Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 4.djvu/560

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

operas 'Léonore et Félix' (1821), 'L'Apparition' (1848), and several ballets.

[ M. ]

BENOÎT, Pierre Léopold Léonard, Belgian composer, and the chief promoter of the Flemish musical movement, was born in Harelbeke (West Flanders), Aug. 17, 1834. Having first studied music with his father and with Peter Carlier, organist of the village of Desselghem, he entered, at 17, the Conservatoire of Brussels, where Fétis took the greatest interest in him, and taught him counterpoint, fugue, and composition. While still studying, he became conductor at a Flemish theatre in Brussels, where he wrote the music to several plays, and also an opera, 'Le Village dans les Montagnes' (1857), which attained success. In this year he carried off the first prize for composition, and by means of a grant from government he was able to make a tour in Germany. He visited Leipzig, Dresden, Prague, Berlin, and Munich, composing songs, piano pieces, motets, etc., and sending to the Académie at Brussels an essay, 'L'Ecole Flamande de Musique et son Avenir,' and a 'Petite Cantate de Noël.' On his return to Belgium he brought out in Brussels and Ghent a Messe Solennelle which was much praised by Fétis. He then went to Paris (1861) in the hope of producing an opera ('Le Roi des Aulnes') at the Theatre Lyrique, and here he was for some time conductor at the Bouffes Parisiens. Returning to his own country, he at once took up a position by producing in Antwerp (April 1864) a Quadrilogie Religieuse, consisting of four previous compositions, his Cantate de Noël (1860), Messe Solennelle (1862), a Te Deum, and a Requiem. He was then seized with the desire of stirring up a musical movement in Flanders, distinct alike from the French and German schools. By dint of activity and perseverance and of exciting the amour propre of his countrymen, he gathered round him a certain number of adepts, and created the semblance of a party of which he was the acknowledged head. This agitation was so cleverly conducted that it ended in the foundation of the Flemish School of Music in Antwerp in 1867, under the auspices of the town and the government. Benoît was appointed director, and has retained the post until the present time. From that time he has unceasingly promulgated the theory of a national Flemish art by means both of pamphlets and musical compositions. But on what does this theory rest? Almost all the Belgian composers, whether they possess the genius of Grétry, the talent of Gossec, or merely the science and erudition of Limnander or Gevaert, form part of the French school. Musically speaking, Belgium serves as an intermediary between France and Germany. On account of the proximity of the two countries and the affinity of their languages, the musical creations of modern Germany are more rapidly known and more appreciated in Belgium than in France,—Richard Wagner, for instance, has long been justly admired by the whole of Belgium,—but what special elements are there out of which to form a Flemish school of music? If, as is said, it consists simply in setting Flemish words to music, the thing is a mere quibble, unworthy of a musician with any self-respect, for in the question of musical style the language used signifies absolutely nothing.

The only result of this crusade is to isolate those composers who make use of a language so circumscribed as Flemish, since works written in this language would have to be translated before they could gain any reputation out of their own country. And this explains why the head of the school, who is at the same time its sole musical representative, Benoît himself, is quite unknown to the public outside Flanders. But he has deserved the gratitude of his country for the impetus he has given to music, especially in Antwerp, which, from a musical point of view, has become quite transformed by his ardour. But he has taken advantage of a mere figure of speech to create for himself a particular position; for his enormous compositions—'Lucifer,' 'L'Escaut,' 'La Guerre,' etc.—have in them no Flemish characteristics but the text; the music belongs to all schools, particularly to that French school against which Benoît pretended such a reaction.

Upon poems of little clearness or variety the composer has built up scores which are certainly heavy, solid, and massive enough, but which are wanting in charm and grace. Benoît's musical ideas have no originality; he gets all his effects by great instrumental and choral masses, and is therefore obliged to write very simply in order to prevent inextricable confusion. Whatever plan he adopts he prolongs indefinitely; he repeats his words, and the meagre phrases which form his melodies to satiety. By his regular rhythms and solid harmonies, generally productive of heaviness, his music has here and there something in common with the choruses of Gluck and Rameau, but these passages are unfortunately rare. His style is derived sometimes from Gounod, sometimes from Schumann, and yet he firmly believes himself to be following the traditions of the Flemish school. When Benoît does not chance upon any reminiscences of this kind, he exhausts himself in interminable repetitions, which never reach the interesting development we should expect from a musician of his calibre.

The list of Benoît's compositions would be very considerable were all his productions for voice and piano to be included, especially the sacred works, which date from before the conception of his theory, and upon which he no longer sets any serious value. The most important works of the second part of his career, written, it is needless to say, to Flemish words, and most of them to the poems of Emmanuel Hiel, are the following:—'Lucifer,' oratorio, performed in Brussels, 1866, and in Paris, 1883; 'Ita,' opera in 3 acts, Théâtre Flamand, Brussels, 1867; 'L'Escaut,' oratorio, 1869; 'Drama Christi,' Antwerp, 1871; 'La Lys',' cantata performed before the King at Courtrai, 1871; 'La Guerre,' oratorio, Antwerp and Brussels, 1873; 'Charlotte Corday' and