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A Belgian Surprise

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For most of us, Belgium is a small neighbouring country about which we know surprisingly little. We might joke that there is, in fact, not very much to know about Belgium and that even the winner of Brain of Britain would be hard pressed to name seven famous Belgians.

However, we all like their chocolates, their beer and their moules and we suggest that after today you might like Belgium music as well. In our search for new material, we came across a CD titled Café Liégeois by the Tivoli band. We contacted their leader Éric Mathot and a fruitful exchange of music followed, resulting in four titles by three different composers on the programme today.

Liege isn’t the first place you might think of as a centre for Palm Court Music but by 1900 it had become vibrant and affluent, following the industrial revolution. It had its own conservatoire and a middle class interested in listening to and performing music. Here was a melting pot of different cultures, Liege being on the cross roads from Germany , the Netherlands , France and Flanders. It hosted two important international exhibitions in 1900 and in 1905. Edison’s Kinetoscope, the forerunner of the cinema, opened in in Liege and the silent films needed live music accompaniment. There were many theatres, casinos, brasseries, music-halls and ballrooms. These attracted famous international orchestras including John Philip Sousa’s. Little wonder that in this environment local composers flourished.

Victor Sumkay (1891-1965), violinist, composer and leader of his own orchestra, entered the conservatoire aged eight and his talents were soon recognised. He explored new formats in compositions such as the ‘Detective Dance One-step’ and the ‘Marche Half-Espano’ which are on the programme today.

Eddie Tower (1899-1956) - pseudonym for Émile Deltour- joined the conservatoire when not much older at the age of ten. His teachers tolerated his laziness and lack of discipline and he soon flourished as a successful composer, fiddler and arranger.

Julien Closset (†1916) was a cellist and piano salesman who wrote some 130 orchestral pieces. Most seem to have been lost but his cake walk ‘Intermezzo Americain’ (opus 117) achieved widespread popularity and we will play it today.

With the advent of the first world war and German occupation the music scene in Liege collapsed and only a short-lived revival followed. As elsewhere, the ‘talkies’, improved recording and broadcasting contributed to the decline, as did the recession.

So, the next time someone asks you to name seven famous Belgians, you don’t need to stop at Tintin anymore. Now you have three more names to add to the list – Don’t forget Peter Brueghel, René Magritte and Adolphe Sax (from the saxophone) - and you could be the next Brain of Britain…


Monday, 7 May, 2012