Brenta never attended official music school but started his music studies at age eighteen with Paul Gilson, who was to be his first and only teacher. This was highly unusual, for it was seldom the case that a composer had only one master during his formative years.
Gilson’s impact on his pupils was lasting and profound. Around 1925 his pupils combined their interests and trends in the group Les Synthétistes. Together they edited the periodical La Revue Musicale Belge, Paul Gilson serving as artistic adviser and Marcel Poot as editor-in-chief. Although Brenta still belonged to the juvenile adults, he too joined this group.
In contrast to many of his colleagues Brenta did not pursue a career in music education. He did write music reviews in several newspapers and periodicals, and he published some books: Panorama de la musique belge au XIXe siècle, Notes brèves sur les symphonies de Beethoven, Adolphe Sax et la facture instrumentale, and a detailed biography of Paul Gilson. In 1931 he was appointed acting director and in 1938 adjunct director of the Belgian Radio Institute, where he also railroaded the record library. From 1953 to 1967 he was music director at the Francophone Belgian Radio and TV station.
Brenta was a member of the Royal Academy of Belgium, the National Council for Music and the Belgian Society for Musicology. As a composer he was successful with his opera Le Khadi dupé, premiered by the Monnaie in the season 1929-1930. In 1968 he was commissioned with the set piece for the Queen Elisabeth competition; thus originated his Concerto Nr 2 for piano and orchestra.
In his compositions Brenta shows a predilection for melody: he is partial to long, well-turned elaborate, musical phrases. Witness the Aria from the second movement of his Symphonie: expanding phrases that do not shy away from the art of lyricism. In his first compositions his style is still close to Gilson’s: the manner of orchestration, his taste for exoticism, his use of classical forms and his traditional ideas. Like many contemporaries Brenta’s harmony freely uses dissonances, although basically he remains faithful to the principles of tonality. Towards the end of his life Brenta explores innovation and evolution by experimenting with polytonality and atonality. Despite this more daring harmonic language his music nevertheless becomes more austere. The aforementioned Concerto Nr 2 testifies to this evolution.
A large portion of Brenta’s oeuvre consists of instrumental music, with an emphasis on orchestral works. As a symphonic composer he wrote immediately and straightforward with an eye on the orchestra, like in his Arioso et Moto perpetuo (1940). However, like Gilson, he gave preferential treatment to music for wind instruments. Therefore many works for symphonic wind orchestra are to be found in his oeuvre, such as Marche barbare (1926) and Variations sur un thème congolais (1926). Also the homage written for his master - In Memoriam Paul Gilson (1943-1944) - was conceived for symphonic wind orchestra or brass band. His works for chamber music are not as numerous as those for orchestra. The Strijkkwartet (String Quartet, 1939) is, however, worth mentioning: the intimate and serene atmosphere of the middle movement is at right angles to the exuberant rhythm of the two other movements.
Brento wrote some stage music too. Besides his opera (for which he also wrote the libretto himself) he did indeed compose the music for a number of ballets such as Zo’Har (1928), Le Bal chez la Lorette (1954) and Candide (1955).
Finally, Brento also composed a number of vocal works. Some of them were dramatic works intended for the radio such as Aucassin et Nicolette (1934), a fable from the Middle Ages meant to be sung, and Héraclès (1955), based on the tragedy by Euripides. Other works are for choir or voice and piano. For some of this vocal music Brenta wrote the text himself: Chevauchée à l’aube (1926) and Masikini (1939), both of them songs for voice and piano. The oratorio La Passion de Notre Seigneur, composed in 1949, was based on a text by A. Gebran.
© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Lien Alaerts (translation: Joris Duytschaever)