Baeyens, August

Antwerpen, 05/06/1895 > Antwerpen, 17/07/1966


Baeyens, August

by Karolien Selhorst after Luc Leytens

Baeyens's career mainly took its course in his native city of Antwerp. He studied solfège and viola there at the Royal Flemish Conservatory of Music. In the field of composition he was to a large extent an autodidact, despite the fact that he allegedly followed composition classes with August De Boeck.

As a violist he played in several orchestras, for example in the French Opera of Antwerp at that time, the so-called "Royal". There Baeyens caught a lifelong passion for the operatic genre. In 1927 with some friends he founded the Antwerp Chamber Music Society, which programmed works mostly taken from the current avant-garde: Schönberg, Bartok, Hindemith, Milhaud... Also contemporary Flemish compositions of people like Jef van Durme, Marinus de Jong and Karel Albert got the opportunity to be performed there. As secretary of the Royal Flemish Opera from 1931 to 1944 Baeyens realised dozens of libretti translations into Dutch. At the liberation in 1944 he was charged with the direction of the Flemish Opera. In the post-war years opera was considered by many as an outdated genre, and in fact Baeyens also largely continued the former recuperation policy. He did, however, uphold the Wagner tradition in the Antwerp Opera and under his directorship some remarkable creations took place.

Baeyens started composing at an early age. His first works can be situated within the prevailing post-romantic tradition. From 1920 this changed thoroughly, as Baeyens started to be intensively interested in all kinds of new trends from abroad, which he tried to assimilate into his compositions. Examples of this are a short ballet De dode Dichter (The Dead Poet, 1920), Vier kleine Orkeststukken (Four Small Orchestral Pieces, 1923), a First Symphony (1923), his three first string quartets, as well as some small piano pieces including Jazz Fantasy (1926). When in 1922 at a Modern Arts Congress in Brussels some of his works were performed, they apparently caused a minor scandal. He was immediately labelled as a "ruitentikker" (smash-and-grab raider or window-smasher) or as "the most radical innovator" (Sternefeld). Though this might be exaggerated, Baeyens undoubtedly deserves the reputation of being the first modernist in Flanders, the first one to break away from the preponderant post-romanticism. He was alternately charmed by a wide variety of examples, ranging from Stravinsky to the young Hindemith. Once indeed he actually described himself as "a seeker who had never been ill-disposed towards the resources of modern music, but who wanted to use them to reach an independent result."

A nice illustration of this can be found in the four-part Sinfonia Breve, which is mainly characterised by brevity, as the title indicates. As a matter of fact the work has no developments. A similar sense of the elliptical is manifest in a series of songs that he published starting in 1927, for example Trois Mélodies (Three Melodies) on texts by Roger Avermaete, an Antwerp poet-writer who published both in French and in Dutch. Baeyens's song production never became profuse. From 1930 onwards he preferentially chose texts by Paul van Ostaijen, Gaston Burssens, Victor Brunclair and Jan Greshoff, in sum: the expressionist literary avant-garde in Flanders at the time.

Together with Avermaete in 1928 he wrote a "grotesque" one-acter, L'Amour et le Cacatoès (Love and the Cockatoo). This first attempt in the opera discipline was in vain offered to the "Royal". The following year saw the birth of Cantique du Port (Port Canticle), likewise on a text by Avermaete, but later better-known as Lofzang aan de Haven (Hymn to the Port) in the translation of Brunclair. Baeyens himself claimed this score to be his most representative one. It is a concise composition for solo voice, mixed choir and orchestra. With Cantique du Port Baeyens could boast of one of his rare successes abroad, when in 1936 the work was performed by the orchestra of the Paris opera.

La Sonate d"amour, a "radiophonic novel" from 1934, was the starting-point of a series of compositions with radio plays broadcasting. The second one in line was the radiophonic opera Coriolanus (1941) on a text by Shakespeare. Almost immediately the work was also scenically performed in the Royal Flemish Opera. The creation became a flop, however. Even a greater fiasco was his only opera lasting a whole evening, De Ring van Gyges (Gyges's Ring), on a libretto by the journalist August Monet. Conducted by Daniël Sternefeld it was performed in the Royal Flemish Opera on 15 December 1945 as the first Belgian creation after the war, but it didn't get beyond four representations. In 1948 Baeyens further realised a modern arrangement of the first Dutch-language opera in history, De Triomferende Min (Love  Triumphant) by Carolus Hacquart.

The year 1948 announced the breakthrough of Baeyens’ most mature creativity. The Third Symphony, dedicated to Denijs Dille, was the impressive start of this final and most prolific creative period. Six large symphonies ensued, in addition to three string quartets, a Violin Sonata, a Wind Quintet, a Concertino for woodwind trio, the Piranesi Suite for flute and cello, some scores for radio plays, etcetera.

Above all in the symphonies Baeyens displayed a personal idiom. The former relative short-windedness gave way to a broad development, yet the overall sound mostly remains transparent, sometimes even tending towards the ascetic. As to tonality he went rather far, some passages coming across atonally though he regularly returns to tonal poles. The rhythmicity seems more complex than it is in fact and repeatedly short motifs function as ostinati. The orchestration offers a fascinating alternation of solo passages in diverse instruments and more compact moments. But on the whole Baeyens misses melodic power. He certainly avoids on purpose all blatant emotionality. Actually he displays a remarkable kind of classicism, which found its most purifying and most convincing expression in the Seventh and Eighth Symphony. Unfortunately enough the concert audience never granted him the pleasure of great success, though admittedly it was rarely given the opportunity to do so.

Nevertheless Baeyens wasn't completely lacking admirers and supporters for sure. Jan Broeckx called him "a figure of more than local value whose work is no doubt shown to advantage in a European context." Denijs Dille in a radio talk even dared to place him next to Prokofiev. However, in no way was this admiration general, not even in the so-called "progressive" camp. Paul Collaer for instance fails to mention Baeyens in his masterly work on modern music, even omitting him in the short list of compatriots.

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