Gevaert, François-Auguste

Huise, 31/07/1828 > Brussel, 24/12/1908


Gevaert, François-Auguste

by Jan Dewilde

He received his first music lessons from J. B. Christiaens, organist in Gevaert's native village Huise (Oudenaarde). From 1841 at the Conservatory of Ghent Gevaert studied piano (De Somere, 1st prize in 1844), harmony (Mengal) and composition. Concurrently he was organist at the Jesuits' church. Already at an early age Gevaert got involved in Ghent with the young Flemish Movement in music. He wrote two early cantatas on Dutch texts: België (Belgium) - awarded a first prize in 1847 by the Ghent Société des Beaux-Arts - and De nationale verjaerdag (The National Anniversary) [1855]. In 1863 he also wrote the cantata Jacob van Artevelde on a text by Napoleon Destanberg.

Gevaert cooperated with the Vlaemsch-Duitsch Zangverbond (Flemish-German Choral Society) and in Ghent at the Vlaemsch-Duitsch Zangfeest (Flemish-German Song Feast) of 1847 his psalm Super flumina Babylonis was performed by the German choirs conducted by Franz Weber. He further lent support to the young Flemish choral movement with works such as Grafkrans voor Willems (Funeral Wreath for Willems), De maegd van Gent (The Virgin of Ghent) and the anthologies Zes choors (Six Choruses) and Verzameling van oude Vlaemsche liederen (Collection of Old Flemish Songs). But like his contemporaries he also kept writing choral music and songs on French texts, such as César et les Belges, Cantate au roi and Jérusalem ou le départ des Croisés for double choir.

After he had won the Prix de Rome with the cantata Le roi Lear (King Lear) in 1847, with the awarded grant he travelled through France, Spain, Italy and Germany. He settled down in Paris, where in 1867 he became "directeur de musique" of the Grand Opéra and made a career as composer of a number of operas, such as Quentin Durward.

Upon his return to Belgium as a consequence of the French-Prussian war, he succeeded François-Joseph Fétis in 1871 as director of the Brussels Conservatory. At first Gevaert still wrote some songs on Dutch texts, but under the influence of his stay abroad and by force of his official function he turned his back on the Flemish Movement in music. In 1870 he had already decided against a course of Flemish singing at the Ghent Conservatory (where from 1856 to 1879 he was a member of the administrative commission) and at his inaugural address as conservatory director Gevaert criticised Benoit's nationalist principles. He pleaded for a Belgian musical art as an eclectic focus of Germanic and Romance import. Moreover, in 1876 he claimed in a lecture on music education for the Académie Royale that a conservatory ought not to teach one specific tendency, thus condemning the nationalist foundation of Benoit's school.

Since Gevaert could greet as his ally the director of the Ghent Conservatory, the Liège composer Adolphe Samuel, Benoit found himself isolated with his Flemish-nationalist aesthetics. The latter reacted against Gevaert's cosmopolitan ideas in his series of articles Over de nationale toonkunst (On National Music). Also in a reformatory commission of conservatory directors, the 'Conseil pour le perfectionnement de l'enseignement musical en Belgique'  chairman Gevaert and Benoit opposed each other. Gevaert saw the conservatory as a breeding ground for virtuosos, while Benoit wanted his school to form 'thinking men and women'. Gevaert himself in fact developed the Brussels Conservatory during his 37 year term of office to one of the best European music institutes, with teachers such as Edgar Tinel, Eugène Ysaye (violin), Arthur de Greef (piano), Hubert-Ferdinand Kufferath (counterpoint), Joseph Servais (cello) and Paul Gilson (harmony). True enough he was helped by a favourable subsidy policy which put at a disadvantage the other conservatories.

Gevaert also continued the musicological work of Fétis, publishing internationally authoritative works on ancient and early-medieval music and on various subjects concerning music theory. He was one of the pioneers of ancient music, published work by Bach and Gluck and with the 'Société des Concerts du Conservatoire' presented compositions of Bach, Gluck, Händel and Beethoven. He became music director of Leopold II, for whom on a text by Gentil Antheunis he wrote the "Belgisch volkslied voor mansstem"  Vers l'avenir / Naar wijd en zijd (Belgian national anthem for male voice: Towards the Future / Far and Wide).

In 1907 François-Auguste Gevaert received the title of baron.

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