Mortelmans, Lodewijk

Antwerpen, 05/02/1868 > Antwerpen, 24/06/1952


Mortelmans, Lodewijk

by Els Stevens after Jan Dewilde

Lodewijk Mortelmans studied at the 'Vlaamsche Muziekschool' in Antwerp with Joseph Tilborghs, Jan Blockx, and Peter Benoit. However, he wanted to graduate from a Royal Conservatory and therefore enrolled in 1887 at the Royal Conservatoire of Brussels. There he took the piano course of De Greef and counterpoint with Hubert Ferdinand Kufferath. Kufferath had a reputation for coaching young composers for the Prix de Rome, and Mortelmans wanted to pursue perfection with a view to competing for this prestigious state prize for music. However, Mortelmans did not thrive in Brussels and dropped out of the Conservatoire already in 1888.

For the prestige of the 'Vlaamsche Muziekschool' in Antwerp it was of vital importance to have as soon as possible a student who earned the Prix de Rome, and pressure was exerted on Mortelmans to become Benoit's first student who succeeded in this. Ironically enough, Mortelmans's first entry for the prize in 1889 happened unbeknown to Benoit. According to Benoit it would indeed have been better for Mortelmans to compete at the moment when he was ready to win. However, Mortelmans felt already like exploring in advance how such a competition worked, so he entered for the prize nonetheless. That year he had to be satisfied with a shared second prize. In 1891 Mortelmans took a second chance, but this time he gave up even before the end of the second preparatory test. He was ill and feared intrigues of the jury. Eventually Mortelmans earned the highly coveted prize in 1893 with the cantata Lady Macbeth.

After having secured the Prix de Rome Mortelmans was received in state as a popular hero in Antwerp, and his success had a more than symbolic significance in Benoit's struggle to have his Music School elevated to the rank of Royal Conservatory. Therefore Mortelmans was prominently visible at the celebrations for the transformation to Royal Flemish Conservatory in 1897.

After Benoit's death in 1901 Mortelmans was mentioned as a possible successor, but eventually Blockx was appointed, while Mortelmans got the course of counterpoint and fugue. After the death of Blockx in 1912, Mortelmans explicitly applied for the position of director of the Conservatory. But much to his disappointment he had to yield to Emile Wambach this time. Mortelmans continued teaching counterpoint and fugue, highly respected for his qualities as a professor. After Wambach's death on 6 May, 1924, Mortelmans finally became the fourth director of the Antwerp Conservatory on 6 September of the same year.

In retirement Mortelmans led a secluded life in Waasmunster, where he kept composing piano music, orchestrating early songs, arranging folk melodies and writing a handbook for counterpoint.

Mortelmans's accomplishment lies mainly in the field of songs and piano music. In his best songs Mortelmans managed to achieve a most felicitous psychological merging of text and music, as the musicologist Jan L. Broeckx remarked. His songs belong to the very best that was written in those years. Therefore Mortelmans was rightly dubbed "the Prince of Flemish Song".

Mortelmans's pieces for piano are steeped in intimacy rather than being show pieces. Among his best-known piano pieces Vier lyrische stukken (Four Lyrical Pieces, 1919), Het wielewaalt en leeuwerikt (It Loriots and Larks, 1921), inspired by the poet Guido Gezelle), and Saidja's lied (Saidja's Song, 1929), inspired by Multatuli's Max Havelaar) deserve to be singled out for special praise. His orchestral style, after having been influenced by Brahms, Schumann and Wagner, came into its own as an early form of impressionism.

Mortelmans bridged the gap between romanticism and impressionism in Flanders, introducing as he did after Benoit's community art and Blockx' bourgeois realism the era of individualistic emotion and of aestheticism as a foregrounded quality in the work of art.

© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Els Stevens after Jan Dewilde (translation: Joris Duytschaever)