Blockx, Jan

Antwerpen, 25/01/1851 > Kapellen, 26/05/1912


Blockx, Jan

by Jan Dewilde

Jan Blockx studied at the Flemish School of Music in Antwerp with Frans Aerts (piano), Joseph Callaerts (organ) and Peter Benoit (harmony, counterpoint and fugue, composition). Blockx was generally considered as Benoit's favourite pupil and as his successor. Nevertheless he wanted to adopt an independent attitude towards Benoit and also to develop singularly detached from the Flemish Movement in music. So on the advice of Jan van Beers he went to Leipzig in 1879, where he studied with Carl Reinecke and had contacts with Edvard Grieg.

Contrary to Benoit, Blockx did not have in mind to edify the people with his music. He addressed the middle class in the concert hall and the opera rather than the masses at open-air performances. Owing to the international success of his operas the composer Jan Blockx contributed to the propagation of Flemish music. However, since Blockx did not assign any educative uplifting value to his music he was strongly contested within the Flemish Movement in music.

Blockx wrote several symphonic works, some of them on Flemish themes, like the popular Vlaamse dansen (Flemish Dances, 1884), but he also composed more abstract works such as his Symfonie in D (1885), the Symfonisch drieluik (Symphonic Triptych, 1905) and the Suite in den ouden vorm (Suite in the Old Style, 1907). Most successful, however, were his romantic-realistic operas. His hit operas Herbergprinses (Princess of the Inn, 1896) and Bruid der zee (Bride of the Sea, 1901), both on librettos of Nestor de Tière, were performed in places as far as South Africa and the United States.

Although with these operas Blockx had meant a lot for the international dissemination of Flemish music and had even saved the young Flemish Opera from bankruptcy, he was fiercely blamed by the Flemish radical Nationalists for his association with the Parisian music publisher Heugel. This resulted in a real anti-Blockx campaign, in the background mainly animated by Edward Keurvels. It was considered as a denial of the Flemish Movement in music that in the score of Herbergprinses Heugel had only printed the French text, that he had forced a French librettist on Blockx for his opera Thijl Uilenspiegel and, what's more, had insisted on creating this opera in French in the Brussels 'Théâtre de la Monnaie' on 16 January 1900, two days before the Antwerp première. In addition Blockx was accused of thwarting Benoit in his struggle for a royal conservatory. Even so Blockx also sporadically wrote occasional works for the Flemish Movement, such as Hulde aan Conscience (Homage to Conscience - a Flemish writer) and Klokke Roeland (Roeland's Bell), as well as cooperating as répétiteur with the big performances of Benoit's cantatas and oratorios.

In his function as teacher of harmony (since 1885) he was jointly responsible for training a new generation of Flemish composers (amongst them Lodewijk Mortelmans, Julius Schrey and Flor Alpaerts). Nevertheless his appointment as Antwerp Conservatory director in succession of Benoit in 1901 was heavily questioned. And despite his efforts to develop the Conservatory in the spirit of Benoit’s principles, the baiting continued. In response to the creation in 1908 of his opera Baldie (again on a libretto by De Tière) Jef van Hoof together with some fellow-protesters published two issues of the paper De Ploege, in which they called Blockx an unworthy successor of Benoit. Victor Resseler in two pamphlets claimed that Blockx' themes from Herbergprinses had been copied from Benoit and that he fouled up the public's taste with immoral librettos and vulgar music. Only outside of Antwerp did Blockx receive the support of people like Florimond van Duyse and Paul Gilson.

Blockx' career is symptomatic for the evolution of the Flemish Movement in music. As first pupil of Benoit's school he gained international successes indeed with compositions that were permeated by the national popular music. Yet for the Benoit adepts this was no match for the fact that he refused to comply with Benoit's strict rules concerning the primacy of the Dutch language.

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