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Karel Goeyvaerts Aquarius
Opera for 16 soloists and orchestra [1993]

Rolande Van Der Paal Dirk Van Croonenborch
Cristel De Meulder Patrick Delcour
Karolina Rüegg Jacques Does
Aga Winska Philippe Souvagie
Xenia Konsek Stephen Hindes
Jorine Samson Wim Zwaag
Gerda Hartman Lorenzo Carola
Marie-Noëlle De Callataÿ Marc Meersman


conducted by Grant Llewellyn
RECORDED BY BRTN Radio 3 April 1- 4, 1996
PRODUCER Boudewijn Buckinx
MEGADISC MDC 7859-51[106 mins] (Purchase from patrick@megadisc.be)


This is a major work by a major composer who is scandalously little known except in his own Flanders (in my experience of two visits to Antwerp there may even be a significant musical barrier between Flanders and the rest of Belgium - and many of you may wonder how the strange Flemish names should be pronounced !).

Very full information about Aquarius, an opera but a very atypical one, is available (with a brief sound-bite) on Megadisc's excellent website - easier to read the commentaries on line than from the very small print in the well-packed booklet. I will quote brief extracts, enough to give a flavour of this work (that will be my general practise in Musical Pointers).

In Karel Goeyvaerts' vision of Utopia, 'Society' is represented scenically by groups of dancers and singing actors; the evolving structure he envisages is represented by the 'visible mutual relations' within these groups. Goeyvaerts' own utopian speculations are permeated by his deep religious conviction. In the Revelation of St.John, the last book of the New Testament, Goeyvaerts found a similar pursuit of a "better world", a road to the new Jerusalem, to the Holy City, so it should be no surprise that it was primarily on this that Goeyvaerts drew on the last two chapters (21 and 22) for the libretto of his opera'.

'The libretto of Aquarius is not a conventionalopera libretto with a narrative structure in the text.' The content is presented 'from the general context and from the situation in the various scenes, while the text sung plays a consequent rather than a causal role.' The voices are present in 7 of the 10 scenes, but only one third of the work is sung.

The text was partly written by Karel Goeyvaerts himself, partly composed of lines from the Revelation of St.John, which are sung in eight languages (Latin, Greek, Dutch, French, German, English, Spanish and Italian). I would have preferred the text to have been supplied, to follow whilst listening, but many others would not worry about that.

The final scene is the only part of which one can reasonably speak of the semantic use of language; the rest is made up of onomatopoeias, from which, however, more and more meaningful words consistently become audible or are suggested. The sound value of a word is more important than the semantic meaning, thought Goeyvaerts, and to justify this sort of language use he called up the additional argument that the text sung in operas is usually hardly, or not at all, comprehensible. The composer has written: "Since 1966 I have experienced the appeal of words, used half semantically, half phonetically: understandable sentences here and there, but torn completely from their context, like objects in a surrealistic painting. And in addition, apparent words, precisely articulated vocal sounds, which however mean nothing". Goeyvaerts is a master in using the voice to its full advantage at all levels of its expressiveness and this, as in the case of the orchestra, without the use of experimental techniques.

Aquarius has "a simple intrinsic structure: starting with his set habits (CD I/track 1) the New Man is awakened (I/2), and then first intuitively (I/3), and then on rational basis (I/4) goes to explore the new world in order to wreck the first attempt to create a new society by reverting to positions of personal power (I/5); at the beginning of the second attempt man feels a suction force (II/1) which propels him forwards to a better world (II/2), where he at first feels uncomfortable and lightheaded (II/3) but then gradually finds his feet (II/4) in order to bring about the Holy Jerusalem (II/5)."

Two sets of five scenes link up; certain motifs (such as The Signal in I/3) almost take on the significance of leitmotifs. The unity of "style, orchestration and use of the voices is in itself amply sufficient to forge together into a genuine entity these ten scenes which first saw light of day separately over a period of ten years. - - the formal principles of the separate parts are as a rule determined in the first instance by a purely musical logic, ranging from, for example, a musical structuring based on the Fibonacci's mathematical progression (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, ...) in I/2, by means of a principle of continuous building up and breaking down of musical cells in I/4, to the ascent of a harmonious scale, where every step is a full tone (B-C-D-E-F#-Af-B) in the second finale (II/5).'

The music is original but far from recondite - accessible to a wide range of listeners, with 'tonal and consonant chords as points of support or rest throughout the whole score, which on the one hand represent stability, while on the other hand they are also given a pejorative meaning of overstability through holding on obsessively to that tonality' - - Against this stable tonal anchoring he also wanted to set reassuring rhythms, 'so that the basic pulse through the whole score until the final scene is the rhythm of the human heart-beat'.

Goeyvaerts wrote, in connection with De Heilige Stad that he not only wanted his "Holy City" to be accessible to specialists who have one or other serial keys at their disposal, but that he would like everyone to feel at home there at once. Also on a musical level Aquarius reveals a "nostalgia towards the future" in his new musical language which is highly emotionally charged. Goeyvaerts links up his opera to the original ritual function of ancient theatre: "a purifying, cathartic experience which leads to utopia".

The crowning of the whole Aquarius project came in April 1992 with the completion of Aquarius L'Ere du Verseau Opera for 16 soloists and orchestra. Karel Goeyvaerts was himself unable to completely correct the manuscript for the publication of the score, vocal and orchestral material; after his sudden death on 3rd February 1993 this task was successfully completed by Mark De Smet, a great authority on and friend of Goeyvaerts'.

It is interesting that the landmark recording was entrusted to a versatile British conductor from Wales, Grant Llewellyn, who found the collaboration on Aquarius 'a rare treat - - an initiation into the whole world of contemporary Belgian music'. I had a comparable experience by attending the Joint Venture Flanders Festival in Antwerp 2001, at the invitation of composer Boudewijn Buckinckx, from whom Karel Goeyvaerts had received a book The Aquarian Conspiracy (Personal and social transformations in the 1980s) by Marilyn Ferguson,which sparked the composition of this magnum opus.

I found the whole work made for compelling listening in this authoraitative recording and it whetted my appetite to hear far more music by this composer, previously only known to me through his Litanie 1 for piano. I commend a reading in full of the essay by Reinder Pols.

Peter Grahame Woolf

© Peter Grahame Woolf