Stefan Van Puymbroeck was born in Ekeren on 17 July 1970. He studied piano with Levente Kende and composition with Willem Kersters and Luc Van Hove at the Royal Conservatory in Antwerp, where he earned a “Master in Music” diploma, as well as first prizes in solfège and music history. He took masterclasses in piano with Jean Brouwers in Brussels. His activities as a composer bore fruit while he was still studying. His first orchestral work, November (1995), a composition for flute and piano, was premiered at deSingel in Antwerp. Many arrangements by Van Puymbroeck, often the result of commissions, have been published. Immediately after his studies, he began to teach at the music academy in Mortsel and he took on a public relations function with the wind ensemble I Solisti del Vento. In this period, Van Puymbroeck limited himself to compositions resulting from commissions. In the fall of 1999, Van Puymbroeck settled in the German city of Aachen, leaving his position with I Solisti del Vento, which allowed him to concentrate full-time on his artistic pursuits. The quantity, as well as the quality, of his compositions in the subsequent years are evidence of the intensity of his work as a composer. His Piano Sonata No 1 (2002) won the Jef Van Hoof prize in 2004. Stefan Van Puymbroeck came to the public’s attention in the 2002-2003 season with his first piano concerto, which was successfully premiered by the Beethoven Academy conducted by Jan Caeyers, and with his own piano teacher, Levente Kende, as soloist. From the beginning of his studies in 1987, Van Puymbroeck was intrigued by the figure and the work of the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. In 1996 he wrote a musicological study of that composer’s opera Fire Angel, as the major paper required for his teaching diploma. Over the years Van Puymbroeck has emerged as a specialist in the life and works of Prokofiev, giving many lectures and gradually building up an extensive bibliographical overview of all the works concerning the composer published between 1908 and 2008.
Inner turmoil characterises Van Puymbroeck’s artistic style: the rapid and sometimes brash succession of emotional opposites in his music produces this sense of turmoil and hybridity, as short rhythmic formulas switch seamlessly into lyrical episodes, only to finish back at the other extreme. Van Puymbroeck takes a relaxed approach to musical style, the various parameters, form and aesthetics in his compositions, and is driven by desire for a symbiosis between a Romantic conception and a contemporary musical language. In his art, priority is given to the renewal of the connection with a musical past, the tradition with which the modernists made their radical break in the 20th century. Van Puymbroeck sees catastrophic consequences resulting from this break with the past, which he considers to be a denial and a misunderstanding of history. For this reason, he makes use of all available systems from the musical past, not in their traditional senses but adapted to a personal contemporary context. In this respect, we can speak of a “rehumanisation of music”, in the words of Wolfgang von Schweinitz.
The fact that Stefan Van Puymbroeck is himself a pianist is clearly evident in his works for piano, which at present include 1 piano concerto, 3 etudes, 3 sonatas and 1 piano trio. In his piano works he strives for a synthesis between a fairly conservative pianistic style with a structurally traditional form, and a more contemporary aesthetic. Van Puymbroeck composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 (1966) while still a student in the composition class of Luc Van Hove at the Royal Conservatory in Antwerp. The orchestration was, however, completed only in 1999. The concerto is “enveloped” in an early 20th-century expressionistic sound-idiom, a choice that Van Puymbroeck can still justify today, although in the meantime his style has evolved considerably. In structural terms, the concerto includes a short but independent introduction as its first movement (Allegro leggiero), followed by a slow second movement (Molto adagio – agitato – molto adagio). The third movement (Allegro brusco – largamente) is an intermezzo with repetitive elements. The quick final movement (Finale: Tumultuoso – allegro molto) leads to a relatively extensive cadenza for the soloist, after which a fairly classical conclusion – at least in terms of harmony and counterpoint – closes the work out. The piano part is very virtuoso and pianistic, reflecting the improvisatory character of the composition.
