Alpaerts, Flor

Antwerpen, 12/09/1876 > Antwerpen, 05/10/1954


Alpaerts, Flor

by Karolien Selhorst after Luc Leytens

In 1885 Flor Alpaerts became a pupil of what was then the Antwerp School of Music, in 1897 upgraded to Royal Flemish Conservatory of Music. He completed the entire curriculum, his main teachers being Albert De Schacht and Constant Lenaerts for solfège, Jan Bacot and Jean-Baptiste Colijns for violin, Emmanuel Huybrechts and Jan Blockx for harmony, and Jozef Tilborghs for counterpoint and fugue. Not a direct pupil of Peter Benoit, Alpaerts was nevertheless strongly influenced by the enthusiastic atmosphere that characterised this period in Antwerp.

Already in 1891 Alpaerts started his professional career as a violinist and concurrently he continued his studies with a view to becoming a composer. In 1900 and 1901 he obtained his final degrees, as one of the first graduates of the Royal Flemish Conservatory of Music. Promptly he registered to compete in the Belgian Prix de Rome, but his endeavours in 1901 and 1903 failed for various reasons. This was no impediment at all for an Alpaerts festival to be organised as early as 1901, catching a lot of attention. Subsequently his career pursued a threefold course: pedagogue, conductor and composer.

In 1903 Flor Alpaerts was appointed at the Royal Flemish Conservatory of Music, initially as a teacher of solfège, then from 1908 as a teacher of part-song and from 1924 as a teacher of counterpoint and fugue. In 1933 he succeeded Lodewijk Mortelmans as the director. As a teacher he published several works with a pedagogical bias, such as the solfège method Muzieklezen en Zingen (Music Reading and Singing), the first method in Belgium to be conceived in Dutch, composed during the First World War. Not surprisingly, his prestige as a pedagogue was considerable. As director, Alpaerts realised a series of improvements, most notably the opening of a museum of ancient instruments, the creation of a Collegium Musicum and the foundation of an alumni association. In addition he was also teacher of music at the Municipal Teachers Training College from 1912 to 1921, counting Karel Albert and Hendrik Diels among his students.

Alpaerts's great breakthrough as a conductor came after the First World War, among others as conductor of one of the most important concert societies in Antwerp, the Royal Zoological Society. Before the war the Society orchestra gave two concerts once a week, offering Flemish composers ample opportunity for their works to be performed. After Flor Alpaerts in 1917 had successfully conducted one of these concerts, he was appointed in 1919 as the conductor to succeed Edward Keurvels. Alpaerts managed to add new lustre to the concerts, henceforth given on a weekly basis. Not only did many Flemish and Walloon composers experience the creations of their works there, but Alpaerts could also take credit for defending the composers of the Benoit School. Additionally he conducted many Belgian creations of foreign works: Szymanovsky's Stabat Mater and Janaček's Glagolitic Mass, works by Mahler, Bruckner, Debussy, Ravel, Roussel, Honegger, Ibert, Milhaud, Respighi, Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky, Delius, Malipiero,... He wielded the baton until 1951.

Together with his appointment as conductor of the Zoology Concerts, Alpaerts also became artistic director of the Peter Benoit Foundation, thus leading the yearly performances the Foundation organised till the year 1938. His policy was also to continue the publications of Benoit's works.

In the surveys of Flemish music of the 20th century, Alpaerts's name as a composer cannot be passed by. The very first works are a number of songs written in the period 1887-1893. Between 1900 and 1913 he was a prolific composer: orchestral works, stage music and the opera Shylock. The war years 1914 to 1918 were devoted to children's songs, instrumental works and the solfège method Muzieklezen en Zingen (Music Reading and Singing). The most important period is apparently situated in the 1920s, when Alpaerts almost exclusively wrote for the orchestra. The sparse 1930s were followed by a surprising final creative urge starting in 1944, mostly dedicated to chamber music.

