Bernard Baert was born on 4 October 1963 in Waregem. He grew up in a musical family – his father was director of the Waregem music academy, where Bernard pursued his first musical studies. At the Royal Conservatory in Ghent, where he studied with Louis Pas and Claude Coppens (piano) and Roland Coryn (composition), he was awarded first prizes for solfège, piano, music history, theoretical and practical harmony, chamber music, counterpoint, fugue and composition. He also received a higher diploma and teaching certificate for piano. He took additional summer courses in piano from Jean-Claude Vanden Eynden, Daniel Blumenthal and Robert Groslot. From 1987 to 1997 he taught theory at the Royal Conservatory in Ghent, and is currently a teacher of piano, ensemble playing and accompaniment at the Waregem music academy, where he also is an accompanist. He has received several prizes for his compositions, including the SABAM prize for his Woodwind Quintet (1994) and the Jef Van Hoof Prijs for his Piano trio (1995). Between 2003 and 2007, Bernard Baert composed mainly didactic work for music academies.
The works of Bernard Baert can be divided into two groups, youthful compositions written before studying with Roland Coryn, and those written in 1991 and afterwards. Baert considers the latter group his real, full-fledged compositions, and thus only they have been given opus numbers. There is also an aesthetic and technical evolution in this group.
The point of departure for the early works, mainly piano pieces with a didactic function, is a given affect. This is extremely clear in the two books for piano, Affekten, from 1991. These Affekten are conceived as suites of twelve consecutive and contrasting parts, in which a main affect such as Haastig (Hasty, bk. I-2), Verdrietig (Mournful, I-3), Angstig (Fearful, I-5), Ernstig (Serious, II-9) or Levendig (Lively, II-12) is elaborated. This is similar to the use of Baroque affect, in which instrumental compositions or parts thereof express or imitate just one affect, simultaneously attempting to evoke that affect in the listener. The intention of Affekten was indeed to get students to portray these moods as clearly as possible. Technically the composition of this early work is characterised by a simple harmonic, rhythmic and formal language.
When Baert studied with Roland Coryn, beginning in 1991, his aim was to explore the boundaries of classical harmony and counterpoint, which he had completely mastered. He experimented in detail with various twentieth-century technical developments, which resulted in an increasingly complex language. In his opus 1, Autumn Sounds from 1991 (not programme music, despite its title), Baert departed from classical harmony, taking one interval, the diminished second and its inversions, as a basis. The form, however, remains classical and is similar to a Chopin nocturne. The formal concept of Identities op. 2 (1992) for violin and piano, is by contrast twentieth-century: this aleatory composition comprises eight pieces or “identities” (four per instrument) each lasting a minute and a half, each with their own identity as to tempo, rhythm, dynamics, interval structure and climax. Each “identity” may only be played once in random order and in combination with the other instrument, which results in four confrontations. The total duration of the piece is thus six minutes.
The aleatoric principle does not only occur in Identities. In the didactic piece De Seizoenen (the seasons) for one violinist and one violin op. 3 (1992), a twelve-part suite, the student easily gets to know non-conventional playing techniques (harmonic tones, glissandi or microtones) and ways of playing such as “alla chitarra” in which the violin is played like a guitar. The aleatoric principle comes in the eleventh section, Examen (examination). In its first segment the violinist can create his or her own melody, based on a pitch series. Then a melody must be set to a rhythmic pattern and in the third segment the violinist may put together a complete melody from a pitch and rhythm series. The player’s freedom is limited, however, by the fact that in the first and last segments only a few intervals may be used (seconds and thirds), and in the second segment the total duration must add up to eighteen beats. In addition to the aleatory element and unusual playing techniques there is also a dramatic aspect in De Seizoenen. The player becomes an instrument as well, being required to snore, whistle, sing or hum, and the entire body is even used when tapping the feet in de Dirigent (the conductor, no. 9) in which the player has to conduct a fictitious piece.
Bernard Baert shows that music can also be a reflection on events in our society, as in the Trio for violin, cello and piano op. 4 (1992), written as a response to the Parliamentary elections of 24 November 1991. To counter society’s intolerance and indifference, Bernard Baert found an answer in amazement, surprise and exploration. In the Trio he again takes up the theme of the affects, although this time not in a mimetic treatment of them. This translates into a highly contrasting score with indications such as “with amazing”, “surprisingly”, “exploring”, “divine” or “enchanting and charming”. The structure is classically in four parts, where the sections contrast with each other. The Trio is based on a tone set, the augmented triad, which is used both melodically and harmonically. In the Woodwind quintet op. 5 (1992) as well, the composer’s aim is to awaken the sense of amazement in the listener using contrasts. The slow first section, where long note values and the slow tempo do away with the sense of time, with a web of sound colour as a result, sharply contrasts with the fast, aggressive second part.
