Dirk Blockeel was born in 1955 in Roeselare. After studying Dutch, English and German at the Teachers’ Training College in Torhout, he studied music at the Lemmens Institute in Leuven and the Royal Conservatory in Ghent. He was awarded first prizes in solfège, practical and theoretical harmony, fugue, counterpoint, organ, harpsichord and music history.
Since November 1992 he has been organist at St Martin’s church in Kortrijk. In 1994 he received a second prize in composition with his teacher Roland Coryn. Blockeel also works frequently as an accompanist and teacher of organ, harpsichord, ensemble playing and accompanying at the music academies in Izegem and Harelbeke. In addition, Dirk Blockeel lectures on the cantatas of J.S. Bach, and traces of this intensive study of Bach can be heard in his compositions. He handles the relationship between text and music in a creative way and challenges formal structures; for example, one thing he likes to do is to add a voice to an existing Bach work.
In addition to his love of music, he keeps intensely occupied with language and literature. He writes articles, including literary criticism and reflective pieces, primarily for the quarterly artistic magazine Ambrozijn. He has also written articles for the monthly magazine Kunst & Cultuur, published by the Paleis voor Schone Kunsten. Dirk Blockeel often has works commissioned by friends and sets texts by friends who are poets. He prefers above all to perform his compositions himself along with people from his circle of friends.
Besides instrumental ensemble and organ and piano compositions, Dirk Blockeel’s oeuvre includes a great many songs. In writing his compositions he often is inspired by poets he knows personally, such as Roger Verkarre and Mark Meekers. Besides poetry, current events and novels also inspire him. For example, his Dodici pezzi commemorativi dal libro “Se questo è un uomo” di Primo Levi (1991-1993), for twelve saxophones and soprano, is based on the book by Primo Levi. Blockeel used the passages which most affected him either because of their language or content. Hexacruces: six imitations in commemoration of six murdered Jesuits (1990) for oboe and clarinet was composed as a response to the murders of six Jesuit priests in Latin America in 1990. The composition is based on the number six, and comprises six canons dedicated to the murdered Jesuits.
Dirk Blockeel prefers to perform his work himself, with friends, for specific occasions. As a result, the setting is sometimes adapted to the players/singers and instruments at hand. In general his compositions are set for more classical, traditional forces. For example, most of his ensemble pieces are for various wind instruments with organ or harpsichord. Certain compositions however, are unusual in their settings. Ein Ring für Rainer Maria Rilke (1994), a cycle of twelve songs for oboe, cello and percussion, is a nice example. Its use of percussion is especially striking as it is an element rarely used in his compositions. The previously mentioned Dodici pezzi commemorativi… for twelve saxophones is among the exceptions. He also almost never uses experimental playing techniques.
Dirk Blockeel is, in his own words, not the prototype of a modern or post-modern composer. His close affinity with the past, and with church music and spiritual matters has in a sense isolated him from the various currents of 21st-century classical music. His compositions are virtually all conceived from a fairly modal or tonal perspective and can be called rather traditional. His great inspiration and master is Johann Sebastian Bach, a predilection no doubt influenced by his training as an organist and harpsichordist. The Middle Ages and Renaissance have also affected him. Some of Blockeel’s compositions are re-workings of compositions by Bach, to which he adds voices or transcribes them for other forces. Contrapunctus XIII (Canon alla duodecima in contrapunto alla quinta) is a good example. It is an arrangement of BWV 1080 from The Art of the Fugue for two harpsichords. The first voice of the four-voice counterpoint is played by the first harpsichord with an added voice. The second voice is then taken by a second harpsichord with another added voice. Another example is his version of BWV 1004 (Partita in d for solo violin) for harpsichord. Besides re-working Bach compositions, a version of fourteen duets by Bartók is part of Blockeel’s extensive oeuvre. In 1991 he rewrote a version of Hatvan évvel késöbb (Sixty years later), from 1931, for violin and harpsichord. His Sint-Maartenscantate (Cantata for St Martin, 1997) for example, shows similarities with the structure of a Bach cantata. It has three sections, each of which in turn is divided again. The three sections consist of a sequence of recitatives, lyrical arias and rather solemn homophonic choral sections. The third section in particular is remarkable; it begins with an overture, which refers to the French overture not only in its frequent use of dotted rhythms but also to Bach, who often wove elements of the French overture into his cantatas. In general it can be said that this third section is mainly a sequence of solo and tutti sections, opened by an instrumental overture and closed with a final chorale. Like Bach, Dirk Blockeel uses variation in his musical forces.
