We celebrated the 50th anniversary of the ensemble with a concert in Bozar (Brussels) on 16 October. You can watch the complete concert in the ‘Films’ section of our website.
Klara (Flemish radio) celebrated 50 years of the Huelgas Ensemble with several interviews with Paul Van Nevel. Please click on the following links to listen to the interviews:
Algemeen/programmaoverzicht Klara rond 50 jaar Huelgas Ensemble:
Maestro (vrijdag 15 oktober 2021):
Klara Live (zaterdag 16 oktober 2021):
Music Matters (11 tot en met 14 oktober 2021):
16 October 2021
Take a risk and don't underestimate the audience'.
He unleashed a revolution in early music. First for one and a half men and a head of horses, now for full concert halls. Paul Van Nevel looks back on 50 years of Huelgas Ensemble. We refused concerts because we didn't want to wear pithy clothes'.
‘The finger we have in the music industry is only one foot long'.
Paul Van Nevel and I need two telephone sessions. In between: a night of talking for me, studying in the dark and sleeping in the light for him. As a child, I couldn't sleep without a night-light', he admits. And so the curtains remained open for a few hours of sweet peace. Because on Saturday there has to be a bang. Then the champagne will be sabotaged in Bozar for the fiftieth anniversary of Huelgas Ensemble.
At the time, I started a group with a few fellow students,' says Van Nevel, 'because I wanted to find out what happens when you play from original sources. We did not trust modern editions. We also suspected that an immense repertoire of unknown vocal music was lying dormant. That was to be our field of work.
We are writing 1971, a time of Provo's and long-haired workaholics. Was your search for truth and authenticity also socially engaged?
Not consciously, no. To begin with, I was not that social (laughs). As the youngest of six children, I have always been a loner. The hippies, Bob Dylan and protest movements also passed me by a bit. We didn't have the need to clash with the establishment, which our fellow baroque specialists did. They were in direct competition with the big orchestras, who saw the historical approach of Bach, Handel and co. as a serious threat. We did not have that feeling of standing nose to nose; we were treading uncharted territory.
Fifty years later, Huelgas Ensemble is an institution. Artistically, that is. As an arts company, you have always remained something of a family business. Consciously?
We never had the intention of becoming a music empire, that's true. That couldn't be our intention - don't forget that for the first 20 years we had to do it without subsidies. We had to make do with what we had, or rather paddle. In the beginning, we gave no more than four or five concerts a year, with twelve people in the audience, six of whom were free and six were aunts and uncles. (laughs)'
Yet Huelgas made it to the world top. On merit or thanks to luck?
The former I hope for, the latter mainly thanks to the people who came our way. Joannes Collette, my teacher at the Maastricht Academy of Music, is at the top of the list. He took me out of the hobby corner and showed me the way to a professional approach. And then there is Wolf Erichson, the legendary producer of the record label Das Alte Werk and Sony's early music label Vivarte. Our meeting was a stroke of luck: in 1976, Kredietbank organised an exhibition about the polyphonist Philippus de Monte and wanted to record an LP. In Belgium, there was only one ensemble working with that kind of music, Huelgas. Erichson was brought on board as an expert and that's how we first worked together. Ten years later he called me with the proposal to make a series of polyphony records for Vivarte. I grabbed the opportunity with both hands and, voilà, those recordings brought us out of the shadows for good.
‘At auditions I ask candidates to raise their finger after one minute. The fast ones are the worst: you cannot give hurried singers the sense of peace that polyphony demands.’
The music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, with which Huelgas made its name, remains a niche product. Is polyphony an elite art?
Polyphony is a layered and complex art form. Five or six centuries ago, it was mainly the intelligentsia, clergy and courtiers who had the literary, historical and musical baggage to understand and appreciate this music. In that respect, you could say that polyphony is less democratic today: who still knows Petrarch's sonnets, the corners of the Bible or the great ancient poets? On the other hand, many more people have access to concerts today. And fortunately so. Although I do question policy-makers who keep insisting on prying open the doors of concert halls even more. I will never veto teenagers attending our concerts, because I know that some of them have a natural affinity for early music. But the average schoolchild will not be able to enjoy it. I am sometimes blamed for statements like that, but sorry, that is the reality that we face every day with Huelgas.
‘My singers must first and foremost remain who they are'.
You have stepped against more sacred cows. What was your most controversial idea?
