Karel Albert began his studies at the Municipal Teachers' Training College of Antwerp, where Flor Alpaerts was his music teacher. Subsequently he enrolled at the Royal Flemish Music Conservatory, then rounding out his education with Marinus de Jong. Already at age 20 he was one of the initiators of the first modernist concerts in Brussels and Antwerp. With some 20 compositions he also assisted in the theatrical productions of the 'Vlaams Volkstoneel' (Flemish Popular Theatre), among them the plays Mariken van Nimwegen (1924), Lucifer (1926) and Adam in Ballingschap (1928), the latter two by Vondel. Albert attributed the stylistic label 'constructivism' to these works that were conceived in the abstract. Cornerstones of this style are the scenic happening and the rhythmical support of the actors rather than the romantic content.
His compositions didn't pass unnoticed: on 11 March 1927 the 'Willemsfonds' (Willems Foundation) even devoted an entire concert to him in the Antwerp Conservatory. In that same year August Baeyens, a friend and colleague of Karel Alberts', founded the 'Antwerps Kamermuziek-gezelschap' (Antwerp Chamber Music Society), an association that was to give a boost to modern Flemish music. Around that period in his life, Karel Albert kept a low profile writing under his pseudonym K. Victors.
Albert considered his composition Het land, symfonische constructie (The Country, Symphonic Construction, 1937) as the absolute apex of his 'musical constructivism' (1937). Other compositions are Hymne, constructie voor gemengd koor (for mixed choir, 1922), followed by a 6/4 constructie voor piano (1926), a 2/4 constructie (1930), a 3/4 constuctie, a 4/4 constructie (1932). Also the Trio voor hobo, klarinet en fagot (for oboe, clarinet and bassoon, 1930) and his Kamersymfonie (Chamber Symphony, 1931) belong to this style. Around the Second World War his style increasingly evolved in the direction of simplicity and classical inspiration. His best-known composition Het beestenspel (Menagerie) from 1933, is generally considered as the herald of this new development, which reveals itself most in his three symphonies: no. 1 in E major (1941), no. 2 in G major (1943) and no. 3 in B-flat major (1945) as well as the ballet De toverlantaarn (The Magic Lantern, 1942).
Following this neo-classicistic period Albert opted for atonality in works such as Kwintet voor fluit, hobo, viool, alto en cello (Quintet for Flute, Oboe, Violin, Viola and Cello, 1954), Thema met variaties voor piano (1955), Derde sonate voor piano (Third Sonata for Piano, 1956), Bloeiende lotus (Blooming Lotus, 1956) and De nacht voor orkest (The Night for Orchestra, 1956), which was entirely constructed according to the dodecaphonic technique. In his Suite voor orkest (1958), Werkstuk voor altviool en blazerskwintet (Workpiece for Viola and Wind Quintet, 1958) and Drie constructies voor snaren (Three Constructions for Strings, 1959) Albert proves himself an ardent adept of twelve-tone music. In the suite In den beginne was het woord voor bariton en orkest (In the Beginning was the Word, for Baritone and Orchestra, 1962), on texts by Marcel Coole, Albert for the first time deviated from the serial technique. In his Vierde symfonie (Fourth Symphony, 1966) he went as far as using several styles in juxtaposition.
Composing wasn't Albert's sole occupation. In 1929 he opted for a tenured position as schoolteacher and music teacher at the State Secondary School in Antwerp. A few years later, in 1933, he took up office at the N.I.R. (National Institute for Radio Broadcasting): first as secretary of the music service, from 1936 on as head of the department and another three years later he promoted to deputy director. After an interruption during the Second World War, Albert continued his activities at the N.I.R. until his retirement in 1961.
His open, critical outlook, but above all his expertise made of Karel Albert a formidable music critic. He was a sharp polemicist and an excellent theoretician, in his young years mainly making a stand against Flemish romantic lyricism. His articles appeared in periodicals and papers such as Herleving, Pogen, Hoger leven, Vrij Nederland, De Standaard, De Radiobode. Several of these articles were later published again in his strongly vulgarizing book on the history of music De evolutie van de muziek van de oudheid tot Beethoven aan de hand van grammofoonplaten (Musical Development from Ancient Times to Beethoven on the basis of Gramophone Records, 1947) and in Over muziek gesproken… Selectie uit de artikelen en essays in de laatste zestig jaar gepubliceerd (Talking about Music... Selection from the Articles and Essays Published over the Last Sixty Years, 1982).
© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Adeline Boeckaert (translation: Jo Sneppe)