(Harelbeke, 17 August 1834 – Antwerp, 8 March 1901)
This score is Peter Benoit’s entry for the double international composition contest that was held on the occasion of the 1867 Exposition universelle in Paris. Composers were called upon to send in a Cantate de l’Exposition (avec orchestre et chœurs) or a short Hymne de la Paix, both with a compulsory text. For the cantata, after holding a contest, the poem Les Noces de Promethée by Romain Cornut jr. was selected. Despite his tender age – he was still a student – Cornut added an original twist to the myth of Prometheus. He has Prometheus marrying all of humanity. At the centre is the idea of a well-meaning authority that grants favours from above and creates social unity, which is his way of referencing the ‘kindheartedness’ of Napoléon III. The emperor is presented as a benevolent Jupiter who liberates Prometheus from vultures like tyranny and superstition.
The participants were only given a few weeks time to submit their pieces: the poets had to deliver their texts on 10 April 1867 at the latest, giving the composers time until 1 June 1867. Already on 12 June, the jury, with Gioacchino Rossini as honorary president and Daniel Auber as president, decided to reward Camille Saint-Saëns’ entry. He was chosen out of 102 contestants, among them Benoit, who also had to compose his piece in a short period of time. This rush might explain why Benoit wrote a ‘number cantata’ with separate parts, as opposed to his previous cantata Lucifer (text by Emanuel Hiel, 1866) which is composed all in one piece.
Benoit himself considered the piece more of an oratorio than an actual cantata, because the concept of an oratorio is closer to the subject matter, which is what he wrote on a copy that can be found in the city archives of Antwerp. In this copy, the lack of the final chorus more than likely proves the rush surrounding this original contest piece: the tight deadline might not have given him the necessary time to copy the entire piece. According to the composer and conductor Flor Alpaerts, who prepared the edition of this composition for the Peter Benoit Foundation, the final chorus was reorchestrated at a later time by Edward Keurvels, based on this Antwerp manuscript.
Still, Benoit must have believed in his contest piece, because afterwards he asked the poet Emanuel Hiel to write an accompanying text in Dutch. Hiel recreated the work thoroughly and based it on a comprehensive study of the Aeschylus version of the Prometheus myth. Hiel saw Prometheus as ‘the Genius of humanity’ who made people ‘break the chains of their minds’. As a nationalist, he removed all references to France from the text. Benoit and Hiel dedicated the Dutch version of Les Noces de Promethée, titled Prometheus, to the liberal representative Auguste De Maere-Limnander, ‘as a sign of praise and fondness for his devotion to the mother tongue and the art of the fatherland’. De Maere-Limnander was the president of the Koninklijke Koormaatschappij (Royal Choir) of Ghent, which had performed Lucifer in 1866. Hiel’s new text probably created issues, because Keurvels later made a new Dutch adjustment. Keurvels stayed much closer to Cornut’s original, but he did translate ‘sous ce beau ciel de la France’ into Dutch as ‘in de schoone Vlaamsche gouwen’ (‘in the beautiful Flemish country’). It is this later version that was performed for the first time by Keurvels on 27th September 1909 in Antwerp, and that is published here.
Translation: Jasmien Dewilde
– Oscar Comettant, La musique, les musiciens et les instruments de musique chez les différents peuples du monde. Ouvrage enrichi de textes musicaux orné de 150 dessins d’instruments rares et curieux. Archives complètes de tous les documents qui se rattachent à l’Exposition Internationale de 1867. – Organisation, exécution, concours, enseignement, organographie, etc., Paris, 1869.
– Jan Dewilde, Prometheus, Benoit en Napoleon III: muziek tijdens de Exposition Universelle van 1867, in: Forum. Tweemaandelijks tijdschrift over onderwijs en podiumkunsten, vol. 12, 2004, nr. 2, p. 24-33.
– Laura Hiel (uitg.), Volledige werken van dichter Emanuel Hiel. Deel V. Oratorio’s – cantaten – symphonieën – hymnen – feestzangen en rouwzangen, Brussels, 1934.
– Brian Rees, Camille Saint-Saëns. A life, London, 1999.
This score has been published in collaboration with the Centre for the Study of Flemish Music (www.svm.be). …
Read full Flemish preface > HERE