Willem Pelemans (born 6 or 8 April 1901 in Antwerp) was for the most part self-taught as a musician. Starting from the age of 18 he did receive some private instruction in orchestration, counterpoint and harmony from his former music teacher at teacher’s college, Paul Lagye, but his musical education was for the rest informal. Nevertheless, he enjoyed a richly filled career in the music world. He began with a long stint teaching at the Brussels teachers’ college. At the end of the 1940s he took a job as a teacher of music history at the Municipal Music Conservatory of Mechelen, and in 1967 he was even named assistant chairperson of the Dutch-language section of the Royal Conservatory in Brussels, then in full expansion. His broader role in the (Flemish and Brussels) cultural and musical world in fact began much earlier. From 1928 to 1935 he was secretary of the Vlaamse Club, an association of poets, painters and musicians, founded by August Vermeylen in Brussels, and he worked from 1928 to 1940 together with the theatre troupe Rataillon. Pelemans occasionally provided music for this troupe, which was led by Albert Lepage and specialised in experimental theatre. From 1944, Pelemans’ role as a composer and thus as a player on the cultural scene became more important. As music editor for the newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws, besides reviewing concerts, he made a priority of presenting young, home-grown musical talent. His position as chairperson of the Union of Belgian Composers from 1971 to 1981 was similarly marked by his contribution to the promotion of native composers. Pelemans had also previously worked devising programmes for Librado (the Liberal broadcaster) at the NIR (Belgian national radio), from 1931 to 1938. This gave him an opportunity to cautiously introduce more “progressive” music onto the airwaves, but despite his moderation he met with opposition from the Liberal broadcaster. Just before the Second World War and for a considerable time thereafter he also provided commentaries on musical life for the national broadcaster, separate from his work for Librado. This work included his so-called “musings of a music-lover”, making him a pioneer of so-called “talk radio”. This wide range of activities made Willem Pelemans an important figure over 60 years of musical life in Brussels/Flanders/Belgium, particularly as a promoter of “difficult” music for a wider audience. In this same spirit, the Willem Pelemans Prize (later renamed the Jeanne and Willem Pelemans Prize), awarded since his death in 1991 (October 28 in Sint-Agatha-Berchem) celebrates musicians who have played an important role in the advancement of Belgian music.
A discussion of the work of Willem Pelemans is in fact a chronicle of 50 years of music history, although his own part in this history often amounts to little more than a footnote. He travelled a somewhat restless road through various musical idioms before arriving at a personal style, a style which would never achieve wide distribution. He began “as befits a Flemish composer” (Mens en Melodie, 1976, no. 6, p. 167) by composing songs on texts by such poets as Guido Gezelle and Karel van de Woestijne, in an Impressionistic or Late-Romantic musical style that matched the poetry. This accorded with what Joris Vriamont termed “Flemish sentimental academism”, the leading musical style in the still predominantly conservative Flanders of the time. Illustrative of this period is O ’t ruischen van het ranke riet (O the rustling of the slender reed), which structurally mirrors the poem’s traditional ABA form and is primarily characterised by its strongly chromatic harmony, expressed in the (full) chords in the right hand of the piano accompaniment. A first change in direction came from his discovery of the work of Paul van Ostaijen, whose poetry would form a new basis and source of inspiration for his songs: the atmospheric Romanticism of Pelemans’ music now gave way to a rhythmically and harmonically more pronounced style, amounting to a musical translation of Ostaijen’s literary expressionism. This style often included works with a quasi-ostinato accompanying figure, above which the melody has been freely composed and sometimes creates sharp dissonances. By writing such music on “expressionist” texts, Pelemans allied himself with the first stirrings of New Music in Flanders, a movement which had gradually taken shape during the interwar years and tentatively established links with international innovative trends. However, he soon began to question the (added) value of his music to Ostaijen’s poetry, especially after hearing the poet’s own very musical readings of his works.
