The Brussels composer Frans (François) Van Campenhout (or Campenaut) remains to this day known as the composer of the Brabançonne, the national anthem of Belgium. In his lifetime he was a gifted and celebrated singer, working for theatre and opera houses in such cities as Ghent, Antwerp, Amsterdam and Lyon. He composed plenty of operas, cantatas, and sacred choral works.
Van Campenhout was born in Brussels in 1779 (or 1780 according to Fétis), the son of an innkeeper. He was initiated into music by a French clergyman who was a lodger at his father's inn, and by Jean-Englebert Pauwels, who gave him violin lessons and later advised him to apply himself to singing. Against his father's intention, with an administrative-juridical career reserved for him, the sixteen-year-old Van Campenhout presented himself as a violinist to the orchestra of the Monnaie in his native city and was accepted to boot. Concurrently he became a member of an amateur company performing comic operas in the Park Theatre. With his beautiful countertenor voice he soon reaped great success. For the rest of his life he remained attached to the theatre, primarily as a singer.
In Ghent he was solicited by the newly founded ‘Théâtre de Rhétorique’, but this theatre already ran down after a few months. Van Campenhout returned to Brussels, where he made his début at the Monnaie in Azémia by Nicolas Dalayrac. During the subsequent years he was singing in Antwerp (1800), Brest (1801), Paris (1803, at the ‘Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Marin’), again in Brussels (1804) and in Amsterdam (1805, at the ‘Théâtre Français’). In 1807 he joined the court of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, who had been appointed as king of Holland the previous year by his elder brother Napoleon Bonaparte. At this court, which first resided in The Hague and later in Amsterdam, Van Campenhout became first tenor with the royal music band and the royal theatre.
Amsterdam was the place where Van Campenhout's first opera premièred in 1808: Grotius, ou le château de Loewenstein, rather unsuccessfully, however. At that moment Van Campenhout lacked a sound knowledge of musical harmony, and fully conscious of its importance he apprenticed himself to the French composers Guillaume Navoigille and Louis-Joseph Saint-Amans.
By the end of 1809 the emperor Napoleon, dissatisfied with his brother's misrule, decided to annex Holland to France. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated in favour of his young son, and his royal chapel was disbanded. Van Campenhout, being still employed by the French crown, had to join the theatre of Rouen. In this city he stayed for four years.
At the end of 1812 he relocated to Amsterdam, but when the Netherlands broke away from France one year later, Van Campenhout left Amsterdam. In Lyon his opera Passe-partout had its première (in 1814), yet again failing to gain approval. The following years Van Campenhout was active in Bordeaux (1816), Antwerp (1818), Lyon (1819) and Paris (1824). He scored very successfully singing in Rossini operas translated into French. In 1828 he called his singing career quits and returned to his native city of Brussels, henceforth devoting himself to composing.
Two years later the Belgian revolution broke out, eventually resulting in independence for Belgium. The young actor Louis-Alexandre Dechet, better known as Jenneval, in September 1830 wrote a poem (in French) asking the Dutch king to recognise the rights of the Belgians. A few days later this text was set to music by Van Campenhout. So the Belgian national anthem was born, or rather: its basis, the text subsequently being adapted several times. In a second version of the text Jenneval demanded Belgian independence (instead of a mere recognition of the rights of the Belgians). And when shortly afterwards Jenneval was killed in action, falling in battle near Lier on 18 October 1830, his brother added a fourth stanza. Thirty years later the harsh anti-Dutch tone of the poem was tuned down under the influence of the Belgian prime minister Charles Rogier, the actual Dutch-language version being officially endorsed as late as 1938.
According to Fétis the musical arrangement of Van Campenhout possesses all the qualities necessary for a national anthem, with its natural, unrestrained melody and rhythmical power. As it happens, Van Campenhout used his melody again ten years later in his Requiem. Not coincidentally so, as the work was written for (and also performed at) the ceremony on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Belgian independence, in September 1840.
François Van Campenhout stayed in Brussels until his death. The major part of his oeuvre remained unpublished and was lost. Scarcely a few manuscripts were kept (the above-mentioned Requiem, four masses and some other vocal works), presently preserved at the Royal Library of Belgium. In the opinion of Albert Vander Linden, Van Campenhout's composition style is strongly influenced by the operas he performed as a singer: Dalayrac, Rossini, Gluck and Boieldieu. A certain compositional unwieldiness in these works betrays the lack of a sound music-theoretical schooling.
© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Karolien Selhorst (translation: Jo Sneppe)