François-Auguste Gevaert was born in 1828 as the son of a poor baker’s family in Huise, near Oudenaarde. Already at a young age, he was involved with music: As a child he received music classes at the parish church, was already composing at the age of 9 and shortly thereafter left to attend the Conservatory of Ghent. In addition to this, he became the organist for the Jesuit church of Ghent at the age of 14.
His career really took off in 1847 when, at the age of 19, he won the Belgian state prize with his cantata Le roi Lear. Thanks to this scholarship he was able to travel to France, Spain, Italy and Germany, where he triumphed as a composer. In Spain he made such an impression that he was knighted by Queen Isabel II of Spain in 1851. He was also knighted to the Ordre Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Arts of Prussia, and because of his accomplishments as a composer and music director he was made a baron in 1907 by King Leopold II.
Gevaert’s study tour ended in Paris where he, thanks to letters of support by François Fétis (1784-1871), established himself as an opera composer. Especially thanks to the Belgian playwright Gustave Vaëz (1812-1862), he was able to stage a lot of operas in this music capital. In 1583, it was in this manner that he staged his first Parisian opera, Georgette, in the Théâtre-Lyrique. This opera received much praise for its originality. Because of this success, seven other operas followed, to be performed in either the Théâtre-Lyrique or the Opéra-Comique. These were also well received, including by the musical coryphées of the nineteenth century such as Hector Berlioz (1803-1869).
Although he properly maintained his Belgian contacts by advising the Conservatory of Ghent and delivering compositions to his birthplace, Parisian life went well for him: he maintained an amicable relationship with Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) and together with Jules Verne he was a welcome guest to the carnival parties which Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) organised.
Chant de l’opéra
In this way Gevaert became an established name in Paris, which led to him being named the “directeur du chant” for the Parisian Opéra. This position was created especially for him and can be compared to the current position of artistic director. His tasks consisted of determining which operas would be performed, the selection of cast members, providing recitatives for classic operas and even if required conduct himself. In 1870, when the Franco-Prussian war broke out, Gevaert was obliged to hand in his resignation and return homeward.
When he first came to see me, I thought that I had never seen so ugly a man in my life, but I very soon forgot his uncomely appearance, for when I began to study Hamlet with him I realized that I was in the presence of a genius.
Music educator and musicologist
His career also thrived in Belgium when he was appointed as the second rector of the Conservatory of Brussels n 1871. Under his directorship a lot of internationally renowned teachers came to teach: among whom Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881), Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931), Edgar Tinel (1854-1912), Paul Gilson (1865-1942) and Arthur De Greef (1862-1940). In this manner he raised the quality of the education, which was also illustrated by a letter from Richard Strauss (1864-1949) in 1906 wherein he asked to recommend Gevaert’s talented students for the positions of first fluit and hobo in the opera orchestra of Berlin.
Gevaert was also knowledgeable on old music: he arranged and adapted a lot of older music for performances and publications. Until the end of the twentieth century his adaptation of the Cello Concerto in D by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), published by Breitkopf & Härtel, would be seen as the standard version. In addition to this, he was also active as a musicologist and published many pieces concerning antique, gregorian and old church music. Furthermore, he published methods for music theory which were even used by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953).
The Musical Times summarizes his life as follows:
In fact, he was one of the rare musicians who combined exceptional talents for composition, the gifts of the deep thinker and the powerful writer on the origin, development and scientific aspect of their art.
Choral works (selection)
Masses, cantatas and sacred music
- 1908: Grand’ Messe de Noël "Puer Natus Est Nobis", for Children’s choir SSA and organ. Listen to it here.
- 1853: Requiem, for male choir and orchestra.
- Missa solemnis pro defunctis, for male choir TTBB.
- 1847: Le roi Lear
- 1857: De Nationale Verjaerdag
- 1864: Jacques van Artevelde
Pieces for choir
- Entre le boeuf et l'âne gris, for mixed choir.
- Le bel ange du ciel, for mixed choir.
- Le message des anges, for mixed choir.
- Le Sommeil de l’enfant Jésus, for mixed choir. Listen to it here.
- Supra flumina Babylonis, psalm for male choir and orchestra.
- Vers L'Avenir - L'Expansion Belge, for male choir and piano, with words by Gentil Theodoor Antheunis.
- Canticum Natalitiæ, for singing voice and organ.
- Chanson joyeuse de Noël, for singing voice and organ.
- Noël du XVIIIe siècle, for singing voice and organ.
- Ô Nuit, heureuse nuit, for singing voice and organ.
- Voisin, d’où venait ce grand bruit?, for singing voice and organ.
- 1848: Hugues de Zomergem
- 1853: Georgette
- 1858: Quentin Durward
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