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Busschop, Jules

Parijs (FR), 10/09/1810 > Brugge, 10/02/1896


Busschop, Jules

by Annelies Focquaert & Karolien Selhorst

Jules-August-Guillaume Busschop descended from a well-to-do French-speaking family in Bruges. His father, François-Jacques Busschop (1763-1840) served as a judge at the civil court of the department of Bruges and was appointed in 1798, during the reign of Napoléon I, as a judge at the court of cassation. A few years later he relocated with his family to Paris, where his career advanced further and where his son Jules was born.

Jules Busschop enjoyed a good education but was going to remain a self-taught composer throughout his life. His parents encouraged his musical talent and interest, and paid for lessons of harmony with music teacher P.A. Granghon, who shared the first compositions of young Jules with celebrities such as Kreutzer, Habeneck and Cramer, who then supported him with advice. 

In 1828 Busschop Sr - meanwhile honoured with the ‘Légion d’honneur’ and the noble title ‘Chevalier d’Empire’ - was accorded emeritus status, whereupon the family returned to Bruges. Eighteen-year-old Jules kept applying himself of his own bat to harmony, counterpoint and theory of musical forms, "guided only by the books of Albrechtsberger and Reicha" as Fétis put it, and by studying the works of other composers. Due to his comfortable financial situation he was in a position to indulge in composing worry-free. He managed to deliver an oeuvre that was both extensive and varied: masses, motets, choral and orchestral works, an opera, and songs.

In 1834 he earned his first success in a competition organized by the brand-new Belgian state with a view to supporting composers, on the occasion of the September celebrations (commemorating the revolution). With his patriotic cantata Le drapeau belge for choir and orchestra he earned the first prize, surpassing more than 30 competitors. Among the members of the jury Fétis, Daussoigne-Méhul and Niedermeyer were prominent. Busschop himself refrained from claiming that this was the first Belgian Prix de Rome for music, but even so he was generally recognized later as its first winner.

Busschop had a Symphonie en fa performed in the City Hall of Paris in 1836 and Fétis conducted the work at the prestigious ‘Concerts du Conservatoire’ in Brussels in 1846.  In La Belgique musicale the symphony was praised because of its "brilliant and varied instrumentation", and also for its easygoing and clear development of the musical ideas modelled after Beethoven.

In July 1846 his Cantate de Simon Stévin was performed in Bruges, on the occasion of the festivities for the third centennial of the engineer cum mathematician Simon Stevin (1548-1620). A few months later the cantata was performed again during the festival of the ‘Vlaemsch-Duits Zangverbond’ (Flemish-German Singing Association) in Brussels. For this occasion the cantata was adapted with a Dutch text, as well as with the eloquent title Het Vlaemsch-Duitsch Zangverbond. No less than 1,200 singers and 200 instrumentalists executed the work to great acclaim. Moreover, the same cantata - with a slightly adapted text - enjoyed a rerun in 1871 for the inauguration of the Memlinc statue in Bruges.

From the success year 1846 on, Busschop’s visibility in the Belgian music landscape was raised more and more, witness his membership of the jury for the national composition competition of the Prix de Rome in 1849, 1851 and 1853, among other honours. In this period he also took care of private tutorials in harmony and composition for Johan De Stoop, who later on threw himself into the frontline to promote Flemish music. For the marriage of the duke of Brabant (the later Leopold II) and the archduchess Marie-Henriette of Austria in 1853 Busschop was commissioned by the Belgian state to write a Messe Solennelle that was acclaimed by press and public alike. Xavier van Elewijck praised the mass later as "one of the most remarkable masses to appear in our country during the first fifty years of our independence". When in 1860 a Te Deum by Busschop was performed on the occasion of the 29th anniversary of the crowning of Leopold I, a reviewer of Le guide musical wrote: "this work by Busschop is truly exceptional and deserves to be ranked alongside the best in its genre".

The fact that, besides composition, Busschop was also steeped in poetry transpires not only from his Miscellanées poétiques (a volume of poems, epigrams and aphorisms published in 1885) but also from his opera about the history of Bruges, La Toison d’Or (The Golden Fleece), for which he himself wrote the libretto, and on which he probably started working in the early 1860s. Even though La Toison d’Or was never performed as an opera in its entirety, the overture was executed several times from 1865 on. The Bruges concert association ‘La Réunion musicale’ organised two almost complete (concertante) performances of this work. On this occasion the newspaper L’Avenir des Flandres wrote: "everybody of consequence in Bruges was determined to appreciate La Toison d’or and to pay a just and resounding homage to the outstanding composer who submits his works too seldom to the appraisal of the public". It was mainly Busschop’s masterly orchestration that caused such lavish praise.

Towards the end of his life he was decorated with diverse honours and titles, among them he was dubbed an officer in the Order of Leopold in 1880 as well as being elected to the Royal Academy in 1883. The fact that he gradually lost his sight did not prevent him from composing unrelentingly.

In September 1892 Gevaert headed a delegation of Belgian composers (among them Jouret and Lassen) to pay homage in Bruges to Busschop on the occasion of his birthday. For Busschop’s 83rd birthday in 1893 the weekly Le guide musical published a tribute to "the dean of Belgian musicians and composers" and "the veteran of Belgian national art", thus pleading for the revaluation of a composer who had already distinguished himself when Belgium was still in its infant stage and who had been present at the cradle of the national school. In the same year 1893 he was also celebrated by the Bruges musicians and colleagues, and a year later the city of Bruges honoured him as remembrance of the 60th anniversary of the competition of 1834.

However, after his death in 1896 oblivion overtook the composer fast. Although several of his works were published (under his own imprint but also by Schott and Breitkopf-Härtel), yet the bulk of his oeuvre was preserved only in manuscript, mainly in the State Archive of Bruges and in the conservatory library in Ghent (270 titles). None of these works is ever played today.

One of the first composers who was well-positioned to defend the musical colours of the young Belgian state, Busschop nonetheless, despite several prestigious commissions, seems to have missed the opportunity to connect with the burgeoning music scene of the big cities. One of the factors involved was his decision to stay in a rather provincial town such as Bruges (Fétis explains that in this confined environment Busschop was far away "deprived of all support for the study of composition").

Probably he lacked ambition as a composer (not feeling any urgency to make money with his creative work), there was also the conspicuous absence of impressive diplomas as well as his being rooted too much in his native city, all factors interfering with a consistent deployment of his initial national career. Jaak Maertens sees yet another reason why Busschop did not fulfil all expectations as a composer: "His liberal French-speaking milieu and his lack of empathy with the spirit of the growing Flemish consciousness stymied his previously established national fame as a composer".

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