Frédéric Devreese was born on 2 June 1929 in Amsterdam to a very music family. His mother played the violin, as did his father Godfried, who was also a well-known composer and conductor. Devreese took his first lessons in harmony from his father at the conservatory in Mechelen. He later studied at the Brussels conservatory with Marcel Poot (composition) and René Defossez (orchestral conducting). In 1949 he won the composition prize at the international piano competition in Oostende with his first piano concerto, which as a result became the compulsory work in that competition. This led to national attention and grants to study in Rome (composition with Ildebrando Pizzetti and conducting with Previtali) and Vienna (conducting with Hans Swarowski). Devreese rounded off these studies in 1956, returning to Belgium. In 1958 he made television programmes for the then BRT (state broadcaster), where he would later become a director and producer. He also worked for three years at the BRT producing soundtracks, ideal training for his later work as a composer of film music. Devreese has always taken great interest in young musicians, whom he has sought to stimulate and promote though such initiatives as Tenuto (Belgian national competition for talented musicians under 25), Jong Tenuto (for musicians under 17) and Procemus (centre for promotion and production of young talent). He was also the chief conductor of the Belgian Youth Orchestra and director of the music academy in Overijse. Devreese has won a number of prizes with his work, including the Prix Italia (1963) for his opera Willem van Saefthinghe, written for the BRT, the Georges Delerue Award (1994) for La Partie d’Echecs, and the Joseph Plateau Prize (1988 and 1990) for the film music to L’Oeuvre au Noir and Het Sacrement respectively.
Devreese passed away on 28 September 2020, at the age of 91.
Frédéric Devreese’s oeuvre is highly varied. Besides four piano concertos, he has written a violin concerto, a symphony, chamber music, two operas, ballet suites, songs and film music. His film music would have a significant influence on his other works. On the one hand, because of the lack of financial means in the film industry, he was forced to write for smaller ensembles, leading to an exploration of certain sound idioms; on the other, he could be certain that his work would be performed. The music itself is not experimental, and thus does not divert attention from the visual aspect. The music serves primarily to deepen the visual-dramatic reality. This results in a very accessible style, in which use is made of atonal elements. His works also have a clear formal structure. These characteristics are also found in his classical works. Devreese’s film music is very evocative on its own merits, allowing it to be played independently as concert music. He has also written a number of orchestral suites, based on his original film music, such as Benvenuta and L’Oeuvre au Noir. In addition, there is a degree of overlapping between his classical oeuvre and his film music. For example, two movements from his cello concerto Canti, written in 1999 for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of Flanders, formed the accompaniment for one of the characters in the film Pauline et Paulette by Lieven Debrauwer (2000).
In the early years of his composition career, Frédéric Devreese used classical genres and forms such as the concerto and the symphony. Although he wrote his first piano concerto (1949) at the age of 19, the work is typical of the creativity and originality of his whole oeuvre. Like the three following piano concertos, the last of which became a compulsory work for the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 1983, the piano is treated as a melody, rhythm and colour instrument. Devreese tends towards short motifs that appear in different colourings and tessituras. To a certain degree he maintains tonality, but he avoids confirming cadence-formulas and common harmonic sequences. He colours the tonal system through the frequent use of the so-called major-minor chord (major and minor thirds together). This chord also makes a link to jazz, with its typical blue-note character (the use of the minor third as deviation). The influence of jazz in his early music is clear enough, heard in the many echoes of Gershwin in his piano concertos and his one symphony. The constantly varying rhythm forms the backbone of this music. Devreese has a predilection for three-against-two rhythms. The dynamic structuring and the orchestration also contribute to the creation of climaxes. In this sense, his piano concertos are reminiscent of the nineteenth-century Romantic bravura concerto.
The TV opera Willem van Saefthingen (1962) is a total spectacle that makes use of slides, film images, fantastical decors and expressive music. The opera tells the story of a young man who wants to become a priest but is hindered by his personal background: in a past war he committed a murder. The war with its epic scenes of thousands is represented by dissonant harmonies, a compact orchestration and accentuated rhythms. There are also moments in the music that depict the serenity and prayerfulness of the monastic life. Devreese and director Mark Liebrecht won the prestigious Prix Italia in 1964 for this opera.
