William (Willy) Ostijn was born in Kachtem on 13 July 1913 and died in Roeselare on 30 March 1993. After attending school at the college of Izegem and the Small Seminary in Roeselare, he studied at St Joseph’s College in Torhout. At this school his talents at the piano and his structural insights were discovered and cultivated by Rev. Jozef Ghesquière, son of the composer Remi Ghesquière. At sixteen he went to the Lemmens Institute in Mechelen, where his studies included piano with Marinus de Jong and organ with Flor Peeters. The colourful personality of Jef Van Hoof made a particularly strong impression on him. After graduating with an organist’s diploma he went on to earn a teaching degree at the Royal Conservatory in Ghent, as well as first prizes in counterpoint, piano, chamber music and orchestral composition. Here it was in particular the Franck specialist Joseph Ryelandt who encouraged the young composer.
After his studies at the Lemmens Institute, Ostijn was for a time an assistant teacher and second organist at St Rumoldus’ Cathedral in Mechelen. From 1938 until he retired, he taught Music Education at the Royal Atheneum in Roeselare, a post he combined with that of piano teacher at the Municipal Music Academy in Izegem from 1939 to 1949. All his energies were directed towards composition and keyboard playing, however. Before the war, he achieved a degree of renown with the Willy Ostijn Piano Trio, which played both repertoire works and his own compositions.
Despite his connection with ecclesiastical Mechelen, Willy Ostijn composed relatively little sacred choral and organ music, a result of his association with the NIR (former Belgian broadcasting corporation) via Gaston Feremans (1942), and with the Belgian Radio Orchestra via Karel Albert (1948). For more than two decades (ca. 1950-1975) his atmospheric symphonic music and virtuoso concert works were played by virtually all the Flemish orchestras and broadcast both at home and abroad. Performances of his works were conducted by such figures as Paul Doulliez, Leonce Graz, Jozef Verhelst, Fernand Terby and Ernest Maes. The new organisation and profile of the public radio (starting in 1961-1962) led to the end of this period in his life, around 1975. Ostijn fell back on the local music world, continuing to provide songs and choral works.
Before the war, Willy Ostijn composed in an intimate, quasi-impressionist style, partly in function of his ensemble. The Trio for piano, violin and cello, which like most of his works is undated, is closely allied to the suggestive sound-world of Debussy. However, in terms of form, here he remains faithful to the motivic-thematic treatment learned from Franck (by way of Ryelandt), a characteristic found throughout his oeuvre. The qualities of this early chamber music pointed in the direction of a compositional deepening (development) and refinement (orchestration), but contact with the national broadcaster and the radio orchestra (around 1950) entailed a fairly definitive re-orientation of his practices as a composer. From then on he was responsible for more extensive symphonic works that aimed for the cultural enrichment and the enjoyment of the casual listener. Ostijn felt that this requirement, laid down by his employer, made him a “marginal figure” among professional composers. He made more or less the following observation on the fact that he neither wanted nor was able to evolve in his career: “Both in terms of technique and of vision, I have always remained faithful to the romantic tradition that sees music as a spontaneous and logical development of lyrical themes through classical harmony and rich, varying orchestration.”
This statement explains the composer’s predilection for genres that allow a motif the most opportunities for development: the capriccio, the rhapsody, the overture, the Konzertstück. His themes, often comprising a slow, cantabile opening motif and an energetic, rhythmic cadential motif, can develop freely within a form that seldom exceeds the complexity of an ABA structure. A repetition of the head motif at various strategic places holds the listener’s attention. The progression is furthered through a dialogue between the tutti and either the soloist or an orchestral group. This approach, applicable to both symphonic/concertante works and chamber-music works, allowed the composer to write quickly and with flexibility and clear direction. A certain predictability does have the potential to lessen the effect of these works in the concert hall.
From 1950 to 1955, a series of colourful symphonic overtures appeared in quick succession. The titles speak for themselves: Spaanse balletsuite (Spanish ballet suite), Beelden uit Broadway (Images from Broadway), Marokkaanse Suite (Moroccan Suite), Ijslandvaarders (Icelandic seafarers), Beelden uit het Oosten (Images from the Orient)… In musical terms, all these works bear the same “Slavic” stamp: even the works that evoke a Flemish homeland (such as the Flandria Ouverture or the Westland Ouverture) are characterised by modal turns (e.g., a raised fifth degree). Through piano transcriptions, Ostijn fell under the spell of Grieg and Russian symphonic music, Balakirew in particular. In terms of form and structure, his point of reference was German-Austrian Romanticism and the overtures of von Suppé.
In Drie Vlaamse dansen (Three Flemish dances, 1942), Ostijn’s first major composition, the young composer reveals his abilities in orchestral thinking, particularly in the inventive interplay of folksong motifs in “Jan de Mosselman”. One of the works most often performed for radio is the inspirational Westland Ouverture. Although it is an undated work, Oosterse Impressie (Oriental Impression), a well-conceived and homogeneous collaboration between violin, piano and cello, can be seen to mark the composer’s transition from the overture to more abstract compositions, around 1955. These concertante pieces for, among other instruments, oboe, clarinet, alto saxophone and flute, are each an exploration of a particular instrument, with the orchestra, generally consisting of strings only, limited to a supporting role. Among the piano works, which began to predominate after 1965, noteworthy is the playful Rhapsody for piano and orchestra, based on the main theme from Oosterse Impressie.
