Music ran in the family that Charles-Louis Hanssens 'jeune' descended from. His father Joseph conducted and staged operas, his uncle Charles-Liévin ('aîné') was a composer and a conductor, and his uncle Jean was a singer and an actor. A lot of literature refers to his uncle as Charles-Louis Hanssens, who is actually Charles-Liévin. Because of the confusion between the namesakes Charles-Louis (uncle aîné and nephew jeune) it is sometimes hard to determine who deserves to get credit for what.
After the season 1804-1805 father Joseph Hanssens quit conducting at the Ghent opera, relocating to Amsterdam with his family to become second conductor of the 'Hollandse Schouwburg'. His son Charles-Louis rapidly proved his musical genes, playing in the orchestra from 1812 on and composing from age fourteen on. When his father died in 1816, Charles-Louis had not yet enjoyed many opportunities to take classes with him, and he was largely self-taught: even though his brother Felix, who had studied with Habeneck in Paris but died early, probably imparted some basics to him, the most important things he learnt from Reicha's theoretical works and from what he heard around him.
In 1822, at age twenty, Charles-Louis became conductor at the 'Hollandse Schouwburg' in Amsterdam, following in his father's footsteps. After three years he resigned due to a conflict about money matters and relocated to Brussels. In the orchestra of the Brussels Opera De Munt/La Monnaie he joined the cellists under the baton of his uncle Charles-Liévin and in this stimulating environment he began conceiving his major compositions. His debut as a composer was the 'ballet-divertissement' Le 5 juillet ou l'heureuse journée (5 July or The Happy Day), composed in collaboration with François Snel (first violinist at De Munt), performed in July 1825. From then on the works followed in a rapid pace. After a steep ascension in the opera company of De Munt he started the season 1828-1829 as a second conductor, leading the orchestra together with his uncle.
Meanwhile he had also been appointed, though after a highly controversial procedure, as teacher of harmony and composition at the Royal Music School of Brussels, then still under Dutch rule (January 1828). Among his students were, among others, Lintermans, Servais, Bosselet, and Singelée. However, the Belgian revolution of 1830 made his position precarious, given his political conviction as an Orangist, and having a Dutch spouse to boot, all the more so after he had not refrained from taking a stand against the revolution. The promising conductor and composer fell from grace and lost his positions at De Munt and at the Music School.
From then on he had to lead a nomadic life with his family for a couple of years. In 1831 he settled in Holland and from that home base he succeeded in getting compositions performed in Belgium alright, without however finding a stable job. Early in 1833 he moved to Paris, where he became first cellist in the 'Théâtre Ventadour' (aka 'Théâtre Nautique'), graduating after a couple of months to the position of second conductor. Unfortunately Hanssens was dogged by bad luck: after two years the theatre went bankrupt. He returned to Holland and became conductor of the French Opera in The Hague in 1835, relocating again to Paris shortly afterwards. After a jobless period that was, however, blessed with a rich harvest of compositions, amongst them the ballets Robinson and Fleurette, he was saved from his awkward predicament by a commission from the Belgian state: his Requiem for the victims of the revolution of 1830 was performed in 1837 in the St Michael and St Gudule Cathedral in Brussels, enabling him to vindicate himself.
In 1838 he relocated again from Paris to his native city Ghent, where he became conductor of the new Casino orchestra. With this orchestra he premiered several compositions of his own (such as historical potpourris in which opera motifs and Flemish folk songs were interwoven), but on top of that he also introduced the works of Beethoven to a large audience as well as raising the visibility again of forgotten classics by Mozart, Haydn and Weber. Two years later he became conductor of the new opera in Ghent. Meantime his fame as a composer was also steadily rising abroad, witness his election as an honorary member of the Congregation and Academy of composers and music teachers in Rome.
In 1844 Hanssens became the successor of François Snel as conductor of the 'Grande Harmonie' in Brussels, the most important concert organisation of the country; a year later Hanssens settled down in Brussels, resigning from the Casino orchestra and the Ghent Opera. This dramatic shift in his career also resulted in the dissolution of the chamber music association 'Réunion artistique', founded by him in Ghent in 1840.
In Brussels he pursued the same programming policy and was determined to improve the musical taste of his audience. From then on concertgoers were not treated anymore to fantaisies débraillées, airs varies étriqués or pleureuses romances, but cantatas, symphonies and oratorios (witness La Belgique musicale of 28 November 1844). It was said that Hanssens was able to detect in an orchestra of 500 members those who played a wrong note, or didnt play at all, and there are countless anecdotes about his sharp tongue. In 1845 he also advertised in the papers that he would be offering private tutorials in harmony and composition, resulting in an influx of aspiring musicians who wanted to be taught by him (some sources mix these lessons up with a teaching assignment at the Brussels Conservatoire, something not mentioned by his biographer Bärwolf). Among his private pupils figure Benoit, Bosselet, Waelput, and Verhulst.
When in 1845 the Royal Academy expanded with a Fine Arts section, Hanssens became a founding father of the music division, together with Fétis, de Bériot, and Vieuxtemps. In this period he belonged several times to the jury for the Prix de Rome. He exuded a remarkable sense of foresight, witness his founding of a retirement fund for old musicians, the 'Association des artistes musiciens de Bruxelles'.
In 1848 he was not only elected as a corresponding member of the Dutch Society for the Advancement of Music (concurrently with Berlioz and Gade), but he was also appointed as conductor of De Munt Opera in Brussels, as successor of his uncle Charles-Liévin (aîné). That institution went through a rough period at that time and even had to close down temporarily, but Charles-Louis (jeune) was the right man on the right spot. His promptness of action as manager-conductor (from 1850 on) was not always appreciated and conflicts with the Brussels press and the city council happened frequently. From 1852 he wisely limited himself to conducting, leaving the managerial duties to Letellier. Hanssens premiered an impressive number of operas and also created opportunities for Belgian composers at large. His most important merit, however, lies in his pioneering work for the Wagner tradition that was to result in an international reputation for the Brussels opera house in the latter half of the nineteenth century (as early as 1850 he tried unsuccessfully to bring Lohengrin; in 1853 he ventured the overture to Tannhäuser).
From the 1860s on the financial problems of De Munt loomed large again, amongst other reasons due to the cholera epidemic of 1866 with its concomitant closures and the mourning periods for the royal house as well. Also Hanssens's own compositions were not always successful and the fact that he was very partial to classical German composers (at the expense of the Italian and French repertoire) was not appreciated either. When Vachot took over as director of De Munt in 1869 he wanted to bring along his own conductor, Singelée. Hanssens was at that point 67 and had spent his most precious energy on De Munt. The bad news distressed him and he was too tired to oppose the appointment of Singelée. His last years were unpleasant: he was bitter and exhausted. Gregoir puts it as follows: "Because of a long and painful illness, Hanssens in old age became very temperamental". He died only two weeks after Fétis.
Hanssens left behind an impressive series of works, amongst them string quartets, a great number of overtures, orchestral fantasies, about ten concertos, nine symphonies, fourteen ballets, several operas, cantatas, oratorios, choral works, masses, and the aforementioned Requiem. Only few works were published. In the period following his death his works kept being performed, and he was remembered on a regular basis. Around 1900 Hanssens passed into oblivion, but after about a century there is a renewed interest in this composer, praised by Gregoir as "one of the best conductors of his days, a composer with great merits who was in the vanguard of music life in Brussels since 1841", and was dubbed by Benoit "one of the patriarchs of the musical movement in Belgium".
© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Annelies Focquaert (translation: Joris Duytschaever)