Renier Van der Velden was born in Borgerhout on 14 January 1910. He studied at the Royal Conservatory in Antwerp from the age of fourteen but was unable to complete his formal music studies, partly because of his military service. He subsequently received private lessons from J. Jongen and K. Candael. Van der Velden was thus for the most part a self-taught musician. From 1945, he worked for the BRT (Belgian Radio and Television) in Antwerp, where he ensured that new Flemish music was given an important place in his programmes. In the years 1947-48, he led the male-voice choir, Lasallekring, with which, besides the songs of J. Broeckx and F. D’Haeyer, he performed folksong arrangements by Bela Bartok. He also put together a chamber music ensemble of professional singers with which he presented concerts in the Rubenshuis in Antwerp. In 1961, Van der Velden received the prize of the Province of Antwerp for his Ballet, Judith. SABAM (the Belgian authors’ rights association) awarded him the Paul Gilson Prize in 1967 for his complete oeuvre. His Sinfonietta for orchestra won the Visser-Neerlandia Prize in 1970. In that same year he became a member of the Royal Flemish Academy of Arts, Letters and Sciences of Belgium. Many of Van der Velden’s works were premiered at the Flanders Festival in Ghent, such as the Concertino for flute and string orchestra (1965) and the Concerto for piano and strings (1971). The Union of Belgian Composers awarded him the 1989 Fuga Prize for his part in the advancement of Belgian music. Four years later, on 19 January 1993, Van der Velden died in Antwerp.
Van der Velden’s oeuvre consists primarily of ballet and chamber music. Ballet music flourished in Antwerp in the 1950s, partly through the works of composers such as P. Welffens and W. Kersters and the rise of an independent ballet culture. Through his work with this genre, Van der Velden rediscovered his predilection for movement and drama. His musical manner of expression was aimed chiefly at the creation of dynamic tension, sometimes with the most sober means possible. Another characteristic of his style is the use of chromatic melodies in combination with a functional-tonal harmony. Van der Velden’s music moves between extremes: besides rhythmic (especially in the ballet music) and expressive works (e.g., his Kamermuziek for viola and instrumental ensemble (1956)), there are also compositions with a somewhat more lyrical character (especially the vocal works). In his early works there is a clear affinity with the established styles of, among others, Debussy and Ravel, evident in songs on texts by Baudelaire and Verlaine. In his later compositions, he abandoned this principle and developed his own musical style. He did, however, continue to make use of established principles, although he did not always pursue them radically. For instance, he sometimes developed dodecaphonic themes, but did not develop them according to strict serial principles.
As noted above, ballet music holds the central place in the oeuvre of Renier Van der Velden. He composed his first ballet, Provinciestad 1900, in 1937. The work is based on a scenario by Roger Avermaete for the relatively small scoring of two pianos. In 1947 he composed the first ballets for larger forces: De zakdoekjes (The Handkerchiefs) and De ontvoering van Proserpina (The Abduction of Proserpina), which, besides the version for orchestra, he also arranged for chamber orchestra. In stylistic terms, these two works are totally different: the rather light character of De zakdoekjes contrasts with the dramatic sound-world of De ontvoering van Proserpina (with its many solo passages and the use of many different orchestral colours). In the years that followed, he produced ballet music which ranged widely in type and quality. Van der Velden himself found Proserpina, Judith, Triomf van de dood (Triumph of Death), and Oostendse maskers (Oostende Masks) to be his most important compositions. He saw other ballets, such as, for example, De zakdoekjes, as having only a functional value because of their limited number of characters. Moreover, the fact that the four ballets mentioned here were also occasionally performed in the concert hall in suite form, without their visual element, was proof for Van der Velden of their value as absolute music. In his ballet music, Van der Velden often drew inspiration from famous painters; for example, James Ensor in Oostendse maskers (1965) and Pieter Brueghel in De Dulle Griet (with versions in 1949 and 1990, with a scenario by R. Avermaete). Van der Velden also composed songs, with his Eight Songs on Texts by Karel Van de Woestijne (1951) considered an important contribution to the song repertoire. This also applies to his Avondgeluiden (Evening Sounds, of which he made two versions: in 1956 for alto and orchestra/middle voice and piano, and in 1985, for high voice and orchestra) on a text by Paul van Ostaijen.
