Meulemans, Arthur

Aarschot, 19/05/1884 > Etterbeek, 29/06/1966


Meulemans, Arthur

by Karolien Selhorst after Luc Leytens

Arthur Meulemans got his training at the Lemmens Institute in Mechelen with Aloys Desmet (harmony), Oscar Depuydt (organ), and with director Edgar Tinel, whose favourite pupil he was. After graduating in 1906, Tinel immediately hired him as a teacher of harmony. He had already started composing in 1902.

After his marriage Meulemans settled down in Tongeren, where he was appointed at the Atheneum in 1911. Thus began his so-called "Limburg period". What he achieved in this culturally deprived province, was stunning. Prominent among his achievements was in 1916 the founding in Hasselt of the Limburg Organ and Singing School, inspired by the Lemmens Institute. Furthermore he founded choirs, conducted many concerts, in short: he set afoot a lively music life with style and class.

In 1930 his "Brussels period" started with his appointment as conductor of the radio orchestra in Brussels, where he was affiliated with the Catholic Flemish Broadcasting Corporation. This job at the then NIR opened new perspectives for him, yet it also turned out to be a thorny path. His favourite medium was the symphonic orchestra, and he got the opportunity to work with it on a daily basis. But concurrently he had to cope with intrigues and all kinds of conflicts every day as well. In 1935 Franz André secured the position of tenured conductor at his expense. Nevertheless, because of loud protest in Flanders Meulemans was allowed to stay with the radio as director of the audition services, and to conduct on a regular basis to boot. In 1940 he stayed with the radio after the German invasion, but resigned in 1942 after dissension arose with the Nazis. From then on he had to subsist on the basis of his creative endeavours.

Numerous prizes and distinctions were awarded to Meulemans. From 1942 on he became a member of the Royal Flemish Academy in Brussels. In 1956 the Arthur Meulemans Fund was founded with a view to promoting his work.

Meulemans's oeuvre is very impressive, and literally all genres are represented. We can count more than 100 works for orchestra, among them 15 symphonies and more than 40 concertos. Further works include: music for the stage and for mass plays; three operas (Adriaan Brouwer, Vikings, and Egmont, all of them performed in the Royal Flemish opera at Antwerp); 11 masses; 3 Te Deums; oratorios and cantatas; motets and profane choral works with various kinds of casts; chamber music and instrumental works; songs with piano and orchestra accompaniment; compositions for piano, organ, and carillon. In this series his Sanguis Christi stands somewhat apart: an impressive score commissioned by the Holy Blood Play in Bruges, which under his baton was performed more than 50 times to wide acclaim.

Does Meulemans's music show a distinctive profile? The answer is: without a doubt. For starters this pupil of the conservative Tinel was one of the first in the country to understand the re-invigorating significance of certain movements abroad and to draw the right conclusions from this discovery. Characteristically, Meulemans deviated from the preference for German romanticism and late romanticism nursed by most Flemish composers in that he cherished more the movement of French impressionism (Debussy, Ravel). He also realized soon that further evolution was in order for Flemish music after Benoit and Tinel, no matter how ardently he admired them.

The early songs by Meulemans exude a sensitive and lyrical temperament. In his Limburg period Meulemans came across as a worry-free and inspired composer. Even now some of these works sound strikingly original and daring, certainly if one takes into account the limited conditions for execution at his disposal, e.g. Zomerfantasieën (Summer Fantasies, 1920), Blommensuite (Flower Suite, 1924), Suite (1929), some pianopieces or a little suite for chamber orchestra Praeludiën (1916). Also the songs accompanied by orchestra De Hovenier (The Gardener, 1923) on texts by Tagore are remarkable. The tailpiece of this first period is perhaps the prelude and scherzo for orchestra entitled Stadspark (City Park, 1928).

During his Brussels period Meulemans became an even more passionate adept of the orchestra. The backbone of his oeuvre becomes the group of 15 symphonies, composed between 1931 and 1960. Typically several of them bear a title. The Fourth (1935) is for the wind section of the orchestra and percussion only. In the Fifth, the Sixth, the Eighth and the Tenth vocal elements play a role. Most symphonies show a normal duration of 20 to 40 minutes, but the Symphony of Psalms takes more than 2 hours.

Also from a whole series of other works for orchestra, ballet suites and symphonic poems it transpires that extra-musical elements provided felicitous inspiration for Meulemans, such as literature in De Witte (The White-Haired Boy, 1949) or in Tartarin de Tarascon (1955)], the visual and plastic arts in Tableaux, preludes voor schilderstukken (Tableaux,Preludes for Paintings, 1952), Pieter Bruegel (1952) or Middelheim (1961). Sometimes there are playful titles such as Metereologisch Instituut, 1951), Social Security (1955) or Ons Kunstbezit (Our Public Art Treasures, 1963). Impressive is also the long series of concertos for about every important orchestral instrument (or also two Concertos for Orchestra).

Gradually the style of Meulemans became sharper, less lyrical, more angular and often more contrived. It sounds as if the ageing Meulemans was building up anxiety to remain at the cutting-edge of modernity. Sometimes it is claimed that he got caught in the middle: too progressive for the compact majority of the conservative audience, yet at the same time somewhat too conservative for the younger avant-garde. Meulemans remained loyal to his predominantly Flemish inspiration and he had too much respect for traditional craftsmanship to reject this inconsiderately. Concurrently his musical culture was wide enough to be perfectly aware of what was happening on the international scene.

© Studiecenrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Karolien Selhorst after Luc Leytens (translation: Joris Duytschaever)