The Music of Belgium

Diversity, variety, difference; these are words so often used to describe this country, sat as it is on a confluence of European traditions. With three national languages, a rich and varied culinary tradition, and borders with three of Western Europe’s most historically influential of nations, it is easy to see why the culture of Belgium is often thought of as an amalgam of neighbouring traditions that has developed its own nuances over the years. While it may be difficult to escape the flavours of France, or the linguistic tones of the Dutch, Belgium still exudes a unique character and clings tightly to its own cultural successes. To the visitor, they can be seen poking through the cultural patchwork that has developed at this geographical joining of nations in North Western Europe.

It is in this frame that the music of Belgium has developed over the centuries, from the time it first gained recognition on the European stage in the early Renaissance. The composer Guillaume Dufay, is often noted as one of the most influential on the continent in the 15th century. He was probably born near Brussels, around the turn of the century (1400), and has become known for his mastery of polyphonic chamber styles that were to influence the course of harmonic compositions right up to the present day. He is attributed with contributing greatly to the establishment of the Franco-Flemish School of music, which pushed the boundaries of contemporary music by exploring the harmonic abilities of vocal polyphony.

Orlande de Lassus was the second of Belgium’s famous Renaissance Franco-Flemish composers. He was born almost a century later, around 1530, and followed Dufay’s style in experimenting with vocal composition. However, his music was also influenced greatly by his contemporary, Josquin des Prez, who is now considered the central figure of the tradition that Dufay had started almost a century before. The influence of the Franco-Flemish school emanated from Brussels which was then a powerhouse of study and experiment in vocal chant music. Today, the school is attributed with the addition of a fourth phrase to vocal compositions, and also the development of ‘textured’ harmonies that gave voiced musical productions a unique flavour and style.

In the 18th century, amidst the rise of European Romanticism, Belgium was to give the continent perhaps its best known composer, André Ernest Modeste Grétry. Born in February 1741, his musical productions are said to be characterised by first-hand experience of the grand historical events that were going on around him. Most notably, he produced operas voluminously, each with their own grandiose theme and contemporary inspiration. Although Belgian by birth, Grétry travelled widely and stayed inRome before taking French citizenship – a move that was to inform the nationalistic zeal of his later works.

In the following centuries a number of renowned composers emerged from Belgium. In the 18th century, the violin came to the fore, and composers like Henri Vieuxtemps – to whom a memorial statue now stands in Liège – and Eugène Ysaÿe – who has been hailed as the ‘King of the Violin’, for his complete and unrivalled mastery of the instrument in his style – have become known for their experimental and genre-changing approach to composition. 

However, perhaps one of the greatest achievements of Belgium’s musical tradition is its claim to the invention of the saxophone in 1846 by Adolphe Sax. The instrument was to become one of the most widely used for compositions in jazz, and meant that the genre became one of Belgium’s most prolific and successful. In the early 20th century, Django Reinhardt, often hailed as one of the world’s most technically successful jazz and blues guitarists, was quickly propelled to fame by his unique and experimental style that mixed gypsy sounds with traditional contemporary jazz. It is perhaps little wonder that a musical style so diverse and variegated in the influences it claimed should have come out of the cultural composite found in a country like Belgium.

Another jazz giant, Charlie Parker, who was becoming a symbolic figurehead of the beat generation in post-war America, was to claim another of Belgium’s jazz protégés - Toots Thielemans. He’s now considered one of the most accomplished harmonica players of the last century, and played with some of the biggest names in 20th century jazz, from Charlie Parker to Miles Davies.
These are just some of the strands of the Belgian musical tradition that has flowered in the country and continent over the centuries. Today the people of Belgium embrace a wide variety of genres and styles, from indie rock to blues, to folk and classical composition, and continue to produce music of class and quality.

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