Herman Roelstraete was born in 1925 in Lauwe. In 1939 he attended the verger’s school in Torhout, where he acquired a love for Gregorian Chant, organ, and the “Flemish Question”, three subjects that would often find their expression in his music. In 1942 he began his studies at the Lemmens Institute with Henri Durieux (harmony), Marinus de Jong (piano and counterpoint), Flor Peeters (organ) and Jules Van Nuffel (choral conducting and aesthetics of music). After his final exam at the Lemmens Institute, he went to the Royal Conservatory in Brussels, where he earned first prizes in singing (Marice Weynand), counterpoint (Marcel Poot) and organ (Paul de Maleingrau). Several years later, Roelstraete continued his studies in orchestral direction, orchestration and composition at the Brussels conservatory. He played an important part in the cultural life of West Flanders, founding choirs, ensembles and orchestras, researching folksongs and assisting other conductors. Roelstraete and Karel Anneessens went to England together to look for instruments belonging to the Anneessens family; he later wrote a history of these instruments. He inspected more than 270 organs in Flanders, creating a register that includes the names of the builders. In 1950, Roelstraete became director of the music academy in Izegem, where he created new departments and courses, increased the number of students, founded a concert series and taught a number of different courses himself. He was also a singing teacher for a time and enjoyed a short career as a soloist. This came to a sudden end when he incurred a temporary paralysis of the vocal chords. The founding of the Musica Flandorum association represented the crowning achievement of his life’s work. This organisation had three departments which promoted fogotten Flemish music: a chamber choir, a music publisher and a department chiefly involved with the study of forgotten scores. In 1957, Roelstrate studied dodecaphony with Máttyás Seiber.
Roelstraete’s predilection for Gregroian Chant is evident in a number of his compositions. The Elegie for cello and orchestra op. 14, for instance, includes the melody of the In Paradisum. He travelled to Solesmes many times to pursue his study of chant. Based on his experience as a singer, Roelstraete found it extremely important for a composition to be “singable”, with every voice accorded an interesting part. His linear, mainly contrapuntal style is striking and was often criticised. Roelstraete, however, made reference to the music of the Middle Ages, when the vocal parts each had a flowing, independent line, but the whole neverthless sounded harmonious. One of the most important Flemish choral works is Lichtbericht voor Mensen (“Light Report” for People) op. 47, which won a prize at the Provincial Music Competition. In this work, Roelstraete uses such contemporary (choral) techniques as polytonality, fourth chords, glissandos, humming and speaking choruses, and dissonant harmonies (but no atonality). After this large-scale work, Roelstraete wrote a number of oratorios: De caritate Christo op. 54, Kersthallel (Christmas hallelujah) op. 48, Exodus op. 103, and the Passie volgens Rubens (Passion according to Rubens) op. 121.
Roelstraete was also especially fond of the organ. He was himself not only a great organist and improviser; he also wrote many organ compositions. Besides his ca. 20 works for organ solo, he also used the organ as a concertante solo instrument in the Sinfonia Concertante op. 36, as an orchestral instrument in Kersthallel and as an accompanying instrument in much religious music. In the same way that he wrote choral music based on his experience as a singer, he composed for the organ drawing on his knowledge of the instrument. The Three modal fantasias for large organ op. 95 (dedicated to Paul Anneessens) are based on the old church modes (as suggested by the titles of the movements: Fantasia Dorica, Fantasia Phrygica and Fantasia Mixolydica). The term fantasia refers to the improvisational character and free form of this work. The virtuoso aspect is clearly present in Roelstraete’s music. In the first and third fantasies, there is a perceptible tripartite struture (ABA’). The “pendulum motif” (c – b – c) related to this is found in three of the fantasies, sometimes in transposition.
The composer’s extensive knowledge of music history is evident not only in the many styles he was able to imitate, as for instance in de Zeer klassieke ouverture (Very classical overture) op. 24 (à la Salieri) and in Laus libertatis (a typical Baroque suite), but also in compositions written completely according to a particular stylistic idiom. The Neo-Classical Symphonia brevis op. 21 is modern in style but has the form of a Classical sinfonia (three movements, with sonata form in the first, aria form in the second and a contrapuntally worked out gigue with a short cadenza for solo violin in the final movement).
The composition lessons with Máttyás Seiber awakened Roelstraete’s interest in dodecaphony. Interestingly, he applied twelve-tone techniques only in instrumental works, such as the Terzet op. 44, Octuor op. 60 Variazioni per orchestra op. 65, Symphony IV and Sonatina op. 67. Despite the supposed strictness of this compositional technique, Roelstraete successfully creates a certain emotional effect in each work. Variazioni per orchestra, a one-movement work for vibraphone, woodwind quartet and strings is based on a text by Jan Vercammen, which translates: “When evening comes I’ll open my door and wait for him who in my dream promised he would surely come”. The theme is introduced at the outset by the clarinet and the bassoon. This is followed by variations, mostly of rhythm but also of timbre. The vibraphone plays an important role in these variations.
