Discovering Eugène Samuel-Holeman


SAMUEL-HOLEMAN: La jeune fille àla fenêtre / Pauline Claes, mezzo; Sturm und Krang; Thomas van Haeperen, cond / Album de croquis / Mathias Lecomte, pno / Et s’il revenait un jour. Les cloches en la nuit. Adieu / Claes, mezzo; Lecomte, pno / Musique en Wallonie MEW 1892

We all know of Debussy, d’Indy, Chausson, Ravel and nowadays even Koechlin, those early-20th-century French impressionist composers who took the musical aesthetics of Wagner’s Parsifal and turned them on their ear, but who was Eugène Samuel-Holeman? Most classical music lovers, myself included, have never even heard of him, let alone heard his music. But of course, until Raymond Lewenthal came along in the early 1960s, the same was true of Charles-Valentin Alkan.

As it turns out, Samuel-Holeman was born just three years after Debussy, in 1863, yet lived to be almost eighty, dying in 1942. Perhaps one strike against him is that he was Belgian, not French, and the French “circle” has always been a rather clandestine and incestuous secret clubhouse that outsiders are not invited into. Yet while at the Ghent Conservatoire he studied philosophy and literature in addition to music and became quite friendly with Maurice Maeterlinck, the author of Pelléas et Mélisande among many other works. Samuel-Holeman also came to know poet Émile Verhaeren and painter William Degouve de Nuncques and Marguerite Holeman, whom be married in 1892. And here’s a really strange fact: after her untimely death in 1905 at the tender age of 42, he decided to add her surname to his own—a rare gesture then or now.

In addition to composing, Samuel-Holeman also wrote detailed and fascinating articles on the new musical aesthetics of his time, notably his two articles for L’Art Moderne in 1892 in which he question the validity of conservatories and criticized their teaching of harmony and counterpoint, insisting that they give free rein to the “inventiveness of the individual.” Around this same time he wrote a piece based on a scale of six whole tones. Six years later, he described this piece in print: “this scale seems to have no starting-point, no destination, no root; doesn’t it then correspond to the very modern idea of constant evolution and an eternal state of becoming? It has thus become indispensable.” Members of Samuel-Holeman’s inner circle boasted that Debussy and d’Indy in particular were beneficiaries of Samuel-Holeman’s aesthetic ideas on composition, yet the author of the CD’s liner notes, Valérie Dufour, insists that “This view is surely fairly hard to uphold; nevertheless the fact remains that his close proximity to the Belgian symbolist movement guaranteed him a place as a musician at the heart of that aesthetic adventure.”

Samuel-Holeman picIn 1902 Samuel (not yet Samuel-Holeman) worked with Belgian writer Camille Lemonnier to produce La jeune fille à la fenêtre which was finished the year of his wife’s death. Eugène Baie, who for some reason later turned his back on the composer, wrote in 1903 to Lemonnier: “Be assured, dear Master, that Samuel-Holeman is the pre-eminent composer, or, to be more precise, the most original one to have appeared since César Franck. These last few days he has interpreted your Jeune fille à la fenêtre to me. The emotion that has you in thrall is grave, profound and irresistible and crushes you with the most unspeakable anguish. Its framework seems as light and delicate as lace, but beneath it, terrifyingly condensed, lay all the suffering grief of humanity.”

Listening to this music today, it clearly occupies a space between Franck and Debussy—bear in mind that 1902 saw the world premiere of the latter’s opera, Pelléas et Mélisande. Samuel-Holeman’s music is considerably more lyrical in the conventional sense than Debussy’s opera; it has a definite melodic shape, showing the influence of Franck, and is to a certain extent memorable whereas Debussy’s opera is comprised largely of vocal gestures that sound like expanded recitatives. The opening orchestral prelude (originally for piano, but later scored by the composer) goes on for 11 ½ minutes before the mezzo soloist enters. The musical group that performs it here, Sturm und Klang, sounds thin, edgy and slightly flat in the upper strings (the solo French horn also sounds slightly off-key), which soured the impact of the score for me. Obviously, they aren’t among the premier musical organizations of our time, but beggars can’t be choosers. Pauline Claes has a fairly nice voice (although with a bit of an uneven flutter which dissipates as she warms up) and sings in the “old” French school, meaning without any dramatic inflection whatsoever. This was the preferred style of the time, not to interpret anything but allow the words and music to speak for themselves, an aesthetic that was broken only in the 1950s with the arrival of such singers as Gérard Souzay, Régine Crespin, Pierette Alarie, Rita Gorr and Gabriel Bacquier. What disappointed me, however, was Claes’ insistence on sticking to one volume level throughout. Whether the text reflects inner feelings or outward emotion, she sang here at a consistent mezzo-forte without inflection or deviation. Even some of the best older singers of the French repertoire, such as Edmond Clément, Ninon Vallin, Lucien Fugère and Georges Thill, sang with more interesting shading of dynamics than this.

In a certain sense, the music sounded to me like an earlier-style version of Erik Satie’s Socrate: a monodrama that covers a fairly wide spectrum of feelings and thoughts without ever really boiling above the surface. Were the orchestra less whiny and off-key and the singer a bit more expressive, this could have been a really moving performance, but even as it is it at least gives us an inkling of what Samuel-Holeman was after. It struck me that he was the “missing link” between the lusher, more Romantic style of Chausson-Franck-Duparc and the more modern style of Debussy-d’Indy-Ravel-Koechlin. Samuel-Holeman was, in 1902-05, still on the brink of the Impressionist revolution while Debussy already had both feet immersed in it. Yet I also think his writings on musical art helped inspire that final break with tradition that he himself could not quite let go of.

Still, this is clearly worthwhile music, not as innovative as that of his contemporaries but innovative enough to break with the past. I also think the comparison to Satie is apt in that he followed his own muse regardless of what the others were doing. I’m sure he appreciated and applauded their efforts while still wanting to keep his own identity.

The piano suite Album de croquis also opens with a long introduction, technically quite simple for the pianist but setting the mood effectively (if rather too long and repetitive). The rest of it sounded to me as if it should have been written for voice and piano but wasn’t. Much of the harmony here is unadventurous and could easily be played on your local FM classical music station, but it does sound very Satie-like. By contrast, the 1909 songs Et s’il revenait un jour, Les cloches en la nuit and Adieu sound for all the world like Debussy. By this time, Samuel-Holeman was a firm believer in the new Impressionist style. These songs were premiered in 1913 by the innovative French mezzo Jane Bathori, to whom they were dedicated.

After World War I, Samuel-Holeman abandoned composition to write musical criticism for L’Horizon; he also worked as a proofreader for the press and as a musician in local Brussels theaters and cinemas. As Dufour puts it, “His independence in relation to Belgian musical circles ended by isolating him completely; his music had meandered fruitlessly away from the mainstream of modernity.”

Samuel-Holeman was probably more important as a thinker and writer on the new musical aesthetics than as a composer, but as I say, this is definitely music worth hearing.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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