Arthur Wilford studied at the Brussels Conservatory, where among his credits he earned a first prize for piano. From 1872 to 1874 he continued his studies in Leipzig with Ernst Richter (harmony and counterpoint) and Carl Reinecke (composition and piano).
For two years he stayed in London as a concert pianist - actually being of English extraction - and from 1877 onwards he settled in Dresden, where he wrote music articles for several Antwerp and Brussels art magazines. In this period he composed songs on German texts, an opera and chamber music. In Germany he also proved himself to be a propagandist of Peter Benoit's work: as pianist he regularly played the latter's work, made reductions of some of Benoit's compositions and in Cologne, Krefeld and Düsseldorf he organised performances of De Rijn (The Rhine) and Lucifer.
In 1890 Wilford relocated to Belgium and settled in Antwerp. There he was co-founder of the ‘Volksconcerten’ (People's Concerts) and influenced by Benoit became an advocate of lyrical drama. Despite his efforts to promote Benoit's work he was not able to acquire an official function in the Antwerp music scene and like so many others he fell out of favour with Benoit around the turn of the century. Nevertheless after having moved to Brussels he continued propagating Benoit's work, such as his Quatuor vocal et instrumental.
In 1902 he starts Het Vlaamsche lied (The Flemish Song), a subscription series in which he published over 200 songs by well-established names such as Joseph Ryelandt, August De Boeck, Paul Gilson and Jan Blockx, as well as beginning composers like Hendrik Van Schoor and Cesar Hinderdael.
Wilford now also composed more songs of his own on Flemish texts by Willem Gijssels (the cycle Langs de Schelde / Along the River Scheldt) and Lambrecht Lambrechts (the cycle Door lief en leed / Through Joys and Sorrows). Concurrently in this period he also wrote some dramatic works on librettos by Lambrechts, Gijssels and Floris T'Sjoen. To his Brussels activities may be added the foundation of the choir Neerlandia and in 1904 the establishment of ‘De Vlaamsche Muziekschool’ (The Flemish School of Music). For this pioneering work in the Dutch-language music education in the Belgian capital he received support from Gilson.
During the First World War he went to England, where he stayed in Sheffield until 1919. His activities there include the composition of a Vlaamsch Requiem (Flemish Requiem, on a text by Cyriel Verschaeve), the foundation of a ‘Vlaamsch Verbond’ (Flemish League) and of a music school for Flemish refugees. Upon his return to Sint-Joost-ten-Node he founded the ‘Genootschap van Vlaamsche Kunstenaars’ (Society of Flemish Artists) and reopened in 1923 ‘De Vlaamsche Muziekschool’ (The Flemish School of Music, also known as the Wilford School).
Despite his efforts in favour of the nationalist movement in music, Wilford yet remained a maverick. As such he rather composed a lot more chamber music, something he also advocated to his colleagues in 1922 in the periodical Muziek-Warande: "So, Flemish brothers in art, I summon you: in works for chamber music you can sing out a great deal of the Flemish soul. To this end words are not essential. Use here and there - as it suits you - a few fragments of your popular motifs, of your wonderful old songs, - which the whole of Europe envies us - , in the manner the Russians as well as the Scandinavians have done with so much success. Yet at times don't forget to write chamber music."
An important part of Wilford's work can be situated in the tradition of Brahms, Mendelssohn and Schumann.
© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Jan Dewilde (translation: Jo Sneppe)