Raoul De Smet was born on 27 October 1936 in Borgerhout. He studied the philology of Romance languages and music history at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. After this he took a year of specialisation on a study grant in Madrid and Salamanca. He then worked as a teacher for four years in Tunisia, after which he taught Spanish at the Katholieke Vlaamse Hogeschool in Antwerp. His gained his basic musical training (solfège, harmony, piano) at the Music Academy in Deurne. Apart from this training, he was self-taught as a musician until he undertook studies in 1966 with Lucien Goethals and Louis De Meester at the IPEM (Institute for Psychoacoustics and Electronic Music) in Ghent, with August Verbesselt in Antwerp and with Ton de Leeuw in Amsterdam. Through his own studies of theoretical works (Schönberg, Krenek, Koechlin, Messiaen and others) and of scores, and by listening to a wide variety of genres, he developed his own personal musical language.
In 1972 De Smet took part in the Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt, where two of his works were performed. He also participated in the Gaudeamus Days in Bilthoven. In 1976 he took part in the Seminar on Contemporary American Music in Salzburg. In 1977 he represented IPEM at the Colloquium Musica/Sintesi as part of the Biennale in Venice. From 1974 to 1994 Raoul De Smet organised the Orphische Avonden (Orphic Evenings) in Antwerp, featuring concerts of contemporary (mainly Flemish) chamber music in Antwerp. Between 1980 and 1984 he was a member of the board of the Centrum voor Muziek in Leuven. From 1983 to 1993, De Smet programmed concerts of contemporary music in the foyer of the Antwerp Stadsschouwburg (City theatre). In 1976, 1985 and 1990 he organised the Electronic Music Days at the ICC (International Cultural Centre) and the deSingel. In 1981 he began the E.M. series, an edition in facsimile of chamber music by Flemish composers. In 1987 he established the Orpheus Prize, a biennial international competition for the interpretation of contemporary chamber music. Since 1999 he has organised the Belgian Chocolates Festival.
Raoul De Smet continually calls systems into question, and is suspicious of any form of academism. Dodecaphony, serialism, aleatory music, jazz and ethnic music are woven into the fabric of his music. For De Smet, a system is separate from a style. For example, he often uses thirds in the construction of a series, which can make a dodecaphonic work sound completely tonal. He is always finding new sounds in the traditional corpus of instruments, but without going to extremes, even within individual compositions. His expressive eclecticism – or as he himself terms it, pluralism – uses all possible means, styles and techniques with a critical-educational objective. Equally multiform are the impulses driving De Smet to compose: irritation, doubt, happiness, social criticism, love, a musical experience, a memory, a compositional aspect from an earlier work, daily reality… His list of works can thus be seen as a series of episodes from the “comédie humaine”. An example of a work inspired by daily reality is Monoloog 1 for violin (1976): here the source is ‘zap culture’. Monoloog 1 is a collage in which the composition continually zaps between different playing techniques and contrasting manners of expression. A first episode with a maestoso beginning and a constant alternation between pizzicato and arco is followed by a lively giocoso. A heated acceleration builds to a dramatic-heroic phrase which suddenly switches to a quarter-tone passage, followed in turn by a maestoso. After a short, virtuoso cadenza, the monolog ends mysteriously and indefinitely. This multiplicity of contrasts and moods is found in many other works by this composer. For example, the peace and quiet of Meditation 1 for piano (1963) is interrupted by rhythmically terse motifs and by unexpected and energetic disturbances, like stimuli from without which divert the train of thought and send the reflections in a new direction.
After attending the Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt, Raoul De Smet wrote Tres Piezas for flute solo (1972). This composition consists of Gregorian-like phrases and is influenced by Arab music. The flute is given a singing voice in an attempt to let it figuratively sound anew, in a work which also points in the direction of the aleatory style then prevalent in Darmstadt. Early music from the Mediterranean area was a constant source of inspiration for his early work, alongside the influence of composers such as Bartók, Sibelius and Liszt. Among the best known compositions by Raoul De Smet are his 2 chamber operas, Ulrike, an antique tragedy (1979) and Het laatste uur van Vincent van Gogh (The final hour of Vincent van Gogh, 1988-89). The libretto of Ulrike was written by Leo Geerts. The story deals with the Rote Armee Fraktion, with its leaders Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader, which launched an open attack on German society with bombings, bank robberies and shooting sprees. For Ulrike Meinhof there was one fundamental personal certainty: the existing order is illegitimate. This order reacted with brutal repression, locking the Baader-Meinhof prisoners up in solitary confinement, resulting in their death. This theme drove Raoul De Smet to employ an expressionistic language, which is conveyed partly in the solo roles accorded to the instruments and the application of a dodecaphonic grammar. The basic series is developed sometimes atonally, sometimes bitonally and often modally, again revealing De Smet’s pluralist language. Each character has his or her own musical domain. Literary quotations (e.g., from Vondel and Shakespeare) are paralleled by musical citations, from such sources as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the chorale O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, ancient-sounding psalm melodies and Chopin’s funeral march. Ulrike is a through-composed opera that treads a middle way between theatre, Sprechgesang and belcanto. In Het laatste uur van Vincent van Gogh, De Smet aptly sketches the insoluble problems which consume the painter in his art, both problems of love and of his relations with his fellow man.
