David van de Woestijne was born on 18 February 1915 in Llandinam (Wales), the son of Gustave van de Woestijne who had moved there for a short time. His father’s fame as an expressionist painter was and still is eclipsed by his uncle, the poet Karel van de Woestijne. David chose music at an early age and began studying piano and solfège at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels (1925-1929). He subsequently studied harmony, organ and counterpoint at the Lemmens Institute (1929-1932) and later, at the conservatory in Mechelen, harmony and chamber music (with Godfried Devreese), fugue and orchestration (with Paul Gilson) and piano and music history (1932-1937). Although he continued studying with Désiré Defauw and the Spaniard Oscar Esplà, David van de Woestijne would always consider himself to be self-taught. When referring to Devreese as his most important teacher, he meant more the latter’s lessons in life than in harmony.
In 1938 he was hired as a musician/modulator at the N.I.R. (Nationaal Instituut voor Radio-omroep, predecessor of the B.R.T. radio network). After 1946 he was head musician/modulator and was made head of the division in 1966. Van de Woestijne also developed a career as a concert pianist, giving performances of his own compositions abroad (including in France, Denmark and Sweden), but it was brought to an abrupt end by a finger injury in 1957. From 1968 onwards Van de Woestijne also gave seminars in film and theatre music in Brussels. He kept composing until a few years before his death, on 18 May 1979 in Brussels. He was awarded the Prize for Film Music in Antwerp in 1954 and the next year, his entire oeuvre was awarded the Picard Prize by the Free Academy of Belgium.
Composing was a natural activity for David van de Woestijne, and he indeed composed every day throughout his life. Most of his works were not commissioned, so that many pieces were laid on the shelf unpublished or were even thrown out. It will come as no surprise, therefore, that aside from his film and theatre music, he left behind a rather limited body of about thirty pieces. His work reveals a preference for absolute music, which we can consider an anti-Romantic feeling and a rejection of an over-esoteric nationalistic programme towards which Flemish music sometimes tended at that time. He set himself apart from a mystifying Kunstreligion by opting for classical forms and reincorporating them in his purified, clear, almost atonal musical language. With Van de Woestijne, music is purely about music, or as he himself said: “music is abstraction of abstraction”. On another level, we can see his film music as purely music, even as a debunking of Kunstreligion. Later, he would even call himself “the last Romantic”, but with this he was setting himself apart from the avant-garde arising in the 1950s and 60s. He had little patience for serial composition, and even declared that composers use this technique out of desperation because they have nothing to say. Van de Woestijne adhered to conventional musical means to his very last works. The fact remains that he experimented now and then with twelve-tone or even aleatory methods of composition (De Astronauten, radio cantata for solo voices, chorus, speaking chorus and orchestra (1963)). He also worked with Louis de Meester from 1958-1962, out of which came 6 tape compositions, associated with the musique concrète movement emanating from Paris.
Van de Woestijne’s work is often judged as Neo-Classical because of its anti-Romantic leanings, but a better term might perhaps be Neo-Baroque. Besides the Classical forms and genres such as sonata, symphony and string quartet, we just as often encounter Baroque dances (Minuet, Sarabande) and Baroque genres (toccata, divertimento). Van de Woestijne set Les sonnets de la belle cordière, by the Renaissance poet Louise Labé, in a single large Cantata for soprano and orchestra (1954). As a fugue always follows a toccata, Van de Woestijne followed his Toccata for piano (from 1935, his earliest recorded work), a very fast single-voice uninterrupted flow of 360 triplets, with a period filled with fugues. For example, his Divertimento for oboe, clarinet and bassoon (1941) opens with a fine example of a fugue in the first movement (Introduction and fugue). We recognise the precise imitative entrances which, however, bear only a vague memory of their original tonal function due to their extreme chromaticism. The same fugue subject is worked out after the Intermezzo in the third movement (Molto lento) and is especially prominent in the fourth movement (Allegro molto). The greatly extended tonal language in the Divertimento makes the cliché bass cadences all the more surprising as an ending to the movement. There the almost motor-like rhythmic pulse, which Van de Woestijne creates through his carefully complementary rhythmic counterpoint, is set to rest.
A similar fluid, rhythmic quality can be recognised in his symphony (1958), in which the strings give the score a rhythmic dynamism, mostly through fugal entrances. This rhythmic continuity is also attained through a balanced concertante complementarity. The various voices pass rhythmic and melodic figures to each other effortlessly. In the Concerto for violin and 12 instruments (1945), Van de Woestijne organises almost the whole of the first movement, in sonata form, to the bourrée rhythm of a crotchet plus two quavers. The use of the harpsichord in this piece also stands out as a Baroque element (also used in Variations on a theme by L.B. Lataste, 1955, and of course in the Hommage à Purcell, 1974). With Van de Woestijne’s fugal contrapuntal treatment, this harpsichord part could have been taken straight from the Well-tempered Clavier.
