Julius J.B. Schrey and the Mystery of the Vanished Bust
No, this is not the title of a detective story. It’s the account of the careless way in which art-historical patrimony is treated in Flanders. In short: for decades the foyer of the Flemish Opera in Antwerp was graced with a bronze bust of conductor-composer Julius J.B. Schrey. For several years already it has been missing. Vanished without a trace.
Julius J.B. Schrey was born in Antwerp, the son of a shoemaker. A scholarship enabled him to study at the municipal Music School of his native city: violin, harmony (with Jan Blockx), fugue and counterpoint (with Joseph Tilborghs and Peter Benoit). As long as Benoit’s Music School was not recognized as a Royal Conservatory, it was not in a position to deliver equivalent degrees. And that was no doubt the reason why Schrey pursued his studies at the Brussels Conservatoire from the school year 1891-1892 on.
Schrey was a virtuoso on his instrument, and early in his career he regularly performed as a concert violinist. In addition, Schrey gained visibility as a composer and dreamed about taking part in the Prix de Rome. However, an unhappy love affair interfered with this ambition. Therefore Schrey, probably prompted by the Belgian-American composer-conductor Frank Van der Stucken, decided to venture the big crossing to the United States. He intended to find a job in one of the big American orchestras, but soon he was offered a tour with 'The Mendelssohn Quintette Club'. With that international and famous ensemble Schrey travelled all over America until the spring of 1894.
After his return Schrey looked for a job in the orchestras at Antwerp. Already during his studies at the Conservatory he had earned some income on the side as an orchestra violinist, so he had played in most orchestras at that time. In 1899 he enrolled again at the Royal Flemish Conservatory of Antwerp. He took classes in counterpoint and fugue (Tilborghs), ancient music (Wambach), part-singing (Fontaine), and literature (Arthur Cornette). This enabled him to secure first prizes in Antwerp after all. In those years he acquired precious experience as conductor of the choirs 'Nederlands Lyrisch Koor' and 'De Nederlandse Liedertafel'.
Meanwhile his feet were already firmly planted in the professional music world. Since 1896 he was affiliated with the 'Nederlands Lyrisch Toneel', the early beginning of the present Flemish Opera. There Schrey started his career as first violin and as conductor of choral practice, but four years later already he graduated to the position of second conductor. On 15 February 1902 he was able to conduct for the first time a creation, Ernest Britt’s De vrouwkens van Brugge (The Little Women of Bruges). This was at once the beginning of a great career as a conductor. In the field of opera he learnt the ropes most of all from Edward Keurvels, the first 'orkestmeester' (first violinist), whose successor he became in 1908.
Schrey was going to build his reputation mainly on his interpretations of Wagner. In doing so, he concurrently provided the Antwerp opera house with prestige and a profile of its own (sometimes Antwerp was even dubbed "the Bayreuth of the North"). Schrey did the Ring repeatedly, each time significant events in the history of the Flemish Opera: in 1920, 1925, and in the season 1930-1931. Another peak moment was the execution of Parsifal in 1914. The work had only recently been released then, fifty years after Wagner’s death. Throughout his career Schrey must have conducted all operas by Wagner, save Rienzi. He felt this opera was unworthy of Wagner, except the overture.
But Schrey conducted more than solely Wagner. In that period the Antwerp opera company had a very varied repertoire including operetta, many Flemish creations and contemporary operas as well: Paul Gilson’s Roversliefde (Robbers’ Love, 1910), in 1923 Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die tote Stadt (1920), Jef Van Hoof’s Meivuur (The May Fire, 1924), in 1928 Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf (1927), in 1930 Richard Strauss’ Die ägyptische Helena (1928) and Judith by Arthur Honegger. Furthermore he conducted ballet performances such as Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë (1912) in 1925 and Stravinsky’s L’oiseau de feu (1910) in 1926. He was an excellent conductor of music at the cutting edge, witness many letters with lavish praise from composers.
The opera management also gave Schrey opportunities to prove his mettle as a composer. On 3 March 1904 he conducted the première of his one-act opera Het arendsnest (The Eagle’s Nest), on a libretto by August Monet. The work was well-received, and after the opera company moved from the old theatre at the Kipdorpbrug to the present building, it got equal billing with Emile Wambach’s Quinten Massys for the second gala evening on 19 October 1907. That season the 'Nederlands Lyrisch Toneel' was renamed 'Vlaamse Opera' (Flemish Opera), in 1920 preceded by the grand designation 'Koninklijke' (Royal).
The relative success of Het arendsnest had given both composer and librettist enough confidence to envisage a bigger work. It was Monet’s ambition to surpass the veristic and historical librettos of playwrights such as Nestor De Tière and Rafaël Verhulst. He dreamed about a Flemish counterpart of the Wagner operas. But without the gods. He found the inspiration during a journey through the Scottish Highlands. Ever since Lucia di Lammermoor and La dame blanche, Scotland had been a popular location for operas. Monet adapted the legend of the smith of Gretna Green in the somewhat naïve libretto of De smid van de vrede (The Smith of Peace). This compactly orchestrated score shows that Schrey was a Wagner prophet as a composer, too. He abundantly scatters about thirty leitmotifs around, with a view to characterizing figures as well as things and ideas. Therefore a substantial part of the drama is to be found in the orchestra.
In addition to those two operas Schrey also composed a lyric drama, symphonic poems, a classic string quartet, songs and marches for wind and percussion ensembles.
Despite his outstanding reputation with singers and composers at home and abroad, and despite several international invitations, Schrey stayed close to his roots. However, he was not really rewarded for such loyalty and commitment. During the season 1931-1932 the opera house had to cope with severe union problems. Many members of the orchestra left and were fined for breach of contract. Schrey declared his solidarity with them and quit as well. It was only in the season 1934-1935 that he was invited again to conduct the opera orchestra, as guest conductor. During those difficult years 1934-1935 he served for a spell as professor of harmony at the Antwerp Conservatory, where he had been appointed already in 1917 as professor of solfège. During that precarious period he wrote a handbook Volledige Vlaamsche theoretische begrippen der muziek (Complete Flemish Theoretical Concepts of Music). It remained unpublished.
The Flemish Opera did not forget Schrey immediately. On 9 November 1937 he was paid a posthumous tribute in the Royal Flemish Opera. After a performance of Het arendsnest and of Schrey’s work for orchestra In memoriam, his bust was unveiled, a remarkable head in bronze by the well-known sculptor Willy Kreitz. On 20 March 1962 Schrey was commemorated again with a concert on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his death. In December 1970 Frits Celis devoted an article to Schrey in Vlaams Muziektijdschrift. And in October 1980 Radio 3 did a broadcast on the composer-conductor in the programme 'Autochtoon'. Ever since, the figure of Schrey has unfortunately faded away into the shrouds of time. A last vestigial remnant of the great Wagner conductor was the bust that since 1937 adorned the foyer of the opera house. For years it stood there on a beautiful pedestal. However, the last time it was spotted, it was lying lopsided on some Coca-Cola crates. For a couple of years already it has disappeared into thin air. Just like the bust of Albert Grisar that adorned the entrance hall of the Bourla theatre since 1877, but has been replaced by a phone booth. Just like a portrait of the same Grisar, larger than life. Just like a bust of the singer Valentine Degive-Ledelier. Just like…
© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Karolien Selhorst after Jan Dewilde (translation: Joris Duytschaever)
Julius J.B. Schrey and the Mystery of the Vanished Bust