In 1980, Devresse wrote the ballet Gemini for two pianos, reworking it for double orchestra six years later. Twins are born (Birth) and one of them teaches the other to dance (Dance of the Twins). When they attempt to seduce the ladies of the other Zodiac signs (Seduction) they are challenged to a fight (Fight). One of the two dies, and the second cannot live without him and also dies (Death). The movements of the composition are linked together by three short intermezzi. The image of the twins is particularly clear in the piano version. The pianos are constantly imitating one another and are contrapuntally juxtaposed. Another musical depiction of the twins is the use of symmetry of a pianist’s two hands, making identical movements or perfectly mirroring one another. In the orchestral version, Devreese’s point of departure is the contrast in the different instrumental colours. For instance, he opposes groups from the same family of instruments (e.g., brass vs. brass or strings vs. strings). Although Devreese clearly works out the idea of twins in this ballet, he always writes his ballets independently from a libretto; the music is thus more than a simple illustration of extra-musical content.
A final important work by Devreese is his cello concert Canti (1999). This concerto, consisting of one slow movement, is subdivided into an Introduzione, three Canti and an Epilogo. The cello solo is flanked by a classical symphony orchestra, supplemented by soft, colourful instruments such as the harp, the celeste and the vibraphone. This offers the composer the opportunity to achieve a diversity of timbres and sound combinations. In the cello part, Devreese avoids pure virtuosity in favour of a melodious, expressive lyricism.
Devreese’s music is thus highly original and, despite its sometimes modern and direct expression, very accessible. In the course of his career he evolved from an irrepressible vitality characterised by jazz effects and Gershwin echoes to a more universal style, deeper in its expression and more balanced in its structure.
List of works
Orchestra: Pianoconcerto nr. 1 (1949); Violinconcerto (1951); Pianoconcerto nr. 2 (1952); Symphony (1952); Pianoconcerto nr. 3 (1955); Mascarade (1956); Pianoconcerto nr. 4 (1983); Benvenuta (1984); Gemini (1986); L’Oeuvre au Noir (1988); Canti (1999)
Opera: Willem van Saefthingen (1962-63); De Vreemde Ruiter (1976)
Chamber music: Divertimenti (1970); Don Juan (1974); Vier Walsen (1979); Sax-Blues (1995); Suite (1998); Récitativo et Allegro (2000)
Piano: Mascarade (1953); Prélude (1972); Gemini (1980); Black and White (1984); Short Waltzes (1997); Mobile (2000)
Songs: Drie Kleengedichtjes (1947); Zes Liederen (1962); Vannacht (1988)
Film music: De man die zijn haar kort liet knippen (1966); Un Soir un Train… (1968); Ik, Ensor (1972); Belle (1973); Benvenuta (1983); L’Oeuvre au Noir (1988); Het Sacrament (1989); La Partie d’Echecs (1994); Pauline et Paulette (2000)
– V. BOSMANS, Devreese Frédéric: Mascerade (1953), in Contemporary Music in Flanders II: Flemish Piano Music since 1950, uitg. dr. M. DELAERE en J. COMPEERS, Leuven, 2005, p. 22-23
– Y. KNOCKAERT, art. Frédéric Devreese, in M. DELAERE, Y. KNOCKAERT en H. SABBE, Nieuwe Muziek in Vlaanderen, Brugge, 1998, p. 112-113
– Y. KNOCKAERT en K. MERTENS, art. Devreese, Fréderic, in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, uitg.dr. S. Sadie, 2001 - Y. KNOCKAERT, Frederik Devreese: Pianoconcerti nr. 2-4, in cd-boekje Naxos 8.554125
– Y. KNOCKAERT, Frederik Devreese, in cd-boekje Cypres 1619
– A. LOMMELEN en K. VERLIE, Gesprek met Frédéric Devreese, in Aquarius Nieuwsbrief, uitg. dr. J. RAES, 10 (20/03/00), p. 6-7
– E. ‘T SEYEN, De levenswals van een romanticus, in Muziek en Woord, jg. 30, nr. 357, p. 10-11
