Gilson, Paul


Gilson, Paul

Suite nocturne for piano solo



Paul Gilson – Suite nocturne

(Brussels, 15 June 1865 – Brussels, 3 February 1942)


The Brussels-born Paul Gilson is often referred to as the father of Belgian wind music. He is also known as a virtuoso orchestrator and an expert on harmony. He published theoretical works on both topics: Le tutti orchestral (1913) and Traité d’harmonie (1919). Even though he took a couple of private lessons and briefly studied at the Royal Conservatoire of Brussels, he was mostly a diligent autodidact. He was an expert on contemporary Russian music, which was a great source of inspiration for him. Gilson held various positions in his lifetime: he was, among other things, a harmony teacher at the Conservatories of Antwerp and Brussels, a music school inspector in Flanders and Wallonia, the acting president of the Antwerp Conservatoire during the First World War. He also worked in media (Radio Belgique – NIR/INR and the magazine La Revue Musicale Belge). And on top of that, he was a much sought-after private teacher as well.

Gilson started composing at a young age. In 1889, he was awarded the Prix de Rome for his cantata Sinaï, which gave him the opportunity to travel to Bayreuth (1892), Paris (1893-94) and Italy (1895). His most famous work is the symphonic poem La Mer (1892). His oeuvre for piano consists of more than twenty pieces, the oldest written in 1886 and the last one in 1924. From 1914 to 1918, he revised some earlier pieces. Throughout Gilson’s piano oeuvre, especially in his earlier work, the ‘nocturnal’ pieces are a connecting thread. The first piece with this theme is Nocturne, from 1889. Two years later he wrote a Berceuse, followed by a Chant vespéral in 1892. His Suite nocturne was largely composed between 1896 to 1901 and it was finished in 1915. Furthermore,  two other suites, the Petite suite (or Petite suite rustique) from 1901 or 1902, and the fifth suite (Par les routes) from the war period, also contain parts that are considered Nocturne.

The Suite nocturne was published in Brussels by L’art belge – Éditions musicales in 1921. The piece was dedicated to the pianist Germaine Lievens, who also performed it. Just like Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit this suite was inspired by the eponymous collection of prose poetry by Aloysius (Louis) Bertrand (1807-1841). Some passages were included in the sheet music, including quotes by Bertrand and other poems, and in the case of the first part, a verse was added from the poem Lune nouvelle by Léon Dierx (1838-1912). The piece consists of five suite parts. The first part, Vesprée (Vesper), a short atmospheric piece in E-flat, is rather solemn and characterized by an alternation and interaction of triplets and eighth notes. The second part, Marche du guet ivre au clair de lune (March of the drunk guard in the moonlight) is also short and comical. Dotted rhythms, short ‘gliding’ figurations, and changes of tempo evoke the staggering gait of the guard. The Valse nocturne is a quiet waltz, that reaches a crucial elasticity by constantly speeding up and using great dynamic contrasts. In this manner, the piece strikingly imitates the call of the water nymph Ondine. The second to last part, Chant dans l’ombre (Singing in the shadow), is short and very gloomy, menacing even. The presence of the devil is implied. Indications such as ‘sombre’, ‘lourd’ (heavy), ‘froid’ (cold) and ‘angoissée’ (anxious) are plentiful on this page. And finally there’s Chevauchée (Horseride), the most substantial part of the suite. It takes up the same amount of pages as all the previous parts together. Fast anapest and dotted rhythms, floating harmonies and rising melodies evoke the wicked galloping of the midget on horseback, wanting to take possession of the soul. The piece follows the ABA form, followed by a substantial coda. This consists of new thematic material which imitates the crowing of a cock (‘Le Coq a chanté et Saint-Pierre a renié’) and the sounds of a storm.

Liselotte Sels
(Translation: Jasmien Dewilde)

Reprint of a copy belonging to the Royal Flemish Conservatoire of Antwerp (KVC 55.797). This score was published in collaboration with the Study Centre for Flemish Music ( and Labo XIX&XX, a research group of the library of the Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp. This edition is part of the research project ‘”Flemish Wings”: never-before-heard music on contemporary instruments’.



Read full Flemish preface > HERE

Score Data

Special Edition

The Flemish Music Collection


Solo Instrument


225 x 320 mm





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