Louis August Edmond Hendrik De Meester was born on 18 October 1904 in a Francophone, liberal family in Roeselare. From a young age he took lessons in violin and piano, as well as solfège, although he would never receive a traditional musical education. From 1923, the composer started to earn his living by playing in cafés. He also played music for silent films and for balls and parties; this would form the basis of his later interest in functional music and music for film, plays and ballet. In 1927 he went to France to pursue the same career, moving on to Morocco two years later and there signing a contract to play jazz at the “Café de la Paix”. He also did the administrative work in a music school in Meknès, where he was offered a position as a music teacher. De Meester never received formal musical training, but taught himself music theory in six weeks. After two weeks of teaching, he became director of the school. In the context of his duties as director, he met Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel and Francis Poulenc. In the same period he became a member of the Belgian artists’ rights association, SABAM (then known as Navea, the National Association for Artists’ Rights). The composer returned to Belgium in 1937 in order to complete his studies as a composer. He took lessons in counterpoint with Jean Absil, the only formal musical training which he would ever follow. At the end of the Second World War, after a successful entrance exam, De Meester took a position at the NIR (the Belgian Broadcasting Corporation) as a music producer. At this time he met the “Groupe des Six” – Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Germaine Tailleferre en Arthur Honnegger – as well as Igor Stravinsky. These composers did not have a direct influence on him, however. While at the NIR (which became the BRT after the war), Louis De Meester, who had now abandoned his pseudonym of Louis Master, experimented in electro-acoustic music in the radio studios together with David Van de Woestijne.
In 1954, De Meester won his first major prize, the Italia Prize for documentary, with Le soleil se lève sur un monde. Three years later he won the same prize again for the category of radio, with his radio-opera, De Grote Verzoeking van Sint-Antonius (The Great Temptation of St Anthony), in which electro-acoustic techniques were applied. In 1961, De Meester was invited to become the artistic director of the IPEM (the Institute for Psycho-acoustics and Electronic Music) in Ghent. The institute was officially opened one year later. De Meester helped to found the composers’ group SPECTRA in 1963. He won the Sicily Prize (as part of the Italia Prize) for his opera Twee is te weinig, drie is te veel (Two is not enough, three is too much). From 1969, De Meester officially went into retirement, but remained active at the IPEM. He was a two-time winner of the Visser-Neerlandia Prize, in 1970 and 1973, for Marine and Concertino respectively. In 1979, he won the Staatsprijs for Composition, awarded every five years, and one year later he received an honorary doctorate from the Rijksuniversiteit Gent. De Meester’s last activities cover the period from 1984 to 1987, when he produced arrangements for the Nieuwe Muziekgroep, an ensemble conducted by Marc De Smet, one of the composer’s former pupils. Louis De Meester died on 12 December 1987.
For Louis De Meester, the relation with the audience was always of major importance. This “bridge function” between composer and audience explains why he never chose to immerse himself completely in one particular technique or style. For example, he did in fact write atonal dodecaphonic music, but never completely adopted the serial approach. Besides works in a free atonal style with tonal influences, he also composed in a style with twelve-tone organisation, as in Nocturne I (1946). And yet here too, the composer does not make use of all the serial possibilities. De Meester does not employ transpositions and the series appears only in its original form or in inversion. However, in his Variations for two pianos (1947), he does cyclically rotate the hexachords within the series.
Since De Meester never composed dodecaphonically in the strictest sense, he never truly conformed to the international avant-garde movement, which as a consequence somewhat isolated him from this movement. Another disadvantage of the functional compromise between entertainment and artistic music was his preference for placing his music in the context of other art forms, such as ballet and drama, which tended to assign to the music a secondary position. However, the majority of De Meester’s functional works did bring him success, including Betje Trompet in de knoop (1950), and Betje Trompet en de Reus (1965). These musical fairy tales were composed for the Youth Programming section of the BRT, on libretti by René Metzemaekers, and premiered by the BRT Orchestra. In these works, various forms and styles are combined, including canon, fugue, motivic development, dodecaphonic elements and jazz influences. This recombining in a personal way without being influenced by one particular master or style is characteristic of De Meester’s music. This is also evident in his electronic music, as in the combination of atmospheric sound effects, from babbling brooks to motors and out-of-step marching bands.
