François-Auguste Gevaert (1828-1908)

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  • François Auguste Gevaert
  • Quentin Durward libretto
  • Le Capitaine Henriot, 2015 Brussels revival
  • Portrait of Gevaert
  • Gevaert at age 17

The musical talent of Flemish composer François-Auguste Gevaert was revealed at an early age. At nineteen he won the Prix de Rome with his cantata 'Le roi Lear', a subject that haunted Verdi for a full forty years, during which he never dared to compose it. Gevaert also had exceptional talent as a musicologist and became director of the Brussels Conservatory, where he founded the famous Concerts du Conservatoire. A late echo of these concerts arrived on March 5 2015, when a student performance was given there of Gevaert's opéra comique, Le capitaine Henriot. On November 26 of the same year, the Antwerp Conservatory also paid tribute to Gevaert, when it performed excerpts from the composer’s Quentin Durward at a symposium on Flemish Opera in Ghent. Performers were baritone Joris Grouwels and soprano Pauline Lebbe, accompanied on piano by Joshi Hermans. Both the concert excerpts of Quentin Durward and Le capitaine Henriot performance were filmed by 401DutchOperas.

401COnc2Logo130aud401Concerts Nr. 2 (Audio)
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401Conc2Logo130401Concerts Nr. 2 (Video)
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Text: René Seghers

The talent of François-Auguste Geveart (Huysse near Oudenaarde, July 31, 1828 – Brussels, December 24, 1908) for music was manifest from his early childhood. He then studied at the Ghent Conservatory in piano, harmony and composition, and when he was just fifteen year old, he even taught piano there! A few years later he was organist at the Jesuit College in Ghent. By 1847, he was distinguished by the Société des Beaux-Arts in Ghent, for his cantate België. In the same year he won the Prix de Rome for 'Le roi Lear', upon which he made extensive travels in Spain, Germany and Italy. He wrote interesting essays on the musical scenes in those countries and especially his essay about the Arabian influence on Spanish music made school, not in the last place within Spain, from where he would subsequently receive many students for decades to come. In 1853 he settled in Paris.

Gevaert as opera composer

Gevaert's cantatas and operas were all composed between 1840 en 1864. His early vocation is clear from his first opera, La comédie à la ville (1840), composed at the age of twelve. By 1847 he completed his second opera, Hugues de Zomergem, followed by Le ballet de Marguerite (1851), Quentin Durward (1858), Le diable au moulin (1859), Le chateau de Trompette (1860) and Les deux amours (1861). His final opera was Le capitaine Henriot, on a libetto by Victorien Sardou, was premièred in 1864, starring Galli-Marié, the later creatrice of Carmen. Along with Quentin Durward (an opera that was the debut of Michel Carré as librettist), this remained his best known opéra comique. The drinking choir of the Scottish watchmen ‘Buvons amis au souvenir de la patrie’ from Quentin Durward became one of his most popular operatic tunes. At the concert of November 26, Ghent, baritone Joris Grouwels and soprano Pauline Lebbe sang 'Le ciel lui-même' (Nr. 7 Air Isabelle), 'Elle était la … Je l'ai revue' (Nr. 10 Romance Crêvecoeur) and 'Mon père était jadis le compagnon' (Nr. 11 Duet Isabelle & Crêvecoeur).

After almost 150 years of oblivion, students of the Brussels Conservatory performed Le capitaine Henriot again, on March 5, 2015. It was a concert performance in an adaption for reduced orchestra. Nonetheless this semi stage-directed performance was fascinating, since virtually nothing is currently available of Gevaert’s music, and of his operas literally nothing was known except a single 78RPM recording of an aria from Quentin Durward, which was published in the now OOP Belgian singers tribute based on the Yves Becko collection. We therefore proudly present fragments of the Capitaine Henriot and Quentin Durward, since operas are there to be heard rather than to be described.

Download fragmenten uit Quentin Durward

Our download program with Flemish opera arias and duets 401Concerts Nr. 2 was filmed and recorded on January 27, 2016, in Museum Vleeshuis, in a coproduction with the artists. Gevaerts Quentin Durward (1858) is represented in the concert with the aria ‘Enfin le Roi... Le ciel lui-même’ (Aria Isabelle) and the duet ‘Il va venir... Mon père était jadis’ (Duet Isabelle, Crèvecoeur), performed by soprano Pauline Lebbe and baritone Joris Grouwels. Other arias and duets include Jan Blockx' operas De herbergprinses and De bruid der zee, and excerpts from operas by Armand Limnander van Nieuwenhove, Emiel Wambach en August De Boeck. Some highlights can be seen in the video trailer above. The complete concert is downloadable from our Flemish Opera Arias & Duets Concertpage.

