Belgium is one of those countries which Americans know exist but barely think of. We've all heard of Belgian Waffles, even if we have no idea what separates a Belgian waffle from any other kind. Belgian Chocolate is supposedly a guarantee of quality, and the sophisticated (or at least the drunk) among us know well about the wonderfulness of Belgian Beer, and few people know that the french fries we so love in this country are actually Belgian Frites. Even the educated among us usually has only one conception of Belgium which we learned in our schoolyears: "Belgian Neutrality," Germany's violation of which was the incomprehensible reason England gave for its entrance into World War I, and which is shorthand for that old European culture of honor which no American claims to understand - yet can understand very easily after living through the post-9/11 era. The only other thing people associate with Belgium is its diamonds, an industry for which their pursuit could sadly have not been more ignominious, Belgium is known to history as the single least principled of all imperial rulers: Leopold II, a late-19th century monarch who founded the 'Free' State of Congo as its sole owner and proprietor for his own personal enrichment - a cause for which anywhere from a million to 15 million Africans died from starvation, horrific work conditions, easily preventable disease outbreaks, and death by mutilation (seriously, look it up, but don't look it up unless you really really mean it).
Belgium is one of the many regions that stands in that weird nexus between France, Germany, Holland, and England. Perhaps it's pure luck that it never became a region like Alsace or Lorraine or Normandy or Burgundy (which used to comprise part of Belgium) which moved back and forth in continual disputes between the the larger countries to Belgium's south, east, north, and west. From 1830, Belgium's existence was pretty much guaranteed because Holland was no longer powerful enough to substantiate its claim onto Belgian territory. Therefore Belgium, like most countries in the world, is a weird and slightly arbitrary amalgam of ethnic groups whom history's decreed must live with each other but, due to the narcissism of small differences, still have trouble getting along, even though this particular amalgam lives in one of the most prosperous and functional regions of the world.
60% of the country is Flemish, meaning that they hail from the County of Flanders, an ancient seat of Germanic peoples which bristled for hundreds of years under French rule, and to this day is still Dutch-speaking. Dutch, it should be remembered, but for obvious differences in spelling, is a Saxon language of Germanic people whose syntax and nomenclature is not all that different from German. Most of the remaining 40% of the country is an ethnic French group known as the Walloons, French speakers descended from the Gauls who gave Julius Caesar such trouble 2,000 years ago.
There are lots of jokes made in this region of the world from one ethnic group about the other:
"A helicopter has crashed into a Belgian cemetary. The rescue team's already found 100 dead people." "Jesus wasn't born in Belgium because God couldn't find three wise men." "The Belgian Ministry of Transport has put up a new sign that reads "End of the Roundabout"" "Two Belgians are driving a truck and arrive at a bridge with a warning sign: maximum height 4 meters. They get off and measure their truck. It's 6 meters high. "What should we do?" asks one. "I don't see any police" says the other "so let's drive on."" "Why do Dutch love Belgian jokes so much? Because they're cheap.""Why did Ikea close down in the Netherlands? Because they couldn't afford the free pencils."
But this cross-section of Frankish and Germanic peoples results in Belgium being a hotbed of the singular achievement in human history that required the cross-section of medieval France and the Holy Roman Empire (which was actually German) to take flight. The Gothic style, which Belgium holds within it in spades. It is difficult to describe a Gothic style without vast historical background and technical terms, but walk into the Cathedral of our Lady in Antwerp, walk around at night in the Historic Center of Bruges, and you'll immediately know what the Gothic is - something so primally mysterious it's as though its buildings were transferred to reality directly from the world of myth and legend. The Gothic is a place of the infinite, the transcendental, a place that exists to make men feel dwarfed. It's that mixture of sacred and spooky which lets you know that God is watching and judging your every action - every footstep in a Gothic cathedral can be heard for hundreds of feet away, the air always seems to be fifteen degrees colder than it is outside; darkness covers the face of the deep and yet every shadow stretches out on the stones for fifty feet. Look up and you see an arched ceiling so high that it seems to touch the heavens itself, look to the side and you see that the only source of light is coming from the sun through the stained glass windows whose panes portray the glorious deaths of martyrs in manners so heinous that you can easily be convinced that the Church perpetrates its violence for our greater good. Enter a Gothic church, and you have left the realm of the body and are immediately transfigured into the world of the spirit. The Gothic is, to this day, perhaps the greatest aesthetic achievement the world has ever conjured for us.
