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Saturday 16 December 2017

Classical: The opera that created a country

Riot: Episode of the Belgian Revolution of 1830 by Gustaf Wappers (1834)
Riot: Episode of the Belgian Revolution of 1830 by Gustaf Wappers (1834)

George Hamilton

I have Manchester United to thank for a midweek trip to ­Belgium. Their quest for a place in the Champions League had taken them to the beautiful city of Bruges, and the match was on RTÉ. As well as its canals and a rich medieval architectural heritage, Bruges boasts an annual summer festival of ancient music. It's an appropriate venue, for in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the influence of musicians from that part of the Low Countries was huge.

Belgians have had an impact in this area of the arts in lots of different ways. Jacques Brel defined the modern French chanson. The saxophone was the invention of a Belgian, one Adolphe Sax. And César Franck, who was born in Liège, virtually single-handedly pulled Parisian music away from its obsession with opera and inspired composers as different as Debussy and Messiaen.

Speaking of opera, it's not stretching a point to suggest that it was a musical drama that provided the spark that lit the blue touch paper and set in train the sequence of events that led to Belgian independence. In 1830, the country was part of the kingdom of the Netherlands, assigned by the Congress of Vienna that had settled the borders in Europe after the Napoleonic Wars a decade and a half before. The July Revolution in Paris encouraged similar feelings among disaffected Belgians.

On August 25 (the date I landed in Brussels this week), the city's opera house, La Monnaie, was putting on a special performance to conclude an industrial exhibition the Dutch king had come to see, and with his birthday on the 24th, three days of festivities were planned with fireworks and illuminations as well as the opera.

Whether he was aware of potential unrest or whether he simply wanted to spend his birthday at home, King William I went back The Hague. The fireworks and the light show were cancelled, but the opera went ahead.

It was one of the big hits of the time, with a revolutionary theme. La Muette de Portici ('The Mute Girl of Portici' - a small port on the bay of Naples), by a French composer Daniel Auber, is loosely based on events in 1647 when there was a brief uprising against the Spanish who ruled Naples at the time. Its standout number is a duet from the second act - Amour Sacré de la Patrie ('Sacred Love of the Homeland') - a line taken from the full version of the revolutionary song that became the national anthem of France - La Marseillaise.

With Belgium unsettled under Dutch rule, there had been disturbances when La Muette had been staged previously in Brussels, and as a result it had been banned. The authorities relented for this special event, but the show was heavily edited.

They didn't, though, remove Amour Sacré, and when it was sung, it brought the packed house to its feet. The audience joined in. Outside a large crowd had gathered, encouraged by flyers promising revolution on August 25. They clapped and cheered, and when the operagoers spilled on to the street, some long before the finish, fired up by what they'd seen, a riot developed.

The authorities were slow to respond, and within days the revolt had spread. The Belgian revolution had begun.

"Seldom has an artistic product stood in closer connection with a world event." The words of Richard Wagner, describing La Muette. It isn't performed much any more, but it's remembered as the opera that helped create a country.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ Lyric FM from 10 am each Saturday. ghamilton@independent.ie

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