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Hyperion Records

CDA67766 - Mortelmans: Homerische symfonie & other orchestral works
Phidias (study for the Apotheosis of Homer) (c1827) by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)
San Diego Museum of Art / Museum Purchase with Earle W Grant Endowment funds / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67766

Recording details: September 2008
Koningin Elisabethzaal, Antwerp, Belgium
Produced by Alexander Van Ingen
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: October 2009
Total duration: 66 minutes 41 seconds

'Mortlemans' scoring is full of colour and drama … the music is vividly compelling … throughout the progamme, the richness of the orchestration readily holds the listener's attention, especially in such responsive performances from the Royal Flemish Philharmonic under the highly sympathetic Martyn Brabbins, well projected by a splendidly spacious Hyperion recording' (Gramophone)

'Lush, melodic and romantic … the excellent Martyn Brabbins and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic have resurrrected the Wagnerian-Straussian tone poems … as for the grand, rhapsodic 'Homeric' Symphony, it's epic' (The Observer)

'This is a fine orchestra, capable of silky smooth string playing where necessary, and excellent in all departments. Brabbins steers a clear path avoiding the mundane on the one hand, and the over-egged romantic hysteria on the other, and his orchestra, from the end result, seem to me to have enjoyed the music making hugely. These are no idle run-throughs—ensemble is tight, dynamics are carefully graded and the result is some intense music-making … this release is the first of a series, further issues in which I look forward to immensely' (Audiophile Audition, USA)

'If you have a warm place in your heart for Glazunov then this new name should be right up your street. This to me completely unfamiliar music is presented with real style by Hyperion, by Brabbins and his orchestra and by the liner-note writer Tom Janssens' (MusicWeb International)

'If all three works pay tribute to Wagner in terms of musical landscape, they still have a voice of their own—and a pleasingly sonorous voice at that' (Scotland on Sunday)

Homerische symfonie & other orchestral works

Flemish music has a rather unusual position in the history of nineteenth-century music, in that orchestral and symphonic music were almost completely subordinated to vocal music. There was little expertise in instrumental music, and this concentration on vocal works (which was seen as part of an inherited French culture) got in the way of the development of an orchestral tradition. However, occasionally a figure would appear who broke the mould. Lodewijk Mortelmans (1868–1952) was one of those responsible for the Flemish orchestral renaissance, and who looked with curiosity beyond the Belgian borders. He won the Prix de Rome in 1893, and used the prize money to travel to Germany and Italy to broaden his cultural experience. As a music correspondent he wrote about performances in Bayreuth and kept his finger on the pulse of European musical life. He wished to create an autonomous, ‘Flemish’ symphonic culture, while also appealing beyond its boundaries by choosing ‘extramusical’ subjects with a more universal agenda than Flemish nationalist topics.

One cannot accuse Mortelmans of being musically avant-garde or adventurous: he was aware that European classical music was following a new, atonal and even serial path, but right up to his death he was unwilling to abandon his romantic signature. But he perfected his traditional approach and his music is deeply attractive, showing the influence of both Sibelius and Wagner. A selection of his greatest works for orchestra are recorded here. Hyperion regular Martyn Brabbins conducts the Royal Flemish Philharmonic in their first recording for Hyperion.


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Let us begin this story momentously. Once Ludwig van Beethoven had roped in the choir and soloists to take part in his newest symphony in 1824, the musical world totally lost its bearings. Within the career of a single composer, the classical symphony was rediscovered, perfected and romanticized, but also destroyed. Composers such as Schumann and Mendelssohn did their best to exploit the genre further, but after their deaths halfway through the nineteenth century the symphony seemed no longer able to generate even the slightest spark of creative energy. It was to be at least two decades before another first-rate symphony was composed. It is generally assumed that the symphony began to be appreciated again once Brahms’s first had appeared, a superbly crafted work that was rooted in the symphonic tradition of the past but at the same time offered promise for the future. But there are parallel examples of the reanimation of the symphony, as other composers interpreted the genre in their own, different ways, including Tchaikovsky and Bruckner.

There is flip side to this story, just as interesting but rarely given the same attention: that is, not how composers revived the symphony, but how they avoided it. While countless culturally aware, nationalist composers were exploiting the symphonic form in order to present folk music to the concert-going public, composers of the Flemish (Dutch-language) region of Belgium appeared much less interested in the structural virtues and intrinsic versatility of the symphony.

