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Timmermans, Armand

Antwerpen, 20/01/1860 > Antwerpen, 12/07/1939


Timmermans, Armand

by Annelies Focquaert

Armand Timmermans's father, a professor at the State Commercial School of Higher Education, had predestined him to become a merchant. However, Armand preferred to be engaged in music and when at age 16 he graduated from the Antwerp Royal 'Atheneum' (grammar school) he enrolled in 1877 at the Vlaamsche Muziekschool, the future Conservatory. There he took piano, singing, counterpoint and organ lessons (with Bosiers and Callaerts) and became a pupil of Benoit for composition. In 1882, he left the school to take lessons with organist Jozef Tilborghs. His oldest work Na den slag - Klavierpoëma (After the Battle - Clavier Poem) was composed in 1878. Timmermans signed his manuscripts from that period with the Flemish Herman, which he later crossed out again and changed into Armand.

During the Van Dyck Celebrations in Antwerp in 1899 he was commissioned to write the set choral work for the international part-song competition: Gevloekt zij den oorlog (Curses on War!). The City Council also requested him to write the cantata for the National Holiday of 1904: the Vaderlandsch Zangdicht (National Poetic Hymn) was performed with orchestra and no less than 1200 school children, the final chorus Ik heb U lief mijn Vaderland  (I Love You my Fatherland) remaining a popular hit for years to come. From November 1887 until August 1914 he was music critic for the Antwerp journals Le Matin and L'Opinion (sometimes under pseudonym of 'Ut'), at that time probably also being a music teacher in the Municipal Schools.

A manuscript reveals that at the outbreak of the First World War he fled to the Netherlands: the heading of a rough draft of La petite Refugiée for piano indeed says Rotterdam Oct 14 (“en exil”), the corrected version being dated Anvers, 7 Février 1915, “pour Didi” (his daughter?). The caption under a dramatic theme in this manuscript reads: navrances - ruw geweld (distress - rough violence). This is most likely the seed for the composition of his opera Oorlogswee - Navrances de Guerre, which he started writing at that time. With 11 leitmotivs Timmermans in a frugal setting suggested the grief of a mother trying to survive during the war, while her invisible and ever absent husband is fighting at the front, until a friend of the family brings the fatal tidings of a brave yet senseless death. On 6 March 1919 the opera premièred in the Flemish Opera in Antwerp, and the press comments were so unanimously positive that Timmermans published a compilation of them. As Auguste Monet wrote in De Telegraaf (Amsterdam): “The piece itself is nothing… and yet everything! It's a page torn from the book of life of hundreds of thousand - not to say millions in this era. 'Navrances de Guerre' was written right in the middle of war. The sentimentality the piece is brimming over with still has the taste of genuine suffering. The sorrow it expresses might nowadays appear naïve, yet it is not in the least dragged up. Whatsoever, each performance again and again readily captures its way into the audience's hearts.”

Spurred on by this success he started the outlines of his opera Margarita. On 1 November 1923 the work was created in the Royal French Theatre in Antwerp, the original Flemish text having been translated into French. It could boast of 7 performances in the same season.

Throughout many of his smaller compositions, most of them unpublished, war runs as a leitmotiv thread, for instance in Achteruit (Backwards), for tenor and orchestra, according to the manuscript composed in August 1914, first performed in the hall of the zoological society in Antwerp conducted by H. Rimbout, on 27 November 1918. Or also in Het Nationaal Leger, Volksmarsch (The National Army, Popular March, 1910); België aan Holland: Verbroederingslied (Belgium to Holland: Fraternization Song, s.d.); Hymne à la paix, according to the manuscript written on “Armistice - Nov 1918, exécuté à la zoologie par M. De Herd”; and again in a Treurzang voor de gefusilleerden (Elegy for the Fusilladed, 1919).

In addition his oeuvre mainly contains occasional works for weddings, birthdays, jubilees and even carnival processions, as well as plenty of simple piano pieces.

The last years of Timmermans' life were seriously impaired by heavy hearing problems. A friend of his testifies: “How often did he tell us about it with tears in his eyes - every sound around him instantly deteriorated and grew into a confused, confusing and chaotic complex of sounds, preventing him even from recalling in his memory the acoustic image of his creation.”

His last major work, the lyrical drama Vae victis, has never been performed, although in 1926 he had presented it to the Flemish Opera and despite repeated recommendations in the press. After 1927 he didn't compose anymore, disillusioned by this rejection and by his hearing impairment.

His obituary records him as “Armand, August, Florent Timmermans - Composer, former Music Teacher of the Municipal Schools, Knight in the Order of the Crown, Honoured with the 1st Class Civil Medal”.

© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Annelies Focquaert (translation: Jo Sneppe)