Van der Stucken, Frank

Fredericksburg, TX (US), 15/10/1858 > Hamburg (DE), 18/08/1929


Van der Stucken, Frank

by Karolien Selhorst after Jan Dewilde

The Belgo-American composer and conductor Frank Valentin Van der Stucken may have gradually passed into oblivion for us, yet this alumnus of Benoit and the Antwerp Conservatory was in his days an internationally renowned composer and conductor. Even today he still enjoys a fair reputation in the United States. In Fredericksburg, Texas, The Friends of Van der Stucken are still active; in Cincinnnati, Ohio, there is a Frank Van der Stucken Society. His works are being performed and researched as well. How is it to be explained that a pupil of Peter Benoit attracts such a lot of American attention? Van der Stucken’s biography remains to be written and some biographical details and data still need to be checked, but what follows is already a substantial part of his fascinating life story.

His father, Frank Van der Stucken Senior, probably emigrated from Antwerp to Texas in 1852. His youngest child, Frank Valentin, was born on 15 October 1858 in Fredericksburg. In 1865 Van de Stucken Sr. decided to return to Antwerp, possibly because the Civil War resulted in some problems for him. It was in Antwerp, at Benoit’s Music School, that young Van der Stucken started his music education in 1874: he studied the violin with Emile Wambach and theory and composition with Peter Benoit. At sixteen he wrote two arrangements of the Tantum Ergo, two years later a Te Deum for soloists, choir and orchestra. In this period he also ventured into a ballet and a prelude for orchestra, which allegedly was conducted by Benoit himself. During his student years Van der Stucken became the soul mate of Jan Blockx. They belonged to a circle of artists counting among its members also the painter Emile Claus and the writers Victor de la Montagne and Georges Eekhoud. 

Together with an Antwerp merchant, Van der Stucken undertook a pilgrimage to Bayreuth in 1876. Benoit’s recommendation to Wagner opened the doors of villa Wahnfried for them. Afterwards he went to Leipzig, where he was able to develop his contacts further, and where Jan Blockx joined him. Grieg was a bosom friend of Blockx and Van der Stucken, not only "because he has a very pleasant personality, but also because the artistic principles he cherished coincided so perfectly with those of the nationalistic Antwerp school", as Blockx’ son Frank put it. Van der Stucken dedicated his Neun Gesänge to Grieg.

Between 1878 and 1881 Van der Stucken travelled, sometimes in the company of Blockx, across Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and France, while concurrently maintaining intense relations with Verdi, Chabrier, and Massenet. He stayed in Paris for a while, composing his lyrical drama Vlasda and marrying German singer Maria Volmer there. In 1881 he became ‘Kapellmeister’ in Breslau (present-day Wroclaw) and met Liszt, who facilitated a concert for him in Weimar in 1883. 

Acting upon the advice of Max Bruch, Van der Stucken returned to his native United States in 1884, and became director of a famous male choir, the Arion Society of New York, in succession to Leopold Damrosch. Allegedly he was also affiliated with the Conservatory both as teacher and as conductor of the choir and the orchestra. He founded several concert societies and was active in the framework of the ‘North-East German Saenger Bund’, organizing with the latter spectacular concerts with mass choirs of 4,000 to 5,000 voices. He was increasingly sought after by symphonic orchestras and took a stand as an ardent fan of American music.

Van der Stucken also conducted several American premieres of European works, among them Brahms’ Third Symphony, Chabrier’s Espana, Smetana’s The Moldau, Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, and works by, among others, Berlioz, Bruch, Saint-Saëns, Dvorak, Smetana, Rubinstein, and Strauss. He also introduced Flemish music at the other side of the ocean. In this respect he mainly served his master Benoit (with the Flute Concerto, Lucifer, fragments from Charlotte Corday, part of The River Scheldt) and his old buddy Blockx (Triptiek, Vlaamse Kermis/Flemish Fair from Milenka). In addition he also programmed Gevaert, Gilson, De Greef, and De Swert. Meanwhile, back on the old continent he was not forgotten and was regularly invited as a conductor. 

In 1895 Van der Stucken became first conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, a position he was going to keep until 1907. Thus Van der Stucken became a prominent figure of American musical life, in particular in Cincinnati. At the Cincinnati Music Festival he programmed both American and Flemish music. 

After 1907 Van de Stucken stayed mostly in Germany, but he returned to the US on a regular basis. He conducted in several European cities, also in Brussels and Antwerp, and it must have been in this period that he gave young Daniel Sternefeld conducting classes. On 16 August 1929 he died in Hamburg. 

As a composer Frank Van der Stucken was an adept of the Germanic school, particularly of Wagner. Among his most famous orchestral works we mention Musik zu Shakespeares Sturm, Sinfonischer Prolog zu Heinrich Heine’s Tragödie William Ratcliff, Rigaudon, Festzug (a festival march dedicated to Peter Benoit), Louisiana, Ein kleiner Walzer, and Pagina d’amore. His most famous work is Pax Triumphans, with an impressive finale in which a people’s choir, accompanied by a huge orchestra, sings the hymn Nun danket alle Gott mit Herzen, Mund und Händen. Furthermore Van der Stucken is also the author of a lyrical drama, piano music, choir works, and lots of songs, a genre in which he felt at home. He was also discerning in his choice of texts, often looking for them in the works of the greatest German writers: Heine, Goethe, Rückert. 

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