In the later 1920s Pelemans then moved to the Flemish avant-garde movement, which had as one of its aims a clear break with outmoded Romanticism, second-rank Benoit or purely functional music for Flemish-nationalist gatherings. On the one hand, this movement aimed to reduce the music of Benoit to its true proportions, an endeavour in which Pelemans did his part with a lecture given in the very Benoit heartland, the Willemsfonds. On the other hand, it went in search of a new, more objective musical language, stripped of its Romantic pathos and sentiment. Pelemans joined in, inspired by composers such as Satie and what he termed Honegger’s constructivism. In this phase, poetry was no longer the starting point for his music: he even started a campaign against pure “song singing”, in his eyes an activity that formed an obstacle to musical progress at the time. In his own works he counterbalanced this by promoting a more abstract sound world, in which a radically instrumental approach seems to revolve around autonomous musical structures. These works are characterised by a strongly linear style, with sharp contrasts and dissonances in melody and harmony. Pelemans set forth his views in a book entitled Architectonische Muziek, which to his own surprise caused quite a stir. The text of this short book was originally intended only as an introductory essay for his 100 piano studies, which themselves form an ideal illustration of this style and period. Pelemans composed these studies as an exercise in “pure musical thinking” and – in a sentence added with no little self-mockery – “out of a desire to play the eccentric Fleming in Brussels”. The studies are indeed out of the ordinary, as he uses short quotations from Old-Dutch songs as his musical building blocks: their (original) sentimental value is here less important (by treating them as small cells in a greater whole this aspect is automatically greatly reduced), as the interest shifts to the possibilities for development inherent in the germ of the theme. In this way, these works are far removed from music inspired by or serving extra-musical considerations: here the music must direct the music; in other words, the musical source should foreshadow or contain its further development. Pelemans later stated that his intentions were somewhat incorrectly understood as a result of an over-emphasis on the so-called modernist tendencies of his works. He did, however, acknowledge his own part in this misunderstanding, through the use of the word “architectonic” in the title, which pointed in that direction.
Partly through his collaboration with the theatre troupe Rataillon in this period (the late twenties and early thirties), Pelemans also arrived at a form of “musique concrete”. This troupe worked with limited means, which did not always leave financial room for a (large) musical ensemble. Pelemans got around this by sometimes working with such materials as iron plates, car engine cylinders and paving stones. To facilitate the performance of this “music”, he also produced a score that might be considered a predecessor of the graphic score: signs on large boards indicate the timing, instrument to be played, player etc. He later reassessed these achievements as not greatly significant, and more as “one big anecdote”. Indeed, these experiments with their lack of engagement are a far cry from the accomplishments of Schaeffer years later in his “musique concrete”. They function not as a principled quest for new sounds, but can be better situated in a Dadaist conception of art, or even more loosely in the irony typical of much avant-garde art of the time. This attitude is also evident in Les Mamelles de Tirésias by Guillaume Appolinaire, one of the works for which Pelemans provided musical accompaniment, along with other works such as Barrabas by Michel de Ghelderode. Another important work of this period, written not for Rataillon and thus in comparison much less radical, is Pelemans’ oratorio De wandelende jood (The wandering Jew, 1929), based on fragments from August Vermeylens novel of the same name. In terms of music, Erik Satie’s Socrate is the example, particularly in its simplicity, or “simplisme musical”, which Pelemans tried to incorporate into his score. However, Satie’s recitative with its strict adherence to spoken language was here replaced by more melodic lines, in the “Flemish Romantic style” (as he himself describes it), giving the whole a less static character.
