Arthur Meulemans was born in Aarschot, Belgium, on
9th May 1884. His father, a successful craftsman, was also
a keen music lover and a quite good amateur player, who played with
some of the bands of the city. He became an active member of the Vlaamse
Broederschap, a cultural association with several musical departments,
including a symphony orchestra. The orchestra, however, had no cello.
So Meulemans père went to Leuven for lessons and later
took part in many performances including one in 1923 when his son Arthur
conducted Haydnís The Creation with several local choirs.
He also composed short dance ditties and songs. He also gave the young
Arthur his first musical training when he was still a boy of 4 or 5.
Another member of the family, his motherís brother, was also an amateur
musician who played in a band and busied himself with various musical
tasks for his band, such as copying and transposing orchestral parts.
Uncle Jan thus also gave Arthur some musical tuition and taught him
to play the piccolo. Some time later, Arthur received some violin lessons
from Mr Van Single, and had some further piano lessons from Ernest Maréchal.
Arthurís introduction to harmony, counterpoint, fugue and organ was
received from Alfons Van den Eynde, who had been a pupil of Peter Benoit.
So, Arthurís musical education went along while pursuing his general
studies at one of Aarschotís colleges.
In 1990, he went with his father to visit Edgar Tinel
who was then the headmaster of the Lemmensschool in Mechelen. This was
Arthurís first musical test. He was accepted by Tinel who, from then
on, used to call him mon cher petit Meulemans. At the Lemmensschool,
Meulemans worked hard, first with De Puydt and Aloïs Desmet, and
later with the much-respected and equally feared Tinel, to whom Meulemans
often referred to as Jupiter tonnans. Meulemans graduated in
1906 and immediately joined the staff of the Lemmensschool. Meulemans
had vivid memories of these years spent under Tinelís inflexible guidance.
Tinel used to complain that ces sales modernes ("those dirty
moderns") had corrupted Meulemansí musical gifts. Tinel despised
French Impressionism and used to say that quand jíentends Debussy,
je tourne la tête. Meulemans, however, had soon been enraptured
by French Impressionists, clearly by Debussy, who have influenced his
music all through his life. His best works often successfully blend
a rugged earthiness inherent to the Flemish character and a subtle harmonic
refinement inherited from Debussy... much to Tinelís distress.
Meulemans wrote his first works, mainly songs and song
cycles on Flemish words, in 1902 when he was still a student at the
Lemmensschool. From then on, music in almost every genre literally flowed
from his pen. His first breakthrough was his Cantate Jubilaire
(1905) of which he conducted three performances with some critical success.
His early output includes many song cycles and choral works, such as
the song Lenteavond (1907) and the song cycle Gezelle-Liederen
(1905). In 1909 he entered his oratorio De Legende van St. Hubertus
(1909) for the Prize of Rome, but this proved a bitter disappointment.
Music nevertheless poured endlessly and, while always composing prolifically,
he was appointed music master at the State College in Aarschot. In 1911,
he married and settled in Tongeren. One of his best known and celebrated
works, the beautifully impressionistic Pliniusí Fontein,
composed in 1913, evokes some beloved spots in and near Tongeren. A
few months before the outbreak of World War I, his Kinderliederen
(1913) were awarded the Karel Boury Prize by the Flemish Academy. At
the outbreak of the war, the Lemmensschool temporarily closed and Meulemans
was appointed at the Atheneum in Tongeren. He nevertheless went on composing,
a.o. his first Mass setting Missa Da Pacem (1914) and
his Te Deum (1914) as well as more songs and shorter choral
works. In 1917, he completed his first large-scale choral-orchestral
work of some substance, the masterly Sacrum Mysterium
for four soloists, childrenís chorus, mixed chorus and orchestra. The
workís first performance took place in 1929 in Maastricht. While resuming
his work at the Lemmensschool in 1915, Meulemans founded the Provincial
School for Organ and Church Music in Hasselt. During the war years and
up to 1932, Meulemansí career developed in Limburg, i.e. Belgian as
well as Dutch Limburg, so that many of his works from that period were
performed either locally or in nearby Maastricht. These years were also
a busy period in which he completed his operas Vikings
(1919) and Adriaen Brouwers (1926) as well as some cycles
such as Herfstliederen (on words by Scheltema) and De
Hovenier (1923) on words by Tagore in Dutch translation.
The first Flemish broadcasting company K.V.R.O. was
founded in 1929 and Meulemans became its music director and conductor.
With his 40-strong orchestra he played much Flemish music to encourage
his fellow-composers to write more for orchestra. Some time later, however,
it was decided to merge the two existing broadcasting companies (i.e.
Radio Belgique [French-speaking and liberal] and K.V.R.O. [Flemish-speaking
and catholic]) into one single entity which began its life as the I.N.R.
(The paradox of Belgiumís social-cultural life is that thirty years
later, the I.N.R. then renamed R.T.B. was split again into two sections.)
Meulemans was appointed a conductor of the orchestra with Désiré
Defauw and Fernand Quinet. These were difficult years but the programmes
progressively drew much attention and appreciation. Meulemans nevertheless
resigned in 1935. In the meantime, Meulemansí family had settled in
Brussels where the composer spent the rest of his life.
