#208– July 17, 2023
Paul Gilson and The Synthetists
“Poème symphonique en forme d’ouverture”, by Belgian composer and teacher Paul Gilson is our Composition of the Week.
During the coming summer weeks, we are presenting Belgian literature for wind orchestra by Paul Gilson and a group of his students who, in September 1925, joined their creative forces to form the first group of composers in Belgian musical history, called the Synthetists.
The music they produced constitutes an unavoidable historical heritage of the early 20th century.
This fresh and imaginative repertoire, of great artistic quality, remains curiously and unjustly unknown.
The driving force behind the synthetists group was the composer and Brussels Conservatory professor Paul Gilson. The following quote from our former WASBE President, Francis Pieters, perfectly illustrates the reasons for Gilson’s imprint on the music of his country.
“August De Boeck, Lodewijk Mortelmans and Paul Gilson are often quoted together to designate the great innovators of Flemish music. All three had their strengths as well as their weaknesses. Classical musicology presents their work for winds as one of these weaknesses.
We contest this thesis by evidencing Gilson’s love of wind music. Without this love, Belgian wind music would have never become what it is today […] Gilson was able to pass on his “feu sacré” and his faith in wind music to dozens of conductors and composers. He understood, for example, that the wind band was an autonomous orchestral phenomenon, not a pseudo symphonic orchestra. He was thus very modern, and even today many composers do not follow his lead.” (Francis Pieters in “Eux aussi ont écrit pour orchestres à vents”, trad. Edgard Vergucht, pag.52-53).
The subtitle reads “Les partis selon le Christ, d’après un tableau de Wiertz”.
Antoine Wiertz was a Belgian painter (1806 – 1865), his painting served Gilson as inspiration for his tone poem.
“Symphonic poem in the form of an overture” was performed by the Musique des Guides during the centenary celebrations in 1930.
Gilson’s work remained unpublished until 2022. The music is now available at Band Press, Belgium.
It was written in 1900.
Paul Gilson was born in Brussels. In 1866, his family moved to Ruisbroek in the Belgian province of Brabant. There he studied theory with the organist and choir director Auguste Cantillon and began writing works for orchestra and choir. His first official training came from 1887–1889 under François-Auguste Gevaert in composition and under Charles Duyck in harmony and counterpoint at the Brussels Conservatory, and in 1889, he was awarded the Belgian Prix de Rome for a cantata, Sinaï, which was very well received. As the winner of the prize, he was able to spend time in Bayreuth (1892), Paris (1893–4) and Italy (1895).
In 1899 he became professor of composition at the Brussels Conservatory; he won the same position at Antwerp in 1904 but quit both after becoming inspector of music education in 1909, a position he would hold until 1930. Although he was a very prolific composer, his output decreased after 1905, after which Gilson wrote increasingly about music, in theory, criticism, and composition.
Gilson was somewhat conservative in his musical outlook. Some of his work is indebted to Wagnerian harmony, and his books on harmony and instrumentation also bear this out.
La Mer, the score which gave him his greatest success, was first performed in Brussels on 20 March 1892, is a set of four impressionistic movements (“symphonic sketches”) in sonata form which were originally intended to illustrate verses by a French-speaking poet, Eddy Levis. Generally considered to form a programmatic symphony depicting the sea, Gilson’s score (also known as De Zee) predated Claude Debussy’s work of the same name by a decade.
Another exceptional work is the brilliant “Symphonic Variations) (originally scored for brass ensemble), which is also the composer’s only major work without literary associations.
Other important works for winds include:
- Variations symphoniques, for brass ensemble, 1903
- La Mer, 4 symphonic sketches for wind orchestra, transcribed by Arthur Prevost (1892/1925)
- Richard III, overture for wind orchestra
- Rhapsodie Nr.1, for wind orchestra, (1909)
Gilson’s production is very extensive. For an exhaustive list, please refer to Francis Pieters’ articles on this subject.