August de Boeck was born in the Brabant village of Merchtem, the son of a sexton-organist. In 1880, at age 15, he was sent to the Royal Conservatory of Music in Brussels. There he studied solfège, harmony, counterpoint and fugue, and arrived in the organ class of the famous Alphonse Mailly, where in 1881 he obtained the virtuosity prize (then called "diplôme de capacité"). From 1892 to 1895 he succeeded his father in Merchtem. Starting in 1894 he was incumbent organist of St Boniface in Elsene, and in 1900 also of the Carmelites church in Brussels. His entire subsequent career took quite a steady course, characterised by a succession of appointments in music education.
In 1909 De Boeck was appointed as teacher of harmony at the Royal Flemish Conservatory of Music in Antwerp, succeeding Paul Gilson. In 1920 he requested and secured his transfer in the same function to the Royal Conservatory of Music in Brussels. That year he was also elected as a member of the Royal Academy of Belgium. A final appointment followed in 1921 when he became director of the Municipal Academy of Music in Mechelen (on this occasion promoted to Municipal Conservatory). His management brought this institution to renewed prosperity.
As a composer August de Boeck has left a large oeuvre of about 350 titles. De Boeck developed his full talents rather late in life. The contact in 1889 with his contemporary, the brilliant Paul Gilson, turned out to be crucial. A close friendship ensued, during which De Boeck in fact became Gilson's private student for orchestration and theory of musical forms. With the Dahomese Rhapsody (1893), to this day one of the favourite pieces in the Flemish orchestral repertoire, he established his reputation. A Symphony in G minor followed in 1896, but only some 25 years later was it performed for the first time. The years to come he passed over the pure orchestral music and focused on the opera. After the successes of Jan Blockx and Emile Wambach indeed not a season went by in the Flemish Opera without the creation of Flemish works.
Still before the First World War the Flemish Opera brought in front of the footlights no less than four of De Boeck's scores: Théroigne de Méricourt (libretto by Léonce du Catillon) in 1901; Winternachtsdroom (Winter Night's Dream, of the same librettist) in 1902, Rijndwergen (Rhine Dwarfs, Pol de Mont) in 1906, and Reinaert de Vos (Reynard the Fox, Raf Verhulst) in 1909.
During and right after the First World War De Boeck wrote his final opera: La Route d'Emeraude (Emerald Route, libretto by Max Houtier after the homonymous novel of Eugène de Molder), on a French text, although the story is set in the Netherlands. Probably also for this reason the then director of the Royal Flemish Opera refused to stage the piece. The creation took place in the 'Grand Théâtre' at Ghent in 1921. Already that same year the 'Théâtre Royal' at Antwerp followed suit. Each time the success was quite considerable. In 1926 also the 'Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie' in Brussels included the work in its repertoire.
Later it did actually get accepted in the Royal Flemish Opera in Antwerp under the name of Francesca, in a Dutch translation. La Route d'Emeraude is considered by most connoisseurs to be De Boecks masterpiece. Remarkably enough, after La Route d'Eme'aude August De Boeck returned to the orchestra, with titles such as Fantasie op twee Vlaamse Volkswijzen (Fantasy on two Flemish Folk Tunes, 1923), Concerto voor Hans-klavier en orkest (Concerto for Hans Keyboard and Orchestra, 1929), Nocturne (1931), Violin Concerto (1932) and the symphonic poem In de Schuur (In the Barn, 1937).
De Boeck's orchestral works are not quite numerous but relatively speaking they are still performed most frequently and are generally of excellent quality. As is the case for the majority of his Flemish contemporaries, vocal music takes up the greater part in his oeuvre. Three of De Boeck's opera scores enjoyed a brilliant success, to Flemish standards: the short fairy opera Winternachtsdroom (Winter Night's Dream), the freedom epic Reinaert de Vos (Reynard the Fox), and the above mentioned la Route d'Emeraude. These pieces had also frequent reruns in our theatres after their creation. However, all the rest has completely been forgotten, a fate that also befell his ballets and operettas. Likewise a whole series of cantatas and children's cantatas have disappeared from view.
Fairly large is the amount of sacred works, for sure including a great deal of faded consumer music, yet also little treasures like the motet O Beata Mater or the still popular unison Mass in B minor. In addition De Boeck composed some one hundred songs, partly on Dutch and French texts. As to the instrumental music, the majority are piano works: concise, sometimes very nice evocative pieces labelled Humoresque, Menuet, Prelude, Scherzo, Toccata or Enfantines. Though De Boeck himself was an excellent organist and improviser, he has written very little for his instrument. One piece, however, certainly ought to be mentioned, the Allegro con fuoco (1897), which belongs to the best of Flemish music and is worth being judged to international standards.
His chamber music is restricted to a Cello Sonata and a number of short pages for solo instruments with piano accompaniment. Conversely, he composed quite a lot of music for symphonic wind band and brass band. Like all his Flemish contemporaries De Boeck remained a romantic in heart and soul. In his initial period he was evidently charmed by the Russian national school. From some of De Boeck's opera pages dating back to the first decade of the 20th century can be inferred that he wasn't indifferent to Wagner, but compared to many composers of his generation, like Gilson in Prinses Zonneschijn (Princess Sunshine), the tracks of Wagnerism remained surprisingly scarce indeed. At least just as strong was the influence of verismo, which can still be felt in La Route d'Emeraude. Some songs, as well as the marvellous Nocturne for Orchestra refer to French impressionism. But of course there is also a typical "Flemish" aspect. He has never made an attempt to disguise his admiration for Peter Benoit. His oeuvre doesn't show any great shocks or sensational innovations, yet altogether he has never been a slavish epigone of any whim of fashion.
The quality of his works has often been judged as rather unequal. De Boeck wasn't a seeker nor was he tormented by artistic or metaphysical problems. Consequently he was blamed for lacking wide intellectual interests and a sense of criticism, as for example in the choice of literary texts. He mainly had to depend on his great talent, while having refined the pure musical craftsmanship with Gilson. As a man of feeling and a friend of nature spontaneity was his great strength. He excels in short pages and is actually somewhat short of breath or poor in structure. In piano miniatures and songs he is at his best. An unconstrained musicality, a natural expressive power, sense of humour and of colour, a good share of common sense to boot won him quite a large public success. Decades after his death his best works appear to have better chances to be programmed than many a weighty albeit perhaps better-structured or "progressive" piece of music.
© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Karolien Selhorst after Luc Leytens (translation:Jo Sneppe)