The 1930s were a particularly prolific period in Meulemansí
composing career; and, from then on, his orchestral output will increase
considerably. His first symphonies date from that period. The most popular
of all, the Third Symphony Dennensymfonie (1933), draws
its inspiration from the region of the composerís youth and colourfully
evokes legends and fantastic visions. The Dennensymfonie
is, with Pliniusí Fontein, Meulemansí best-loved work,
and quite deservedly so. The Fifth Symphony Danssymfonie
(1939) and the Sixth Symphony Zeesymfonie (1940) are both
substantial works for chorus and orchestra.
At the outbreak of W.W. II, the radio orchestra disbanded
but Meulemans chose to stay as music director of the Zender Brüssel.
Tensions with the Germans, however, quickly arose and Meulemans decided
to quit the job and devote himself entirely to composition. He then
resumed work on his long series of symphonies (there are fifteen of
them, all written between 1931 and 1960) as well as composing a lot
of music in every genre as well as conducting massed choirs on several
occasions. In spite of his numerous academic appointments and his choir
conducting, he went on composing. The war years, in spite of many upheavals
in the composerís life, were nevertheless quite productive. In 1940,
Meulemans completed the beautiful Seventh Symphony Zwaneven
which again evokes the beloved Demerland of his youth. This quintessentially
Meulemans work, though less well-known than the Third Symphony, equals
that work in every respect and should definitely be better known. (It
has now been recorded.) In 1942, he set a poem by his friend Pieter
Buckinx Droomvuur and in 1943 he completed the magnificent Ninth
Symphony Droomvuur partly based on the earlier song. This
major work had its first performance in 1994 in Tongeren. It is still
unrecorded but its recording is, as far as I am concerned, an urgent
priority. In 1943, he also composed his Tenth Symphony Psalmensymfonie
for narrators, soloists, chorus, speaking chorus and orchestra. Another
important work from the war years is his last opera Egmont
completed in 1944.
Meulemansís huge and varied output defies any detailed
description for, next to some unquestioned major works, he continuously
composed orchestral, instrumental, vocal and choral music of all sizes
and genres. Some of these works get the occasional broadcast or recording
such as the colourfully atmospheric (in both meanings of the word) Meteorologisch
Instituut (1951) with its vivid evocations of clouds, in turn
peaceful or menacing, or the lovely horn concertos (1940 and 1961 respectively),
but there are still many unperformed and unrecorded works that surely
deserve to be given more exposure, such as the Thirteenth Symphony Rembrandtsymfonie
(1951) for organ and orchestra of which a brand new recording is long
In 1956 the Arthur-Meulemans Fonds was founded and
Meulemans bequeathed all his works to the trust which was responsible
for the first performance conducted by Frits Celis of the opera Adriaen
Brouwers (1926) in Antwerp in 1960.
Arthur Meulemans died in Brussels on 29th
As already mentioned, Meulemansí huge and varied output
is still for the most part unpublished, and consequently still too rarely
performed and recorded. The Radioís musical archives have quite a number
of isolated broadcast recordings of some of his major works, especially
the symphonies which are the backbone of his orchestral output. There
are many shorter orchestral works as well as chamber pieces that clearly
deserve to be heard and assessed.
Moreover, to the best of my knowledge, there is still
no comprehensive study of his life and work. The biographical information,
on which this avowedly sketchy article is based, is drawn from a brochure
published in 1984 by the Stichting Arthur Meulemans on the occasion
of Meulemansí centenary.
Meulemansí complete (or near-complete) list of works
is available on www.cebedem.be
NAXOS 8.554121 [CD]
Symphony No.2 (1933)
Symphony No.3 "Dennensymfonie" (1933)
Pliniusí Fontein (1913)
Moscow Symphony Orchestra; Frederik Devreese
NAXOS 8.550584 [CD]
Symphony No.3 "Dennensymfonie" (1933)
BRT Philharmonic Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari
NAXOS 8.554461/2 [CD]
MARCO POLO 8.225101 [CD]
Symphony No.7 "Zwaneven" (1940)
VRT Filharmonisch Orkest; Silveer Van den Broeck
DISCOVER DICD 920299 [CD]
Concerto No.1 for Horn and Orchestra (1940)
André Van Driessche (horn); BRTN Filharmonisch Orkest; Alexander
DISCOVER DICD 920321 [CD]
Pliniusí Fontein (1913)
BRTN Filharmonisch Orkest; Alexander Rahbari
PHAEDRA 92011 [CD]
String Quartet No.2 (1932)
String Quartet No.3 (1933)
Piano Quintet (1915)
Arriaga String Quartet; Stijn Klacny (piano)
KLARA MMP 024 [CD]
Vlaamse Radio Orkest; Jan Latham-Koenig
CULTURA 5078-N1 [LP]
Symphony No.3 "Dennensymfonie" (1933)
Nationaal Orkest van België; Frederik Devreese
CULTURA 5072-5 [LP]
Symphony No.13 "Rembrandtsymfonie"
Jozef Sluys (organ); De Philharmonie van Antwerpen;
PAVANE ADW 7151 [LP]
Concerto for Organ and Brass (1962)
Jan Valach (organ); Band of the Belgian Navy; Jozef
EUFODA EF/101 [LP]
Antwerp Wind Quintet with piano
There may of course exist recordings of some isolated
works, once available on LP which were sparsely distributed and which
I have never been able to lay hands on. These old LPs are listed in
the catalogues published by CeBeDeM many years ago.