Due to its geographical position, Belgium is at the confluence of the currents of the Germanic countries and the Latin countries. The two races that inhabit it seem, in music, to have inherited the sense of polyphonic architecture, of harmonious color, and of rhythm. Musicians born between the Somme and the Rhine exercised a kind of musical hegemony over the whole of Europe, between about 1450 and 1550 (see Flemish, music). The illustrious masters who had come from there were at that time sought after by all the princes of Europe, and dominated the Italian musical schools, as well as at the court of the German lords. The historical importance of a Dufay, an Ockeghem, a Josquin Després, an Adriano Willaert, a Cipriano di Rore, an Orlando di Lasso, is no less than that of a Van Eyck, a Memlinc, a Van der Weyden, of the Breughels, of a Rubens in the field of painting.
It should be noted above all that all these masters have spent long years in Italy. If the Italian musical environment acted on them, it is true on the other hand that the importance p. ex. by Adriano Willaert and Cipriano di Rore (born in Malines) was, especially in the history of the Italian madrigal, considerable. These great Flemish or Walloon artists were able to draw from the invention of modern polyphony, initiated by the French and Florentine masters of the century, to the extreme. XII and XIII. They taught Europe as a whole, before ceding hegemony to Italy.
After the sixteenth century, music decays in Belgium, despite the fame achieved in the century. XVIII by some musicians such as Loeillet, of Ghent, or Defesch, of Antwerp. The most illustrious Belgian masters of the late eighteenth century, Grétry and Gossec, appear to us as transplanted living in Paris and using a very French style, despite the Italianisms that abound p. ex. in Grétry’s gracious opéras comiques.
It should be noted here that Beethoven is of Flemish origin, being his paternal grandfather from Malines. Closson attributed to these origins some traits of Beethoven’s character, which are perhaps not typically German: above all his furious spirit of independence.
From 1830 to 1850, in Belgium, as in France and Italy, only the theatrical work is in honor and above all the one called grand opéra. From this date the cult for choral art also developed. The fashion of choral societies, especially for men, imported from Germany, spread rapidly, and Belgium is also today one of the countries in Europe where choral singing is most flourishing.
It is known how a scene from Auber’s La muta di Portici, in 1830, gave the signal of the insurrection that was to liberate Belgium. The duet Amour sacre de la patrie, repeated in chorus from the whole room, was the spark that set fire to the powders.
At that time, the Monnaie theater in Brussels (which had taken this name because it was located opposite the Hôtel des Monnaies) was already flourishing and reputed to be one of the best opera houses in Europe (see Brussels).
Cesare Franck (1822-1890) born in Liège can be considered as the true founder of the modern Belgian school. Although this great master spent almost his entire life in Paris and created all his masterpieces there, he nevertheless always preserved all the characteristic features of the Walloon genius: polyphonic sense, genius of tonal architecture, character of melodic invention. The same characteristics can be observed in his pupil and compatriot William Lekeu (1870-1894) although he worked very little with him. Lekeu also had a keen sense of orchestral color, and a very personal elegiac sensibility. He might have become one of the greatest musicians of his time had he not died at 24.
The Walloon school has been strongly influenced by these two great artists, and in recent years by that of the French school, represented above all by Debussy and Gabriele Fauré. Among the numerous musicians who belong to it, we must especially mention Giuseppe and Leone Jongen, V. Vreuls notable polyphonist, Théo Ysaye (brother of the famous violinist), Leone du Bois, the conductor Sylvain Dupuis, Alberto Dupuis, Francesco Rasse, Erasmo Raway, Désiré Paques, Luigi Delune, Raimondo Moulaert, Léon Delcroix, the organist Paul de Maleingrau, Brumagne, Barbier, Sarly, Scharrès, Giovanni Rogister and many others.
The Flemish school, founded by Pietro Benoît (1834-1901), retains a popular character and gladly resorts to the choral and instrumental masses. For both defects and qualities, Pietro Benoît (v.), From Antwerp, embodies the Flemish musical genius.
This trend is felt by many musicians, most of whom have been influenced by Wagner. They are colourists who like to paint the pompous fairs and parades of their country. We mention among them the Gandae Enrico Maelput (1845-1885), Edgardo Tinel, Giovanni Blockx, of whom the Heroergprinses, with its 2nd act fair, remains, in the theater, the masterpiece of modern Flemish music, Wambach, Ryelandt, Arturo de Greef (illustrious pianist), Paolo Gilson, esthete, theorist and pedagogue, whose symphonic poem La mer (1891) was rightly considered a revolutionary work.
Also connected to the Flemish school are Augusto de Boeck, a strong colourist, whose plays La route d’émeraude, Songe d’une nuit d ‘ hiver, betray the Wagnerian influence, Mortelmans, Herberigs, author of chamber music and a mass of very advanced tendencies, Brusselman, etc.
Today the influence of Wagnerian music no longer seems to manifest itself among young people. No longer having to fight against it, they try to free themselves from that of Debussy and above all from that of Cesare Franck. Everyone looks towards Paris; Paolo Dukas, Ravel and Stravinsky attract them above all, but also Honegger, Milhaud and Poulenc. The group of “synthesists” in Brussels corresponds to the ancient group of “six” in Paris: they refer to the high personality of their teacher Paolo Gilson. Among these artists we mention Renato Bernier, G. Brenta, Théo Dejoncker, Roberto Otlet, Marcello Poot, Maurizio Schoemaker, Giulio Strens and Francesco de Bourguignon.
Among the independents we mention the Flemish Monier, a disciple of Gilson, the Walloon Ferdinando Quinet, Arturo Hoerée. Most of the young musicians live in Paris, many of them were disciples of Vincent d’Indy, so it is very difficult to consider them as belonging to a proper Belgian school.
Going back, it is necessary to highlight the considerable work of the Belgian musicians, in the vast work completed in the century. XIX, for the methodical study of the past of music. Fétis, who spent almost his entire life in Paris, was a fervent pioneer in this field. He had for emulation in Belgium a Coussemaker, who published the texts of the Middle Ages; a Van Maleden, a Gevaert, who among the first strove to decipher the works of Greek music and tirelessly published works of polyphonic vocal music in critical editions. These famous men had as successors Carlo van den Borren, Ernesto Closson, Paolo Bergmans etc., who are today the glory of the Belgian musical school.