Samuel, Adolphe

Luik, 11/07/1824 > Gent, 11/09/1898


Samuel, Adolphe

by Karolien Selhorst

Adolphe Abraham Samuel was born in Liège on 11 July 1824. Of Jewish extraction, his parents stimulated the children's creativity. Adolphe took lessons in drawing at the art studio of Van Marck and at the Liège art academy. As an eight-year-old he attended the solfège classes of Etienne Soubre and Auguste Franck at the conservatory of his native city. Subsequently he was taught piano and harmony in the family by his sister Caroline, a piano player who had been a student of Daussoigne-Méhul. In 1838 the Samuels moved to Brussels. There Adolphe drew the attention of François-Joseph Fétis, the Brussels Conservatory director, while the young pianist was playing at the debut concert of singer Pauline García performing with her brother-in-law Charles de Bériot. This way Adolphe Samuel was given the chance to study at the best conservatory in the country and one of the best in Europe to boot. His teachers were Jean-Baptiste Michelot (piano), Charles Bosselet (harmony), Christian Friedrich Girschner (organ) and the director Fétis (counterpoint and fugue).

Encouraged by these quality teachers, it is not surprising that in 1845 with his cantata La Vendetta Samuel won the Prix de Rome for composition. He was merely 21 and had already written a symphony and an opéra-comique, Il a rêvé. As such Samuel was the second composer in Belgium to have earned this distinguished award. The consequent study tour first led him through Germany, where he studied for a while in Leipzig with Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, and in Berlin with Meyerbeer, who introduced him to operatic stage-management. Via Prague and Vienna Samuel landed in Rome in November 1846. In the 'eternal city' and in Naples he worked at his second symphony and at the opera Giovanni da Procida.

Inthe autumn of 1848 Samuel returned to Brussels, welcomed as a promising composer. Fétis conducted his second symphony, la Monnaie created his opéra-comique Madeleine, and the following year his symphonic poem Roland à Roncevaux was performed at a meeting of the Académie Royale. In 1850 he was commissioned by the Belgian government to compose an opera, resulting in Les deux prétendants, an opéra-comique in three acts. 

In 1854 he wrote the opéra-comique L’heure de la retraite, a modest piece which he dedicated to Hector Berlioz as "one of the most fervent among the numerous admirers". As a reviewer of Le Télégraphe Samuel had attended the tumultuous English première of Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini the previous year and contrary to the general extremely hostile press reaction he had written a favourable review. This started a friendship of many years' standing between the composers. The following years they exchanged scores and presents while Samuel also arranged contacts for Berlioz in Brussels. Most probably their diverging views on Wagner's music eventually resulted in a breaking point in their relations, Samuel presenting himself as one of the first Wagnerians in Belgium.

The twenty-fifth anniversary of the coronation of Leopold I was commemorated by Samuel in 1856 with his cantata L’union fait la force. Two years later he wrote his third symphony and in 1859 he produced a cantata for the inauguration of the Congress Column in Brussels. This Cantate nationale was performed by some 2,500 choristers and instrumentalists, gaining the composer the title of Knight in the Order of Leopold. Edouard Gregoir characterised the work as "very melodious, masterly, grand in style and highly powerful."

Meantime Samuel was attached to the Brussels Conservatory, first (since 1841) as coach for the solfège and piano class, and from 1860 on as teacher of practical harmony. As a music journalist he also contributed to several magazines, the above-mentioned Le Télégraphe, for which from 1850 to 1860 he wrote a weekly art serial, and furthermore National, La Civilisation, L’Echo de Bruxelles, L’indépendance belge, La Revue trimesterielle, L’Art universel and La Flandre libérale.

