La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

August De Boeck

A Portrait

Jan Dewilde
Reading time
5 min.

A Brueghelian Brabantine or a cosmopolitan who personally knew Rimsky-Korsakov and James Ensor? A 'provincial musician' or an international composer who indulged in jazz and Poulenc, and whose operas were performed several times at La Monnaie? Learn all about the exceptional composer of the Nocturne.

Indeed, it's a wonderful portrait: August De Boeck, enjoying his life, wearing clogs in his garden, nonchalantly holding a spade, with a pipe in his mouth. This iconic photograph, taken around his fiftieth birthday, contributed greatly to the image of 'the provincial musician', a musical man who loved nature, as James Ensor described De Boeck: ‘Branching feet evoking greenery, strong fingers digging up potatoes, a wild beard, long hair, old-fashioned moustache with an attractive appearance.’

It is the caricature of 'our Gust', who sucked on his pipe filled with fragrances of the village of Appelterre and lavishly sprinkled with 'bon mots'. A Brueghelian Brabantine, devoted to his birthplace under the church tower of the town of Merchtem, who was only happy when tending to his dahlias and playing with his pigeons. A pleasant fellow who interspersed his sheet music with ‘shades of Jordaens' and 'Uylenspieghel-esque humour', according to musicologist Charles Van den Borren. To a great extent, De Boeck cultivated this provincial image himself and did not object to posing for this photo.

However, this should not make us forget that he left Merchtem for many years to live in Brussels and Mechelen; that he liked to travel; that he was well-read and well-informed about French literature; that he had a sharp and phlegmatic sense of humour and was interested in jazz; that Poulenc and Satie were his favourite composers and that he frequently met writers and artists such as Herman Teirlinck and James Ensor. De Boeck thrived in the French-speaking cultural cenacles of Brussels and he looked beyond the (linguistic) border for his song lyrics. For instance, he wrote beautiful mélodies to poems by the French-speaking musicologist Jeanne Cuisinier, whose personal poetry inspired him to write voluptuous vocal lines and harmonically rich piano parts.

Etching by James Ensor, dedicated to August De Boeck

And let's face it, composing more than 350 works and working in music education up to seven years before your death, does not leave you much time to lounge around in your garden. Energy and discipline were certainly required to write such a rich oeuvre. De Boeck already had that perseverance at the age of fifteen when he walked several times a week from Merchtem to Brussels – a three-hour commute one way! – to study at the Conservatoire Royal. Besides the music theory subjects, he also took lessons from Alphonse Mailly, an organ virtuoso and composer with an international reputation; the French composer Hector Berlioz also had words of admiration for him. In 1881 De Boeck obtained the 'diplôme de capacité' for organ with so much brio that Mailly believed he would become his successor at the Conservatory. However, De Boeck was overlooked for this appointment – apparently after interference from the principal Edgar Tinel, who had his own candidate – and this was a heavy blow that he found difficult to accept. Meanwhile, he was already working professionally as an organist, first as a successor to his father in his native village, and from 1894 as organist of St Boniface's Church in Elsene.

Through the Brussels art circle L'Essor, he met Paul Gilson (1865-1942) who became his mentor despite being the same age. Together with Gilson, De Boeck belonged to a remarkable generation of talented Flemish composers, including Lodewijk Mortelmans (1868-1952) and Joseph Ryelandt (1870-1965). Each in their own way, they explored new worlds of sound to enhance the Late-Romantic idiom. In De Boeck's case, he found these new sounds in the Russian sheet music that Gilson analysed with him. Thanks to Gilson's good contacts with his Russian colleagues, De Boeck also became acquainted with Nicolay Rimsky-Korsakov personally during one of the latter's visits to Brussels. Besides the Russian repertoire, De Boeck was also influenced by French music, from César Franck to a Debussy impressionism. Bold harmonies, the lyricism and solid, directly appealing and colourful orchestration are constants in his work. The end result is unity in diversity and consequently a recognisable idiom.

As a composer De Boeck initially made his mark with his Rhapsodie dahoméenne, a short and lively orchestral work that he supposedly based on a theme he heard in Brussels played by a group of musicians from Dahomey (currently Benin). Any kind of African sound is hard to find in this upbeat and colourful rhapsody, however, the work became an instant success soon after he wrote it in Antwerp in 1894 and it remains very popular today. On the other hand, when De Boeck completed his Symphony in G in 1896, he had to wait until 1904 before Edward Keurvels premiered the work in Antwerp.

De Boeck became a favourite in Antwerp and even before the First World War, the Flemish Opera performed no less than four of his operas in world-premiere: Théroigne de Méricourt (1901), Winter Night's Dream (1902), Rhine Dwarfs (1906) and Reynaert the Fox (1909). Winter Night's Dream, his greatest opera success, was also performed as Le songe d'une nuit d'été in Nantes (1911) and in La Monnaie (1923). During the war, De Boeck worked on La route d'Émeraude, the only opera he composed that was based on a French-language libretto. The performance was held in 1921 in the Théâtre Royal in Ghent, followed by performances in the Théâtre Royal in Antwerp, La Monnaie (1926, 1932 and 1939) and in a translated version called Francesca in the Royal Flemish Opera.

It was also in Antwerp that De Boeck obtained his first appointment at a Royal Conservatory when in 1909 he succeeded his friend Gilson as professor of harmony. In this capacity he taught several composers who subsequently became famous such as Renaat Veremans and August L. Baeyens. In 1920 he moved to the Brussels Conservatory as a harmony teacher and the following year he became the principal of the Municipal Conservatory in Mechelen. During this period he composed several cantatas, such as De beiaardier (The Carillonneur) (1922), which was a tribute to the City of Mechelen's carillonneur Jef Denyn. He also turned once again to the orchestra with the lively Fantasie op twee Vlaamse volkswijzen (Fantasies of two Flemish folklores) (1923), the Concerto for Hans – piano and orchestra (1929), Nocturne (1931), a Violin Concerto (1932) and the whirling In de schuur (In the Barn) (1937). He was not able to complete his last work and he was helped once again and posthumously by Gilson who composed the last measures.

From 1930, De Boeck had quietly retreated to his native village where, in between composing, he worked in his flower garden and enjoyed a good glass of wine and a fragrant pipe. He died unexpectedly on 9 October 1937.

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