Paul Gilson: the uneasy fatherhood of Belgian wind music

“Composer in Belgium – that’s setting off fireworks in your own cellar,” is a statement in which Paul Gilson (1865 – 1942) could certainly have agreed. Reviled by the French-speakers, opposed by the people of Brussels and hugged to death by the Flemish – these were the battlefields on which the “father of Belgian wind music” had to survive.

It is the message of the first scientific study on Gilson that has just been published. The book, edited by saxophonist Kurt Bertels, is the opening of a series on the artistic history of the Royal Conservatory of Brussels. It offers a vivid picture of the zeitgeist that defined this composer’s work.

Paul Gilson was born in Brussels in 1865 but spent his childhood in rural Ruisbroek. His first introduction to music relied on the mainstay of musical life in many Flemish villages at the time: the brass band. He was only a teenager when he wrote his first composition. Back in Brussels (1882), he was almost immediately infected by the melancholic energy of the Russian National School and the romantic works of Richard Wagner. When he attended a performance of Russian composers at the Brussels Concerts Populaires in 1887, he was bowled over. A period of intense correspondence with César Cui, Milly Balakirev, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin and Modest Moussorgsky followed. He owed much to the mediation of Countess Louis de Mercy-Argenteau, mistress of Franz Liszt. It was thanks to Gilson that pianist/composer Alexander Scriabin gave a concert in Brussels, putting Belgium on the map as the country that brought Russian music to the West.

And the party was yet to begin. A relative autodidact, he was unexpectedly awarded the Premier Grand Prix de Rome in 1889 for his cantata Sinai. And three years later, with the symphonic cycle La Mer, he launched a promising career that included operas, ballets, works for orchestra (including harmony and brass band), musical theatre, cantatas and oratorios. He also wrote the first saxophone concerto in history.

But soon after his launch, he came under fire from the French-speaking music press, which did not agree with the choice of his texts and felt his work was too far removed from the “clarté et simplicité” dictated by musical Paris. In contrast, he was embraced by the Flemish press, and with it the nationalist fires of fervour quickly spread.  Composing unintentionally shifted somewhat into the background and Gilson avoided the public eye by spending more time writing a handbook on harmony, and teaching. He was also an occasional inspector of Flemish and Belgian music schools.


It is interesting to note Gilson’s account of his influence on recognition of the saxophone as a solo instrument in classical orchestral settings. In Gilson’s time, the saxophone was still a bold and revolutionary instrument that did not receive official permission from the French king Louis Philippe to be part of military musical bands until 1845. The permission came after a real musical duel at the Champ de Mars in Paris. The duel was held  between the established wood and brass orchestra of the music academy Gymnase musicale and the orchestra led by Adolphe Sax, equipped with saxophones. Hector Berlioz wrote afterwards that “the difference in sound, in fullness and in evenness of all tones with the meagre sound of the other band was immediately apparent.” Sax had won.

The use of the saxophone emancipated itself further thanks to the efforts of Elise Boyer Hall (1853-1924), who started playing the saxophone on doctor’s orders (against deafness) and went on to become a lauded soloist in the classical repertoire in the United States. Her career caused quite a stir in puritan Europe, where women were hardly allowed to play instruments other than piano or harpsichord for reasons of morality.

Gilson eventually wrote 300 works for wind orchestra, ranging from simple tunes to concertante symphonic works (10), including three for saxophone. The penchant for wind orchestra did not come out of the blue in 19th-century Belgium.  Besides the Symphony Orchestra of La Monnaie (1772), which for a long time played only from April to October, there was only one other symphony orchestra, the Royal Music Chapel of the Guides (1832). By contrast, around 1,800 harmonies and brass bands were active in Belgium. Moreover, new instruments became relevant such as the cornet, bass tuba and saxhorns. It was also striking that the choice of repertoire of brass bands explicitly chose music that could be called contemporary at the time. This could serve as inspiration to today’s programmers.

WHAT: Paul Gilson, A Brussels composer of the world

WHO: Kurt Bertels (ed.)

PUBLISHING: ASP, 2023 (ISBN: 9789461173973)

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