Perhaps that great names have not always written great music. I see it sometimes with Mozart, sometimes with Lassus: brilliant composers, but also clever entrepreneurs. Sometimes their works float on function and experience, not on curiosity. You will never see this with so-called "minor" masters. Take Pierre de Manchicourt, one of those almost forgotten French-Flemish polyphonists. He never made it easy for himself. He wrote polyphony that goes on and on, for minutes on end, against the wind! When I tell a story like that, people - including colleagues - still seem to think that music history is Darwinian: whoever remains will probably be the strongest. I then think: take a risk and don't underestimate the audience. They know how to recognise quality.
The sound of Huelgas Ensemble is recognisable from a thousand.
I have always wanted to avoid Huelgas sounding like a 19th century choir. There, uniformity was the highest good: all put their heads on the stage, so that nobody sticks out above the ground level! But erasing the individuality of voices is anything but historical. My singers must first and foremost remain who they are, true to how they think and sound. As long as we have the same ideas about aesthetics, intonation and rhythm, we can make music together without losing ourselves in the collective. That is why, ten years ago, we abolished the concert costume: we wear clothes that show us as we are. We have turned down concerts because people insisted we come in snazzy clothes.'
Also typical of Huelgas: the increases and decreases in tone that you do not find in the score, but which you add intuitively as a performer, and which are so lascivious. Can you do that historically correct? Or do you mainly go for effect?
People think that I add a lot to the music, but that is not the case. I am just very consistent in following basic technical and aesthetic principles.'
‘I will never veto teenagers attending our concerts, because I know that some of them have a feeling for early music from home. But the average schoolboy will not be able to enjoy it'.
How close have you come to authenticity in those fifty years?
That word has become so loaded that I should stop using it! Look, anyone who wants to be authentic in the strict sense is dealing with ghosts and fairy tales. You can't be authentic in early music. Everything is different from the world of Ockeghem and Josquin: the perception of sound, the experience of silence, the speed and slowness of things. We are very well aware that as music archaeologists we are not Indiana Jones who comes home with the Holy Grail at the end'.
In half a century, Huelgas has reaped many awards. Nice gestures or fuss about nothing?
Those awards play a very important role. We are such a small niche. We have only one finger in the music industry's pie. So when the press and the authorities choose to award an ensemble like Huelgas, it is an incentive. Prizes are also important to be able to lay your artistic eggs: after twenty failures, a record company will push you in a different direction with a heavy hand. Thanks to those awards, we have always had carte blanche.
What makes a musician Huelgas material?
There are a few things I do not compromise on. First, a perfect sense of timing. At auditions, I always ask candidates to raise their finger after one minute. Some come close, others are late or much too early. The latter are the worst: you cannot give hurried singers the sense of rest that polyphony requires. Also important: a good understanding of volume - in the Renaissance, 'soft' was the first step towards silence. This brings me to a third must: a sense of silence. Do you know what the most important moment is for my singers? The four seconds before a piece starts. I raise my hand and a vacuum is created. That is the ideal starting position to give a piece its proper sound flow. And finally, a singer must be able to intonate, it is the keystone of our cathedral.
‘Putting singers next to each other is completely out of date.’
Do you only work with people you get along with?
It is certainly not the case that I only bring friends to the ensemble. In fact it is the other way round: members always become friends - not during, but after the rehearsal.
The circle in which you make music makes that connection visible. You have also experimented with this arrangement.
I call it a technically necessary solution. On the one hand, such a circle with the audience around it allows you to reduce the distance between performer and listener. Imagine that centuries ago, people were listening to polyphony with their noses to the ground. Today, a cheap ticket lands you somewhere at the back of a massive hall. Then it is very difficult to get into the music. Moreover, in this set-up, the musicians can hear each other much better. Placing singers next to each other or, even worse, in two rows is detrimental to communication and completely out of date.
You just mentioned those seconds before the first note. That is the moment when everyone has to make the jump from intense preparation to spontaneous music-making. How difficult is that staggered position?
I always say: being informed is not a goal in itself. God, that would be boring. For us, delving into the history of a work is like opening a door. The person who has to go through it is a 21st century person. If we ignore that, I might as well be working with robots. Before we go on stage, I sometimes remind the musicians: the audience has no radio, no television, no Youtube for the next hour. They only hear what we play. And we only have a few seconds to get them on board.'
All those seconds ticked up to fifty. Does that affect you?
It does affect me. Because this is one of those benchmark moments when people point out what you were doing, where you are now and where you want to go. On Saturday we party, but on Sunday our next chapter begins. One of which the first paragraph has already been written and has been entrusted to a safe under a sealed envelope. When I put down the tuning fork, the follow-up is ready.
16 October 2021
Rik Van Puymbroeck
Photos: Katrijn Van Giel
Conductor Paul Van Nevel: "I completely missed The Beatles".