The Clarinet quartet op. 14 (1995-1996), in which he brings complexity to a high point, was a turning point in Baert’s oeuvre. As in his earlier compositions, he creates maximum contrast between the four sections. The contrast does not arise only through differences in character, but also through pitch organisation. For example, in parts one, two and four, the tones are organised based on a mode of stacked fifths, while this is deviated from in the third section, resulting in an alienating effect. Formally, the quartet is organised according to the Fibonacci number series. The anticlimax of the second section, for example, falls on the golden mean. The handling of the rhythm is extremely complex, as it is more than just filling in the metre, and actually works against it. Just as in the Woodwind Quintet, we see, for example, long note values in the first section which break through the sense of bar lines. However, this static pattern is quickly abandoned and a climax is arrived at by decreasing the values, followed by a denouement with again longer note values. In the second period of the fourth section, different rhythmic patterns are layered over each other, giving a continually changing metric feeling.
As complexity began to overshadow his immediate joy in music-making, and as he feared collapsing into a compositional system without challenges (such as employing the Fibonacci series), Bernard Baert chose a new direction. This does not mean a tabula rasa as to the knowledge of twentieth-century compositional techniques. In the organ piece Zicht in zich(t) (Sight in sight, or Sight per se, op. 39, 2003) we still see a stream of sounds generating itself in a slow movement, as in the Woodwind Quintet, but now driven by an underlying pulse. Baert drastically simplifies his language with the goal of putting the fun of playing back at the centre. This mostly has consequences for the harmony: triads, which the composer feels are easier to play in tune than dissonant chords and thus make it easier to play with others, resulting in better ensemble sounds, are employed frequently again. This simplification is not limited to harmony, however. If his early works were characterised by a multiplicity of contrasts, the compositions after the Clarinet quartet show more unity of character. In the single-movement Piu Meno Symphony (op. 31, 2000) contrast is consciously avoided. This symphony works as an antidote to today’s hectic lifestyle. The musical information is presented slowly and in long arcs, so that the listener can concentrate “more” on “less” (as the title suggests). The affects come back to the foreground, as in the Trio, but then on a more abstract level. Compositions like the Piu Meno Symphony or Overture op. 38 (2002) are intended as a personal way of reaching a spiritual level of slowing-down and contemplation. In the Rêverie du promeneur solitaire op. 35 (2001), a cantata for soprano solo to a text by Rousseau, Baert brings up the existential question of happiness, with the intention that the listener seek its essence.
List of works
Piano music: Habanera (1979); Affekten, books 1 and 2 (1991); Autumn Sounds op. 1 (1991); Collection of educational piano pieces op. 15 (1992-96); Twee Klankgedichten op. 12 (1995); Klankgedichten 3 and 4 op. 24 (1997); Oases op. 27 (1998); Als een rode draad op. 33/1 (2001); Portret op. 33/2 (2001)
Organ: Inzicht in (zicht), op. 39 (2003)
Chamber music: Prelude for violin and piano (1983); Identities for violin and piano op. 2 (1992); Trio for violin, cello and piano op. 4 (1992); Woodwind Quintet op. 5 (1992); Brass Quintet op. 6 (1993); Clarinet Quartet op. 14 (1995-96); Piano Quartet op. 25 (1998); String Quartet op. 30 (1999); Second Trio for violin cello en piano op. 37 (2002)
Vocal works: Een zwemmer is een ruiter for chorus op. 7 (1993); Zeewaarts gezegd: 5 songs op. 8 (1993); Ik wil een onbetreden dal: cantata for 2 solists, mixed chorus and orchestra op. 13 (1995); Comes the dawn: song (1996); Renaissance: 6 songs op. 26 (1998); Rêverie du promeneur solitaire for soprano, string quartet, woodwind quartet and piano on lyrics by Rousseau op. 35 (2001)
Orchestral works: Elegy for violin and orchestra op. 19 (1996); Eerste Affectensuite for harmonic orchestra op. 23 (1997); Piu Meno- Symphony for chamber symphonic orchestra op. 31 (2000); Ouverture for large symphonic orchtestra op. 38 (2002)
Texts by Frederic Delmotte and Katherina Lindekens
Last update: 2007, list of works 2014