Alex De Vries was born in Amsterdam in 1919, but moved to Antwerp already at an early age. He made his debut as a pianist at age eleven. He studied at the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp from 1928 to 1940, where he earned degrees for piano (1935), harmony (Edward Verheyden, 1936), counterpoint and fugue (Karel Candael, 1939 and 1940) as well as the higher diploma for piano (Marinus de Jong, 1937). In addition to that formal education he was also taught privately by Arthur de Greef and Emile Bosquet in Brussels. Later he married Denise Tolkowsky, also a pianist and composer.
Throughout the years he earned several distinctions: the Alexander Brailowsky Prize (Liège, 1938), the Virtuosity Prize of the Belgian government (Brussels, 1939), the Lomas Prize (Brussels, 1939) and the Prize Albert de Vleeshouwer with the cantata Het Kamp (The Camp, 1939) for tenor and chamber orchestra.
After completing his training he was a teacher of piano at the Royal Conservatory of Ghent from 1946 to 1958, and subsequently from 1958 to his death at the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp. There he founded the Prize De Vries-Tolkowsky together with his wife. This prize was awarded to the student of the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp who earned the highest grade for the Higher Diploma Piano. In 1956 and 1960 he belonged to the jury for the International Music Competition Queen Elizabeth. He was also very active as a concert pianist with tours in Europe and Africa as well as performing with important orchestras under the baton of A. Cluytens, C. Zecchi, E. Ansermet, P. Colombo, and many others.
During the war he had to get out of Antwerp and hide in Ghent. This period had, just like with Denise, an impact on his compositions. The title of the cantata Het Kamp (1939), which is also conspicuous in the oeuvre of Denise Tolkowsky in an alternative version for mezzo, refers to that dark period in the life of the couple. Also the Suite op “Het beleg van Bergen-op-Zoom” (Suite on “The Siege of Bergen-op-Zoom”) for strings, shows affinities with the same theme.
In addition to the cantata Het Kamp he composed works for strings, such as an Andante for strings on a theme by Arcadelt. The rest of his oeuvre consists of works for piano, such as his adaptation of the piano concerto by Aram Khachaturian, performed by him under the baton of the composer, and songs on texts by Paul van Ostaijen, Willem Kloos, Frederik van Eeden and Karel van de Woestijne.
The repertoire of De Vries contained a lot of impressionist music and contemporary compositions. He was exceedingly exacting for himself as an artist and often felt tormented by ideas of inadequacy when interpreting the great masterpieces. Even so, these selfsame demands resulted in outstanding performances, earning him much acclaim at home and abroad. He particularly cherished the modern Russian school, witness his special commitment to Khatchaturian’s piano concerto.
Besides being a prominent composer he was also recognized as a humanist and an author. He wrote several studies of composers and musical subjects such as De sonate and Mozart, historisch en stilistisch gesitueerd (Mozart, historically and stylistically contextualized). Not only the subject of music was his domain, he also roamed freely across medicine, psychoanalysis, philosophy, politics and economics. Thus he wrote Inleiding tot de algemene en muzikale geheugenleer (Introduction to a general and musical theory of mnemotechnics, 1949, reprinted in 1973) and many essays such as De muziek in het oeuvre van M. Proust en A. Huxley (Music in the oeuvre of M. Proust and A. Huxley) and Joodse moraal en politiek (Jewish ethics and politics).
In May 1964 he said farewell to life (the exact date of his death is unclear - 22 or 23rd of May). His wife, Denise Tolkowsky, founded in 1965 the Fund Alex de Vries with the mission to offer opportunities to young musicians, supporting and advising them.
© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Lien Alaerts (translation: Joris Duytschaever)