August De Boeck: Reinaert the Fox (1906)

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  • August De Boeck (1865-1937)
  • Berthe Seroen als Hermelijn in De Boeck's 'Reinaert de Vos'
  • The composer as his own Reinaert on the cover of a 'Reinaert de Vos' special in the series 'Vlaamse Muziek'
  • Baritone Robert Herberigs, the first Reinaert de Vos.

Libretto: Rafaël Verhulst
World première: January 9 1909, Antwerpse Schouwburg
Cast world première: Robert Herberigs (Reinaert), Berthe Seroen (Hermelijn), dirigent Anthony Dubois.
Cast reprise 1973: Jan Joris (Reinaert), Erika Pauwels (Hermelijn), De Resky, Brusselmans, Verbeeck, Heynen, Marien, Tilman, Ost, Brant, Funk – Frits Celis.

Reinaert de Vos (Reinaert the Fox) had a most peculiar introduction on January 9 1909, when it was received with unmatched display of enthusiasm only to fall into oblivion a few performances onwards, when the audience stopped coming. The Flemish Opera direction was shocked and August De Boeck was so embittered that he vowed never to compose for the Flemish stage again. And yet that stage wasn’t the problem, since Reinaert the Fox did not reach any production elsewhere either. Only the Flemish Opera Antwerp revived it three times, in 1941, 1953, and 1973.


August De BoeckReinaert de Vos 'Orkestintro & koor'
Chorus & Orchestra KVO, conductor Frits Celis (401DutchOperas archives)

King Nobel’s aid Isegrim and the nobility demand a severe punishment, yet the people and Reinaert's beloved Hermelijn manage to soften the King’s judgment. Reinaert has to do penitence by going on a pilgrimage to Rome, after having spent a few months in a cloister. Act II plays in that cloister, where Reinaert fakes to be a devoted clergyman, while in reality he causes quite a stir within the institute’s walls. After he has made everyone believe that he has found a hidden treasure, the King promises him a pardon if he hands him the treasure. Reinaert agrees, is pardoned and Act III has him returned to his castle Malpertuis, where the people and Blauvoet enthusiastically greet him. When it turns out that Bruin the Bear has mistreated Hermelijn during his absence, Reinaert seizes the opportunity of Bruin’s impending visit in order to demand his surrender to the King once again, in order to avenge himself. He feeds Bruin so much alcohol that he turns into a drunken idiot, and sends him off, mocked by the people on his way, humiliated. Once King Noble and his troops appear at the gates of Malpertuis, a significant number of his troops defect to the people. The nobility then seizes the opportunity to negotiate more privileges from the King in order for their continuing support. Reinaert then convinces the King that not the corrupt nobles but the people are his loyal subjects. Peace is signed and the people greet Reinaert as the liberator of Flanders.


The Merchtem chronicle blamed librettist Verhulst for the swift disappearance of Reinaert de Vos, but at this point I have to disagree. Apart from certain roles and sections (most notably the beautiful part of Hermelijn) and some Flemish folk scenes it is precisely the music that is not very original. De Boeck’s instrumentation is regressive when compared to The Rhine Dwarfs; he is once again resorting to very obvious quotation of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Act II and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The fairy tale like the drinking scene with Bruin the Bear in Act III is like theme and variation to Verdi’s Falstaff Act III. De Boeck's most significant achievement here is perhaps that he does succeed to blend all these stylistic elements into a unified whole, by the strength of his skills in instrumentation, which is still firmly linked to the late romantic school that follows up Richard Strauss’ tone poems. Therefore I suspect that the triumph at the creation was rather the merit of the wonderful libretto of Verhulst, who also had earned his spurs in Flemish opera then, as author of the libretti of Emiel Wambach's Quinten Massijs (1899) and Arthur van Oost's ’t Minnebrugje (1899). A further element in his favour may have been the polemic that had emerged around Reinaert de Vos earlier, when it won a prize from the city of Antwerp and Verhulst was accused of plagiarism in making an animal appear as a human being. Some critics argued that he took it from Edmond Rostand’s ‘Chantecler’, yet Verhulst’s creation proved to have been conceived earlier. Of course, Rostand’s French language work was better noted internationally, but the polemic doubtlessly won Verhulst the sympathy of the Flemish audience.

What remains is the criticism that Verhulst transformed the medieval Reinaert the Fox into a figure resembling Uylenspiegel, who then identified himself wholly with the ‘Flemish cause’. Admittedly, any native Flemish person will link the Reinaert’s aid Blauvoet to the Flemish revolution song by that name, but apart from that the Flemish element in the opera would be limited to the final line, which hails Reinaert as the saviour of the Flemish people. Wagner (‘Was Deutsch und Echt…’) and Verdi (who also made good use of his name’s anagram for ‘Vittorio Emanuele Re d’Italia’) have been seen to exploit the national card more explicitly. They of course had the good luck that their operas helped unifying their nations, whereas the Flemish movement is essentially a separatist movement, which automatically polarizes things. Apart from this Flemish connotation, I can only say that Verhulst’s Reinaert de Vos reveals a fine poet. The deliberate archaic Dutch is a marvel to read – even without music! Old folk songs such as ‘Zeg kwezelken wilde gij dansen’ (Hey lass, wills’ thou not dance) are marvelously embedded in the drama, which is rife with imaginative scenes and full of humor. In Reinaert, Isengrim and Bruin Verhulst created vivid characters. The melodramatic Hermelijn however lives foremost through her gorgeous music, which reveals De Boeck at his best, as we know him from Princess Sunray in Winter Night's Dream; Hermelijn’s passages are among the most beautiful ones in the score. The fox is one of of the most grateful roles for a character baritone in Flemish operatic literature. With his Uylenspiegelian good heartedness and his cunning wheeling and dealing, he is gloriously alive. De Boeck fails foremost in finding an individual language for the overall medieval setting, for he could not create a unique sound such as Mancinelli and Zandonai did/would do in Italy. The Reinaert de Vos libretto provided a fine chance to create the ultimate Flemish masterpiece, such as Jan van Gilse later achieved it in The Netherlands with Tijl, but it came too early in De Boeck’s development. At best it is a step on the road to La route d’Émeraude from 1921, De Boeck’s only true masterpiece. I could therefore not suppress slight melancholy when I read that the libretto was initially offered to Jan Blockx, who could not find the time to set it to music. Verhulst’s libretto with his many refined folkloristic elements seemed tailor made for him. Certainly the libretto is much stronger than the 1901 Uylenspiegel libretto crafted for Block by Nestor De Tière. Blockx would also certainly have composed more original music than De Boeck could achieve in 1909. At best, De Boeck proves his skills as an orchestrator of sorts and as a brilliant composer in inspired moments, yet by 1909 he is still searching for an overall individual operatic identity.

De Boeck did keep his promise to the Flemish Opera though and would never compose for the Flemish opera stage again. Until his final, French language opera in 1921 was produced, he also did not write any opera. The years leading up to World War I seem to have preoccupied him with his teaching career, starting from 1909 when he followed Paul Gilson as teacher of harmony at the Flemish Conservatory Antwerp, where his pupils included Renaat Veremans, August L. Baeyens and Renaat van Zundert.