Godfried Devreese (1893 - 1972)
Symphony No.1 ?The Gothic", in A Minor
Poeme Heroique (Based on a legend recounted by Marguerite van de Wiele)
As well as a number, some symphonies also have a title, often simply to distinguish them from the mass and without any clear connection with the content. Haydn"s London Symphony, for example, so called because it happened to be composed in that city. This is not the case with The Gothic Symphony, the Symphony no.1 in A minor, by Godfried Devreese. Here the adjective is more than a commercial label. It is the central image, the framework of the musical architecture. It is Gothic in its upward soaring, in its absence of constricting wal1s and the appearance in their stead of many and ample windows, through which musical impressions come streaming in like sunlight. It has the lightness and delicacy of the Ile-de-France, where this style of architecture originated.
This Gothic concept is also reflected in its composer, in Godfried Devreese. Not in the sense of religious flirtation, of sanctimonious dabbling with incense and medieval-clerical costume parties, but purely architecturally. We see it a1so in the architects and the builders of those cathedrals. They were artists and craftsmen, because art is craftsmanship. That is why they paid such attention to details, even to those which were never seen, hidden behind the crenellations, or very high, invisible from the ground. They were perfectionists, honest craftsman, miniaturists on a large scale, bursting with aesthetic sense.
Godfried Devreese, born on 22nd January 1893, in Kortrijk (Belgium) was such a man. He received his musical training at the Brussels Conservatoire, where he was taught violin by cesar Thompson and Eugene Ysaye. By the age of sixteen, he had already been awarded his first prize. World War I brought about an interruption, but this time was not lost. As a young soldier, he arrived in Paris, where he had the great good fortune to come into contact with French impressionism. This was to have a lasting effect on his creativity, up to and including The Gothic Symphony.
Godfried Devreese had an irresistible urge to be musically creative. That is why he went to study composition under Francois Rasse and Paul Gilson immediately after World War 1, because composing is a trade like any other, a difficult craft that has to be learned.
After this, his career could begin. First he was conductor, at the Koninklijke Franse Schouwburg, in Antwerp. The period 1925-1930, when he was leader of the second violins of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam - at that time the best orchestra in the world, conducted by Willem Mengelberg - was very important. There he was plunged into an ocean of musical impressions, the most consummate and best played music, surrounded by people with invaluable things to say and show.
In 1930, he returned to Belgium, because he had been asked to become director of the Municipal Conservatoire in Mechelen. He built that up into a model institute of practical music training. Thanks to him Mechelen became the most important centre of music in Belgium, after Brussels and Antwerp. During this director period, from 1930 to 1958, conducting became increasingly important for Devreese, also outside Belgium. In the Netherlands and France, for example, or in Poland. Most important of all, he now had more time to compose. He w rote wonderful pieces, such as this Gothic Symphony, three other symphonies, two violin concertos, a piano concerto, a cello concerto, a ballet Tombelene, Symphonic variations on a Scottish theme, four children"s cantatas, a string quartet, a piano trio and numerous songs.
The Gothic Symphony in A minor has four movements, each of a highly individual character, but there is one characteristic they have in common: their association with the war, because in 1940, World War II was in full expansion. Artists in particular could not comprehend that madness. And that is precisely what you feel in this symphony: the question "why", the awareness of a world that is too beautiful to ruin, the playing of the children in the midst of the misery, the stamp of the jackboots, the hope of improvement, and the longing for the ultimate peace.
All these emotions and hopes can be found in the music of this Gothic Symphony. Here Devreese"s relationship with the music is not one of innocence, but one of "knowing". The orchestra, often singing, sometimes talking in a human voice, does not confine itself to perfect harmony, but expresses the suffering of the individual and community in piercing discords and sharp rhythms. Devreese does this with feeling for evocative tone colours, but at the same time, with a certain tendency towards the gloom of despair.
The first movement, Andante - allegro, begins with an air of mystery in the basses. The cor anglais then breaks into the motif, the nucleus from which all the other themes in the symphony derive. It is like a Gregorian chant. Then, in the allegro, comes the menace, the massive, the military. Calm is then brought by the trumpets, through the wisdom of a chorale. This is repeated, because war can never be banished by a single prayer. The close, after a subdued chorale on the strings, is an explosion of brass chords.
The second movement, Andante, is the heart of the symphony. It begins serenely. The theme is Dorian, for which Devreese seems to have a preference. This Andante is a mature, self-contained composition, extremely fervent. It is a search for acquiescence, which is hard to achieve, because the music is full of friction. Striking is the way Devreese repeatedly returns to the theme. This is not a man who is going on a journey, but rather one who is searching for the shelter of his own home. There are moments of rare beauty, when the lofty violin meditates a moment, for example. The orchestration is rich and clear.
The third movement is a scherzo. Despite the war, life goes on and the children laugh. The core of this movement is a Flemish folk-song, not a tawdry, traditional costume affair, but a true song of the common man. It dances along in a jocular fashion. All is not jollity in this scherzo, but there is no real sense of fear. The soldiers are only toy soldiers.
In the finale the joy of hope resounds. The marching is the enemy in retreat. The development is a mixture of the prominent themes. In the close, the dance and joy motifs dissolve together into a magnificent apotheosis.
The Poeme Heroique is one of Godfried Devreese"s first major compositions. He composed it in 1923, basing it, as is indicated on the score, on "a legend recounted by Marguerite van de Wiele", an aunt of his by marriage. Nobody knows the precise content of this legend, but that is also unnecessary, because it is extremely visual. You can fill it in yourself, as long as you include a hero. Thanks to a brief but delightful violin solo, you can even envisage a golden- haired princess. In this composition Devreese has drawn upon the memories of his travels abroad, but otherwise, his impressionism is w hat he absorbed in France barely eight years before. In French compositions, impressionism and the musical idea combine organically. In Devreese, the poetic idea is paramount. It only becomes music later.
Poeme Heroique is a work of awakening maturity and versatility, an indication of things to come. It is often very modern in tone. Even nowadays. Very impressive also is the role he allocates to an extensive percussion section, often discreet, sometimes triumphant, as in the last twelve bars con fuoco.
Godfried Devreese dedicated his In Memoriam to Willem Mengelberg, from whom he had learned an incredible amount. Originally, In Memoriam was the second movement of a sonata for violin and piano, composed in 1924. He orchestrated it during his time at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. "Orchestration terminee le 10 aoüt 1928" is written at the end of the manuscript. So it is not an In Memoriam written on the occasion of Mengelberg"s death in 1951; although it could have been one, as the finest tribute he could offer to his great conducting example.
This In Memoriam is bathed in reverence. One can imagine the passage from bar 41, for example - when the harp is reintroduced, with the cellos and double basses increasing in intensity, but whispering a nucleus of the theme pp and ppp, with piccolo and flute progressing in steps of half a tone - as a respectful and fond farewell, reverently approaching the great conductor on his rostrum.
This composition, only 123 bars in length, radiates a pensive sadness. Striking is the leading role of the violins, with their poignant passages, even though the opening theme itself is tenderly introduced by a horn. Around this theme -again Dorian, which makes it so melancholy - revolves the whole musical idea. This composition is markedly intimate, an intimacy Devreese has also maintained in the orchestration.
@ 1995 Fons de Haas (translated by Steve Smith)