Sadly, there is no such thing as a Gothic style in music, unless you count the guitar riffs of black-clad kids in shopping malls with painted nails and bad eyeliner. But there is certainly music of the Franco-Flemish composers who lived contemporaneously to Gothic constructions, and expected to hear their music played and sung in Gothic spaces: Arcadelt, Ockeghem, Willaert, Obrecht, Isaac... and generally regarded as greatest of them all, Josquin dez Pres.
Hopefully this blog will have world enough and time to get to those great Franco/Flemish composers of an era so distant that my blind spot toward them has generally taken this long to lift. But instead, I'd like to focus on the extremely Gothic magnum opus of a latter-day heir of theirs: Cesar Franck.
In the late 19th century, Cesar Franck was a humble musician of the older generation living in Paris. A Belgian who became the church organist of the famous Neo-Gothic basilica, Sainte-Clotilde, which houses perhaps the most famous organ in Paris - all this in spite of the fact that he'd never played an organ until well after he was twenty years old. Around the time he turned fifty, the Paris Conservatory (Conservatoire) appointed him Professor of Organ, his humble manner made him immediately beloved of his students, at least four of which would become among the most famous composers of their time.
But as a composer, Franck was an extremely late-bloomer. His overbearing father wanted him to be a child prodigy, and withdrew him fas a student from the Paris conservatory when he thought they were not sufficiently believing in his son's talents. For the entirety of his early maturity, he struggled in a hand-to-mouth existence as a teacher and accompaniist. What saved him from impoverished obscurity was the new organ techniques that came from Germany, and for the first time in the history of France, allowed organs to play Bach's organ music properly. Franck, until then just a very good pianist, was only the second organist in Paris to play Bach in un-bastardized form. It was from Bach, from Renaissance church music of masters like Josquin and Ockeghem, and from the organ, that Franck learned his neo-Gothic musical style.
This made his musical language completely out of step with the most famous French composers of his time. Saint-Saens, Gounod, Offenbach, Bizet, and Faure all aspired to write music that was in their different ways, completely classical - not in the modern genre sense but in the sense that it was 18th century music, balanced, formally perfect, a series of beautiful sounds; Mozart with more instruments. But all five of these composers were in their ways, thoroughly modern men, attracted to rationalism and intellectual pursuit and science. Franck, on the other hand, was a humble Catholic, and his music was, to the end of his life, thoroughly grounded in church worship.
Franck wrote his symphony at the age of sixty-five, he had only a year to live when he heard it premiered at the age of sixty-seven. It was not like any music anyone had heard. It had all the same attractive melodies which you hear in Saint-Saens and Faure, but there was also a churning darkness to it. A much larger orchestra than the standard of the day, conveying an utterly spooky spirituality that seemed profoundly un-French, or at least un-French by the standards of the 1880's. It was as un-Mozartean as a work of music can be, rather taking as its models the severity of Bach and the erotic nightmarishness of Wagner. It was as though the gargoyles in Notre-Dame had formed a choir and this is what they sang. Composers like Saint-Saens and Gounod were horrified by it, they thought it a monstrosity that put back into music a forbidden, pre-modern, air. Students of Franck, like Chausson, D'Indy, Vierne, Duparc, were absolutely thrilled by it. It was a new kind of French music that took in all the metaphysical ambition of the Germans but combined it with all that French melody and sensuality. It was, truly, music for a dark fairy tale, something far more legendary and infinite than music of the time could be. A musical equivalent to Bruges at night - a gothic thrill.