50 years ago, Paul Van Nevel founded the Huelgas Ensemble, and that will be celebrated with a concert in Bozar. Van Nevel is still the driving force and, after half a century, the emotion of the beauty of polyphony has not gone away. Very important is the silence.
Paul Van Nevel moved 420 boxes of, mostly old, books when he moved into this flat in Antwerp in July, and all of them are not yet in the cupboards. When he has to look for his own book from 2018, 'The Landscape of the Polyphonists', it takes a while. What is unpacked is a harpsichord, an old masterpiece centrally located in the most beautiful room. These Latin words are written on it: 'Concordia res parvae crescunt. Discordia maximae dilabuntur'. That through unity small things become great and through discord the greatest are destroyed.
It should sound wonderful here, but now is not the time. Now Van Nevel talks about 50 years of Huelgas Ensemble and on the proof of a new book about it he shows a picture of four people from 1971. The only man must be himself, the three women are Fiet Nafzger, Margriet Tindemans and Annette Habets. They are playing the recorder during a rehearsal in the Colen convent in Kerniel, Limburg. ‘That's how we started,' says Van Nevel, 75 now. ‘We played the recorder. Margriet and Annette have died, Fiet is coming to Bozar on Saturday.'
Half a century: où est passé le temps, one wonders. He has already evolved and in this room, with a picture of Béla Bartók on one wall and another of Paul Gauguin with bare legs at a harmonium in the studio of artist Alfons Mucha, Van Nevel goes back even further. To the time when he started to study early music at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. 1969, he was 23 at the time, and it was the time of The Beatles. ‘I missed them completely', he smiles. ‘And not only them. Later, when I was living in Hanover, someone mentioned Bob Dylan to me. I was busy with other things, but especially in Basel my eyes were opened to that incredible repertoire of early music. The musical memory of Europe was there, only it was still dormant in that library. I saw the awe-inspiring opportunities and the wealth, and that was why I wanted to see the manuscript of the Codex Las Huelgas.'
That codex is in the Monasterio de Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas, an abbey near Burgos. What is it? It is what Van Nevel calls a 'retrospective manuscript': a collection of more than 300 pieces of music, dating from the 13th century but notated at the beginning of the 14th. ‘I had a letter of recommendation from the then Belgian Ministry of Culture to look into that codex. That monastery is a castle monastery. When I arrived, a curtain was opened and from behind bars a sister asked me what I wanted. To my great surprise, five minutes later she put the codex through the bars. For 14 days I could look through it. When I gave it back, the same nurse asked only one thing: if I could sing something from the manuscript (he laughts). She had never heard anything from it before. With a trembling voice, I sang a Gregorian piece.’
‘The special thing about the codex is that with many embellishments and instructions, it is written down how the old music was played and sung. The importance of an original became clear to me there. If someone makes a transcription, you are already interpreting. Although you can choose the placement of the text yourself.’
So the name of his Huelgas Ensemble comes from there, and 50 years after that first recorder rehearsal, 75 per cent of what they perform is a cappella. Only a quarter is still instrumental. That was an important insight and, for him, a turning point. Van Nevel, the youngest of six children at home, was brought up with music. His father was a violinist, and not just like that. ‘He was first violinist in the General Motors orchestra (he grins.) Really, before the Second World War, General Motors (the American car manufacturer that started a factory in Antwerp in 1924, ed.) had its own theatre, its own brass band and its own orchestra. My father was employed there full-time. It was only after the war that GM abolished all these cultural activities, but my father was adamant. They just had to give him a new job. So he became managing director of BP, without ever having seen a litre of petrol. And he did so in Limburg, where BP did not yet have a branch. He had to develop that.’
That is why Hasselt stands behind Van Nevel's name as his birthplace, but the petrol did not wash away his father's love of music. He became active in the Hasselt Miniature Ensemble and the Hasselt A Cappella Choir (he was also a member of bridge club PEUT-PEUT, which stood for 'Put Everyone Under the Table') and he was crazy about Wagner. ‘All of Wagner's overtures he arranged for piano, saxophone, clarinet, cello and violin, the instruments we learned to play. That's where I grew up. My brothers and sisters told me later that when the Hasselt Miniature Ensemble rehearsed at home, I would sit in a corner and listen and always cry. I don't know why. But it must have been the same melancholic feeling that I felt later in Lisbon.’
“My big dream is to have a concert evening where we perform the same piece six times in a row. Unfortunately, no organiser would agree to that.”
