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Tolkowsky, Denise

Brighton (GB), 11/08/1918 > Antwerpen, 09/03/1991


Tolkowsky, Denise

by Lien Alaerts

Pianist and composer Denise Tolkowsky was born in Brighton, where her family had fled from Antwerp at the outbreak of the First World War. The artistic was a congenital feature: her father Samuel Tolkowsky, a diamond dealer, was an ardent music lover; her mother, Anna Kennes, was a Flemish actress at the Royal Flemish Opera. Denise was taught by her sister to play the piano at a very young age. Her precocious talent revealed itself already at age six when she obtained a ‘diplôme superieur’ in a national piano competition in Antwerp.

On the advice of her piano teacher, Ms Jean, Denise as a twelve-year-old took up studies at the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp. There she studied solfège with Julius Schrey and Hendrik Van Schoor, harmony with Ms Dermul and Edward Verheyden, counterpoint and fugue with Karel Candael and composition and orchestration with Flor Alpaerts, earning high awards each time. She graduated for harmony with Edward Verheyden (1937), for piano with Emmanuel Durlet (1938), for chamber music (1938) and for counterpoint (1939). Subsequently she obtained the certificate of literature and art history (1939) and won a second prize for fugue with Karel Candael (1940).

The Second World War prevented her from competing for the higher degree for piano. Being of Jewish extraction she was forced to break off her studies and flee from Antwerp. Together with her husband Alex De Vries she went into hiding in a small basement kitchen in Ghent, where she wrote plenty of songs and several piano pieces.  After the liberation the couple returned to Antwerp but their career had problems getting into its stride again. They performed together at home and abroad, interpreting four-handed piano works and gradually managed to regain a firm foothold. In 1946 Alex De Vries was appointed as keyboard teacher at the Conservatory of Ghent and Denise Tolkowsky had worked her way up again as a well-beloved pianist. Concurrently she gave private piano and composition lessons and between 1947 and 1949 she was musical director of the Belgian Ballets, a group of male and female dancers from the Royal Flemish Opera of Antwerp. In addition she was also a journalist, frequently publishing articles about festivals and well-known musicians.

In 1964 her husband committed suicide. With a view to continuing his life's work after his death she founded the Alex De Vries Fund to support young musicians. For the first ten years of its existence the Fund promoted the arrival of foreign students (Russians, Bulgarians and Japanese) aspiring to obtain the special higher degree for violin at the Royal Flemish Conservatory. Denise Tolkowsky opened up her house to young talented musicians from home and abroad in order to stimulate and accompany them. Many of those students received a training at the Conservatory. Thus she made arrangements for over one thousand of musicians.

From 1979 on she devoted herself to the association ‘Live Music Now’, from 1980 acting as director for the Flemish region. ’Live Music Now’ was founded by Sir Yehudi Menuhin to offer beginning musicians the opportunity to give concerts at unusual venues such as hospitals, factories, hotels, homes, etc. Tolkowsky also established the De Vries-Tolkowsky Prize. This award was granted to the student of the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp who scored the highest for the advanced piano degree. In 1982 she earned a gold commemorative medal for the title of “Woman of the World”, a prize conferred by the UNESCO.

At age fifteen Denise Tolkowsky began writing her first compositions, which initially reminded of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel but after a while showed a stronger influence of Béla Bartók. For Hulde aan Bartók (Homage to Bartók, 1950) for instance she didn't use any of the themes of the Hungarian composer, however, she emulated his style and expressive power. Obsessive ostinatos and vital rhythms and melodies create a varied atmosphere full of expressive possibilities. This work was awarded a prize in Italy at the international concours Viotti. Later she dissociated herself from her models, giving her compositions a personal touch that directed her towards expressionism. Thus she composed the Piano Concerto (1958) for her husband, a work in a brilliant and virtuoso style with sharp rhythmical contrasts and at times an oppressive dramatic content.

Furthermore her oeuvre includes orchestral works such as the Adagio (1938) for strings, based on the old Flemish song Ghequetst ben ic van binnen (I'm Wounded Inside) with personal touches such as the structural treatment of the popular song and the slightly modern tonality, and also a Concertino (1958) for flute and string orchestra. Both in the fields of chamber music and vocal music she excelled as well. With the cantata Het Kamp (The Camp, 1939) for mezzo-soprano and orchestra on a text by M. Coole she wanted to react quite consciously against traditional Flemish romanticism. Besides, this was the first work in which her personal, expressionistic style began to burgeon. Finally she also composed some ballets: Van ’t kwezelke (About the Little Sanctimonious Woman, 1934), Concentratiekamp (Concentration Camp, 1945-1946), De aarde en de mensen (The Earth and Man, 1947) and Het harstspel (The Sirloin Play, 1950). For the ballet Van ’t kwezelke she was awarded a prize in 1931 at the International Dance Competition in Brussels.

The foundation of the fund and the organisational problems involved, caused Denise Tolkowsky to be far less active as a composer. Apart from a Preludium op de naam Emil Gilles not a single work of hers is to be found these first years of her management duties (from 1966 on).

Denise Tolkowsky’s compositions throughout the years were increasingly coloured by an expressionistic style, characterised by short-winded themes, jagged melodious rudiments, aggressive rhythms with syncopal accents, penetrating sound volumes and an almost consistent atonality. Her style moreover acquired a masculine sturdiness owing to sharp contrasts and ostinato repetitions. The war had traumatised Denise Tolkowsky. Some of her works bear a title referring to the atrocities of war: a cantata Het kamp, a ballet Concentratiekamp and an anti-fascist song called Wee ze (Woe betide them).

The most frequently played piece from her pre-war period is the Sonatina for piano. Her compositions were regularly executed at home and abroad during her lifetime (The Netherlands, France, Great Britain, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, etc.). However, there is no evidence that any of her works are still performed at present.

© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Lien Alaerts (translation: Jo Sneppe)