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Wagner, Gerrit

Amsterdam (NL), 08/03/1862 > Antwerpen, 24/11/1892


Wagner, Gerrit

by Jan Dewilde

Of Dutch extraction, Gerrit A.A. Wagner studied in Antwerp at Benoit's Music School. His teachers were Jos Huybrechts (preparatory harmony), Joseph Tilborghs (counterpoint and fugue) and Jan Blockx (advanced harmony, orchestration and composition). Together with his fellow-students Lodewijk Mortelmans, Emile Ergo, Edmond Lemoine and Albert De Vleeshouwer (a free pupil of Blockx) he presented his first compositions to the Antwerp public on 26 April 1888 in the big auditorium of the 'Cercle artistique'. Wagner was allowed to conduct two major works, called Lentezang (Spring Song) for soprano, choir and orchestra on a text by Staring and Babylonische gevangenis. Psalm 136 van Vondel (Babylonian Prison. Psalm 136 by Vondel) for soloists, vocal quartet, choir and orchestra. And for sure he made a great impression, witness Het Handelsblad of 28 April 1888: "Gerrit A. Wagner is a dedicated artist who matches a deep sensitivity with keen knowledge. His 'Lentezang'possesses poetry and colour, his 'Babylonische gevangenis', Vondel's psalm, displays piety and unaffected sublimity. The latter piece in particular attests not only to intense effort, but also to thorough knowledge and artistic taste."

Along with his good friend Lodewijk Mortelmans, Wagner was considered to be the most talented composer of his generation. In 1889 Wagner was solicited to conduct the newly founded male choir 'Antwerpsch Mannenkoor', counting among its members Lodewijk Mortelmans and his brother Frans Mortelmans, the painter. This ensemble enabled Wagner to publicly defend his compositions as well as those of his study companions. 

Wagner didn't restrict himself to conducting a choir and composing choral work. Thus early January 1891 he conducted in the 'Concerts populaires' his Toewijding. Karakteruitdrukking voor snaarspeeltuigen (Dedication. Character Expression for String Instruments). On this performance Le Précurseur of 12 January 1891 reported in balanced judgement: "It's a very nice piece, of an intimate and penetrating character, conceived in the style of a romance without words. Mr Wagner (...) has the gift of the orchestra. His inspiration is somewhat nebulous and he might be blemished for excessively decorating his compositions. But at his age it's better to commit the sin of abundance than the sin of poverty. (...) Mr Wagner is a bit laboured, though never banal, and we are sure to expect much from him. He owns a genuine artistic temperament."

Meantime he was also working hard on a biblical opera: Esther. In the same series of the 'Concerts populaires' in March 1891 he programmed a duet from this opera, which, incidentally, remained unfinished. Time and again Wagner was acclaimed for his compositional qualities, his integrity, his devotion to his colleagues. A great future was in store for him. 

Yet then Wagner was struck by fate, as he caught tuberculosis. Still he remained active as long as he could. For the annual concert of the 'Antwerpsch Mannenkoor' on 25 April 1892 he made a piano reduction of Benoit's Hulde aan Conscience (Homage to Conscience) and performed the work strengthened by a female choir. The programme also included some pieces from Benoit's Vertelsels en balladen (Tales and Ballads), as well as songs by Blockx, Huberti and Mortelmans.

In May 1892 Wagner was so seriously ill that he was forced to be absent from the rehearsals of the 'Deutsche Liedertafel', a choir that he had been leading for a year. At the three-day festival organised in early June on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the music school, his Poème symphonique was on the programme. Wagner was still able to attend but he could no longer conduct his work himself. A recuperative stay at Les Eaux-Bonnes, a resort in the Pyrenees that to this day is known for its salubrious microclimate, was of no avail. Upon his return he was treated in a sanatorium in the woods of Brasschaat. He passed away on 24 November 1892, at the young age of thirty. 

In the home of the deceased Wagner in the Antwerp Zurenborg district, Frans Mortelmans painted his friend on his deathbed, a portrait that answers to the description printed in a necrology by Le Précurseur on 11 December 1892: "He was a delicate and charming person, slender and elegant, with traits of a rare distinction that might have tempted a Velasquez. His blond hair was opulent, his blue eyes being celestial and his smile almost virginal."

In 2002 several manuscripts of Wagner's were discovered in a private collection. So far only three manuscripts had been known: the Symfonisch gedicht (Symphonic Poem), held in the library of the Royal Flemish Conservatory of Antwerp, and the songs Aan zee (At the Seaside) and Ik min het roosjen (I love the Little Rose), kept in the Antwerp 'Letterenhuis' together with Wagner's letters. Added to this now were some fifteen manuscripts. They include Luctor et emergo. Description symphonique pour orchestre à cordes (Luctor et Emergo. Symphonic Description for String Orchestra), some works for male choir, orchestrations of Schubert songs, and sizeable scores such as Der Bergstrom (The Mountain River) for two choirs (each one 'at least 140 singers') and large orchestra. 

Apparently these manuscripts had once suffered considerable water damage so any manipulation causes the paper to pulverise as in a cloud of dandruff. Consequently, first a solution to this problem has to be found before the scores can be studied. Yet an initial scrutiny already reveals that the music magazine Le guide musical on 4 December 1892 was right to describe the deceased composer as "a young musician who had yet given more than promises".

Strikingly anyway Wagner was completely un-Flemish in his choice of subjects, themes and poets for his scores. In addition to the above-mentioned Vondel, de Genestet, von Bodenstedt, Staring and Hugo, he also took his cue from Emanuel Geibel, in a translation by the "literary firm" Teirlinck-Stijns, with Zusterengelen (Sister Angels) for mixed choir and orchestra (1888). Wagner was keenly interested in literature, publishing reviews in De Vlaamsche School and writing the libretto for his opera Esther himself. He had a preference for large vocal works ambitiously conceived and meticulously composed. That he aimed high is proven by the fact that he starts and ends the score of Napoléon with the motto "a beautiful structure without expressing the text is like a royal cloak around a corpse". Whether it has to do with his family name or just the spirit of the age, some of his scores are sure to betray a warm interest in his famous homonym. And not just those, since apart from the unfinished opera Esther and plenty of unredeemed expectations Gerrit A. A. Wagner left behind a widow and two small children that he had christened Siegfried and Richard.

© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Jan Dewilde (translation Jo Sneppe)