From the middle of the 1930s, but even more strongly after the Second World War, Pelemans’ music became less radical, in parallel with a positive reappraisal of Viennese Opera and Mozart. The alienating and somewhat aggressive character of many preceding works was now tempered by a certain return to lyricism and a greater simplicity in terms of rhythm, with references to popular music or dance sometimes evident in the latter. That often resulted in a rather light-hearted mood, as in Herfstgoud (Autumn gold, 1959), a ballet with many comic moments, or his Introductie tot een Opera Buffa (1959), part of an incomplete opera. The latter work is in the form of a classic Italian overture, with a fast/slow/fast alternation of sections: the first is a lively tarantelle, with the comic element created by alternating cantabile lines with short and caustic rhythmic motifs; the second is trio-like, and notable chiefly for the classic overture technique of instrumentally anticipating the lyrical love song from the second act. It should be noted here that the lyricism of this and other riper work remains free of any sentimentalism, as Pelemans maintained a great degree of austerity in the melodic lines. This austerity typifies the general character for works from this period, generally seen as his “second”. In terms of instrumentation or dynamics, there is again little striving for outward effect. No sign here of a craving for intense drama, nor for pathos, even in the Agnus Dei of his mass, despite its being among his most emotionally-charged pages. The voices proceed in generally long notes, with great emphasis on the semi-tone in the Agnus Dei motif, as the organ plays fragments of a faster counter-melody. The result is highly emotional, but nowhere sentimental. This would seem to justify a description of Pelemans as an “anti-Romantic” in this second period as well, even if this attitude was less explicit than in earlier years. In terms of tonality, these later works hold something of a middle ground: neither tonal nor atonal, they are perhaps best described as a lightly to heavily expanded tonality, as use is made of “traditional” chords but in very free (non-functional) combinations, unrelated to any stereotypes or paradigms. Dissonances are certainly not avoided in this process, but they in no way undermine the ultimate tonal impression. Such a loose handling of tonality – there are no accidentals in the key signature – also illustrates well the great freedom that Pelemans maintains in his music, causing it to fall outside any kind of system. In this sense he was more an empirical composer than an theoretical one, taking little interest in ideological or theoretical backgrounds or explanations, but wrote music with melody foremost in his mind. In his own words, “the melody is the composer’s personality” (Gamma, 1973, no. 2, p. 49).
The works in the composer’s later personal style thus generally occupy the free space between tradition and renewal. At the same time, different accents are evident, not least of all because of the different genres in which Pelemans composed. A focal point with his oeuvre is without a doubt his instrumental music, with the central place held by his significant output of chamber music. Indeed, Pelemans was one of the first Flemish composers to rekindle an interest in chamber music. In terms of form he based his work partly on classical tradition. Examples include the saxophone quartet (which with its transparent musical structure could in fact be considered Neo-Classical) and the many sonatas. His sonata form tends to follow a traditional plan, as in the sonata for clarinet and piano, or the sonatas for two pianos: a first movement with primary and secondary themes, a second movement in a cantabile adagio-form and a final movement in which dance-like rhythms predominate. The first piano sonata exhibits an interesting form, especially in the first two movements, which both begin with the same slow motif (creating unity between them). In the first movement, a somewhat quicker second theme (-complex) follows, but otherwise no strict sonata form is evident.
Songs, too, continued to occupy a significant place in his oeuvre, despite his earlier crusade against them. The “style” of his second period, certainly the return to lyricism, was in fact first and most clearly expressed in songs. A good example is seen in the three songs on texts by Raymond Herreman, together forming the collection entitled God (1941). In comparison with earlier songs the style has evolved: they are now marked by a more thoughtful text interpretation than found in either his Romantic or Expressionist songs from his early years. A musical cell usually forms the point of departure, a translation of the contents, but then only in a general sense, and this musical thought is then freely worked out further in the course of the song. Here, too, the extreme simplicity, apparent from the economical musical means, is a chief characteristic. Other important vocal works from this second period include the above-mentioned Mass (1944; a striking choice of genre, as is the collection God, given Pelemans’ liberal credentials), Het standvastige tinnen soldaatje (The steadfast tin soldier, 1945), originally a radio play, and the chamber opera De Nozem en de Nimf (The rowdy and the nymph, 1960). These last two were among his more popular works, which is understandable, considering their strongly lyrical qualities. His first opera, De mannen van Smeerop (The men from Smeerop, 1952) is also worth mentioning as a good illustration of his dance-like rhythms, found especially in the outer movements of the opera.
