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de Burbure, Léon

Dendermonde, 16/08/1812 > Antwerpen, 08/12/1889


de Burbure de Wesembeeck, Léon

by Karolien Selhorst after Jan Dewilde

Léon de Burbure de Wesembeek was born in 1812 in an ancient noble family from Dendermonde. Apart from Léon, also his brother Gustave (1815-1893) had musical talents. Aged seven Léon took music lessons (solfège and cello) from Joseph Troch, a local Kapellmeister. He went to grammar school (humanities and classics studies) at the Royal Secondary School ("College") in Ghent. During his studies of law at the University of Ghent, De Burbure founded the symphonic orchestra 'La Lyre Académique'. With this orchestra he performed his first orchestral composition, when in June 1829 Willem I paid a visit to Ghent University. At the outbreak of the 1830 revolution De Burbure returned to his native town. With the help of theoretical works he continued his music studies as an autodidact. In this period he wrote Chant des bardes (Song of the Bards, for four-part mixed choir and orchestra). Upon the reopening of the university he returned to Ghent to complete his studies, obtaining his law degree on 8 August 1832.

After his return to Dendermonde De Burbure became particularly active in local cultural life. Thus he was asked to be the leader of the 'Société philharmonique de Sainte Cécile'. In 1832 together with the poet Prudens van Duyse (1804-1859), his friend and fellow townsman, he wrote L'épée d'honneur offerte au général Chassé (The Sword of Honour Offered to General Chassé). As conductor of the 'Société des échos de la Dendre' De Burbure had been delegated to attend the first 'Beethovenfest' in Bonn in August 1845. This 'Society of the Echoes of the River Dender' played a prominent role in the developing choral life that was then mainly flourishing in the region around Dendermonde. The choir was the winner in many competitions, often with works by De Burbure. In addition to plenty of choral music De Burbure in those years composed concert overtures, sacred music, romances and, between 1832 and 1835, no less than 37 string quartets and quintets.

De Burbure kept close track of the international music scene. Already shortly after the world première of Giacomo Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots (29 February 1836) he wrote together with his brother Gustave an orchestral fantasy on themes from this opera, a work dedicated by them to the 'Société royale d'Harmonie' of Antwerp. In recognition both brothers became honorary members of the Antwerp concert society. The following years Léon's compositions include a Te Deum and the opera La Serafina. His overture Charles Quint (Charles V) for symphonic wind band was awarded a prize in 1840 by the 'Société des sciences, des arts et des lettres du Hainaut' of the city of Mons.

Concurrently De Burbure was also steadily increasing his activities as a musicologist. In 1838 at the request of Fétis he transcribed and made a study of the writings of Joannes de Muris (ca. 1290-after 1344) and Egidius Carlerius (ca. 1400-1472). His reputation was growing and soon he was asked as a member of the jury of the Prix de Rome, the prestigious biennial state prize for composition. In 1842 he became a member of the church council of Our Lady's Church in Dendermonde, where he classified and studied the archives.

After his mother had died in 1846 he stayed in Liège for a while, doing research in the archives of the collegiate church of St Lambert's. Then he moved with his father to Antwerp. Also there he went on composing at a great pace. For a choral festival on the occasion of the 1850 fun fair he wrote De slag bij Doggersbank (The Battle near Doggersbank), which was performed by 1,500 singers accompanied by a military band. Shortly afterwards, on 26 August 1850, his Missa in ut was performed in Dendermonde in the morning and in the afternoon his Ode Symphony was created for the inauguration of the bust of the historical writer David Lindanus. Actually De Burbure more often wrote occasional works: with the cantata Hoop van België (Belgium's Hope) he added lustre to the festivities organised by the Antwerp 'Vereniging voor Taal en Kunst' (Language and Arts Society) on the occasion of the adulthood of the Duke of Brabant, the later Leopold II. The cantata Hulde aan de kunst (Homage to Art) was written in 1854 for the 400th anniversary of St Luke's guild, and the overture David Teniers of de boerenkermis (David Teniers or the Country Fair) was performed during the Antwerp fair celebrations of 1864 at the inauguration of Teniers' statue.

De Burbure also composed absolute music, like the Symphonie triomphale (Triumphal Symphony) in 1853. In addition he wrote quite a lot of sacred music. His psalms Exultate Deo [1849], Caeli enarrant gloriam Dei [1851], In exitu Israël [1858] and the motets Jesu dulcis memoria, Cantantibus organis, Levavi oculos resounded for many years to come from the rood loft of the country's most important churches.

Year after year De Burbure displayed an unflagging dynamism. Apart from composing, he more and more dove into musicological research, wrote together a whole catalogue of publications, and on top of all this was an active member of several cultural and scientific associations. As such for years on end he classified the archives of Antwerp's Our Lady's Cathedral, which since 1797 had been left in utter disorder. Likewise in the Antwerp city archives he struggled his way through bulky collections of city accounts and aldermen's letters. Based on his examining the records for many years' standing in Dendermonde, Liège and Antwerp, he published a whole series of contributions about people like Ockeghem, Pevernage, Pottier, Susato, Luython, Verdonck, Waelrant, Bull and Gossec. As a native of Dendermonde he was a bit brash in claiming that Ockeghem was a fellow townsman, after having traced in the local archives a Jan Van Hockeghem and inferring that this had to be a relative of the composer. One of the objectives of his musicological research was indeed to prove that the polyphonists were of Dutch origin in the wider sense.

Yet judging in the light of the current circumstances, he produced creditable musicological work, which he sometimes altruistically put at the disposal of others to boot. It is well-known that De Burbure supplied a lot of information to Fétis for the latter's encyclopedia Biographie universelle des musiciens.

De Burbure's interest wasn't confined to music: he was also actively engaged in the visual arts, architecture, history and archeology. In all these areas of competence he had several publications to his credit as well, while often being consulted for his expertise. He died in Antwerp on 8 December 1889. After his death his widow donated his manuscripts, bibliophile publications, curiosa and scores to the city of Antwerp. A considerable part of these valuables is kept in the library of the Royal Flemish Conservatory in Antwerp.

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