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Wladimir VOGEL (1896–1984)
Thyl Claes - Part 1 (1937/9, second version 1942)
Eveline Didi, Jean Winiger (narrators)
Marie-Thérèse Letorney (soprano)
Choeur des XVI
Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana/Luca Pfaff
rec. live, Auditorio della RSI, Lugano, 3 September 1996
Texts and translations included
CPO 999 960-2 [58:19 + 51:04]

In his otherwise excellent insert notes, Carlo Piccardi states that Charles De Coster’s picaresque epic novel Les Aventures d’Ulenspiegel et de Lamme Goedzack au pays de Flandres et ailleurs (1868) may be regarded as the national epic needed by the then young kingdom of Belgium; a Belgium that had gained its independence as recently as 1830.
This is but partly true especially at the time of Ulenspiegel’s adventures. At that time, Belgium did not exist at all. A number of western provinces roughly covering present-day Flanders were occupied by the Spanish - earlier still, they were under French rule. The eastern provinces belonged to the Principality of Liège, part of the German empire and ruled by the Prince-Bishop. The Principality lasted until the French Revolution when it became a French département. So, in short, Ulenspiegel represents the Flemish rebel opposing the Spanish and the Inquisition rather than any thing approaching a ‘Belgian’ hero.
At a deeper level, however, De Coster’s novel is far more wide-ranging and unquestionably possesses a more universal message. More accurately it is a manifesto for freedom against fanaticism and oppression. Like Flanders at the time of Ulenspiegel’s adventures, Belgium had been occupied by the Dutch before gaining its independence and, ironically, was occupied by the Germans at the time of the planned first performance of Vogel’s oratorio.
The historical background of Ulenspiegel’s adventures is the Spanish occupation and the black years of the Inquisition. This is played out against the backdrop of the war of religion between the Spanish Catholics and the Dutch Protestants. The novel also parallels Ulenspiegel’s birth and youth with that of Flanders’ future oppressor, King Philip II. De Coster’s large-scale epic has attracted a number of artists, musicians and comedians. One can mention Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel lustige Streiche Op.28 (1895) and Gérard Philippe’s film Les aventures de Till l’espiègle (1956, score by Georges Auric). There is yet more including Nikolaï Karetnikov’s opera completed in 1985 and based on a somewhat earlier film score; this has been recorded but I have never been able to track down a copy. Then there’s Willem Kersters’ full-length ballet Uilenspiegel, de geus Op.67 (1976), Flor Alpaerts’ symphonic poem Thyl Uilenspiegel (1927) and Luigi Dallapiccola’s opera Il Prigioniero (1944/8), although the latter is but obliquely inspired by De Coster’s novel.
Then we come to Vogel’s large-scale epic oratorio. Both Strauss’s symphonic poem and Philippe’s film only emphasise the impish, rebellious side of Ulenspiegel’s character, whereas some of the other works have a more global approach. This is certainly the case for Vogel’s magnum opus Thyl Claes, Fils de Kolldraeger. Vogel’s epic oratorio is in two large-scale parts: Part 1 “Oppression” was composed between 1937 and 1939. It was to be first performed in Brussels, but that did not happen because of the German invasion and occupation. The score was lost in Brussels and Vogel reconstructed it in 1942. It was eventually first performed in Switzerland with Ansermet conducting. Part 2 “Liberation” was completed in 1945 and first performed by Ansermet in 1947. What we have here is the first part of a live recording made in 1996 probably to mark Vogel’s centenary.
The central character Thyl Ulenspiegel is not De Coster’s creation, but rather a legendary character already mentioned in popular works in the 16th century. As you may have noticed in the above, the name itself may be spelled in different ways. It may be encountered as Uilenspiegel, Ulenspiegel, Uylenspiegel and Eulenspiegel, the latter being the German spelling. The name may be explained in a number of ways, but we may stick to De Coster’s own explanation that occurs in the Damme Fair episode, in which Ulenspiegel mocks various people coming past his small hut by playing their mirror: “Ik ben ulieden spiegell” (“I am your mirror”) which many understood as “Ik ben Ulenspiegel” (“I am Ulenspiegel”).
The work is scored for two narrators, soprano, speaking chorus and orchestra. The whole thing plays for more than three hours. Vogel had already used a speaking chorus in his earlier oratorio Wagadus Untergang durch die Eitelkeit (1930, rev. 1948) and was to use speaking voices repeatedly in his later output. Incidentally I reviewed the only recording of Wagadus Untergang several years ago. Anyone, who has heard the earlier oratorio, will immediately notice that Vogel’s use of the speaking chorus is much more complex and considerably more sophisticated in Thyl Claes. Unlike the earlier work, the composer uses the speaking chorus in an almost contrapuntal way, juxtaposing and superimposing words and phrases in an overtly dramatic manner that strongly contrasts with the rather straightforward and ‘homophonic’ manner briefly displayed in Wagadus Untergang. Moreover, the speaking chorus only plays a minor part in Wagadus Untergang; here it is the main protagonist representing some of the characters of the novel - there are actually some ‘soloists’ drawn from the chorus. It also acts as an antique chorus complementing and – at times – counter-pointing the narrators, very often to grand effect. The music is clearly 20th century mainstream, with – to these ears at least – some kinship with that of, say, Frank Martin, particularly so in the passages with soprano.
Part 1 of Thyl Claes falls into several sections : Introduction (CD1 – Tracks 1-3), Claes (CD1 – Tracks 4-9), Thyl à la foire de Damme (CD1 – Track 10), Charles V and his son (CD1 – Tracks 11-12), Katheline’s ordeal (CD – Track 13), Chaconne d’amour (CD2 – Track 1), Josse’s messenger (CD2 – Track 2), Claes’ arrest (CD2 – Tracks 3-4), La cloche dite ‘borgstorm’ (CD2 – Track 5-7), Les adieux de Claes (CD2 – Tracks 8-10), Le supplice de Claes (CD2 – Tracks 11-13) and Postlude (CD2 – Track14). Note that I have just added a few titles (in italics) to some, otherwise unidentified sections, for comprehension’s sake.
The introduction opens with ominous, martial fanfares alternating with more reflective material. The narrator, mostly unaccompanied, sets the scene, the historical background of Thyl’s adventures. He recalls how the Spanish authorities fought against heresy – real or not – by imprisonment, decapitation, torture and death at the stake. The speaking chorus and the orchestra have the next episode (“La mort planait sur la terre de Flandre”) which blends speaking chorus and singing chorus. The next episode deals with the birth of Thyl and of the Infant Philip. A shortened restatement of the opening fanfare leads into a succinct, dramatic aria for soprano and orchestra. Ulenspiegel’s birth is joyfully welcomed by everyone but “A little black spot on the babe’s shoulder; it’s the black mark of the devil’s finger...” However, Claes encourages his son to be brave and honest. This scene is capped by a splendid sunrise (“... behold his majesty the sun coming to salute the land of Flanders”). In full contrast with this simple domestic scene, Philip’s birth is to be celebrated with munificence by Charles V; but the news of the pope’s imprisonment in Rome puts an end to the rejoicing “and the babe was baptised while swaddling, the swaddling of royal sorrow”. The unmarried Katheline gives life to her daughter Nele. She fears for her life and that of her child, so that Claes and his wife Soetkin decide to ‘adopt’ the baby. The Damme Fair section is the only amusing episode evoking Thyl’s impish, rebellious character mocking fatuous priests and burgers. “Ik ben ulieden spiegel” (“I am your mirror”). The music, including an important part for saxophones, is lighter and often rather ironic, with some jazzy accents.