In 1865 Samuel launched an important initiative for the Brussels music scene. Taking his cue from the Parisian ‘Concerts populaires de musique classique’, founded by Jules Pasdeloup in 1861, Samuel started a similar concert series with an orchestra of his own. His idea was: "to raise the musical and intellectual level of the people" and "to spread the taste for good music". That he also put into practice these noble intentions is proven by the fact that he made the general rehearsals accessible to the public, and that a large contingent of the seats was reserved for students, labourers and soldiers. This was in contrast to the concerts of other music societies, with right of entry only for members. In the concert series Samuel didn't conceal his predilection for German music. Besides the classics (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert) and romantics (Weber, Mendelssohn, Schumann) he paid a lot of attention to the Neu-Deutsche Schule (Liszt, Wagner). Samuel also gave room to his Belgian colleagues Peter Benoit, Léon de Burbure, François-Joseph Fétis, Gustave Huberti, Henri Vieuxtemps, Etienne Soubre,… Anton Rubinstein came to conduct his second symphony Océan and internationally renowned virtuosos such as Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim performed as soloists. 

In September 1869 Samuel's sixth symphony was heard at a big music festival for the inauguration of the Brussels Midi Railway Station. This was the first Belgian Classical Music Festival, after the example of the ‘Nieder-Rheinische Musikfeste’. Samuel was the conductor, some eight thousand people from home and abroad attending the festival. The programme included the first performance in Belgium of Handel's The Messiah, as well as parts of Lucifer by Peter Benoit. Shortly after, Samuel together with Warnots founded the 'Société de Musique de Bruxelles', with a view to performing large-scale choral works, by analogy with the 'Société de Musique d’Anvers'.

Samuel's appointment in 1871 to director of the Conservatory of Ghent necessitated his leave-taking from the ‘Concerts populaires’. He conducted his last concert in April 1872 and was succeeded by Henri Vieuxtemps. In this phase of his career he became a member of about all major art societies and art committees in the country. In Ghent he raised the conservatory concerts to a higher level, particularly his Wagner performances being very impressive. Furthermore in December 1874 Samuel was appointed as musical director of the winter concerts of the 'Cercle artistique, littéraire et scientifique' in Antwerp. There he conducted concerts until December 1879, resigning in January 1880 after both financial and artistic disagreements.

Despite his busy activities Samuel found time for composing, writing several symphonies, cantatas, motets, chamber music, piano pieces and songs. In addition he published pedagogical works, including a Traité d’harmonie, in Gregoir's opinion "a well-written and conscientiously composed piece of work". His Cours d’harmonie pratique et de basse chiffrée remained for more than a century in the curriculum of the Belgian conservatories.

Towards the end of his life compositions of a religious inspiration became more frequent. As such the sixth symphony in its final form dating from 1889 (the symphony being a thorough rearrangement of the fourth symphony from 1863, in its turn a re-instrumentation of the 1846 second symphony) is a 'symphonie à programme', the movements called Genesis, Eden, Caïn and Lux luceat. With these explicitly religious, old testament themes this Genesis symphony is a prelude to Samuel's final symphony: a 'symphonie mystique' with the title of Christus.

In 1895 the Jewish composer was baptized a Christian, along with his wife, the singer Bertha Emanuel. Some weeks later, on 8 April 1895, Samuel held the above-mentioned Christ Symphony over the font. It was a remarkable event. Prominent colleagues of his, such as Peter Benoit, François-Auguste Gevaert, Edgar Tinel and Paul Gilson attended the creation in Ghent. Major foreign music periodicals gave attention to the new work. Many performances followed, amongst others in the famous Gürzenich concerts in Cologne in January 1896.

Adolphe Samuel died in Ghent on 11 September 1898. As he had requested, his mass in D minor was performed during the funeral. 

According to Hector Berlioz, Samuel was "one of the most original composers, one of the most artistic among artists". Richard Wagner positioned him at the top "Among the loveliest conquests I have made here". Maurice Kufferath in his turn found in him "a cultured intellect, a very active mind, a very erudite musician", and Ernest Closson "the most authoritative representative in Belgium of the neo-romantic school of Berlioz-Liszt-Bruckner". Flemish musicologists such as August Corbet and Hugo Heughebaert labelled him as a "confirmed believer in cosmopolitanism" and a "fierce adversary" of Peter Benoit's nationalist ideas.

Samuel was one of the most versatile Belgian 19th century musicians and undeniably left his mark on Belgian musical life and music education. However, the compositions of Adolphe Samuel to a large extent remained unpublished and are preserved in the conservatory libraries of Ghent and Brussels. 

© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Karolien Selhorst (translation: Jo Sneppe)