‘Brave Belgians of the Belle Époque’ is an artistic case study that unravels the paradigm of a flourishing legacy of horn playing in Ghent at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.
In around 1870 Belgian horn playing undertook a drastic stylistic volte-face. The earlier joyful and elegantly ornamented manner instigated by such eminent musicians as Martin-Joseph Mengal (1784-1851) and Jean-Désirée Artôt (1803-1887) suddenly changed into a highly lyrical and poetic musical language with an emphasis on transparency, simplicity, and accessibility. A strong generation of horn players trained, aided and abetted by the artistic and institutional achievements of François-Auguste Gevaert (1828-1908) and Adolphe Samuel (1824-1898) developed a horn school that emphasized functional technical proficiency in the service of free artistic expression.
From the end of the nineteenth century onwards, the center of gravity of this tradition was located in the horn studios of Jean Deprez (1840-1902), Charles Heylbroeck (1872-1945), and Maurice Van Bocxstaele (1897-1974) at the Royal Ghent Conservatory. This training line developed a particular educational methodology and inspired composers to create a highly evocative repertoire in which verbal-style expression was of primary importance. This had a notable impact on horn playing worldwide through a diaspora of émigré players, commonly nicknamed ‘brave Belgians’ by their contemporaries. Their life stories and achievements are exemplary of the relation between musical, educational, social, organological and artistic developments that emerged in Belgium during the Belle Epoque era.
The rediscovery of this lost legacy was enabled by analysis of a comprehensive time capsule of related archival findings, historical instruments and repertoire. Findings were contextualized from the perspective of a modern-day performer, creating a practice-based framework that reflects musical performance and perception, artistic identity and the education of musicians, past, present and future.