An interest in pure sound, so typical of Van de Woestijne, is completely in line with this clearly concertante style. Thus, in his orchestration every Romantic standard, as codified in orchestration as taught by Rimsky-Korsakov, is ignored. The Schmelzklang, generated by giving combinations of instruments the same parts, is nowhere to be found in the Concerto for orchestra from 1946. We find only the pure unmixed colours, which nevertheless take over melodic and rhythmic forms in a wonderfully seamless way. The strings are not used as a sort of background colour for other instruments to lay their accents upon, but as an equally valid concertante part. Or they are completely left out, so that the accent is entirely on the winds, as in Sérénades (1946) or Eén-en-twintig (Twenty-one, 1976). A striking detail in the orchestral parts is the careful handling of tutti fragments and dynamics; rarely do they play loudly, and a tutti rarely lasts longer than a few measures. In the Symphony (1958) it does seem as if the already scarce tuttis are always compensated for by a solo – usually for one of the woodwinds – beginning where the tutti ends.
Where Van de Woestijne usually uses instruments in a conventional way, perhaps the most expressionistic use of instruments is the Concert for violin and 12 instruments. The classical form demands a finale in rondo form for the third movement, and it is in that part that he writes complex harmonic chords for the strings. This gives a very novel colour and a modernistic effect. He also uses block chords which drown out everything earlier in the piece, which along with the previously mentioned driving rhythms and perhaps the most daringly dissonant tonal language of his whole oeuvre, are strongly reminiscent of Stravinsky.
Indeed, neither Stravinsky nor Bartòk are ever completely absent from Van de Woestijne’s work, and as he himself says, it is this international orientation that has inspired and taught him most. He got to know these composers well through intensive listening, which he was able to continue in his work for N.I.R. Besides the strong orientation towards rhythmic structures, we can also recognize Stravinsky and Bartòk’s predilection for folklore elements. One nice example is his Divertimento, in which certain parallel melodic settings and fragments of alternative scales give an unmistakeably folksy or oriental effect. David van de Woestijne managed to always integrate following the examples of his two models, an orientation towards Baroque music and a predilection for pure instrumental sound in a transparent, often classically-structured form which makes this music, far from being eclectic, definitely his own.
List of works
Vocal: Les sonnets de la belle cordière for voice and orchestra (1954); Graal 68 for mixed chorus and orchestra (1968); Blaadje zurkel for alto and piano quartet (1971)
Orchestra: Ballad for piano and orchestra (1940); Concerto for orchestra (1946); Concerto for violin and orchestra (1947); Symphony for orchestra (1958)
Chamber music: Toccata for piano (1935); Divertimento for oboe, clarinet en bassoon (1941); Sonatine for piano (1945); Concert for violin and 12 instruments (1945), Sérénades for piano and winds (1946); Musique pour cinq instruments for flute, oboe, violin, viola and cello (1952); Sonate for 2 piano’s (1955); Variations on a theme of L.B. Lataste for harpsichord (1955); Sarabande for 2 guitars (1965); String quartet for 2 violins, viola and cello (1970); Hommage à Purcell for harpsichord and strings (1974); Eén-en-twintig for piano, double bass and 19 winds (1976)
– J. DIERICKX, Een afspraak met David van de Woestijne, in Jeugd en Muziek, nr. 22, 1956
– Music in Belgium. Contemporary Belgian composers, Brussels, 1964, p. 131-132
– H. HEUGHEBAERT, Ontmoetingen met Vlaamse Komponisten. David van de Woestijne, in Vlaams Muziektijdschrift, nr. 8, 1972, p. 225-232
– M. DELAERE, Pioniers van de Nieuwe Muziek, in M. DELAERE, Y. KNOCKAERT en H. SABBE, Nieuwe muziek in Vlaanderen, Brugge, 1998, p. 5-18
– M. DELAERE, P. MANNAERTS, K. VAN DEN BUYS, V. VERSPEURT, Het geheugen van de geluidsfabriek, Leuven, 2004
– C. MERTENS, D. VON VOLBORTH-DANYS, art. Van de Woestijne, David, in S. Sadie (ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2de uitg., 2001
– Concerto pour Orchestre (l’Orchestre National de Belgique o.l.v. Léonce Graz), Decca 143.373
– Divertimento (Blazerstrio van België), Alpha DB 48
– Symfonie (Nationaal Orkest van België o.l.v. Silveer van den Broeck), Cultura (voor het Ministerie van Nederlandse Cultuur Brussel)
– Concert voor viool en 12 instrumenten (viool: Joseph Putters, solisten van het Nationaal Orkest van België o.l.v. Léonce Graz), Decca 143.250
CeBeDeM (from 1951 to 2015)
Texts by Jelle Zeedijk
Last update: 2018