The next episode is in full contrast to the joyous, earthy Damme Fair. It tells of Philip’s loveless youth marked by cruelty and solitude, as the horrendous scene in which Charles V and members of his court find Philip recoiling in a dark room and watching a small stake on which a little monkey is tied. Charles V wants to punish the Infant but the archbishop is of a different opinion: “Some day His Highness will be a great burner of heretics”. Katheline is accused of sorcery and cruelly tortured before being sentenced to punishment by fire - by having her hair burnt. She is banned from Damme. The Chaconne d’amour, that follows, is the lyrical core of the work, a beautiful aria for soprano and orchestra singing Thyl’s and Nele’s mutual love. A man tells Claes of the death of his brother Josse who had joined the heretics and gives him money provided Thyl is not educated in the Catholic orthodoxy. Claes is accused of heresy and arrested. He is brought to the tribunal and sentenced to death at the stake. This is the dramatically gripping episode of La cloche dite ‘borgstorm’. In another poignant scene for soprano and orchestra, Thyl and Soetkin visit Claes in his jail. The tension accumulated in all the preceding episodes is forcefully unleashed in the powerfully dramatic, spine-chilling scene of Claes’ ordeal, in which soprano, speaking chorus and orchestra unite to grand effect. At night, after the execution, Soetkin and Thyl come to the stake where Claes’s body still hangs. Thyl takes some ashes from Claes’ heart. Soetkin puts them in a small sack that she gives to Ulenspiegel for him to carry around his neck. The first part ends with a short, nocturnal postlude.
This live performance was recorded as far back as 1996, possibly on the occasion of Vogel’s centenary. Why has it lingered for so long before being – at long last – released? I could not find anything seriously wrong with it. True, narrators, soprano and chorus have occasional pronunciation problems with some of the Flemish names, but nothing serious enough to deter anyone from listening to this deeply sincere, generous and often gripping major work. I keep my fingers crossed hoping that Part 2 was also recorded on the same occasion. Anyway, I urge CPO to release a recording of Part 2. Thyl Claes is not only its composer’s opus magnum but also a truly great and important work from the first half of the 20th century. It definitely deserves to be widely known for “our era too has had and has musicians who resonate in unison with humankind, and Wladimir Vogel, who during eight years, from 1937 to 1945, dedicated the greatest part of his energies to the composition of Thyl Claes, stands in the front rank among them”. I wish that I had written this myself, but Luigi Dallapiccola did so in 1948. Not to be missed.
Hubert Culot


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