Finally, among Pelemans’ instrumental works for large forces, we may certainly mention the ballades and the concertos. He did in fact also write symphonies, but he would later describe these works as exercises in orchestration, and overly influenced by Mozart. His own style comes through more clearly in the Ballades. A good example is the second ballade, in which one fluctuating motif is the basis for a whole melodic development: the work begins with this fluctuation heard only in the horns, but as the flute and later the other instruments subsequently enter, they develop more elaborate lines of the basic motif, which nonetheless starts off recognisably. The Third concerto for orchestra (1957) is another noteworthy work, particularly because of its first movement, which again has a structure which is not so much Neo-Classical as it is a loose construction of melodic “scraps” developed out of just two notes or chords. The large scoring is at times pared back so far that only one of the scraps remains. These last examples reveal how the melodic component in Pelemans’ music is not to be viewed as a conservative element: it is indeed precisely in his melodic invention that he explores new forms of expression.
On the whole, Willem Pelemans was a composer who always sought the “essence” of music, which he ultimately found primarily in melody. The path to this essence was, however, a crooked one, taking him through radical experiments that in the end were chiefly significant for teaching him to throw overboard all manner of ballast (Romanticism, sentimentalism, pathos, Benoit).
List of works
Opera: La Rose de Bakawali: chamber opera (1939); Le combat de la Vierge et du Diable: chamber opera (1949); De Mannen van Smeerop (1952); De Nozem en de Nimf: chamber opera (1960).
Ballet: Miles Gloriosus (1945); Herfstgoud (1959); Pas de quattre (1969)
Vocal: De wandelende jood: oratoria (1929); Mass for mixed chorus, brass and organ(1944); Het standvastige tinnen soldaatje, radio (1945)
Orchestra: 6 symphonys (1936, 1937, 1937, 1938, 1938, 1939); 8 concerti (1948, 1955, 1957, 1961, 1966, 1977, 1979, 1982); 8 ballads for orchestra (1933, 1933, 1933, 1934, 1934, 1934, 1934, 1938); 3 piano concerti (1945, 1950, 1967); 1 violin concerto (1954)
Chamber music: 5 concertini (1948, 1949, 1950, 1957, 1966); 4 violin sonates (1942, 1942, 1942, 1970); 3 pianotrio’s (1932, 1942, 1972); 3 woodwinds trio’s (1940, 1941, 1960); 8 string quartets (1942, 1943, 1943, 1944, 1955, 1961, 1970); 2 clarinet quartets (1961, 1970); 2 wind quintets (1948, 1977)
Songs: different songs on lyrics by Gezelle, van Osatijen, Herreman
– F. DEBOECK, Willem Pelemans (1901) als muziekkritikus van Het Laatste Nieuws, Leuven, 1985
– M. DELAERE, Y. KNOCKAERT en H. SABBE, H., Nieuwe muziek in Vlaanderen, Brugge, 1998
– DENIJS, D., Willem Pelemans 75 jaar, in Gamma, 1976, nr. 2, p. 77-80
– Een muziekgeschiedenis der Nederlanden, uitg. dr. L. P. GRIJP, Amsterdam, 2001
– H. HEUGHEBAERT, Willem Pelemans, in Ons Erfdeel, 1981, nr. 3, p. 446-447
– Komponeren in Vlaanderen, in Gamma, 1973, nr. 1-3
– C. MERTENS, Willem Pelemans 70 jaar, in Vlaams Muziektijdschrift, 1971, nr. 3, p. 86-87
– Music in Belgium, Contemporary Belgian Composers, uitg. dr. CeBeDeM, Brussel, 1964
– W. PAAP, Willem Pelemans, een stuk muziekgeschiedenis, in Mens en Melodie, 1972, nr. 6, p. 166-169
– F. PAPON, Willem Pelemans (75), een leven vol muziek, 1976, nr. 4, p. 22-25
– E. POPO, Willem Pelemans, anti-romanticus, in De Periscoop, 1980, nr. 9, p. 8
– P. VAN CROMBRUGGEN, Muzikale omwentelingen, deel II, Tongerlo, s.d.
– Willem Pelemans, in De Vlaamse Gids, 1991, nr. 4, p. 44-55
– WILLEM PELEMANS: CHAMBER MUSIC, De Rode Pomp/Gents Muzikaal Archief 014
– Harp Kwintet, MUSIC FOR HARP, FLUTE, VIOLIN, VIOLA AND CELLO (Arpae Ensemble), Phaedra (In Flanders’ Fields, vol. 12) 92012
Texts by Frederik Deboes
Last update: 2003