As a specialist in Romance languages, and a Spanish scholar, De Smet has been able to take a critical and distanced position in relation to the official music world. As noted earlier, his works have often had a critical-educational objective. In Octopus for 8 bass clarinets (1990), De Smet expresses his critique of musicians, musicologists and the audience. The subtitle of this work is “juegos prohibidos” (forbidden games), which refers to the incoherent composition of a work which he knew would probably not meet with the approval of academics. De Smet shows his opposition to academics who claim that a clarinet had to sound like a cello in the music of the future. He rebukes the attitude of the organisers of the major New Music festivals that set out to play the general audience for a fool. He also goes on the attack against repetitive music, which does not force the audience to think, and he opposes the doctrinaire rejection of dance forms in serious music. He gradually evolved to a simplification of expressive means, resulting in more consonant compositions which tend to sound decorative and playful, in a lightly divertimento style and with a certain naturalness in their progression. Here the most obvious solutions prevail over the highly original, contrived or extravagant. From Goeyvaerts De Smet borrowed the idea that each composition serves as a kind of successor to the preceding one, analogous to human evolution. This leads to compositions in series, such as the works Avatar 1 (1972) to Avatar 7 (2002). “Avatar” stands for Indian myth.
The musical ideas that fill the structures of De Smet’s compositions invariably reflect a simple dialectic pattern: after the presentation of a first idea, a second follows in succession, or is juxtaposed simultaneously with the first. For example, in the finale of Houtsneden (Wood cuts), a repetitive element is played out against a calm atmosphere. In another section, a very thinned out passage is juxtaposed with an 8-voice canon. Gnomons III for saxophone quartet (1990) also consists of 2 contrasting elements: long, held tones versus a short rhythmic motif, with the 2 evolving in opposite directions through contrary motion, (from long sequences towards short and from short towards long). The respective lengths of the sequences are determined by square numbers, between which “gnomons” (uneven numbers) are placed, descending from 17 down to 5. De Smet then repeats the whole process in reverse order, with a number of alterations and ornamentations. As in Gnomons III, numbers determine the form in other works by De Smet. The music of Bach was the model for this mathematical approach. The above-mentioned opera Het laatste uur van Vincent van Gogh, for instance, is based completely on the number 33. The whole composition is built on various rhythmic patterns of 33 quavers or crotchets (including the pattern 9-3-4-5-1-4-5-2), in which the smaller note values (1 and 2) receive sforzando accents. Each sequence of 33 can be subdivided into separate colour combinations, such as accordion with oboe, cello with piccolo, etc. This creates a mix of colours in the music, comparable with van Gogh’s paintings. From Mozart, De Smet learned how to conjure up different moods. Composing music is primarily a question of entering into a dialogue with the listener. For Raoul De Smet, music should entertain the listener.
List of works
Vocal: Gnomons 1 voor 4-stemmig koor (1985); Madrigaal 5 voor 4-stemmig koor (1996); Parade voor mezzo en koperkwintet (2000) - Kameropera: Ulrike, een antieke tragedie (1979); Vincent, apologie van een schilder (1988-89) ; Antique – Démocratie – Départ – Fête d’hiver – Marine – Parade: Project A. Rimbaud uit Illuminations voor verschillende solostemmen met verschillende besetting (2001); Onze Vader / Pater noster voor koor a capella (2005); ECCE HOMO – moderne kruisweg op teksten van Dirk Blockeel oratorium voor 4-stemmig koor, met solopartijen of 11 solostemmen en 11 instrumentalisten (2004); Feestklankje met knipoog (75 jaar V. Nees) voor koor met trompetsolo (2011)
Orchestra: Symfonie 1 (1959-60); Meditatie voor strijkers (1969); Concerto voor sax alto solo, accordeon, strijkers en percussie (1992); Symfonie 2 (1995); Concerto voor accordeon en strijkers (2000); Concerto voor piano en strijkers (2003); Vioolconcerto nr 2 voor viool en strijkorkest (2010); Gents Capriccio: thema’s van F. Liszt voor Piano, orgel, strijkorkest en pauken (2011); Concierto barroco op thema’s van Bach, Händel, Vivaldi en Scarlatti voor piano solo en uitgebreide big bandformatie (s.d.)
