Gilson, Paul

Brussel, 15/06/1865 > Brussel, 03/02/1942


Gilson, Paul

by Jaak Van Holen

Paul Gilson was born in Brussels on 15 June 1865 as the second child of Victor Gilson, clerk, and Jeanette Vander Borght, his brother Charles being his elder by 10 years. In May 1866 the Gilsons moved to Ruisbroek in the Brabant province. Auguste Cantillon, the local church sexton-organist-choirmaster and local bandleader gave him his first musical training: solfège, piano and a little harmony. It was also there in Ruisbroek, probably around 1880, that he wrote his first compositions for choir and band. This early contact with the fanfare medium marked his further career as a composer. In fact Gilson was one of the first ever to create both original and high-quality music for wind and percussion instruments, with good reason earning him the epithet of "father of Belgian brass and wind band music". Also his symphonic oeuvre shows the marks of this craftsmanship, being characterised by a subtle use of the wind section.

In 1882, upon his father's death, Paul Gilson returned to Brussels. There he took lessons from Charles Duyck (harmony and a crash course of counterpoint), along with some composition training at the conservatory with François-Auguste Gevaert, yet all the same he mainly stayed self-educated. In Brussels he eagerly dived into concert life, where he was touched above all by Wagner's operas and by the colourful orchestral range of the Russian National School. With people like César Cui and the publisher Belaieff he kept up a lively correspondence. He met Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazounov and Scriabin.

After a first abortive attempt owing to illness, he obtained the Prize of Rome in 1889 with the cantata Sinaï. Inspired by this award, the next few years he wrote an interesting series of compositions: the Six Mélodies (1889-1890); Alla Marcia, Rapsodie (1890) for string orchestra; Le Démon (1890), a dramatic cantata for soloists, choir and orchestra; the Mélodies Ecossaises (1891-1892) for string orchestra. But especially after the widely-acclaimed creation of La Mer, Esquisses Symphoniques (The Sea, Symphonic Sketches, Brussels, 20 March 1892) he seemed to have secured a definite position on the Belgian concert platform.

Nevertheless his further career went off anything but smoothly. Actually upon the creation of his oratorio Francesca de Rimini (Brussels, 20 January 1895) music reviews blamed him for his bad textual choice and particularly denounced the strongly descriptive, evocative nature of his oeuvre.

Moreover, francophone by birth though for sure having learnt Dutch in Ruisbroek, Gilson had gradually been exposed to musical life in Flanders. Certain metropolitan circles took it ill of him that he had these contacts, which met with quite some antagonism. Maurice Kufferath, director of the Théâtre de la Monnaie, for one, tried his utmost to boycott the creation of La Captive in 1902.

In 1900 Gilson was appointed as teacher of harmony at the Brussels Conservatory. Two years later he got the same function in Antwerp. He filled both positions until 1909, when he succeeded Edgar Tinel as inspector of Flemish music education. In 1912 he was also empowered to inspect music education in the Walloon provinces of Belgium in succession of Emile Wambach. During his years as a teacher his compositions include two Symfonische ouvertures (Symphonic Overtures, 1900; 1903-04), the Petite Suite Rustique for piano (1901), the ballet La Captive (1902), the Variations originally for big brass band, later revised for symphony orchestra (1903), and the operas Prinses Zonneschijn (Princess Sunshine, 1901) and Rooversliefde (Robbers' Love, 1902). Concurrently he developed a gigantic activity as a musicographer, musicologist and critic. Even after officially ending his teaching assignment at the conservatories of Brussels and Antwerp, he continued as a private teacher. Thus just about the entire Belgian composers generation of the interbellum period have apprenticed themselves to Gilson.

