Raf Belmans was born in the small village of Larum near Geel, in a family with ten children, in addition hosting a mental patient, as was customary in Geel. Soon it transpired that Belmans had a talent for music. Having learnt the basics of solfège in the private music school of Flor De Brabander, at age ten he composed for his deceased brother a Cantilene for violin and piano. Though his father had rather a career as a teacher for him in mind, upon graduating at the Geel St Aloysius school Belmans chose to study music at the conservatory of Antwerp, where among his teachers he counted Karel Candael, Emmanuel Durlet, Walter Weyler, Edward Verheyden, Jef Van Hoof and Lodewijk De Vocht. He obtained first prizes for solfège, keyboard (1940), harmony (1940), counterpoint (1943), fugue (1946) and chamber music (1942), as well as the degree in musical history (1941). In that period he also won the composition award "De Vleeschouwer" for his choral work Aan O.-L.-Vrouwke der Landouwen (To Our Lady of the Meads).
After his studies Raf Belmans found a job in 1944 as a piano repetiteur at the Royal Flemish Opera in Antwerp. He worked together there with prominent musicians such as Hendrik Diels, Daniël Sternefeld, Arthur Meulemans and August Baeyens. From 1948 on he became a piano teacher in Geel and organist of St Dympna's church, concurrently teaching music at the State Secondary School in Herentals. He often found his teaching position hard going, though. "You know what the school means to us," he wrote in a letter to his friend Frans Aldelhof in 1982, "not because we have something against school, but because for our innate creative nature it means a block, a barrier, a constraint on our freedom."
Throughout the years Belmans created a varied and colourful oeuvre, ranging the whole gamut of genres: from a simple children's song to artful chamber music, from firm keyboard work to compositions for symphonic orchestra. As a composer of songs he built up a vast repertoire with popular as well as classical songs, working together with poets such as Jozef Simons, Bert Peleman, Remi Lens, Albe and Lambert Swerts. His many songs about the Campine region prove his strong local commitment: Naar wat de dennen fluisteren (To what the Pines are Whispering), Bij een ven (Near a Fen), Mijn Kempenland (My Campine Country) , … Not only did Raf Belmans write over a hundred works for mixed choir, but also pieces for all possible instruments and in all genres, such as De torens van Vlaanderen (The Towers of Flanders), composed for two keyboards, a Toccata for organ and the Laudes Mariae Caelorum Reginae for brass instruments and organ. These were broadcast several times by radio and television.
Furthermore he wrote occasional works such as Feestmars (Festive March), Preludium voor beiaard en thebaanse trompetten (Prelude for Carillon and Theban Trumpets), a St Dympna Cantata and a St Aloysius Cantata, a Suite op oude volksliederen (Suite on Old Popular Songs) and Muzikale illustratie on texts by Anton van Wilderode and Pol De Mont. As a composer he can best be situated within the typical Flemish late Romanticism, seeking a balance between the traditional and modern musical idiom. He gave several piano recitals, was active as a choral conductor and a carilloneur, as well as conducting about eight times during the Flemish National Singing Feast.
Next to his musical activities Belmans was also keen to write poetry, occasional poems and texts, testifying of a certain inspired naivety or tormented nature. An example of his particular flowery style: "Inspiration is something one has or doesn't have. It cannot be learnt, but it cannot be unlearnt either. lnspiration is the driving force and the whole world is a source of inspiration. Inspiration is the antidote for cerebrality, sparks that excite, lighting the torch. A work that isn't inspired, has no wings, it is 'skill' and no art, it is “lard” but not “l’art”, neither art, nor work of an artist!"
© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Annelies Focquaert (translation: Jo Sneppe)