Brusselmans, Michel

Parijs (FR), 12/02/1886 > Brussel, 20/09/1960


Brusselmans, Michel

by Jan Dewilde and Karolien Selhorst

Michel Brusselmans was born in Paris, the son of Belgian parents and the junior brother of Jean Brusselmans (who was to become a famous painter). When the family returned to Belgium and the father settled down in the capital as a tailor, Michel Brusselmans enrolled at the Royal Conservatoire of Brussels. He enjoyed having such excellent composers as Gustave Huberti and director Edgar Tinel as teachers. He pursued advanced studies with Vincent d’Indy at the Schola Cantorum in Paris and eventually completed his studies in his own country with Paul Gilson. This thorough and varied education paid off: in 1911 Brusselmans won the Belgian Prix de Rome, and in 1914 his symphonic poem Helena van Sparta (Helen of Sparta, after Emile Verhaeren) was awarded the Agniez Prize. In the meantime he tried to subsist as a violinist in orchestras and as a conductor, but due to failing eyesight he had to abandon these activities.

In 1921 - at the age of 35 - he relocated to Paris, where he managed to convince the music publishing house Salabert to publish his sonatas for violin and for cello, composed during the First World War. His first symphony (“in classical style”) was also published by Salabert in 1924. In order to survive in Paris Brusselmans initially did some menial work for Salabert, but after a while the music publisher commissioned him to write music for silent movies. Brusselmans composed some seven hundred larger and smaller pieces, ranging across a wide gamut from the sound of flapping birds’ wings to the sounds of war. The stock music provided by him for Salabert was used in countless movies, e.g. in The Mummy, a horror film from 1932 featuring Boris Karloff in the lead role. The skills Brusselmans acquired he later used in orchestral works such as Bruits d’usine (Factory Sounds), Bruits d’avions (Airplane Sounds) and The Railway. It was a modest job - as a "ghostwriter" he remained anonymous - but it yielded a steady income. Brusselmans bought a house in Provence, where he was in a position to pursue the development of his oeuvre without constraints.

Brusselmans has often been regarded as an outstanding composer of "impressionist" works for orchestra with conspicuous excellence in original sonority and in a filmic display of colour. Furthermore he also shone through a quasi inexhaustible melodic inventiveness. In 1931 he composed the orchestral work Scènes provençales and five years later his grand oratorio Jésus originated (based on fragments from the Old and the New Testament) as well as a Canzonetta for violin and orchestra. The Suite d’orchestre d’après les caprices de Paganini, a high point in Brusselmans’ orchestral oeuvre, also dates back to these years. Despite the exacting virtuosity of this work, or perhaps because of it, several international orchestras included this work in their repertoire. In 1938 there followed the Rhapsodie for horn and orchestra, and an organ concerto.

The Second World War forced Brusselmans to return to Brussels. Because his income from the French copyright company SACEM was blocked, he worked as an arranger at the Sender Brüssel (Brussels Broadcasting Service), which was under control of the German occupying forces. The aftermath of the war resulted in considerable problems concerning this position. Brusselmans returned to France, where conductor Manuel Rosenthal and the French National Radio Orchestra gave an excellent performance of his second symphony (1932-1933). Brusselmans relocated from his house in Provence to Alicante. There his compositions included a third symphony (the ‘Levantine’) and Psalm 57 (for soprano, choir, organ and orchestra).

In the publication Music in Belgium: contemporary Belgian composers (1964) the significance of Brusselmans is defined as follows: "He was an unsophisticated man who rejected all pomposity and led a very retired life. He was never intent on acquiring personal fame. He was one of those rare artists for whom creation was a necessary function of life. Although thought to be a Flemish impressionist, he never aimed at following one or the other school. The numerous currents that have stirred music strongly for the last fifty years passed him by. He was completely abreast of his time, and remained so until his last compositions. Although he was born in Paris (of Belgian parents) and despite an education slightly influenced by Franck, his music remained fundamentally Flemish in tendency; he strove solely to attain simplicity and utter sincerity."

And in Brusselmans’ necrology in Le Phare Dimanche (16 October 1960) the composer Gérard Bertouille wrote: "Although Brusselmans resided just about everywhere, he remained first and foremost a musician of our country, a Flemish musician, with here and there, to be sure, a blaze of the radiant sunshine that the Mediterranean  had so often lavished him with: it was the joy that he learnt there, comparable to the way our painters went on a quest for marvellous landscapes there before. If Brusselmans pursued the course of Jan Blockx, he managed  to add to this charming but sometimes superficial style the imprint of a spirit that was at the same time enthusiastic and well-ordered, always refusing to cut corners, and capable of mixing his inborn subtlety with the transports of a lyrical imagination." 

© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Jan Dewilde and Karolien Selhorst (translation: Joris Duytschaever)