August de Boeck (1865 - 1937)
Symphony in G (1896)
Violin Concerto (1937)
Dahomeyan Rhapsody (1893)
August de Boeck was twenty-four years old when in Brussels he met the man who was to play such an important role in his artistic way of thinking, Paul Gilson. Nine years earlier de Boeck had left his home town of Merchtem in Brabant to enrol at the Royal Conservatory, there to perfect his talents as an organist under Alphonse Mailly, with studies of harmony under Joseph Dupont and of counterpoint with Hubert Ferdinand Kufferath. His fellow- student Paul Gilson, through his extensive encyclopedic and practical knowledge and his infectious curiosity, made a deep impression on him, and in spite of their similar ages (Gilson was actually a month younger) became his most important tutor in composition and orchestration. Gilson introduced him to the music of Richard Wagner, whose Ring des Nibelungen, performed by the Bayreuth company at the Theatre de la Monnaie in 1883, had struck him like a bolt of lightning. Together Gi150n and de Boeck went to the Brussels Concerts Populaires, where they met a completely new world of orchestral colour in the music of the Russian Five. Through artistic circles like Les XX and L"Essor, they came into contact with the new music from France, and both of them may rightly regarded as the importers of musical impressionism into Belgium. Like Gilson, de Boeck became a teacher, first at the Conservatories of Brussels and Antwerp and later as director of the Municipal Conservatory of Mechelin, where, on his retirement in 1930, he was succeeded by Godfried Devreese.
De Boeck"s works consist mainly of compositions for the stage, opera, operetta, ballet and theatre music, with cantatas, compositions for 5010 singers and choir and chamber music. His compositions for orchestra date from two fairly short periods in his career, the first in the 1890s and the second in the 1920s. The first orchestral work that assured him a place among the modern composers of his day was the Dahomeyan Rhapsody of 1893. In spite of the title and the reference to the West African Dahomey (the modern Benin), the work has no trace of borrowed rhythmic or melodic elements. It is indeed a rhapsody, through its improvisational character, a technique familiar to de Boeck as an organ virtuoso, and its abundance of not very elaborate melodic ideas. The most remarkable characteristic of the Dahomeyan Rhapsody is the extremely fast interchange and very rich palette of orchestral colours. Here de Boeck has put his own personal stamp on the lessons learned from Paul Gilson and the example of the Russian masters. The unstoppable rhythmic current that carries along the whole rhapsody is only interrupted for a moment by a short Iyrical version of the main theme.
The large scale symphony in G is the second important work from the same period. It is typical that de Boeck"s only contribution to this most classical of forms occurred early in his career. Not only does the strict form of the symphony offer a structure for those who would take their chance with a large scale composition but it also suggests a certain seriousness on the part of the young composer who wishes to involve himself in an established tradition.
De Boeck"s choice was a free one. The symphony was not commissioned and it was not until1921 that it was performed, at one of the Concerts populaires, even though the score was completed by 18%. The main structure is in the traditional four movements, although the slow movement forms the third of these and the Scherzo the second. Violins in the lower register introduce the main theme of the first movement in the slow introduction to the Allegro vivace e molto agitato. Together with the contrasting second theme, a "" short, swirling melody for the oboe, this provides the material for the development of the work. Unexpectedly, at the end of the development, immediately before a general pause that marks the return of the original tempo, a third theme appears, a common thread that can be found in the later parts of the symphony. In the Scherzo, for example, which has been described as Brueghelian because of its biting irony, the theme finds its place in the central Trio. Both the beginning and the end suggest a perpetuum mobile, with a small rhythmic engine happily spinning away. The imaginative orchestral effects, pizzicato in the violins, the distorted sound of the brass, and the unusual accents and sudden breaks in the melody, up to and including the sound of the timpani at the end, ensure a scherzando character. In the Andante too the recurrent theme takes a prominent position, although this time it is almost unnoticeable, with the main theme played expansively by strings and oboe. The orchestration of the Finale, marked Allegro giocoso, has affinities with that of the Scherzo. Through the rapid variation of instrumental colours it has been compared to a vil1age meeting, where everyone has his say. The movement is actual1y a rondo, with its refrain taken from the recurrent theme.
Even though de Boeck"s Violin Concerto was written more than thirty years after the symphony and Dahomeyan Rhapsody, stylistical1y they have much in common. With its classical three movement structure and its virtuoso contents, the work belongs to the nineteenth century romantic concerto tradition. The outer movements emphasize the technical skil1 of the soloist, especial1y the scherzando final movement, with al1 its surprises. The slow middle movement provides a lyrical and dramatic interchange. For a long time the Andante was the only movement of the concerto general1y performed and after the composer"s death no trace was found of de Boeck"s manuscript of the outer movements, which was only found in the 1950s.