An important feature in his vocal music is the relationship between text and music. Blockeel always lends full musical expression to the given text. Among the techniques he uses are those used by the Flemish masters of polyphony in their music. For instance, he sets rests before and after words which should be emphasised, uses rising or falling melodic lines if a word is to express a movement of that kind, and also uses large melodic leaps to put certain words into relief. Terug naar de bron (Back to the source) from 1997 is a composition consisting of four spiritual songs for soprano, violin and organ set to poems by Mark Meekers. The first song, Da Capo, has no bar numbers. The regularly occurring bar lines are only there for structural reasons. The metric substance of the measures changes continually. The text is a point of departure for creating an expressive musical language. He makes frequent use of chromatic turns and large leaps in the melody, which can hardly be called purely smooth voice-leading. The violin and organ parts have independent roles and thus are more than just accompaniment. These two parts are rhythmically slower than the vocal part in general. Also, motifs from the soprano part are rarely taken over by the other two. The second song, Vermist (missing), by contrast does have bar numbers. It is in 8/8 which is subdivided into in 3/8 + 2/8 + 3/8. The soprano part has a flowing melodic line and there are virtually no chromatic or jarring melodic turns. The second song contrasts with the first in this regard. The organ part starts with a motif which is picked up by the violin one bar later, but a fifth higher, reminiscent of the fugues from J.S. Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier. It is a two-bar motif which comes back later in inversion. Where the soprano’s text has the word “echo”, this is eagerly taken advantage of by the violin and organ, who keep repeating the falling third motif used for the word “echo” in the next measure while also slowing down. This is also a nice illustration of the relationship between text and music. The other two songs, Gebrandschilderd (Branded; or Stained – as in “stained-glass window”) and Terug naar de bron (Back to the source) make use of similar techniques and are also fitting illustrations of one of the most important traits of the vocal works of Dirk Blockeel.
List of works
Ensemble: Hexacruces: six imitations in commemoration of six murdered Jesuits for oboe and clarinet (1990); Aan snaren opgehangen kruisweg for string quartet (1993); Ein Ring für Rainer Maria Rilke for oboe, cello and percussion (1994); Contrapunctus XIII for 2 harpsichords (1997-98); Subida al monte Carmelo for 2 violins (1998); Sprawl Shake Shalom for flute, oboe, clarinet, tenortrombone, harp, piano and percussion (2001)
Vocal: Dodici pezzi commemorativi dal libro “Se questo è un uomo” di Primo Levi for 12 saxophones en soprano (1991-’93); Tonen in de tijd gelegd (1997); Tre ninna nanne su nascita, amore e morte (1997); Terug naar de bron (1997); Sint-Maartenscantate (1997); Kleine dingen in klanken (2000); De broeders kreeft bezongen (2001)
Organ music: Vijf bezweringen (1988); Een orgel van papier (1997); Vier oprecht gemene stukken (1998)
For a more detailed list of Blockeel’s work, please follow this link.
– B. BUCKINX, De kleine pomo of De muziekgeschiedenis van postmodernisme, Peer, 1994
– B. CRABBE, “Iedere dichter probeert het leven te verklaren,” art. in De Standaard, 29 januari 2010
– S. DE RIJCKE, “Dirk Blockeel – Reikhalzend naar de grote B,” interview met Dirk Blockeel in Artistiek Tijdschrift Ambrozijn, 35/4, 2018
– P. PHILIPSEN, “Blockeel Dirk: ein Ring für Rainer Maria Rilke (1994),” in Flemish Chamber Music since 1950, uitg. dr. M. DELAERE en R. DIEPENDAELE, Leuven, 2011
– F. ROQUET, Lexicon Vlaamse componisten geboren na 1800, Roeselare, 2007, p. 56
For a list of articles and publications authored by Dirk Blockeel, please follow this link.
– Ein Ring für Rainer Maria Rilke, CONTEMPORARY MUSIC IN FLANDERS VII, Matrix 2011/01
– Stilte voor de storm, FINGERPRINTS – SIGNATUREN VAN COMPONEREND VLAANDEREN, FMC 2010/02
Texts by Vanessa Braekeveld and Anna Vermeulen
Last update: 2018
© Photo: Luc Dewaele