Peter Benoit – Van Artevelde’s ghost (from the oratorio The Scheldt)
(Harelbeke, 17 August 1834 – Antwerp, 8 March 1901)
Peter Benoit started composing the ‘romantic-historical oratorio’ De Schelde (The Scheldt) shortly before his appointment on 3 June 1867 as director of the Antwerp School of Music (the Royal Flemish Conservatoire from 1897 onwards). The libretto was written by Emanuel Hiel (1834-1899), who had previously supplied Benoit with the texts for the cantata Lucifer (1866) and the music drama Isa (1867). The premiere took place on 22 February 1869 in the Antwerp Théâtre français (the Bourlaschouwburg) under the composer’s direction. It was a great success and De Schelde would become Benoit’s most popular and most frequently performed oratorio.
De Schelde is a triptych with an idealistic development and a time-lapse, from nightfall to dawn. The first part, which opens with an atmospheric symphonic prelude, is poetic and idyllic and is set in an evening, Arcadian Scheldt landscape. The dramatic second part, which takes place at night, depicts Flanders’ past, between foreign domination and hard-won freedom. From the mists above the Scheldt, a shadowy procession of historical figures emerges from Flanders’ past. With dramatic choral groups and an orchestra that is unleashed, Benoit paints a pandemonium that is a prelude to the battlefield scenes from his oratorio De Oorlog (The War) (1873). In the final part, a beautiful summer morning, all the types of tradesmen and craftsmen who earn their living on or along the Scheldt pass by: sailors, fishermen, farmers, shipmates, and merchants. The Scheldt is the ‘river of love’, meandering through the free fatherland for the benefit of all.
Against this background, several idealistic characters parade (such as the Youngster, the Girl, the Artist and the Poet), but also historical figures such as the Flemish leaders Nicolaas Zannekin (?-1328) and Jacob van Artevelde (ca. 1290-1345), and William of Orange (1533-1584). In the middle section, these three men each hold a monologue from across the grave. Jacob van Artevelde’s moving aria is particularly inspired and was sung by several bass singers as a separate scene.
In this scene the past seems to come alive again: Van Artevelde takes off his shroud and men rise from their graves, symbolising suppressed Flanders coming to life again:
I throw off the blanket of death.
Flanders gives signs of life!
Men arise from the grave,
men from a noble breed,
that respects the common law,
that finds a strength in peace,
and think higher of trading
than to strive for knightly war!
I throw off the blanket of death.
This demanding aria is one of the oratorio’s highlights. Here Benoit creates an intense emotionality and tension by thoughtfully alternating a moving melody (‘Flanders gives signs of life’) with an increasingly fiery appeal (‘Men, arise from the grave’). The scene ends and begins with a recitando sung as ‘I throw off the blanket of death’.
Although not intended that way, this aria forms, as it were, a diptych with Benoit’s ‘dramatic sketch’ Joncvrou Cathelijne, which Benoit composed in 1879. In this concert aria for alto Benoit lets Artevelde’s widow Cathelijne De Coster speak, with a text by Julius De Geyter (1830-1905).
In 1891 Benoit had Van Artevelde’s ghost with piano accompaniment published in the Willemsfonds series Nederlandsche zangstukken (see at the end of this publication). Benoit dedicated this edition to the bass-baritone Emile Blauwaert (1845-1891) who had sung in the first performance of De Schelde in 1869 and who would later sing Van Artevelde’s ghost several times. The original version with orchestra was published by the Peter Benoit Fund in Antwerp.
The aria is recorded by bass-baritone Eduard De Decker (1904-1970), accompanied on the piano by Sebastian Peschko (Polydor 57201 B), and the ‘basse chantante’ Lucien Van Obbergh (1887-1959) (re-released on the anthology Lucien Van Obbergh. Airs d’opéra et oratorio, Musique en Wallonie MEW 0105). On a live recording from 2013 with the Royal Flemish Philharmonic conducted by Martyn Brabbins, the aria is sung by the baritone Werner Van Mechelen who, in addition to the roles of the Poet and the Artist, also had to replace the announced bass-baritone at the last minute (Belgian Boutique, 2014).
(translation: Jasmien Dewilde)
This publication is a facsimile of a copy from the library of the Antwerp Royal Conservatoire and was published with the cooperation of the Study Centre for Flemish Music (www.svm.be).
Read Flemish and German preface > HERE