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Wambach, Emiel

Aarlen, 26/11/1854 > Antwerpen, 06/05/1924

Biografie

Wambach, Emiel

by Annelies Focquaert

Emiel Xavier Wambach was born in Arlon, where his father Paul had been a bassoonist with the military band of the ‘Dixième Régiment de Ligne’. Wambach Sr resigned in 1858 from the army and relocated to Antwerp with a view to becoming a bassoon teacher at the ‘Ecole de Musique’, while concurrently serving as a soloist at the ‘Théâtre Royal’. At the age of six Emiel started taking violin lessons at the ‘Ecole de Musique’, showing such extraordinary promise that Henri Vieuxtemps advised him to move on to the Conservatoire in Brussels. In 1866 Wambach became a pupil there of Colyns (violin), Brassin (piano) and Gevaert (harmony and counterpoint). However, when a year later Benoit became director of the Municipal Music School of Antwerp - where Wambach Sr was still teaching - his son transferred to that institution. He took violin lessons with Mertens, piano with Hennen and organ with Callaerts. Later he was tutored privately for composition by Adolphe Samuel, while also studying harmony, counterpoint, fugue and composition with Peter Benoit.

Initially Wambach launched his career as a violinist for the ‘Cercle Artistique’, the ‘Théâtre Royal’ and the ‘Société royale d’Harmonie’, but soon he also proved his mettle as a conductor and a composer. He earned his first success as a composer with an Ode aan Rubens (Hymn to Rubens), which was executed in 1877 during the Rubens celebrations in Antwerp. The cantata Het Vaderland (The Fatherland) followed on the occasion of the festivities in honour of the writer Conscience. In 1881 Wambach became the music director of the St Gregory Society in Antwerp, showing a strong commitment to the performance of works by Palestrina and other early masters. His oratorio Mozes op de Nijl (Moses on the Nile) was performed in 1881 in the hall of the ‘Koninklijke Harmonie Maatschappij’ and was executed repeatedly in Brussels and in Holland. In 1884 a second oratorio Yolande followed. Taking his cue from Peter Benoit, Wambach composed in 1885 a Kindercantate (Children’s Cantata) as occasional music for the World Exhibition in Antwerp.

Even though Wambach was a native of Wallonia, he was very eager to merge with the Flemish school: thus he dedicated his oratorio Blancefloer to Benoit, "as a homage to him who initiated me into the realm of the arts".  After several songs and sacred works he wrote in 1888 Super Flumina (Harp song) on the occasion of the Vondel celebrations. His concert arias Fredegonde’s verloving (Fredegonde’s Betrothal), Terugvaart naar het Moederland (Return to the Motherland) and Kerstnacht (Christmas Night) were very successful and were translated into French, German and English. For the ‘Landjuweel’ regional drama contest of 1892 he wrote Schouwspeldans (Theatre Dance) for orchestra and for the inauguration of “Oud Antwerpen” (replicas of old houses) at the World Exhibition of 1894 an Ouverture in de oude stijl (Overture in the Ancient Style).

On 1 July 1894 Wambach was appointed as choir master of Antwerp cathedral, his tenure lasting until 1912. This was the ideal venue for his Grote Mis (Great Mass), Stabat Mater, and In Exitu Israel. The same year 1894 saw the premiere of his lyrical drama Melusina by the ‘Antwerps Lyrisch Tooneel’ (Antwerp Lyric Theatre). In December 1899, the Flemish Opera saw the premiere of Quinten Massys, which remained the best-known of all his operas.

In 1899 he was appointed at the Antwerp Conservatory as teacher of Early Music, in 1901 followed by an appointment as teacher of harmony (as successor of Jan Blockx, who graduated to the position of director) and yet another year later he became inspector of the Belgian music schools. In 1905 in Brussels his cantata Aan Belgenland (To the Land of the Belgians) was executed by the combined choirs of the Conservatory, of Brussels cathedral and of the Monnaie Opera orchestra. In 1909 Arras was the venue for the premiere of his oratorio Jeanne d’Arc, followed by performances in Sao Paulo and Montréal. In 1911 he tried in vain to secure the directorship of the Liège Conservatoire. When Jan Blockx retired in 1912 as director of the Antwerp Conservatory, Wambach became his successor, despite violent protests against his alleged Walloon extraction by Flemish extremists who favoured Mortelmans or Keurvels.

During the First World War Wambach lived in the Netherlands and England, performing as a violinist and a pianist at several benefit concerts. In this period he composed 25 Oorlogsgedichten (25 War Poems) for voice and orchestra, as well as several choral works. Returning to Antwerp in 1919, he resumed his position as director and composed Huldezang (Tribute Song), a cantata based on a text by Maurits Sabbe, and performed in 1920 under the baton of Constant Lenaerts. In 1922 he was the first to introduce a course in Music History at the Conservatory. He also took the initiative to start a large-scale expansion of the library catalogue as well as building up a collection of historical music instruments. His last compositions were a Pie Jesu, an Invocatie tot Sint Michiel (Invocation to St Michael), and a cantata voor de Gelukzalige Zuster Theresia (for the Blessed Sister Theresia) which remained unfinished.

© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Annelies Focquaert (translation: Joris Duytschaever)