Jef Maes (b. 1905)
Symphony No.2 Viola Concerto
Arabesque and Scherzo for Flute and Orchestra
As a student of the Antwerp composer and conductor Karel Candael - himself a student of Lodewijk Mortelmans and Jan Blockx, who in their turn studied under Peter Benoit -Jef Maes can be regarded as an "artistic great- grandchild" of the pioneer of the Flemish romantic movement. In this sense he is also a direct heir of the renowned Antwerp School, started by Peter Benoit. The social movement -"contact with the people, with the average listener" - is, whatever the case, a concern which he shares with them. On a technical- compositional level he also follows the same course of romanticism, not so much in the choice of genres, not with large scale cantatas on historical or popular themes in his works but more in the twentieth century. He was certainly open to the new styles that were springing up everywhere. When asked to describe his style, he likes to call himself a "modem romantic", a nineteenth century poet in the body of a twentieth century orchestrator.
In 1922, the seventeen year old Jef Maes enrolled as a student at the Royal Flemish Conservatory of Music in his home city of Antwerp. Initially it was his friend and contemporary Andre Cluytens, who later took French nationality and became a well known conductor, who persuaded him to take this step. A few years later Maes was awarded the First Prize for viola and chamber music. His tutor for harmony, counterpoint and fugue was Karel Candael. As a solo viola-player he worked with the most important chamber music ensembles and symphony orchestras from his home town, and in this privileged position, he enhanced, being self-taught, his knowledge of orchestration. From the forties he gradually abandoned orchestral work in order to spend more time teaching and - amongst other things he was chamber music teacher at the Conservatory of Antwerp -and on composing. He kept in close touch, however, with the concert world of the city and this led to him becoming co-founder in 1955 of the Antwerp Philharmonic, the predecessor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of Flanders, which performs his work on the present recording.
It was also this orchestra which, on 17th October 1966, performed Jef Maes" Symphony No.2 in A, conducted by the then chief conductor Eduard Flipse. The music had been completed the year before and was dedicated by the composer to his childhood friend and fel1ow student Andre Cluytens. In comparison with its predecessor, this symphony sounds, certainly in the first two parts, especial1y sombre, melancholy and sometimes even explicitly threatening. The work revolves around the number 3: not only is the work in three parts, but each movement is itself built up around three themes or motifs. In many cases the themes grow away from each other organical1y, which improves the unity of the score considerably. The second theme of the first movement for example is derived from the answer of the string section to the iambic opening motif of the bassoons.
The second part has a free rondo structure, where the melancholic cries of flute and oboe take on the form of a chorus above the tension-fil1ed chords of the celeste, harp and muted strings. Taking al1 three parts, this one is undoubtedly the most impressionistic. In the finale the sombre mist, in which the work up to now had been veiled, lifts. An a1most playful motif from the strings and the pure fanfares of the brass contribute to the sudden about-turn. The tempo only slows shortly before the end, but just at the moment that the symphony appears to be bleeding to death in the same expressionless atmosphere in which it began, Maes surprises again. Like an advancing brass- band the drums lay down a driving rhythm from afar that carries along the whole orchestra in a joyful coda.
It is not really surprising that Jef Maes would write as his first introduction to the concertante style of writing a work for his own instrument, the viola. The Concerto for Alto violin and Orchestra dates from the end of the thirties, but the first performance, by the national broadcasting company orchestra featuring Rik Langewouters as soloist, through force of circumstances, was only performed at the end of 1956. The romantic-expressive lines of the viola, in imitation of the big romantic concertos, are kept in restraint by the sturdy straight-jacket of a classical structure. Although the orchestral refinement that pervades Maes" later works is only present in embryonic form, this work is also beguiling. The more than twenty years separating the Concerto for alto violin and the Arabesque and Scherzo for Flute and Orchestra and the unavoidable evolution which the composer underwent in that period, can be heard immediately in the first bars of the Arabe5que. The chromatic, swaying melodies of the flute and the colourful orchestral accompaniment point to a more than superficial flirtation with impressionism. The whimsical, arabesque poetry flows hardly noticeably with a trill in the flute into the Scherzo, which takes its strength from the pulsating rhythm and the fast tempo.
The Concertante Overture was an occasional work, meant to celebrate in 1961 the eightieth birthday of the Antwerp patron Marcel Baelde who was president of the Royal Harmony Association, and who stimulated music to a large extent in the city. Therefore Jef Maes decided to include the occasion for the composition in the score. The main theme of the work is built up around the I six letters of Baelde"s name (B=si, A=la, E=mi, L=la, D=re, E=mi) which at the beginning of the work are declaimed in various rhythmic guises in a playful Allegro molto, a rousing march and a solemn hymn which starts with the horns and is passed on to the whole orchestra. The return of the Allegro molto gives us the final climax, but not before the BAELDE motif has been heard once again. The title, Concertante Overture is misleading in this case, since the work f] does not contain a single concertante element. It is better to regard the term as
a rather unusual synonym for the traditional concert overture.