As composer: Pianoconcerti 2,3 & 4 (piano: D. Blumenthal, BRTN Filharmonisch Orkest o.l.v. F. Devreese), Marco Polo 8.223505; Pianoconcerti 2,3 & 4 (piano: D. Blumenthal, BRTN Filharmonisch Orkest o.l.v. F. Devreese), Naxos 8.554125; Benvenuta, Un Soir Un Train…, L’Oeuvre au Noir, Belle (BRTN Filharmonisch Orkest o.l.v. F. Devreese), MARCO POLO FILM MUSIC CLASSICS, Marco Polo 8.22368 ; Soundtrack: Dances, Divertimenti & Preludes (piano: André De Groote), Marco Polo 8.223651; Gemini: Orchestral & Piano Works (piano: D. Blumenthal en R. Groslot, BRTN Filharmonisch Orkest), Cyprès 1619; L’Oeuvre au Noir (Nationaal Orkest van België o.l.v. F. Devreese), Barclay 835 901-2 ; Het Sacrament (BRTN Symfonisch Orkest en Ensemble o.l.v. F. Devreese), Indisc 3654; Benvenuta, RC 275 A 214; La Partie d’Echecs (Sinfonia Orkest o.l.v.F. Devreese), Virgin 8040029 2 ; Violin Concerto (viool: H. Raudales, Nieuw Vlaams Symfonisch Orkest o.l.v. D. Brossé), RG Prod.CD 87080 ; Masque for Brassband (Desford Colliery Caterpillar Band cond. by James Watson), DHM 3002.3 ; Suite nr. 1 for Brassquint (Beaux-arts Brass quintet, Symphonic Brass, Nederland), DHR 5.005-3 ; Passage à 5. Soledad VC 45625 (2003); Variations et thème (Marcato Pianokwartet) CD Etcetera KTC 1267 (2004) ; Frédéric Devreese – 22 Waltzes (Luc Devos, piano) CD Etcetera KTC 4003 (2004) ; Benvenuta: Op Gouden Vleugels 2005 (Simoens Trio), Jeugd en Muziek, JM – 003 (2005) ; Three Waltzes & Passage, Frédéric Devreese, Royal Band of the Belgian Guides, Danzas del Inferno Beriat Music WSR 043; 22 Waltzes, Luc Devos, piano Etcetera KTC4003; CD I Frédéric Devreese (Royal Band of the Belgian Guides) Benvenuta suite n° 1, Zénon, suite n° 2, The Chess Player, suite n° 3 for Symphonic Band, Two Preludes for Clarinet Choir. Hommage Devreese Beriato Music WSR 047; CD II Frédéric Devreese (Royal Band of the Belgian Guides) Passage, Concerto N° 1 (Piano), Circles, Gemini suite for 2 Bands, Va Sacrée. for Symphonic Band. Hommage Devreese Beriato Music WSR 047; CD III Godefroid Devreese (Royal Band of the Belgian Guides) Tombelène, suite, Cello concertino, Poème Héroique, for Symphonic Band, Hommage Devreese Beriato Music WSR 047
As director: Tombelène; Concerto No. 1 (violin); Concerto (cello) (Godfried Devreese). Guido De Neve, violin; Viviane Spanoghe, cello; Brussels Philharmonic (Marco Polo: 8.223680, 1994); Symphonie No. 1 en la mineur, ‘Symphonie gothique’; Poème Héroïque; In memoriam (Godfried Devreese). Moscow Symphony Orchestra (Marco Polo: 8.223739, 1995); Symphonie en sol majeur; Concerto (violin); Rhapsodie dahoméenne (August De Boeck). Guido De Neve, violin; Frédéric Devreese, Gerard Oskamp/deFilharmonie (Marco Polo: 8.223740, 1995); Symfonie Nr. 6; Pygmalion (suite); Allegro symphonique; Vrolijke Ouverture (Marcel Poot). Moscow Symphony Orchestra (Marco Polo: 8.223775, 1996); Plinius’ Fontein; Symfonie Nr. 2; Symfonie Nr. 3; Mei Nacht (Arthur Meulemans). Moscow Symphony Orchestra (Marco Polo: 8.223776, 1996); Moto perpetuo; Symfonie Nr. 3; Symfonie Nr. 5; Symfonie Nr. 7 (Marcel Poot). Moscow Symphony Orchestra (Marco Polo: 8.223805, 1996); La Mer; Mélodies écossaises; Alvar; Ouverture symphonique No. 3 (Paul Gilson). Moscow Symphony Orchestra (Marco Polo: 8.223809, 1996); Concerto No. 1 in C (piano); Concerto No. 2 in Bes (piano) (Arthur De Greef). André De Groote, piano; Moscow Symphony Orchestra (Marco Polo: 8.223810, 1996); Symphony No. 1 in C; Mater Dolorosa (suite); Rossiniazata (Daniel Sternefeld). Moscow Symphony Orchestra (Marco Polo: 8.223813, 1996); Concerto, Op. 43a (flute); Le Roi des aulnes; Concerto, Op. 43b (piano) (Peter Benoit). Gaby Pas- Van Riet, flute; Luc Devos, piano; de Filharmonie (Marco Polo: 8.223827, 1996)
CeBeDeM (from 1951 to 2015)
Texts by Veerle Bosmans and Rebecca Diependaele
Last update: 2006, list of works 2014