Tinel, Edgar

Sinaai, 27/03/1854 > Brussel, 28/10/1912


Tinel, Edgar

by Karolien Selhorst after Luc Leytens

During his lifetime Tinel was probably the most famous Belgian composer from an international point of view. His most important works were published by Breitkopf & Härtel at Leipzig, and they were distributed all over the world. In Belgium Tinel achieved the highest peaks that a musician could dream of: laureate of the Prix de Rome, director of the Lemmens Institute, inspector of Belgian music education, professor of counterpoint and fugue, and eventually director of the Royal Conservatoire at Brussels, member and president of the Royal Academy of Belgium, bandmaster of the king. Friend and opponent recognized a master in him.

Edgar Tinel hailed from Sinaai in East Flanders. After early music training with his father, a schoolmaster-sexton-organist, and afterwards with Fernand van Durme, he was admitted to the Brussels Conservatoire from 1863 on. There he earned, amongst others, a brilliant first prize for piano. As a consequence he was invited to perform as a soloist at the most famous music centres in the country as well as abroad (London, Aachen…). A glorious career as a virtuoso was awaiting him. He excelled in the interpretation of German romanticism: Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Liszt, and above all Schumann. He was among the earliest ardent fans of Brahms, when he was not yet well-known. However, a hectic career as a soloist did not appeal to him: composition was rather what genuinely interested him. 

From 1874 on Tinel started composing, initially mainly works for piano and songs, using lyrics in Dutch, French, and German. At the biennial competition for the Prix de Rome he earned a first prize in 1877. This success took away the last doubt about his true vocation, and he discontinued his activities as a virtuoso. The prize-winning work, Klokke Roeland, op.17, on a text by Julius Sabbe, is one of the rare cantatas of that category which stayed on the repertoire afterwards, albeit after revision. The Flemish nationalistic movement in music that came into its own in that period, celebrated Tinel as the successor of Peter Benoit.  Actually it transpired that Tinel was not nearly as committed to the Flemish cause as Benoit, even though he was involved in the ‘Davidsfonds’, a catholic cultural society with a strong Flemish mission statement. On top of that, he had become an intimate friend of Pieter-Paul Alberdingk-Thijm, a Dutch professor at the Catholic university of Leuven who was very much committed to the emancipation of the Flemish people, and Tinel was going to show his loyalty to the Flemish movement to boot by writing a Huldezang aan Hendrik Conscience (Homage to Hendrik Conscience, 1881), destroyed). However, against this public stand there was the reality of his private life: French was spoken at his home. His favourite pupil Arthur Meulemans has testified that he never heard Tinel speak Dutch.

Nevertheless for his great works Tinel always chose Dutch, and he was also the first to put music to poems by Guido Gezelle. However, Tinel’s Flemish nationalist convictions soon yielded to other influences. Tinel showed innate mystic inclinations that were supported by his wife Emma Coeckelbergh, and also by socializing with Constance Teichmann. This Antwerp lady had a dream about lifting church music, which had deteriorated to a decadent level, up to a higher level again. It was also due to her intercession that Tinel was appointed in 1881 as director of the School for Sacred Music in Mechelen, as the successor of Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens, who had founded this school three years before with a view to adequately preparing future church musicians for their task. Tinel managed to make the Lemmens Institute bloom impressively, and like Lemmens he attached the greatest importance to Gregorian music as a foundation. His study Le Chant Grégorien had a great impact. 

Also as a composer Tinel focussed, after his appointment in Mechelen, almost exclusively on religious music. This resulted, among others, in a number of motets, and foremost in the Missa in honorem Beatae Virginis de Lourdes, for five-part a capella choir. Also Tinel’s non- liturgical music is often inspired by religion.