Flemish music thus has a rather unusual position in the history of nineteenth-century music, in that orchestral and symphonic music was almost completely subordinated to vocal music. There was little expertise in instrumental music, and this concentration on vocal works (which was seen as part of an inherited French culture) got in the way of the development of an orchestral tradition. Above all, the uncertain enthusiasm for the nurturing of the Flemish symphony did not result from a failure to believe in tradition, but was more to do with the pervasive influence of the grand old man of Flemish music, Peter Benoit (1834–1901).

Benoit, appointed director of the Antwerp music school in 1867, was a fervent promoter of the Flemish music scene and therefore something of a rarity in the mainly French-language cultural landscape of Belgium. He was one of the first European musical nationalists to present his theories in an impressive series of polemical writings and instructive essays. His philosophy was based on an ideology that involved preferring national topics, presented in the native language, to pure symphonic or chamber music. According to Benoit, the way to a Flemish musical future involved first of all stipulating ‘nation-oriented’, Dutch-language music. Starting with the Rubenscantate (1877), Benoit—who had previously written orchestral, piano and church music—left his compositional ambitions behind him and expressed his ideas in songs, cantatas and music for choirs, some of which were composed for open-air performances. Benoit wrote in an approachable manner, his music full of compelling melodies and unisons, often demanding huge numbers of participants. Composers who intentionally subordinated their artistic egos to such self-designed goals were few and far between in the nineteenth century.

Benoit’s sole focus on vocal music seriously hampered the development of a Flemish symphonic tradition, and his aesthetic outlook had a lasting effect on a whole generation of composers. They were taught to view music as the driving force behind socio-cultural issues and the struggle for emancipation; thus they composed songs, ‘communal’ music for large forces, and works based on Flemish traditional songs and dances or for local festivities. Anyone who wanted to join in with Europe’s musical ‘mainstream’ was forced into committing patricide. And this was apparently a deed which no one wished to have on his conscience.

Nevertheless, a few Flemish composers (Jan Blockx, Lodewijk Mortelmans, August De Boeck) were less susceptible to Benoit’s aesthetic ascetism and managed to work out a way of giving symphonic and opera music a place in the repertoire once more. The fact that the most interesting Flemish orchestral music emerged at the end of the nineteenth century can be ascribed to their efforts. Do not expect any artistic heroics, however: as always, the story of music history is not totally straightforward, since these ‘innovators’ had two sides, and their desire to innovate in no way transcended their respect for Benoit and his ideals.

Lodewijk Mortelmans (1868–1952) perfectly exemplified this paradox. He was one of those responsible for the Flemish orchestral renaissance, and he also looked with curiosity beyond the Belgian borders. He was a student of Benoit and Blockx when he won the Belgian version of the Prix de Rome in 1893 with his (Dutch, of course) cantata Lady Macbeth, and used the prize money to travel to Germany and Italy to broaden his cultural experience. As a music correspondent he wrote about performances in Bayreuth and kept his finger on the pulse of European musical life. He explored the world’s literature and held a great affection for art and architecture. He founded and conducted the Maatschappij der Nieuwe Concerten, a progressive music society that invited conductors such as Hans Richter, Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler to Antwerp. But he was also known (even in the United States) as the ‘Prince of Flemish song’ and in that sense he was the perfect exporter of Benoit’s ideas. His Prix de Rome was declared to be symbolic proof of the vitality of Benoit’s school. From 1924 to 1933 he was in fact Benoit’s successor at the Conservatory in Antwerp.

Mortelmans’ artistic career therefore seemed to progress in a crab-like manner: after composing orchestral music in an original way he then perfected the traditional approach. You cannot accuse Mortelmans of being musically avant-garde or adventurous: he was aware that European classical music was following a new, atonal and even serial path, but right up to his death he was unwilling to abandon his romantic signature. In other words, Benoit’s artistic, nationalistic, romantic approach continued to be propagated (packaged in an increasingly multifaceted complex of ideas) by the directors that succeeded him. And this also meant a continuing fascination for choral singing and the solo voice.

On 17 April 1899 a Mortelmans Festival was held in Antwerp. The programme notes, written by Mortelmans (or at least in consultation with him), stated that the composer ‘had in no way thought of painting scenes or describing specific situations. The music can express only feelings and moods; it speaks the language of the inexplicable and its means of expression begins only where that of other branches of art ceases.’ Despite this, explanatory notes were provided which were not to be understood ‘in a narrow sense’ but which were to serve as a ‘means of aiding comprehension’. Mortelmans’ music can only partly be regarded as descriptive. He wished to create an autonomous, ‘Flemish’ symphonic culture, while also appealing beyond its boundaries by choosing ‘extra-musical’ subjects with a more universal agenda than Flemish nationalist topics.