Chamber music: Drvgs voor 2 klarinetten (of een andere combinatie) (1972); Tres Piezas voor fluit (1972); Avatar 3 voor viool en altviool (1975); Four Temperaments voor basklarinet (1975); Monoloog 1 voor viool (1976); Khammsa 1 voor trombonekwintet (1977-78); Logboek 1 voor cello (1982-83); Trio-logie 2 voor fluit, basklarinet en piano (1984); Cuadrante oriental voor fluit, viool, vibrafoon en piano (1985); Noche serena voor gitaar en tape (1988); Tussen kreeft en steenbok voor klarinet en strijkkwartet (1991); Nocturne 2 voor viool en accordeon (1995); Gnomons IV voor vier gitaren (1996); Reminiscenties 2 voor 2 violen (1997); Caprices d’Uranus voor cello en accordeon (1999); Beschouwingen over 2 thema’s van J.S. Bach voor orgel (2000); Morgen-Rage voor 2 celli (2001) ; Cadenza 2 voor klarinet (2001); Raga 2 voor viool, accordeon en piano (2004); Cool fragrances from my Avant-Garden voor harp (2004); Middag Raga voor viool en slagwerk (2004); Reminiscentie V aan de 7 ideogrammen voor altblokfluit en cello (2005); Zeven Ideogrammen voor blokfluit en marimba (2005); Strijkkwartet nr. 3 (2006); Thelematic Raga voor altsaxofoon, basklarinet en piano (2006); Melopee (naar Van Ostajjen) voor viool en piano (2010); Meditatie voor cello (2011); 15 Études voor piano (verschillende jaartallen); 3 bagatellen voor piano (verschillende jaartallen); Preludes voor piano (verschillende jaartallen); Ulrike’s Swan Song en Last Tango voor meerdere bezettingen (s.d.); Pianokwartet (s.d.); 13 glimpen voor strijkkwartet (s.d.); Speeltje voor houtblazerskwartet (s.d.); Ultimo saludo al compañero Lucien Goethals voor fluit, basklarinet, viool altviool, piano en percussie (s.d.)
Electronic music: Adagio voor tape solo (1975); Kathy’s Nightmare and other joys voor tape solo (1980); Efemeer 3 voor tape solo (1988).
For a more detailed list of works, please follow this link.
– Y. KNOCKAERT, art. De Smet, Raoul, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, uitg. dr. S. SADIE, 7, 2001, p. 242
– Y. KNOCKAERT, art. Raoul De Smet: in cijfers gevatte vrijblijvendheid, in Kunst en Cultuur, 1992, p. 14-15
– Y. KNOCKAERT, De modernisten. Generatie °1930-40, in Nieuwe muziek in Vlaanderen, uitg. dr. M. DELAERE, Y. KNOCKAERT en H. SABBE, Brugge, 1998, p. 117-118
– art. Raoul De Smet, in Algemene Muziekencyclopedie, uitg. dr. J. ROBIJNS en M. ZIJLSTRA, 7, 1981, p. 177
– Y. SENDEN, art. Een oorstrelende dissonant, in Muziek & Woord, december 1991, p. 40
– S. MOENS, art. Ulrike, een verre tragedie, in Muziek & Woord, juni 1989, p. 2
– S. BATENS, art. Raoul De Smet, in Even aanzoemen, 2001, jaargang 28, nr. 4-5, p. 7
– P. JANSSEN, art. Muzikaal Donquichottisme, in Mens & Melodie, 2002, jaargang 52, nr. 2/8, p. 44-48
– Madrigaal 1, VOL KOREN 2, Cantores Classic CC 98030-404A
– Madrigaal 5, MUSICHE PER VAN DYCK, CRR 7302
– Soledad Sonora 1, VINTAGE OF EUROPEAN SAXOPHONE MUSIC-BELGIUM, Cassa Nova Records CNR 3011
– Gnomons 3, WINNERS OF ORPHEUS-PRIJS CONTEST, Cassa Nova Records CNR 950821
– Reflexie 1, Logboek 1 (Mark Drobinsky), NEW CELLO MUSIC FROM FLANDERS BY THE MAGIC MARK DROBINSKY, Cass Nova Records CNR 940821
– Khammsa 1 (Khammsa Quintet), THE TRILLING TROMBONE OF FLANDERES, Phaedra 92023
– Meditaties 1 tot 5, Monoloog 1, Dialogen 1 en 2, Reminiscenties 1 en 2, CONTRASTEN, DC 9808032
– Studies 2, 4 en 5, ELEKTRONISCHE PRODUCTIE I.P.E.M., LP-Alpha DBM-N257
Texts by Leen Francken
Last update: 2017