Poot, Marcel

Vilvoorde, 07/05/1901 > Brussel, 12/06/1988


Poot, Marcel

by Karolien Selhorst after Luc Leytens

Marcel Poot's father was the director of the 'Vlaamsche Schouwburg' (Flemish Theatre) in Brussels and played a role in the National Flemish Movement. Concurrently he was the president of a symphonic wind band in the suburb of Vilvoorde, enabling his son to play the clarinet already at an early age. In the middle of the First World War, in 1916, Marcel enrolled at the Royal Conservatoire in Brussels. However, in 1919 he preferred to transfer to the Royal Conservatory in Antwerp, possibly due to the anti-Flemish sentiments that were seething in Brussels after the war. He graduated in 1924, earning First Prizes for counterpoint and fugue with Lodewijk Mortelmans.

Like so many youngsters in those days he became a private pupil of Paul Gilson. Born and bred in Brussels, Gilson had been fired from all functions in disgrace in 1919 because of his alleged 'Flemish nationalistic attitude' and his 'collaboration with the enemy' during the First World War. Something like that would never happen to Poot: he learnt the lesson that in order to build up a career in the capital, it was counterproductive to be a Flemish nationalist. Thanks to this attitude, he did well for himself.

It was self-evident for Poot to belong to the group of young composers (both French- and Dutch-speaking) who consolidated themselves in 1925 under the name 'Les Synthétistes' in 1925, on the occasion of Gilson's sixtieth birthday. They started a periodical, La Revue musicale belge, with Poot as editor-in-chief. The group claimed to strive for a synthesis of "all" achievements of contemporary music, basically to be understood as: Stravinsky. Also the Synthetists declared their intention to mould this contemporary music into "well-defined, balanced forms", thus implicitly sustaining the neoclassical trend which was in vogue around that time in the whole of Europe.

In addition to contributing to La Revue Musicale belge, which was to be published until 1939, Poot was active as a music reviewer in some francophone Brussels newspapers. In 1932 he was hired as musician-modulator by the radio (staying there until 1949). But he came into his own mainly as a pedagogue. In 1939 he was appointed as professor at the Royal Conservatoire of Brussels for practical harmony and later for counterpoint. In 1943 he became inspector of musical education, without however being able to take up that position because of the war circumstances.

In 1949 he reached the top, when he became director of the Brussels Conservatoire. He was going to be the last director of the still unitarian (read: francophone) conservatory, and he succeeded in keeping the standards high. From then on Poot represented official Belgian music life, amongst others as rector of the Chapelle Queen Elisabeth, and as president of the Union of Belgian Composers and of the copyright association Sabam. These undoubtedly time-consuming occupations did not interfere with his creative interests. With the exception of the years 1949-1950, works kept flowing from him with the regularity of a clockwork, most of them commissioned. Until a very respectably age he was creatively engaged.

Marcel Poot's oeuvre extends itself over more than sixty years. There is almost no evolution. Instrumental music conspicuously takes pride of place. Except for a couple of pieces based on French texts, song and choir works are totally absent from his catalogue. In the thirties he did write many (francophone) radio plays.

Two scores are to be subsumed under the oratorio genre. Le Dit de Routier (1943) he wrote for the organisation Youth and Music. In Icare (1945) the roles of the protagonists are entrusted to speaking, not singing voices. Both works had a rerun for the Flemish broadcast (NIR) in Dutch translations. Little acclaim was bestowed on his two short operas (each about one hour, making them his longest works nonetheless). The first was called Het ingebeeld Eiland (The Imagined Island, 1929). The libretto is by Herman Teirlinck, to whom Poot was very close. As far as we know this work was never performed. By contrast, Moretus (1943), a sort of chamber opera on a text by Joseph Weterings, was created in the Monnaie Opera in 1950, but was discontinued after four performances. He had more success with three ballets that were premiered in the Monnaie, even though acclaim gradually declined for Paris et les trois divines (or: Paris in Verlegenheid/Paris Embarrassed, 1933), Camera (1937) and Pygmalion (1937).

Throughout his whole career Poot composed for symphonic wind band, at the end of his life also for brass band, but eventually these works have not secured a place in the canon of contemporary bands.

Generally speaking his numerous works for chamber music, including his piano compositions, are in better standing, particularly as competition pieces. Some of them have explicit pedagogical intentions. Poot preferred succinct pieces with the intention to show off instrumental versatility. Several ones are entitled Ballade (or occasionally Légende) without any literary allusion to be detectable behind them. Indeed it is extremely rare to find any reference outside music itself. In some works chamber music is combined with symphonic music (perhaps inspired by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu).

The orchestra was Poot's favourite environment. Orchestration is heavily "Gilsonian". Essentially it is based on the traditional division among instrument groups (strings, woodwind, brass, percussion). The series of seven symphonies is his most conspicuous and coherent contribution to the repertoire. His First Symphony from 1929 is the most encompassing one. Even though it was published in Paris almost immediately, it remained the least played. It took almost a decade for the Second Symphony to materialize, created as Triptyque symphonique (1938) and earning its definitive name only later. The undisputable acme is the Third Symphony, written in 1952 to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Philharmonic Society of Brussels. This sometimes wry, almost "fauvist" score shows Poot at his best. The four last symphonies belong to his final creative phase. They were written with regular intervals of four years each (1970, 1974, 1978 and 1982) and are perfectly exchangeable among themselves. Their duration never exceeds twenty minutes.

Like his chamber music, his concertos (among them two concertos for piano) are felicitous pieces for a soloist who is eager to prove his mettle, supported by efficient orchestration without preposterous ambitions. Most acclaimed were his lively works for orchestra in one movement: Vrolijke Ouverture (Merry Overture, 1934), Symfonisch Allegro, 1935), the Rondo-impromptu (1937), the Lofdans (Panegyric Dance, 1937) or the Tarantelle - Moto perpetuo (1955) for chamber orchestra. Here Poot shows his mastery of the orchestral miniature - brief and succinct - without any risk of becoming boring.

Poot's conscious rejection of bombast in any form is to be considered typical of the generation of Flemish composers born around 1900. In this way they wanted to react against the excesses of romanticism (and in particular Wagner's music). With Poot this attitude became almost obsessional. This explains why, even though he was personally very interested in literature, references to elements outside music were more and more avoided. The other side of the coin was that he hardly succeeded in producing works of great stature, and occasionally lapsed into futility. Rhythm is by far the most exciting aspect of Poot's oeuvre. It was the enabling condition for him to develop a style of his own that sounds sunny, merry, and vigorous. Even so, Poot's style, which around 1930 had been perceived as original and refreshing, gradually became boring, a development that was speeded up by the assorted decline of neo-classicism itself. This may be the reason why the centenary of Poot's birthday in 2001 went almost unnoticed.

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