Roelstraete’s oeuvre reached a turning point at the beginning of the 1970s, partly as a result of health problems. His compositions from this period are increasingly characterised by a certain austerity and usually deal with thoughts of death. In a short time he wrote five song cycles with telling titles (Kringloop (Cycle) op 84, Overwegingen (Reflections) op. 90, Eindgezangen (End songs) op. 91, Nachtland (Night land) op. 92 and Voorbij de tuinen (Beyond the gardens) op. 93), which in contrast with his earlier large choral compositions no longer make use of contemporary compositional techniques but emphasise the development of melody. Besides the increasing simplicity in his vocal music, other works, such as his organ compositions, also breathe an elegiac and meditative atmosphere (e.g., Meditationes Vespertinae op. 131 and Gezangen voor de andere oever (Songs for the other shore) op. 115). In addition to choral and organ music, Roelstraete wrote a number of chamber music works. Of these, the three string quartets written late in life merit mention.
List of works
Orchestra: Kleine Triptiek op. 1 (1942); Symphonia brevis op. 21 (1953); Zomerdivertimento op. 62 (1967)
Chamber music: Octuor op. 60 (1965); Sonatine for violin and cello op. 67 (1967); String Quartet nr. 1 op. 116 (1976)
Oratoria: De Caritate Christo op. 54 (1963); Exodus op. 103 (1973); Passie volgens Rubens op. 121 (1977)
Orgel: Sonatine I in b per organo op. 13 (1949-51); Drie modale fantasia’s for large organ op. 95 (1972); Drie avondkantieken op. 110 (1975); Psalm 80 (1985)
Chorus: Missa recitata op. 10 (1948); Lichtbericht voor mensen op. 47 (19…); Van Pietje Putter en Herte Vrouwe op. 38 (1958); Geuzenliederensuite op. 108 (1975)
Song cycles: Het aards bedrijf op. 19 (1951); Kringloop op. 84 (1971-72); Nachtland op. 92 (1971-72)
– M. BYRON en H. ROELSTRAETE, Ik leer muziek. Methode voor het aanvankelijk notenleeronderricht. Liedjes uit de folklore deel 1 en 2, Wetteren, 1968
– J. DEWILDE, Herman Roelstraete. Muzikale retrospectieve, Leuven, 1996
– L. GOOSEN, Ter nagedachtenis aan Herman Roelstraete (1925-1985), in Vlaanderen, 1990, p. 331-334
– H. SCHOTTE, Ter nagedachtenis aan Herman Roelstraete (1925-1985), in Vlaanderen, 1990, p.130-132
– K. SCHELDEMAN, Herman Roelstraete en zijn orgelwerken, verhandeling Lemmensinstituut, 1991
– C. SPILOES, Ik leer muziek I, Deel 1 van Marcel Bryon en Herman Roelstraete en Het Nieuwe Leerplan A.M.V. voor het eerste jaar, verhandeling Lemmensinstituut, 1989
– J. VANOVERBEKE, Herman Roelstraete, Vichte, 1981
– H. WILLAERT, Koormuziek van Herman Roelstraete, in Muziek en Woord, 1985, 129, p. 4
– H. WILLAERT, Roelstraete, Herman, in A. DEFOORT, Lexicon van de muziek in West-Vlaanderen deel 3, p. 116-117
– HERMAN ROELSTRAETE: KAMERMUZIEK (Paul Klinck, Freddy Van Goethem, Herwig Coryn en Gunther Broucke), PKP 004
– HERMAN ROELSTRAETE (1925-1985). RETROSPECTIEVE (Crommen, Beheydt, Thomas, BRTN-koor, Ysaye Ensemble, Collegium Instrumentale Brugense), Eufoda 1233
– Lichtbericht voor Mensen (BRTN-koor o.l.v. Vic Nees), Phaedra 92006
– Lichtbericht voor Mensen (Kortrijks Gemengd Koor, o.l.v. Herman Roelstraete), HEDENDAAGSE BELGISCHE MUZIEK, Cultura 5070-2
– HERMAN ROELSTRAETE: EXODUS, 5 ORGELSONATINES (Ars Vocalis Kortrijk), Ars Vocalis, AVK 5427
– HERMAN ROELSTRAETE I, Stichting Herman Roelstraete, shr 201025
– Terzet opus 44, ARCHIEF MUIZELHUISKONCERTEN, Mupro AC 03 10 25L
CeBeDeM (from 1951 to 2015)
Texts by Kristien Heirman
Last update: 2018