Benoit, Peter

Harelbeke, 17/08/1834 > Antwerpen, 08/03/1901


Benoit, Peter

by Jan Dewilde

Peter Benoit received his first music lessons from his father, Petrus Benoit, a versatile musician. He discovered religious music as a member of the church choir in his home town. From 1847 to 1851, he studied with the pianist and organist Pieter Carlier in Desselgem. In 1851 he enrolled at the Brussels Conservatory where he studied the piano as well as harmony with Charles Bosselet, and counterpoint, fugue and composition with the principal François-Joseph Fétis. After graduating, in June 1854, he stayed in Brussels to prepare for the Prix de Rome, the prestigious state competition for composition.

During his studies in Brussels he composed a symphony, religious music, romances and melodies but also Flemish lyrical dramas for Jakob Kats's 'Toneel der Volksbeschaving' (Theatre for Popular Culture). In 1855, he was awarded an honourable mention at the Prix de Rome. Two years later he was a laureate of that same competition with his cantata Le meurtre d'Abel. He was bestowed a study grant that allowed him to visit the most important music centres in Germany before moving to Paris, between May 1859 and March 1863 (with several journeys to Brussels to defend his work).

Like many other composers, he tried (in vain) to produce an opera on a Paris stage. However, his piano cycle, Contes et Ballades (1861), was published and played in the French capital and was highly praised. After his scholarship ran out, he nevertheless stayed in Paris as a conductor for Jacques Offenbach's operette theatre, 'Les Bouffes Parisiens', and accompanied them in Vienna, Brussels and Amsterdam. Meanwhile, his religious cycle Quadrilogie religieuse proved very successful in Brussels.

Upon his return to Belgium, he was considered one of the most promising composers. He did not let his admirers down and composed a piano (1864) and flute concerto (1865) as well as his Lucifer oratorio (1866). This work marks the beginning of a long collaboration with the poet Emanuel Hiel.

Benoit was also well-connected in Antwerp where he was supported by the Teichmann family. In 1867, the city council appointed him principal of the city's music school. As such, he developed a "national study with and through the mother tongue" and later applied this theory in a general study programme. Another important factor besides language were the folk songs. To him, they reflected the very nature of a given people, and so he considered them the "precursors of the national musical art." In his music school, he did not primarily wish to train virtuosos but "thinking men and women" (Benoit introduced the concept of mixed classes) among the common people.

His musical and nationalist ideas went against the philosophy of his teacher Fétis and of François-Auguste Gevaert who advocated cosmopolitanism in music. As a result, his music school was not put on a same footing with the country's other conservatories until 1898.

The ideas he developed in his school were based on national stylistic differences. He applied them to his own work, starting with the oratorio De Schelde (1869). In the 1870s, he composed a few very personal pieces, such as Liefdedrama aan zee (Love drama at sea) [1872] and De oorlog (The war) [1873]. However, in order to communicate his ideas to a broad audience as large as possible, he deliberately simplified the idiom and wrote almost exclusively cantatas based on historical nationalist themes, designed for open-air performances. This conscious choice also determined the work's structure which required numerous performers (which, again, served an educational purpose by involving many people in the production) with mainly homophonous choirs, a colourful orchestration, simple but attractive melodies and dramatic effects. His work is an instance of 'community art', written for the sake of educating people culturally, and by that token clear and unequivocal. The Rubenscantate (1877) on a text by Julius De Geyter is a typical example of this.

Benoit developed far-reaching plans for an integrated musical life with due consideration for his audience, amateur and professional musicians. Unable to fulfil all of his wishes, he nevertheless implemented ideas and structures which are still valid today with his 'Koninklijk Vlaams Conservatorium' (Royal Flemish Conservatory) and the 'Nederlands Lyrisch Toneel' (precursor of the 'Vlaamse Opera' (Flemish Opera)).

The life and work of Peter Benoit are encapsulated in his most famous song, Mijn moederspraak (My Mother Tongue) [1889].

© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Jan Dewilde (translation: Jo Sneppe)