Since the end of the 1980s, Van Puymbroeck has made attempts to write a piano sonata, but only in 2002, after a number of false starts, did he succeed in producing a result that he deemed worthy of setting down on paper. His Piano Sonata No. 1 (2002) is made up of 2 movements, in a reference to the Sonata op. 111 by Ludwig van Beethoven. The first movement is related to the tripartite structure of the classical sonata form, but with the nuance that the succession of the groups is changed in the recapitulation, creating a mirror-form. The aggressive opening of the first movement (Precipitato) is in stark contrast with the lyrical world of the second thematic group. The two thematic groups are separated from one another by a bridge in long notes in the form of generally tonal three- or four-note chords. The bridge section anticipates the development section. The recapitulation is greatly abbreviated and concludes with a traditional coda. The thematic material in the second section (Tranquillo), a slow rondo characterised by a repetitive, dream-like quality, forms the point of departure for the melodic development in the following sonatas.
In the spring of 2004, Van Puymbroeck composed his String Quartet No. 2 (2004), again in 2 movements that contrast strongly in terms of their content and style, as the slow second section (Lebhaft) is incorporated into the first movement (Rasch – Sehr langsam). Here again, his typical artistic style of emotional extremes is in evidence. The list of works by Stefan Van Puymbroeck reveals a composer unafraid to shed the straitjacket of his own instrument and thus to broaden his horizons. In September 2004, his chamber cantata, in a scoring for 2 oboes, 2 horns and string quartet, was premiered at the Rode Pomp in Ghent. Van Puymbroeck had for some time harboured a desire to compose a chamber cantata and eventually found his inspiration in a work by the English poet, artist and visionary William Blake (1757-1827), The Marriage of Heaven and Hell – the name also given to this work – which was ideally suited to creating the mood envisaged by the composer. The starting point of this satiric text lies in the dynamic, creative energy that, produced by the collision of opposites, can take humanity to a higher spiritual level. These opposites form the protagonists of Blake’s personal world-view, which centres on the conviction that without opposites there is no room for imagination – and thus for progress.
Despite the unorthodox structure, the work has a strong sense of coherence through its meticulous combining of the melodic and rhythmic material and the arrangement of leitmotifs in strategic places. In the third movement, The Voice of the Devil, he uses the technique of quoting and points up parallels between Blake’s work and the libretto of Sergei Prokofiev’s Fire Angel, which is based on the novel of the same name by the Russian symbolist, Valeri Bryusov.
List of works
Piano solo: Inventio (1993); 3 Etudes (1995); Sonate Nr. 1 (2002); Sonate Nr. 2 (2003), Sonate Nr. 3 (2004)
Chamber music: Wals for flute and piano (1993); Strijkkwartet (1994); Trio for clarinet, violin and piano (1995); Sonata for bassoon and piano (2000); Houtblaaskwintet (2000); Streichquartett Nr. 1 (1995/2002); Klaviertrio Nr. 1 for violin, violoncello and piano (2003); Streichquartett Nr. 2 (2004)
Orchestral music and concertos: November (1995); Konzert für Klavier und Orchester Nr. 1 for piano solo (1996/1999)
Chamber opera: Kain (2000-2002)
Solo cantata: The marriage of Heaven and Hell (2002)
Songs and cycles: 2 Andreus-songs (1992-1993) (on text by Hans Andreus); Bij hoog en bij laag for bass and piano (1994) (song cycle on text by Remco Campert)
Chorus: Weer zit mijn hert te peinzen for mixed chorus and piano (1996) (on text by Alice Nahon); Dat komt gewoon doordat zijn vader eens for mixed chorus a-capella (1997) (on text by Harry Mulish, Rainer Maria Rilke and some religious texts)
– D. BOUCHERIE, The marriage of Heaven and Hell, in Nieuwe Vlaamse Muziekrevue, tijdschrift van De Rode Pomp, november 2004, p. 14-15
– P.-P. DE TEMMERMAN, Vlaams, niet Belgisch, in De Tijd, 29-01-2004
– K. VAN DEN BUYS, K., De leertijd voorbij, in Muziek &Wetenschap, januari 2003, p. 14
Texts by Gudrun Dewilde
Last update: 2005