However, the extraordinary fame that Tinel acquired at home and abroad was based on one particular score: Franciscus, an oratorio on a text by Lodewijk de Koninck. It was written between 1886 and 1888, and was premiered at Mechelen on 22 August 1888. The success of Franciscus is unique in the annals of Flemish music of the last 200 years. According to Paul Tinel, son and biographer of the composer, the work was performed more than a thousand times all over the world between its creation and 1926. 

Like his great successor Benoit, Tinel was most powerfully attracted to the great cast of soloists, choir, and orchestra. Encouraged by the triumph of Franciscus, Tinel ventured two more times into a comparable great challenge. In this context it is strange that he who before had claimed on the basis of religious considerations that writing for the theatre was out of the question, nevertheless strayed from the pure oratorio: Godelieve (1894), on a text by Hilda Ram, is labeled as a "muziekdrama" (music drama) after all. Although the work was also performed in Germany and the United States, its acclaim was not nearly as wide as in the case of Franciscus. Tinel even carried his work yet a step further with Katharina (on an original text by Leo van Heemstede(1899-1904)): a dramatic legend  that was conceived squarely for the theatre. It was premiered with pomp and circumstance at the Royal Monnaie Opera on 27 February 1909, in the French translation of Florimond van Duyse. The piece enjoyed no less than 17 performances in a row.

Only a month before that memorable premiere Tinel had been appointed as director of the Brussels Conservatoire. Thus he left Mechelen to settle in the capital again. Even though his tenure for this position was going to last hardly four years, he managed to introduce some remarkable reforms. Composition he had abandoned. His last works were occasional pieces in a somewhat pompous style: the Te Deum (1905) for choir and orchestra, commissioned by the government to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the country’s independence, and Psalm 150 (1907) for male choir and organ, for the solemn inauguration of Monsignor. Mercier as archbishop of Mechelen. Tinel got a state funeral and was buried at his own request at the cemetery of Sinaai. 

Tinel did not write a lot. He only left behind 47 opus numbers, and some less characteristic pieces without an opus number. This oeuvre is preponderantly vocal, with the exception of the works for piano. For piano he wrote a Sonate (1875) and a very interesting Sonate voor vier handen (Sonata for four hands) (1876), besides several shorter pieces, Bunte Blätter (1885) being the best among them. A true masterpiece is the Orgelsonate

Chamber music is not to be found in Tinel’s oeuvre, and neither is purely symphonic music, with the exception of the Drie Symfonische Taferelen (Three Symphonic Tableaus, 1881-82) from Corneille’s Polyeucte, showing solid orchestral craftsmanship.  Important domains were the song and the choral work. Tinel wrote songs throughout his career. Among the best collections are the Schilflieder (German texts by Nikolaus Lenau, 1875), Loverkens (Small Leafage, 1875), Vier oud-Vlaamse Duinliederen (Four old-Flemish Songs of the Dunes, 1875) and the rather gloomy Grafgezangen (Funeral Songs, 1879. Especially the fresh Loverkens, a cycle of 14 love songs, have a very personal sound and form one of the peaks of the Flemish romantic art song tradition.

Tinel felt most at ease in choral works, both profane and sacred. Striking is the large proportion of pieces for male choir, understandable because of the existence of excellent men’s choral societies in those days.  Pieces such as Vlaamse Stemmen (Flemish Voices, 1883) or Aurora (1886-87) for male choir without accompaniment dramatically transcend the level of the then “liedertafelstijl”. Especially felicitous are also the pieces for mixed choir, on texts by Guido Gezelle: Geestelijke Gezangen (Spiritual Songs), Marialiederen (Songs for Mary), and Adventliederen (Songs for Advent), all of them from 1885. 

In his zeal to improve church music, Tinel revered early polyphonic masters, without however lapsing into a neo-style. Tinel’s compositions were made with special craftsmanship and care, possibly a trifle academically. His great examples were Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms. Vis-à-vis Wagner he nursed an ambivalent hate-love relationship. However, Tinel’s personality was strong enough to avoid a derivative style. Therefore he remains one of the truly great figures in our music history. 

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