Chapter 20 - Music, Art, and the Drama

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WHATEVER else he may be or may not be, the Belgian is intensely fond of music. Concerts are the most popular form of entertainment. There is not a commune that does not keep up a band or rather two, for there are pretty certain to be rival Catholic and Liberal bands wherever one goes, and in no other country are greater facilities provided by the Government for those desirous of studying vocal or instrumental music in any form. There seems to be an average of not fewer than 20,000 permanent students passing through the conservatories at any given time. State help is given to these institutions because public opinion demands it, and not with the object of spreading a love of music. The love of music is a national trait. The Government is, therefore, expected to provide those who wish to earn their living by the profession with the suitable means and facilities of becoming experts and virtuosi.

The four royal conservatories are situated in Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, and Liege. Each institution is divided into classes covering the whole range of harmony, and at Antwerp and Ghent there are separate classes for French and Flemish declamation. The following table shows the total of inscribed students at each of these institutions in 1908:

Name Male Students Female Students Total

Antwerp 949 978 1,927

Brussels 481 405 886

Ghent 580 601 1,181

Lie'ge 742 461 1,203

Grand Total 5,197

In addition to the four royal conservatories there are sixty-five other conservatories and schools of music in the country. Of these fifty-six are in Hainaut, Brabant, and Flanders. The total of inscribed students was 14,115 (7,033 males and 7,082 females). Among the famous musicians turned out by the Belgian schools of music may be named Cesar Franck and Ysaye, whose reputations are European. The chief merit lies, however, in turning out annually a large number of qualified musicians of all kinds whose influence on the life of the country and the character of its people is not inconsiderable.

The opera is very popular in Brussels, and has a particularly long season at the Theatre de la Monnaie. During the three months that the opera house is closed the orchestra plays in the open air every evening at Vauxhall, in the Bois, except when it rains. The conductors are doctors of music who have qualified at one of the royal conservatories, and the orchestra is now recruited exclusively from the national schools of music. There are fine concert halls in Brussels besides the hall of the Conservatoire, which is situated in the rue de la Regence. One of these is in the room called La Grande Harmonie, at the top of the rue de la Madeleine. Great interest is taken in the competition among the students of the Conservatoires, but on these occasions only the parents or other near relatives to the number of two apiece are allowed to be present to hear the concours at which the relative merit of the student is announced. At the repetition, however, it is possible for outsiders to be present, and the search for new talent is not the least practical errand of the visitors who include many impresarios. Great pride is taken in organizing the communal bands which are composed of trained musicians. They are called out to attend the funeral of any prominent resident, and in the smaller communes any funeral, provided the deceased belonged to the right political party. They thus acquire special skill and harmony in Handel's or Chopin's funeral march. On fete days and national holidays they play popular music in the principal square or "Grand Place," winding up with the national anthem of La Brabanconne. The military bands are also first rate, especially those of the two Guide Cavalry regiments, which are always quartered in Brussels. One of these bands plays in the park every afternoon during the summer. The city band of Brussels also plays there, and throughout the country similar arrangements are carried out in all the garrison towns. Whatever shortcomings he may note, the visitor to Brussels and Belgium will have no reason to complain of a lack of good music. The audience at the Monnaie, while retaining their right to criticism are particularly susceptible to the claims of new-comers of evident talent, and many a famous prima donna dates her first European success from the acclamations of a Belgian audience in their historic theater. The Belgian revolution of 1830 originated with the ebullition of popular enthusiasm aroused by Massanniello's famous song invocating the spirit of patriotism.

Art not less than music enjoys official support. The principal institution for the cultivation of the Fine Arts finds its home naturally enough at Antwerp associated with the memories of Rubens and Vandyke. This is styled the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, and dates from the year 1850. All the well-known artists of Belgium in the last half-century have passed through this Academy, and many others as well who have not followed their profession in Belgium. Among the latter the most distinguished is the great Belgian artist, Sir L. Alma-Tadema. So far as mere numbers go the institution reached its prime in 1880, when there were as many as 1,692 students as compared with 941 in 1908. The decline seems the more considerable when it is stated that female students were admitted for the first time in 1890.

Besides the Royal Academy at Antwerp there were eighty-six drawing academies and schools in the kingdom attended by 16,137 students of both sexes. Many of these students are trained as architects, gilders, engravers, etc., as well as those who enter the courses of drawing and painting. There was even a class of naval architects at Antwerp, but this was given up in 1885. So far as the different fine art exhibitions allow of an opinion to be formed from the total numbers of exhibitors there were about 600 painters of the male sex and 100 of the female actively practicing their profession as artist-painters in 1903.

