Jan (or Jean) Baptist Van den Eeden was the offspring of a humble cobbler's family in Ghent. His father Louis, a co-founder of the 'Gentse Kunstgenootschap' (Ghent Art Society), showed a great artistic interest, which was indeed passed on in the education of his children. Already at a young age Jan Baptist gave evidence of a strong musical talent. At the conservatory of his native town he obtained the prizes for solfège, chamber music and part-song and in 1860 the ‘prix d'excellence’ for his final exam of piano. He became a music teacher, one of his schools being the ‘Séminaire de Bonne-Espérance’ in Tournai.
Furthermore he became manager of orchestral materials at the Ghent opera and also wrote some chamber music and a number of songs. In 1864 he went to the Conservatory of Brussels to refine his knowledge of composition, fugue and counterpoint with François-Joseph Fétis.
In 1865 Van den Eeden competed for the prestigious Prix de Rome with his cantata De Wind (The Wind, text by Emanuel Hiel). He earned the second prize, ex aequo with Gustave Hoey. Performances of the cantata in Ghent, Brussels and Antwerp met with very positive reviews. Rising star Van den Eeden was praised for his subtle, original musical idiom and rich musical inspiration. After the publication of a collection of songs in 1866 the composer was compared to Gounod. A second attempt at winning the Prix de Rome in 1867, however, proved unsuccessful. An oratorio from the same year, Le jugement dernier, made the front page of Le Guide musical, not only because of the striking subject matter, but also owing to the elegant writing style, the dramatic power and the daring scope of the work.
1869 was the year of the great breakthrough. With the cantata Faust's laatste nacht (Faust's Last Night) Jan Baptist won the Prix de Rome. The reviews were full of superlatives. Upon his homecoming in Ghent the 26-year-old composer was treated to a real popular feast. With the travel allowance linked to the prize he toured abroad for four years, having his works performed in Paris, getting to know Wagner in Berlin in 1871 and playing successfully as a pianist in Italy in 1873. In Vienna some of his compositions were published, by Bösendorfer among others.
After his return to Ghent, Van den Eeden resumed his teaching career in a few schools in the Ghent region. The successful première of his oratorio Brutus (1874) resulted in a performance conducted by Peter Benoit, at the inauguration of the Dutch Theatre in Antwerp. When two years later Benoit founded the 'Bond tot Bevordering van de nationale Toonkunst' (Union for the Promotion of National Music), he asked Van den Eeden to assume the animation of the music scene in Ghent, upon which the latter composed plenty of choral works on Dutch texts, such as the oratorio Jacoba Van Beieren.
In 1878 Van den Eeden was appointed as director of the music academy of Mons. His nomination beat the rival candidates Edgar Tinel and Emile Mathieu. Under his management the academy became a conservatory. He increased the teaching staff, also becoming one of its members. Moreover, as its conductor he made widely known the young but prestigious ‘Festival National de Musique’. In those years Van den Eeden was a celebrity indeed. His name regularly figured on posters at home and abroad, he was a member of numerous committees and juries, and a tobacconist in Namur even launched the “cigare Van den Eeden”.
Van den Eeden completed his oeuvre with two operas (Numance and Rhéna), both created with great acclaim, respectively at the Antwerp ‘Théâtre Royal Français’ (1898) and the 'Monnaie' Theatre in Brussels (1912). Paul Gilson praised Rhéna as a work with "a perfect sense of scene, of movement, of local colour". In his opinion the opera composer made use of "a concise and precise declamation, counter to the majority of Belgian composers amongst us, who cram the musical language with a flow that is too slow, checked even more at the very end by stretching words or syllables that have no accentuating value whatsoever".
A third opera, L'oeuvre de Jacques Serval, remained unfinished as the First World War broke out and Van den Eeden fled to England with his family. He already returned in 1915, resuming the management of the Conservatory of Mons, but he died two years later.
Despite the fame he enjoyed during his lifetime and the fact that quite a great deal of his compositions were published, this composer has since irrevocably lapsed into oblivion.
© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Karolien Selhorst (translation: Jo Sneppe)