Besides this influence of music’s functional aspect, De Meester’s aesthetic was formed by the notion of entertainment. It might perhaps seem strange that a composer from this sector would come to be seen as one of the pioneers of new music. It was, however, precisely because he was not classically trained that he was able to gain the necessary distance to give him a broader perspective on tradition. In addition, the playing of jazz music – especially in Morocco – led him to experimentation and improvisation. In this regard, he carried out innovative work in establishing Belgian electronic music. De Meester’s position at the NIR was not only important for his dodecaphonic orientation, as he also became familiar with tape recorders, which he used for much more than simply sound recording. Starting in 1952, under the influence of Musique Concrète, De Meester was one of the first composers in Belgium to experiment with the manipulation of magnetic tape. This led him to a number of new sound effects. He also developed new timbres that could be employed in addition to existing timbres. De Grote Verzoeking van Sint-Antonius (1957) is a work in which manipulated sounds complement vocal and instrumental elements. This radio opera deals with St Anthony, beset by singing mermaids and devils in the dunes by the sea. In order to conjure up reality in his compositions, De Meester uses the timbres of acoustic instruments. In order to create a dream world, with or without an exotic accent (cf. his later Incantations (1958), and Nocturne Malgache (1965)), electro-acoustic means are used. This reference to the exotic has its roots in De Meester’s period in Meknès. An early example of this is Magreb (1946), a study of Moroccan folk music, although there are no direct quotations and Western instruments are used.
In his electro-acoustic music as well, the composer is careful not to lose sight of his audience. In his manipulation of recorded sounds – following the example of Musique Concrète – he parodies and paraphrases, but in such a way that recognisable sounds, once paraphrased, remain recognisable In his work, Ringvariaties (1962), piano sounds are modulated, but the listener continues to hear that the original piano sounds are being used. Similarly, tape music was produced, consisting of recorded instrumental or vocal works that had been subsequently manipulated. Besides manipulation, De Meester used recombination techniques, assembling fragments of music and using them as compositional material. Here too, the element of play is also present. Even in vocal works, it is not the content, but the playing with sounds that is important; the sonority of the language takes precedence.
List of works
Orchestra: Magreb (1946); Capriccio (1948); Sinfonietta buffa (1949); Betje Trompet (with reciter) (1950); Gitanerias (1951); Pianoconcerto no.1 (1952); Musica per archi (1955); Marine (1958); Betje Trompet en de Reus (with reciter) (1965)
Opera: De grote Verzoeking van Sint-Antonius (1957); Paradijsvogels (1967); Twee is te weinig, drie is te veel (1966)
Chamber music: Mère (1940); Sonate for violoncello (1946); Divertimento for wind quintet (1946); three string quartets (1947, 1954, 1959)
Electronic music: Incantations (1958); Ringvariaties for piano (1963); Nocturne Malgache (1965); Spielerei for flute, cello and two tapes (1969)
Film and theatre music: music for De Slag bij Carmac (1960); De tijd der Waanzin (1971); Home (1972); De Gedaanteverwisseling (1972) and De Pacificatie van Gent (1976)
– M. DE SMET, Louis De Meester en “Poèmes de Gosses” 1944-1986, in Tijdschrift van de Nieuwe Muziekgroep, 12-13, 1987, p. 18-19
– M. DESMET, Louis De Meester, Gent, 1988
– J. DIERICKX, Louis De Meester, in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, ed. dr. L. Finscher, Stuttgart, 2004
– J. DIERICKX, De grote verzoeking van Louis De Meester, in Muziek en Woord, 369, 2005, p. 11
– R. DIEPENDAELE, Louis De Meester (1904-1987). Een schets van zijn muziekhistorische positie aan de hand van een aantal sleutelwerken, onuitg. licentiaatsverhandeling KUL, Leuven, 2006
– C. MERTENS, Louis De Meester, in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, 3, Londen, 1992, p. 303
– R. ROSSON, Louis De Meester. La Grande Tentation de Saint-Antoine. De Grote Verzoeking van Sint-Antonius, onuitg. licentiaatsverhandeling RUG, Gent, 1991
– H. SABBE, Louis De Meester. Vijfjaarlijkse staatsprijs voor compositie, in K en C, 1979
– H. SABBE, Louis De Meester, in M. DELAERE, Y. KNOCKAERT en H. SABBE, Nieuwe Muziek in Vlaanderen, Brugge, 1998, p. 79-80
– H. WILLAERT, Louis De Meester bekroond, in Ons Erfdeel, 22/3, 1979, p. 452-3
– De grote verzoeking van Sint-Antonius (Soloists, BRTN choir and orchestra cond. by H. Rotman), Radio 3, R3 98006, 1998
(apart from this CD, other musical material – particularly functional – is available on tape at IPEM)
Texts by Heleen Persoons, Pieter Van Tichelen and Bart Vanhecke
Last update: 2017