In Helios and the Mythe der lente, then, we see explicit references to mythological symbols from European culture. Whereas Helios invokes the ancient mythological solstice, Mythe der lente (‘Myth of Spring’, 1895) is inspired by, in the composer’s words, the ‘spring myths of the old Edda. Gerda (the blossoming earth) suddenly wakes up from her winter sleep. Her young face radiates sweetness and a love of life; flowers blossom on her cheeks. Love swells in her heart and everything sings of a new and strong life. She hears the echoing horn signals of her approaching bridegroom: Freyr (the spring sun). He comes running, jubilant, and they rush into each others’ arms, shouting with joy and love. And resounding far and wide you hear: spring is reborn!’

The musical form is an ingenious, quasi-monothematic sonata paraphrase. After an atmospheric introduction, Mortelmans launches into a rocking cantilena, which, for the sake of convenience, we can associate with the goddess Gerda. There is a definite suggestion of a sonata form but the melody that acts as second theme is in fact a variation of the main cantilena. Just as we are about to prepare ourselves for the development, Mortelmans has a surprise in store: when he introduces the spring God Freyr, he does so with a repetitive, mystic passage with motifs from the brass section. This passage immediately conjures up the atmosphere of Sibelius’s Lemminkäinensuite, composed the following year (and it even foreshadows a theme from Sibelius’s later Fifth Symphony of 1915). Just as his Finnish colleague did, Mortelmans therefore reaches—at more or less the same moment—a symbiosis between static, atmospheric and languorous, neo-Romantic music within a mythologically tinted programme. In contrast to the more audacious Sibelius, Mortelmans quickly tips the passage over into Wagnerian pathos.

Mortelmans then transforms the contrast between Gerda’s feminine cantabile and the lascivious, masculine pounding of the hoofs of her spring God into a large-scale hallucination in which the orchestra continuously winds itself around the two themes. The strikingly melodious and harmonious play of voices, the superfluity of eruptions and the refined atmospherics of this composition make Mythe der lente a many-layered work that leaves simple mythology far behind and permits a multitude of interpretations: artistic, gender-related or even ecological.

Mortelmans had surpassed himself and nothing now stood in the way of a new programmatic symphony: the Homerische symfonie (‘Homeric Symphony’, 1898). Mortelmans wrote: ‘That title could give one the impression that this work is in Homeric style. That is absolutely not the case. The Homeric songs of the Iliad and the Odyssey had been favourite reading material for the composer for a long time, and the impressions created by these songs, under the influence of the composer’s own temperament, crystallized into moods and feelings which became expressed in a lyrical manner in this symphony.’ These may be pompous words, but they contain an apposite truth. Mortelmans’ Homerische symfonie is in essence an atmospheric succession of personal impressions. Once again Mortelmans, with his monothematic constructions, is very near to the young Sibelius although he lags behind in harmonic daring. He makes just a bit too much use of Wagnerian pastiche and this is particularly obvious in the opening movement, given the subtitle ‘Van de helden’ (‘Of the heroes’): ‘In this section feelings are expressed on everything heroic—bravery, combat, victory, but also feelings of a more tender nature.’ This is something of an overstatement, and anyone expecting classic bravery and combat in this rather pastorally coloured movement, will be disappointed. The movement opens with a heartfelt victory chorale which provides the melodic basis for everything that follows. The focus on the continuous unravelling of the main theme and the lack of a theatrical disruption (such as the Freyr passage in Mythe der lente) causes one to suspect that Mortelmans was writing a purely musical narrative.

The second movement, ‘Herinneringen aan Patroklos’ dood’ (‘Memories of Patroklos’s death’) is less abstract. ‘Patroklos was one of the Greek heroes that died outside Troy’, explains Mortelmans. ‘His death was a heavy blow for Achilles, who wept bitterly over the lifeless body of his friend and became moved by the memories of their mutual affection. The subsequent funeral ceremony was celebrated in ritual glory.’ Mortelmans takes the opportunity—like so many before him—to include a funeral march. Again, he unfolds a narrative with a minimum of thematic material. After the introduction (in which one is reminded of the tortuous figures in the notorious funeral march in Götterdämmerung), he introduces his own plodding march above a descending bass pizzicato. A halt is briefly called by a loving Andante, but this is rapidly trodden underfoot by a tumultuous return of the funeral march.