Owing to the pressure of these demanding activities, the weakness of his health and to be sure also the continuous opposition he still encountered in Brussels, between 1905 and 1910 his compositional work took a remarkable turn. With the exception of the ballet Les Deux Bossus (The Two Hunchbacks, 1910-1921) he stopped writing large-scale works; the full casts were substituted by a traditional, early-romantic orchestra, more often even Gilson restricted himself to chamber strength. Increasingly more he based his work on reliable professional skills apparently devoid of the spark of spontaneous inspiration. This by no means implies that after 1910 he didn't write any valuable music to speak of. On the contrary, periods of deep despondency repeatedly alternated with an ever-recurring creative urge. Yet the promises held by compositions such as De Zee (The Sea) could not be redeemed at a 'mature age'.

The most conspicuous flickering of his creative power coincides with the outbreak of the Great War. The country's collapse indeed caused the music schools to close their doors temporarily. Only then did he get what he had hoped for when accepting his appointment as inspector: time to compose. In this period he finished works like the Suite Nocturne for piano while writing also three of Six Chansons Ecossaises on texts by Leconte de Lisle. He revised his Tutti Orchestral and started an impressive three-volume Traité d'Harmonie. His involvement though with the commotion around the replacement of the Royal Flemish Conservatory director Wambach, who had fled abroad, gave him a serious mental blow he barely recovered from. A complex tangle of political, Flemish-nationalist manoeuvres shortly before the end of the war resulted in Gilson's appointment by the German occupier as acting director of the Royal Flemish Conservatory. On a charge of collaboration he was indicted after the war and deprived of all his functions for a period of three years.

Close on his sixtieth anniversary, Gilson was one of the co-founders of La Revue Musicale Belge, of which he stayed the artistic director until the last issue was published in December 1939. That same year he also became a correspondent of Radio Belgique. He was assigned a weekly five-minute chronicle, 'La Semaine Musicale', providing a survey of the ins and outs of the musical world. His busy pursuits as inspector, critic and private teacher impeded his work as a composer. He mainly restricted himself to writing for wind ensembles, often occasional works for competitions (such as Tornacum, Grande Marche du Centenaire being the imposed work for the international competition in Doornik/Tournai, 1930), although a composition such as Parafrazen op Vlaamse Volksliederen (Paraphrases on Flemish Folksongs,1929?) for symphony orchestra is the happy exception.

As of 1 September 1930 Gilson officially retired. Five years later the celebration of his seventieth anniversary was again overshadowed by the Flemish-Walloon differences. After the reconversion of public broadcasting to NIR-INR he alternately took care of 'La Quinzaine Musicale' and 'De Veertiendaagsche Muziekkroniek', as a sequel to 'La Semaine Musicale'. In the spring of 1935 he was dismissed inadvertently and replaced by Ernest Closson. An interpellation by Flemish senators was needed for Gilson, who had become the political hencoop's toy, to return to the radio. Yet Minister Spaak's concession was indeed meant to emasculate more fundamental claims of the Flemings (a Flemish broadcast of their own) rather than to reinstate Gilson in his office himself.

He ever more often failed to compose, though never completely giving up this activity. Thus he wrote film music for string orchestra to Carlo Queeckers's Le Mas d'Icare (Icarus' Estate, 1934); duets for wind instrument and piano, the Romantische werkjes (Romantic Little Pieces, 1934-1936); Aria di Timpani con 6 Variazioni (1940). Presumably the music for Cyriel Verschaeve's tragedy Elijah also dates from this period.

In London on 1 April 1937 Gilson married Celina Stoops, singer and singing teacher whom he had probably been living with since the time before World War One. Meanwhile his state of health became ever more worrying: liver cirrhosis, diabetes, and a tumor.

At the outbreak of World War Two he had no choice but to virtually stop teaching altogether. In the shop-window of the Brussels publisher Joris Vriamont the following ad was to be read: "Composer, First Grand Prix de Rome, accepts all copying works, please contact 33, Rue Voltaire. According to testimonies rather a sign of mental depression than of real financial stringency.

Paul Gilson passed away in his house in Schaarbeek on Good Friday 3 April 1942.

© Jaak Van Holen (Foundation Paul Gilson)