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De Geyter, Pierre

° Gent, 8/10/1848 — † Parijs (FR), 29/09/1932

Annelies Focquaert (translation: Joris Duytschaever)

The living conditions of the Ghent working-class family in which Pierre De Geyter was born were far from rosy. Poverty, hunger, overpopulation and contagious diseases took their toll in the Flemish proletarian neighbourhoods in the middle of the 19th century. When to compound, the disastrous state of affairs the Flemish textile and metal industry was hit by crisis because of rapid industrial development, many breadwinners lost their job. Longing for better economic circumstances the De Geyter family, like many other Flemish textile workers, moved in 1855 to the North of France, which in that period was also known as ‘Petit Belgique’.

Already at an early age Pierre started working in Lille in a factory of locomotives, Fives. Despite the hard labour he took reading and writing classes at the evening school for workers. From age sixteen on he also followed drawing courses at the Academy in Lille, enabling him to climb the social ladder to the rung of model maker in wood. There is a paucity of sources about his musical education, but probably he took music classes at the Lille music school from 1864 on, earning a first prize for wind instruments in 1868 (several sources mention 1886 as the final year of De Geyter’s music studies).

He played the saxophone and in 1887 became the conductor of a socialist choir that had just been founded, ‘La Lyre des Travailleurs’. His earliest compositions belong mainly to the genre of easy listening music, but De Geyter also put his musical talent at the disposal of the emerging workers’ movement, on the occasion of strikes, for example.

Gustave Delory, the socialist founder of ‘La Lyre des Travailleurs’, who was to become mayor of Lille, commissioned De Geyter to compose a militant song for the Lille chapter of the young ‘Parti Ouvrier’ (Workers’ Party). The text to be set to music had been written by Eugène Pottier during the Paris Commune (1871). In July 1888 De Geyter’s L’Internationale was sung for the first time, to be distributed further through flyers that fed the local party fund. The author was identified only by the surname of “Degeyter” (sic). This happened to avoid personal repression, as both employers and authorities kept close tabs on all expressions of revolutionary behaviour. However, these tactical considerations turned out to be useless: De Geyter was ‘recognized’ as composer and was fired. In the meantime the Internatonale enjoyed an ever growing popularity, and in 1896 its worldwide distribution was triggered by the 14th conference of the French Workers’ Party adopting it as its favourite battle song.

Because of his dismissal De Geyter ran into financial problems, and in 1901 he relocated with his family to Saint-Denis, a suburb of Paris. These assorted complications were aggravated by a fraternal conflict about the authorship of the Internationale: was the composer Pierre, or rather his junior brother Adolphe? As mentioned before, only the name “Degeyter” had been cautiously used for the composer, and this enabled Gustave Delory to affirm that the true composer was Adolphe, who was a French citizen through his birth in France and who worked for the municipal services of Lille. Delory also maintained that Adolphe had ceded the copyright to the ‘Imprimerie ouvrière de Lille’, the publishing house of the socialist party. The pressure exerted by Delory on Adolphe was such that the latter felt obliged to deliver a statement to that effect.

Pierre was in no position to defend himself and said farewell to the socialist party. However, in 1904 he did sue his brother after all with a view to reclaiming his rights as composer. It was only after ten years that a verdict materialized, and the court found in Adolphe’s favour to boot. De Geyter could only submit, but through a dramatic shift of the plot line the story got a surprising follow up. For in 1916 Adolphe committed suicide. After the end of the First World War Pierre found a letter by his brother, dating back to 1915. Adolphe made it perfectly clear that not he, but Pierre was the composer of the Internationale: "Here you are: I have never composed music, and least of all the Internationale". Adolphe also revealed in the letter that he had been forced to claim the Internationale as his work.

In 1922 a court in Paris confirmed the authorship of Pierre De Geyter, who meantime had become a member of the young communist party. By this political choice he was alienated from the circle of respectable socialism, and his music passed into oblivion in France. De Geyter continued living in relative anonymity, working for the town of Saint-Denis as lamplighter.

A few years before De Geyter’s death an employee of the Soviet Embassy in Paris noticed that the composer of the Internationale was still alive (at that moment the Internationale was the national anthem of the Soviet Union). In 1927 De Geyter was invited as a guest of honour for the celebrations of the tenth anniversary of the October revolution. The Soviet Union was also instrumental in providing De Geyter towards the end of his life with some amenities: he received a Russian state pension and the town of Saint-Denis offered him accommodation for free.

In addition to the Internationale De Geyter composed mainly light music and militant songs, a large part of which is conserved in the city library of Lille.

On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his birth date, an exhibition about De Geyter was organized in 1998 by the Masereel Fund and the Archive and Museum of the Socialist Workers’ Movement (AMSAB) in Ghent. In 1999 he received late posthumous recognition by his native city, more specifically a statue in the front yard of the Museum for Industrial Archaeology.


Anderen over deze componist

  • Creve, P.: Lille-Fives en Pierre De Geyter, online op op 4 mei 2009.
  • Defoort, H.: "Debout! Les damnés de la terre!" Naar aanleiding van 110-jaar Internationale, online op op 4 mei 2009.
  • Dewilde, J.: De componist van de 'Internationale' is een Gentenaar - Pierre Chrétien De Geyter, in: SVM Nieuwsbrief 21, april 2004.
  • Olsen, J., e.a.: Pierre De Geyter: het grote lied van een kleine man, Gent, 1998.
  • Roquet, F.: De Geyter, Pierre, in: Lexicon Vlaamse componisten geboren na 1800, Roeselare, 2007, p. 184.
  • Vandommele, J. en Vanhoorne, M.: Componist Internationale was een Gentenaar (9.5.06), online op op 4 mei 2009.

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