It goes without saying that Alpaerts was at once stimulated and impeded by his busy professional activities. The orchestra he had at hand enabled him to have his works performed on the spot, which for sure explains his predilection for symphonic music.  Strangely enough, though an accomplished choirmaster, Alpaerts has hardly written anything worth mentioning for choir. His cantatas, including the children's cantatas, have barely survived their creation. The main piece is the short Jonker Krekel van Klaverghem (Squire Cricket of Clovershire) on a text by Pol de Mont. Likewise relatively seldom did he get a chance as a composer of songs, taking into account the popularity of the genre at the time. Not a single song could boast of permanent success, except perhaps the collections of children's songs. In all of these works the footsteps of the romantic Benoit School may be detected, without Alpaerts adding much of his own.

In his one and only opera Shylock he proves an excellent student of Jan Blockx, showing dramatic potential and a sense of structure. This opera, which was staged on 22 November 1913 in the Royal Flemish Opera in Antwerp, was later yet to enjoy a successful rerun there.

The heart of Alpaerts's production lies in the symphonic domain. Very often he took his inspiration from extra-musical, preferably literary data. So from the beginning he showed a partiality for the symphonic poem. Naturally, soon enough he was praised for his pictorial skills and gained renown as a "Flemish impressionist". Works in this style for instance are the symphonic sketch Bosspeling (Sylvan Play), based on an excerpt from Else by Marie Marx-Koning, and Cyrus, a symphonic poem going back to Couperus. For the Symphonic Poem for flute and orchestra Peter Benoit's homonymous work served as a model. Only the Lentesymfonie (Spring Symphony, 1906) followed the classical structure but as with Mortelmans or De Boeck it ended with this single attempt. The orchestral works from this first period have without any exception disappeared from the repertoire. Technically they are all right, yet there is a blatant lack of personality.

The second great period ensued after 1918. Then Alpaerts's symphonic talent reached its full maturity, orchestration apparently being his trump card. Of the six orchestral works from that period, two compositions by far surpass all the other ones in critical response: Pallieter and James Ensor Suite. In Pallieter, a symphonic poem in three parts, the composer succeeded in conveying musically something of the pounding vitality of Felix Timmermans's book, even though less overwhelmingly so than his model.

In 1929 the four-part James Ensor Suite came into being. Alpaerts, as a collector of prints, was inspired here by the pictorial, actually four paintings or etchings of the Ostend painter Ensor. In this suite full of clever strikes, Alpaerts wonderfully entered into Ensor's world, particularly emphasising the sarcastic aspect of it. The orchestration is more than ever multicoloured, with the instruments individually coming out better, at once offering fascinating contrasts but yet also appearing less homogeneous. Still the James Ensor Suite continues to be the most frequently performed work of Alpaerts.

With his appointment as director of the Antwerp Conservatory his productivity markedly diminished. In 1934 he wrote Twee Huldezangen aan Peter Benoit (Two Songs in Homage to Peter Benoit) for baritone and orchestra, on the occasion of the centennial anniversary of the master. Apart from two scores with stage music, the following years he only produced shorter pieces. Once he was officially retired, Alpaerts started to compose more intensively again. The largest work in his final years is the Violin Concerto, dedicated to Carlo Van Neste. A light-hearted Capriccio concluded his symphonic oeuvre.

Until 1944 Alpaerts didn't compose much chamber music or instrumental work. Consequently, his sudden preference for chamber music at the end of his life came rather as a surprise. In addition to a Concert Piece for oboe and a Fantasia for clarinet, Alpaerts was particularly attracted to the string quartet. No less than four String Quartets, further followed by Four Bagatelles for the same instruments as it were crown his oeuvre. Those compositions reveal an unexpected aspect of his talent. Alpaerts completely mastered the strict demands required by the quartet instrumentation. Within a classical structure he shows a sense of abstract musical thinking almost entirely at odds with the concrete emotional expression that seemed to be his main objective before.

The inventory of Flor Alpaerts's career is above all favourable in the pedagogical field. Likewise as a conductor his merits can hardly be overrated. The numerous concerts he conducted prove that he didn't only continue the Antwerp Benoit tradition with an enormous sense of duty, but that he also resolutely propagated the new international trends up to Bartok. Also as a composer Alpaerts tried to contribute his bit towards the revival of Flemish music. Due to a lack of genuine creative power, however, he only rarely obtained a personal stylistic profile.

© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Karolien Selhorst after Luc Leytens (translation: Jo Sneppe)