken Vase; S. Prudhomme), "Nocturne" (L. de Fourcaud), "Les cloches du soir" (The Evening Bells; M. Desbordes-Valmore), "La procession" (The Procession; A. Brizeux)with orchestra or piano, and his Six duos pour soprano et alto, which are suitable as beginners' chamber music repertoire.

During the same period, two other Belgian composers tried to gain fame in Paris: Jean-Théodore Radoux, who made Paris his home for five years between 1855 and 1860, and Peter Benoit, who probably spent most of the years 1860 to 1862 in the French capital. By a strange coincidence both composers set their first songs around the year of 1854.

Jean-Théodore Radoux (1835-1911) was a French-speaking composer and bassoon player who was born in Liège.3 He lived in Paris for a short period before becoming the director of the Royal Conservatory of Liège in 1872. Radoux's first songs demonstrate the influence of the French romance. They are strophic, have a slow harmonic motion, and are restricted in vocal range, as seen in "Fais dodo," a song well suited to introduce a youngster to vocal agility (Example 1). …

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