Van der Velden’s compositions for chamber-music ensemble are very diverse in terms of musical material and mood. The Concertino for flute and strings (1965) contains both lively rhythmic passages (in the outer movements) and expressively nostalgic passages (in the lento, in which the flute plays a rather melancholic melody above the orchestral accompaniment). The Second Concerto for wind quintet (1955), in four movements, is written in a polyphonic style. The first movement is strongly polyphonic. The entry of the flute is developed as a main theme, with techniques such as reduction and inversion. With its long melodic lines and the superimposition of different independent parts, the work gains a Neo-Baroque character. In the second movement (adagio espressivo), the oboe part is dodecaphonically developed, after which it is repeated by the flute and then once again by the oboe. The third movement (after a short transitional passage) has a scherzo-like character. In the last movement (allegro), there are contrasts between syncopations, triplets and surprising accents on the one hand, and longer melodic phrases on the other. A similar diversity can be found in Beweging for two pianos (1965) or for orchestra (1968). The work does not have a classic structure. It is in fact a tripartite movement, consisting of a slow introduction, a quick fugal central section with a powerful rhythmical development and a slow concluding section. Van der Velden makes use both of dodecaphonic-like themes and orchestral contrasts (especially in the interpolations of the brass instruments), as well as linear polyphony and a martellato style in the piano. The first movement of the Concertino for violin and chamber orchestra (1964) features striking tempo changes, following a slow-fast-slow scheme. The violin begins with a soloistic, slow eight-bar introduction. The tempo then increases to allegro moderato, eventually falling back into the slow opening tempo.
After retiring from the BRT in 1975, Van der Velden composed only short works for smaller forces, including Indruk (Impression) (1976), Nocturne voor beeldhouwer Marc Macken (Nocturne for the Sculptor Marc Macken) (1979) and Nocturne voor kunstschilder Antoon Martboom (Nocturne for the Painter Antoon Martboom) (1983). The 1979 Nocturne is a very polyphonic work, with a lyrical melody. It was originally intended for piano, but in 1986 Van der Velden composed a version for wind ensemble.
List of works
Ballet: Provinciestad 1900 (1937); De ontvoering van Proserpina (1947); Dulle Griet (1949 en 1990); Judith (1955); Triomf van de dood (1964); Oostendse maskers (1965)
Orchestra: Concerto for trumpet (1941); Concerto for hobo (1941); Concerto for violin and orchestra (1958); Beweging (1965 en 1968); Sinfonietta for orchestra (1970); Arlequinade (1980)
Chamber music: Divertimento for string orchestra (1938); Sinfonietta for strings (1942); Trio for hobo, clarinet and bassoon (1943); Concertino for chamber orchestra (1949); Chamber music for alto (1956); Concerto for two piano’s and brass quintet (1965); Elegie for hobo (1983)
Vocal: Eight lieder on lyrics by Karel Van de Woestijne for high voice and piano or orchestral accompaniment (1946); Avondgeluiden on lyrics by Paul van Ostayen (1954, 1954 and 1985)
– A. CORBET, art. Renier Van der Velden, in Algemene muziekencyclopedie,10, Antwerpen-Amsterdam, 1960, p. 99-100
– H. HEUGHEBAERT, Renier Van der Velden, in Harop, nr 2, 1967, p. 35-40
– M. HINSON, Music for Piano and Orchestra: An Annotated Guide, Bloomington, 1993, p. 298
– Renier Van der Velden, in Music in Belgium-Contemporary Belgian Composers, uitg. dr A. MANTEAU, Brussel, 1964
– Concerto nr. 2 voor blazerskwintet (Blaaskwintet van Brussel), Decca 143.333
– Mijn God, Gij ziet de zee (L. Devos en M. Gazelle), Philips A 10481
– Preludium voor piano (Lode Backx), Olympia
– Muziek in Vlaanderen: Maes/ Van der Velden: Concerto voor piano en strijkers; Sextuor, Alpha Brussels DBM-N 226
– Judith: balletsuite (Nationaal Orkest van België o.l.v. Léonce Gras, Cultura 5067-3
– Nocturne voor beeldhouwer Marc Macken, MUSICA BELGICA (Antwerps kamermuziekensemble), s.n.
CeBeDeM (from 1951 to 2015)
Texts by Simon Keyers
Last update: 2018