It is impossible to track down many of Ostijn’s commissioned songs, since they were never dated. The composer’s feeling for melody is best represented in his operetta Het Meisje van Damme (The Girl from Damme), a work so successful that Ostijn feared he would come to be known solely as a composer of this genre. His Kerstlied van de Zwerver (The Hobo’s Christmas Carol) is indeed still popular. On the other hand, the cantatas quickly faded from view, due to their limited (local) appeal (Klokkeput Saga Cantate) and the uneven quality of their texts (Terug naar de Bron Cantate: Back to the Source Cantate). The Missa in Re and Psalm 150, written for good choirs from his area (around Roeselare) with orchestral or organ accompaniment, are the best examples of his choral music, while the best organ works are his Toccata in a French Romantic style and the meditative Roosvensters (Rose Windows).
In later years, Willy Ostijn had a hard time dealing with the fact that history had already judged some of his works as passé. An objective assessment is that his programmatic works served the basic requirement of radio music around 1950: to open listeners’ cultural horizons in an intelligible way through words and music. His chamber music and concertante works, lacking this focus, are sometimes less effective. The composer’s feverish work-tempo prevented him from giving certain works the revision they demanded. That his works were never given opus numbers can also be seen symbolically as a reflection of the unassuming zest for work of a musician serving different causes: using radio to uplift the people, satisfying the music lover through the refinement of his desire for self-expression, and providing a challenging stimulus to the local music scene.
List of works
In most cases, the works of Willy Ostijn are undated. The dates mentioned with the instrumental works are those of the radio creations.
Cantatas: Westland Fantasia (1962); Klokkeput Saga Cantate (1968); Westland Cantate (1978); Terug naar de Bron Cantate (1978); Hulde aan Polen. Ode for choir and brass quintet
Concert pieces with (string) orchestra (without piano): Concert piece for clarinet (1973); Concerto for horn (1973); Concert piece for alto saxophone (1978); Concert piece for strings; Concert piece for oboe
Wind orchestra: Parelsnoer van Aria’s from the operette ‘Het meisje van Damme’, arranged by Azer Moenaert
Chamber music and music for string orchestra: Romanza for violin and strings (1951); Andante en Allegro for strings (1952); Pastorale for oboe and strings (1953); Divertimento for strings (1954); Elegie for viola and piano; Serenata for violin and strings (1956); Canzonetta for flute and strings (1958); Aubade for flute and piano; 3 string quartets; Nocturne for cello and strings; Romanza for violin and piano; Romanza for cello and piano; Trio for flute, viola and piano
Choir: Ave Maria (1961 and 1969); Ave Verum (1961); De avondklok, version for 3 and 4 voices; Three Masses, Psalm 150 for choir and orchestra (1968); Missa in Re (1974); Communielied, Herderslied, Heilig Communielied; Heuvels in Vlaanderen for choir (4 voices); In memoriam Frans Soete; Kerstlied van de zwerver; Koraal ‘O Jesus, groot is ’t lijden’
Organ: Orgelsymfonie (1939); Intermezzo; Pastorale; Prelude; Preludium; Roosvensters; Toccata
Operette: Het meisje van Damme (text: Emiel Ramoudt, arr. Werner Rabau, 1954); Het lied der meeuwen (text: Emiel Ramoudt, arr. Werner Rabau)
Piano: Concert Ballade for piano and orchestra (1951); Nocturne for piano and orchestra (1953); Concert Piece for piano and strings (1959); Rapsodie for piano and strings (1972); Concert Piece for piano and strings (1973); Piano Concerto in d (1978); Aubade for piano; Ballade for piano; Capriccio for piano; Vlaams Capriccio for piano and orchestra; Two Toccata’s for piano; Wiegelied
Symphonic: Drie Vlaamse dansen (1942); Suite for orchestra 1 (1948); Romantische Concertwals (1950); Beelden uit het Oosten (1950); Spaanse Balletsuite (1950); Suite for orchestra 2 (1950); Beelden uit Broadway (1950); Sentimentele Rapsodie (1950); London Suite (1951); Marokkaanse Suite (1951); Flandria Ouverture (1952); Blijdschap Ouverture (1952); Vlaamse Capriccio (1953); IJslandvaarders (1953); Landelijke taferelen (1954); Dramatische Ouverture (1955); Westland Ouverture (1957); Berthold Ouverture (1959); Huldigingsmars (1960); Festival Ouverture (1961); Twee Zeebeelden (1962); Beelden uit Zeebrugge (1962); Drie Zeebeelden (1963); Capriccio Ouverture (1971); Festivum Ouverture (1973), Zeeland Fantasie (1979); Impressies for orchestra (1981)
For a more detailed list of works, please follow this link.
– H. HEUGHEBAERT, art. Ostijn, Willy in Algemene Muziekencyclopedie, 7, Haarlem, 1982, p. 331
– J.-P. OSTYN , art. William Maria Ostijn, in Ten Mandere. Heemkundige Periodiek van Izegem, 113, 39/1, Izegem, 1999, p. 27-32
– J. MAERTENS, art. Ostijn, William, in Lexicon van de Muziek in West-Vlaanderen, 1, 2000, p. 116-117
– Toccata for organ (Eric Hallein), ERIC HALLEIN SPEELT SYMFONISCHE ORGELMUZIEK UIT VLAANDEREN, CDSE 92124, 1992
– 3 Flemish Dances for orchestra (1942), LEXICON VAN DE MUZIEK IN WEST-VLAANDEREN, 3 [CD], Radio 2, LMO1, 2003
Several radio and concert recordings of instrumental and vocal works are collected on 11 CD’s, owned by the Ostyn family (copies are available in MATRIX).
Texts by Peter Malisse
Last update: 2018