Allowing so much sadness to be succeeded by unconcerned naivety is one of Mortelmans’ less successful dramatic choices. The third movement, ‘Sirenengespeel en gezang’ (‘Sirens playing and singing’), sounds rather flippant when set against the previous movement. Mortelmans’ programme explains that this movement transports us ‘to the twelfth song in the Odyssey, in which sirens endanger the life of the sailor. Despite being repeatedly warned about the danger ahead, he throws himself into the arms of the sirens, succumbing to his fate and falling prey to the waves. The sirens then resume their darting capers and frolics and honour their victim with little more than a sneer.’ It is hard, however, to hear these merciless sirens in this well-behaved scherzo, and Mortelmans’ warning that he never ‘thought about painting scenes’ is nowhere more apt. The most interesting section is the trio, in which the more repetitive passages can be heard as harmonically polished-up prototypes of Sibelius.

Mortelmans finishes the symphony with a largely cheerful finale, which once more takes on the bravura spirit of the opening movement. ‘De genius van Hellas’ (‘The genius of Hellas’) can be experienced as ‘a lyrical song of praise for the genius of the old Hellenics: their liberally based, healthy approach to living only slightly hindered by the mysteries of religion and the oracle’. Between two jubilant passages, Mortelmans permits himself to take a strikingly dark and dramatic excursion. What should have been the promised Hellenic philosophy of life turns out to be a homage to Mortelmans’ own Germanic gods: Beethoven and Wagner. From the former, Mortelmans gets the idea of setting in motion the notorious stuttering motif familiar from the Fifth Symphony, while borrowing descending sixths and slumber-inducing hymns from the latter.

This symphony illustrates the problem of Mortelmans’ explanatory notes, and ultimately his ambivalence towards programme music. The promised ‘means of aiding comprehension’ create false hope, and anyone looking for heroic sagas, nymphomaniac mermaids, stoic drama or Greek mysticism will search in vain. Nevertheless, the composer had certainly provided Flemish music with a promising and beautiful orchestral work. Mortelmans noticed the discrepancy between the descriptions in the programme and the audience’s musical experience in reality. Whether the problem lay with the music or the programmatic descriptions, or a combination of the two, he drew his own conclusions and shifted his focus towards piano music and songs. For a full twenty years he wrote not a note of orchestral music.

Mortelmans made his orchestral return in 1922 with Morgenstemming (‘Morning Mood’). The title and size of this composition suggested another symphonic poem about nature in the mould of Mythe der lente. However, the concert programme for the premiere suggests a much more abstract intention: ‘This piece comprises the lyrical outpourings of a man who loves nature and who derives inspiration and a zest for life from nature’s pure sources. But nature also arouses a silent inner prayer to the Almighty, the Creator of beauty.’ Mortelmans had learnt his lesson: instead of coercing the listener’s fantasy, he gave full rein to his pantheistic feeling for life, speaking ‘the language of the inexplicable’.

In Morgenstemming, Mortelmans greets the morning with a somewhat naive horn signal, which is answered by murmuring strings. The light of these first rays of sun can still be recognized as stemming from Wagner although there are also interesting parallels to be drawn with the first generation of composers of the ‘English musical renaissance’. Wagnerian mood scenes are not always what one needs first thing in the morning, but Mortelmans knows how to restrain himself. The music opens out, apparently suggesting the culmination of sunrise. Then follows a compelling melody (including an acceleration at the end of the phrase, so typical of Flemish music) and a variation on the arrival of dawn heard earlier. Mortelmans is not the type to stretch dawn throughout a whole composition in the style of Grieg. Instead, he proceeds to take old and new material and creates a platform for allowing resignation and exuberance to alternate with each other. It is as if Mortelmans’ inward thoughts offer a serene alternative to the virulent luxury of nature. This introspective contemplation finally gets the last word, although Mortelmans nevertheless includes one more sudden, dramatic flare-up in the closing bars.

Morgenstemming represented a new dawn for Mortelmans: the unexpected, artistic sunrise of a composer who had already taken leave of orchestral music. More orchestral works were to follow: submissive, introverted and religiously inspired compositions in which the stylistic language was completely out of line with the modernist spirit of the time. Jan Broeckx, who in 1945 wrote a biography authorized by the composer, suggested terms for this style including ‘post-impressionism’ and ‘mood lyricism’. We may or may not find such terms useful. What is certain is that, during Mortelmans’ period of orchestral dormancy following the Homerische symfonie, Flemish orchestral music was waking up. The result was a repertoire (still to a large extent unexplored) the existence of which Benoit could not have imagined. The fact that his favourite pupil was one of the chief instigators would undoubtedly have filled him with fatherly pride.

Tom Janssens © 2009
English: Christine Davies

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