The modern school in Belgium, dating from 1835, was chiefly historical. Impressed by the events of the period of liberation, the artists found their inspiration in the incidents of Netherlands' history Biefve, Gallait, DeKeyser were the leaders in the revival of Belgian art, and their historical works are to be found on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art in Brussels. But the interest of such works soon passed off, and for a time Belgian art languished or waned in the choice of a new bent. After some uncertainty a new school of landscape painters, racy of the soil, has come into existence, making present-day Belgian art a real and living fact. Instead of our own it will be best to give M. Edmond Pic ard's vi ews on the de^ _ velopment of modem Belgian arr^ They are set forth in the following passage which is taken from one of his lively causeries on "t he artistic psyc hology of Belgium ." We may only pretend to give M. Picard's sense and not his style, which baffles the translator's efforts:

"In order to be the artist, to transform one's impressions into the beautiful, it is necessary before everything to be true to one's own home and surroundings ; art must be impregnated with national thought, ambition, and tendencies. At the beginning of our history Belgium had no national soul, because the sense of a nationality did not exist. Across that land of mist, where each knew not his neighbor unless it was to combat him, there bloomed no flower of idealism. While in the Greek and Roman civilizations gods walked on earth, while Paganism gave free vent to its streams of eternal beauty, with us all was void. The night, during which intellect with us slept, began to break about the year 1000, when in churches and monasteries the aesthetic awakening was revealed by barbarous and coarse decoration and constructive work which were still expressive of the Roman art. Out of this sprang Gothic art which in emotional force, if not in the power of its harmonious beauty, surpassed Greek art itself. With the House of Burgundy appeared the first form of national unity, thus really creating Belgium, and thenceforth national sentiment found its noblest expression in an independent and original art. The national soul is manifested with striking intensity in the works of Memling and Van Eyck, in which may be found across the centuries the same characteristics as are observable in our art today - the love of the picturesque, the research in detail, the desire to provoke emotion. After the House of Burgundy came the eclipse of our individuality, and with it of our art - the eclipse lasted during nearly three centuries. It may be objected that the reign of Albert and Isabella saw the striking genius of Rubens. But Rubens was not Belgian. He was one of those supernatural men like Shakespeare and Micheal Angelo, who, when they disappear, leave all in darkness after them. And then we arrive at the day of our independence. At first our artists seek to follow in the track of Rubens, and we get the mediocre productions of de Keyser and Slingeneyer. But other artists rose with the courage to look about them. It is in landscape, in the representation of the native soil that the renaissance begins; Artan, Boulenger, Baron and a crowd of others who scatter over their works the light whose marvelous beauty they have appreciated. Then came that great artist Constantin Meunier, whom we may describe as of the school of Quentin Metsys, Laermans who may be compared to Breughel, Alfred Stevens and De Groux to Vermeer and Snyders. All these have created for us a new, striking and vigorous art because they realized that it must be not merely beautiful, but true to our national and familiar life."

Modern Belgium can boast of having produced some very fine sculptors, among the principal being Eugeen Simonis, the brothers Geefs, Jehoth, Fraikin, and more recently Jacques de Lalaing. The finest product of the art of a Belgian sculptor is undoubtedly the colossal equestrian statue of Godfrey of Bouillon, which occupies the center of the Place Royale. The British Waterloo monument in the Evere cemetery may be mentioned as an original piece of work due to the talent of Count J. de Lalaing.

There is no national theater in Belgium as in France, and up to the present time no special trainingschool for the stage has been established. The utmost that has been done in any form of State, and that under the pressure of the Flemish party, has been the building of special theaters for Flemish plays at Antwerp, Ghent, and Brussels. After the Monnaie, which has been referred to as the house for opera, the principal theaters in Brussels are the Pare, the Moliere, the Galleries, and the Alhambra. The most fashionable of them is the Pare, where it is usual to give the latest success from Paris with French actors and actresses. Classical plays are given from time to time, and matinees of plays to which young ladies can be taken have recently become the vogue.

If the Pare is the playhouse for society, the Mo* Here, which is also a house for French plays, appeals to a more general public. The theaters in the lower town go in for light comedy, operetta, and burlesque. Their greatest successes are scored when they put on the boards a "risky" piece like "La Dame de chez Maxim." Its success was phenomenal, not greater, however, than that of the drama "Cyrano de Bergerac." If there is a national school of actors in the French tongue, it is still largely in the making, and the Belgian stage must be described as cosmopolitan with a majority of the performers claiming French birth.

It is, of course, different with the Flemish theaters, where the company is necessarily exclusively Belgian. But the Flemish theaters can boast of no large repertoire, and the heroic popular play of "Uylenspiegel" was written originally in French by its author, Charles de Coster. It is, however, a sure draw with the Flemings, for it deals with the heroic period of the communes, and is frequently put on the stage. As a drama it somewhat resembles the "Dead Heart," but the most remarkable point about it is the opportunity it affords of studying a Flemish audience. The royal theater at Antwerp is used as both an opera house and for plays, but here the language used is French. It resembles the Monnaie with the exception that its season is shorter - September to April - and that it only opens its doors on certain days in the week. The most fashionable audience collects for the Sunday matinees. The Antwerp citizens are more staid than those of Brussels, and their dramatic fare has to be selected accordingly. The Flemish Theater, known as the Schouwburg, may be described as the home of Flemish drama, and sometimes Flemish translations of Shakespeare's plays are put on the stage. At Ghent there is another Flemish Theater also called the Schouwburg, which resembles in character those already described. Near it is the French theater, but its season is short and, as a rule, it only opens its doors twice or thrice a week.

Source: Boulger, Demetrius C. Belgium. Detroit: Published for the Bay View Reading Club, 1913. Print.

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