Other compositions

WebGevaertCongoGevaert’s most important works are cantatas and religious choral works. Among cantatas we mention, 'België', 'Le roi Lear', 'Adieu à la mer', 'De nationale verjaerdag', and 'Jacob van Artevelde'. His most famous choral works were Super flumia babylonis (with orchestra), 'Missa solemnis' pro defunctis, 'Gran’Messe de Noël,' and his 'Te Deum'. He also composed motets, songs, piano compositions, chamber and orchestral music, organ works, and the hymn of Belgian Congo (available on an old 78RPM recording on the Malibran CD box dedicated to De Munt Theatre Brussels). This compoition, titled 'Vers l'avenir', is an insignificient tribute to the now very much disputed King Leopold II, which, at the time, may have accounted for the song making it to a 78RPM. Gevaert’s musical output comes to an halt around 1864, when he composed Le capitaine Henriot and also his most famous cantata, 'Jacob van Artevelde'. After that his career as a conductor, a musicologist, and administrator became predominant, although he would continue to compose in a different pace until his death in 1908. His most famous religious work, the 'Grand'Messe de Noël', was composed in 1907. The critical valuation of his oeuvre includes praise for his technical accomplishment, whereas a lack of individual style is also noted.

François-Auguste Gevaert: Vers l'avenir (National hymn of Belgian Congo)

GevaertArteveldLPRenVerbThe prime exception among his compositions seems to be the mentioned cantata 'Jacob van Artevelde' (recorded on vinyl by baritone Renaat Verbruggen). Since this cantata was composed in the same year as Le capitaine Henriot, this rises expectation for his final opera, also since the judgment of Gevaert’s oeuvre is essentially based on the oeuvre on a young man who gave up composing around the age of 36. Yet, Gounod and Thomas valued him as a colleague and the famous conductor Hans von Bülow praised his compositions. In Le capitaine Henriot and the Quentin Durward excerpts, there is plenty to enjoy in terms of Offenbachian wit, gracious melody and inspiration.


In 1867 Gevaert became conductor of the chorus of the L’Opéra de Paris. He remained in post there until the outbreak of the French-German war, following which he returned to Belgium. In 1871 he was appointed director of the Brussels Conservatory, where he followed François-Joseph Fétis, a fine director and a noted musicologist. Gevaert then also published numerous publications, especially regarding antique and early-middle age music. His three most important woks in this field are Histoire et théorie de la musique d’antiquité (1875-1881), Les origins du chant liturgique de l’Église latine (1890), and La mélopée antique (1895-96). In the last publication, after having learned Greek and Latin at an advanced age, he tried to unravel the mysteries of the Greek modi. Regarding the Gregorian revolution in music he published a theory that upheld that not Gregorius I was responsible for it, but one of his predecessors.  Gevaert’s Traité general d’instrumentation from 1863 was also influentia.

Director of the Royal Brussels Conservatory

Gevaert remained on his post as director of the Brussels’ Conservatory for over 30 years. During his tenure there he distinguished himself in many ways, among them the founding of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, during which he (re-)introduced Bach, Händel, Gluck, Beethoven and also Wagner to the  audience. He also augmented the level of the institute and stressed the importance of stimulating individuality. Gevaert was respected in the Académie, and even outside the musical world. The Royal Preussische Akademie and the Institut Français made him a member. Gevaert passed away in Brussels on December 24, 1908, at the age of eighty.

Gevaert on CD

WebGevaertCDFugaFor those curious after Gevaert’s music other than the Quentin Durward aria on the Yves Becko collection album, and the Congo Hymn on Malibran, there is also a Fuga Libra CD (FUG545) from 2008, celebrating the centennial of the composer’s death. Central piece on the disc is Gevaert’s 'Grand'Messe de Noël', for three female voices and organ, composed in 1907, his last composition. Very different from his early works, this composition reflects his life long studies in early liturgical music traditions, as well as his interest in the novelties from the German school. Thus we find her modal chords, reminding us of early renaissance music, going hand in hand with Wagnerian chromatic writing.

François-Auguste Gevaert: Puer Natus est Nobis (Christmas Mass) 'Agnus'
Ensemble Vocal Le Petit Salon, Thibeau lenaerts (conductor), 2008 (CD Fuga Libera 545)

It was precisely this cosmopolitan outlook on music that had previously brought Gevaert in open conflict with his famous Flemish colleague Benoit, who represented the nationalist Flemish school. Gevaert would eventually break with the Nationalist school. The CD further features a number of Christmas songs by Gevaert, and various types of arrangements of folk oriented songs. We quote here Steven de Waele on Kwadratuur, 2008, in his judgment of this CD:

‘Apart from a few minor details, this is a surprisingly fine Christmas CD, which combines a most serious composition such as Gevaert’s 'Grand Messe de Noël' with folk- and Christmas songs that Gevaert arranged for choirs. These reveal that he was not to be underestimated as a composer in the Romantic era, and in the Dutch speaking nations in particular.’

CD tracking
Libra CD FUG545

Christmas Mass: Puer Natus est Nobis
10 Noëls harmonises a quatre voix: Le Sommeil de L'enfant Jesus
Voisin, d'ou venait ce grand bruit? Le Message des anges
Le Bel ange du ciel
Noël pastoral de 1750
Chanson joyeuse de Noël
Noël du XVIII siecle
Nous sommes trois souverains princes
Ô Nuit, heureuse nuit
Canticum Natalitiæ
Kerstlied (Henri Claeys)
Les Cloches de Noël (Theophile Gautier)

Caroline Weynants (soprano); Thibaut Lenaerts (tenor); Sophie Hallynck (harp); Nico Declerck (harmonium); Xavier Deprez (Coppin & Van Bever organ Braine-l'Alleud, Saint-Sébastien);
Ensemble vocal Le Petit Sablon / Thibaut Lenaerts