Can you be born with melancholy? It must be. Perhaps that is why, still young, he fell for that old polyphonic music. And even earlier: 'In the second secondary school, I had to stay back and my teacher, Willy Van Lishout, gave me a tip: "Paul, you must read less poetry. I did that from morning to night and it made me unworldly.” I was an afterthought at home and I think that this melancholy has a lot to do with it. On Sunday afternoons my brothers and sisters were out and I stayed alone with my parents. My father put Opera en Belcanto (a legendary Sunday radio programme, ed.) on the radio and I felt very alone. I still do. Sunday evening is still difficult for me. I can't wait until Monday.
He never had to stay at school; on the contrary, he did not finish the last year of secondary school in Hasselt in order to be able to go to the Conservatory of Maastricht early. The recorder was already in his life then, and in every fibre of his body was a deep love of music. He tells about Perotinus, a composer from the 13th century, who after 600 years of Gregorian music, for the first time wrote a composition for four voices. That must have been a shock. He would have liked to have been there. Asked about it, he also wants to explain the splendour of polyphony to lay people. In this music, facets come to the surface that have to do with depth. One of the most important facets is the concept of silence. The other is time. Notations have been invented to express exactly how long a note should last. This complexity allows simplicity to emerge. An important musicologist once said this: 'The elusive beauty of the material lies in the fact that in five minutes what Mahler needed half an hour for is told'.
The polyphonist, he says, is a repeater. Not in a monotonous way, but because a tension is built up. ‘My big dream is to have a concert evening where we play the same piece six times in a row. Unfortunately, no organiser would like to see that happen, but it would provide a great deal of depth.’
That will not happen on Saturday night in Bozar either. Together with the Nederlands Kamerkoor, with which he has worked since 1985, and with Anima Eterna by Jos Van Immerseel, the Huelgas Ensemble will provide the festive evening. Now, here on his table, lies the score of a piece with which the evening will begin and end: 'Qui habitat à 24 by composer Josquin des Prez. It is four canons for six voices. Because we only have twelve voices in Huelgas Ensemble, we perform it together with the Nederlands Kamerkoor. It is an incredible piece and I am curious, because it is only on Saturday afternoon at 1 pm that we rehearse together for the first time. It is possible, certainly. It also had to be that way. Corona was very difficult. My agency spent months trying to get the English singers to come here. A bit of a ridiculous political game, I think. Why should a Briton who has been vaccinated twice still have to go into quarantine here? It worked out in the end, but it has been awful. All our people are freelancers. Do you know that one of those singers in London had to sell newspapers at night to survive? For me, through corona, the cultural masks of the politicians have fallen off. Full football stadiums were allowed this summer, but a concert hall where nobody talks and everybody wears a mouth mask was not allowed? That says it all.’
The concert for the 50th anniversary of the Huelgas Ensemble takes place in Bozar.
ATTENTION! PENTECOST FESTIVAL 2021 postponed to 2022
The Huelgas Ensemble in Talant (Burgundy)
Artistic director : Paul Van Nevel
It is difficult for us to announce, but circumstances beyond our control have forced us to postpone Talant's Huelgas Pentecost Festival 2021 until the Whitsun weekend of 2022.
So, kindly make a note of the new dates for the Pentecost Festival 2022 :
Friday 3 June - Saturday 4 June - Sunday 5 June 2022
It will be an unprecedented festival, with recently discovered repertoire and a number of surprises, as befits the Talant Festival!
Three explorations into unknown territory
Director : Paul Van Nevel
The Huelgas Ensemble organizes three weekends in which unknown repertoire is rehearsed under the direction of Paul Van Nevel. The target group is professional, semi-professional and amateur singers, who have some experience of singing polyphony and who can read well. The main objective is to study a polyphonic composition, an exciting exploration into previously unknown territory!
Mabrianus de Orto (Tournai ca.1460 - Nivelles 1529): Missa “La belle se sied”
Saturday 20 March 2021
Sunday 21 March 2021
Two anonymous fifteenth century compositions from the main source of the choral repertoire of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, a monumental choirbook of more than 240 folios.
Saturday 27 March 2021
Sunday 28 March 2021
A monumental six-part motet by Pierre de Manchicourt (Béthune ca.1510 - Madrid 1564): “Sustinuimus pacem” à 6
Saturday 17 April 2021
Sunday 18 April 2021
A new book by Paul Van Nevel:
Het landschap van de polyfonisten - The world of the Franco-Flemish School (1400-1600)
Photography: Luk Van Eeckhout
Why did the polyphonists all come from the same region of southwest Belgium and northern France? And and what was the influence of this region on their music? A unique analysis of the environment - the ‘cultural landscape’ - of the 15th and 16th century musician. The book includes a CD and no fewer than 168 beautiful photographs.