Many people do not immediately realize how influential composers and musicians from Belgium have been over the past several centuries. Let’s take a look at the ten most important, including their influence on the music world.
1. Guillaume du Fay
Famous Guillaume du Fay was born sometime at the end of the 14th century and was one of the leading composers of the early Renaissance.
During his lifetime, he was widely known and revered and held various prestigious positions, including Maestre de Chappelle in Savoy.
He was also an ordained priest and worked closely with the influential Catholic Church, composing and playing for popes.
His oeuvre is expansive, spanning secular and sacred music and transcending all of the dominant styles of his time.
Some of them also reflect the most poignant historical events of his life, including several pieces composed on the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.
His compositions are impeccable manifestations of polyphonic music and are essential for students of this form.
He is known as a master of the forms with which he worked and as one of the greatest composers of the 15th century.
2. César Franck
Cesar-Auguste Jean-Guillaume Hubert Franck was a famous Romantic composer.
Born in Liege, he spent most of his career in cosmopolitan post-Revolutionary Paris.
As a composer, his most famous works are symphonic, keyboard, and chamber music.
Franck was widely renowned for his improvisational abilities, and he spent part of his career traveling to French and European cities to showcase new instruments.
He was appointed the organist of the prestigious Basilica de St. Clotilde in 1858 and appointed to a professorship at the Paris Conservatoire in 1872; he held both positions until his death.
At the Paris Conservatoire, he expanded his influence by teaching many pupils who enjoyed fame themselves.
His compositions are remarkable for their complexity and cyclic form, and Wagner and Lizst heavily influenced him.
He helped revive chamber music, and some of his most famous compositions include his Symphony in D minor, Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major, and Le Chausseur Mondit, a symphonic poem.
3. Django Reinhardt
Born Jean Reinhardt in 1910 in Belgium, Django was a French-Romani jazz musician and composer.
He is best known for his effective use of the guitar as a leading instrument in gypsy jazz music.
He helped popularize jazz throughout Europe and remains one of Europe’s most renowned jazz musicians.
He formed the Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934, which exploded jazz music on the Parisian music scene.
He recorded and played with some of the most famous jazz musicians of his time, including Duke Ellington and violinist Stephane Grappelli.
While he died young in 1953 (age 43) of a stroke, he left behind some of early jazz music’s most celebrated pieces, including “Minor Swing,” “Nuages,” and “Daphne.”
He and his music remain enormously influential, especially in the guitar world.
4. Johannes Ockeghem
A contemporary of du Fay, composer Johannes Ockeghem, was born sometime between 1410 and 1425 in present-day Belgium.
We have limited information about his early life, but he was nonetheless one of the most influential composers of the Franco-Flemish School.
Like Cesar Franck, he also made his mark by teaching some of the next generations of composers and musicians.
Music historians struggle to date Ockeghem’s works, and some pieces previously attributed to him are now known to be others’ works.
Nonetheless, some of his most famous works include his Requiem, Credo sine nomine, a motet-chanson, in addition to 14 masses, 21 chansons, and several others.
5. Henri Vieuxtemps
Henri Francois Joseph Vieuxtemps was a 19th-century Belgian composer and violinist who helped solidify and popularize the Franco-Belgian violin school style.
Born in 1820, Vieuxtemps was something of a child prodigy and began playing publicly around the age of 6.
Throughout his lifetime, he traveled throughout Europe and played to adoring audiences in some of the most cosmopolitan cities, even attracting the attention of other contemporary musicians like Berlioz.
He not only played his works but helped popularize those of other composers, including Beethoven and Mendelssohn.
He wrote several famous short sonatas and seven violin concertos, and other concertos for cello, viola, and other stringed instruments.
His music is quintessentially romantic, and although it isn’t widely played today, it was nonetheless highly influential on future composers and artists.
6. Adrian Willaert
Adrian Willaert was born in Roeselare around 1490 and helped spread the polyphonic Franco-Flemish music style to Italy when he moved there.
He is also famous for founding the Venetian School.
Like many of his contemporary composers and artists (including du Fay), a Catholic cardinal employed him before being appointed the maestro di cappella of St. Mark’s in Venice in 1527.
He retained that position until he died in 1562, where he composed some of his most famous works.
He was a prolific composer who wrote 22 madrigals, composed several psalms, and much more.
Willaert’s influence was most felt through his invention of the antiphonal style (a predecessor of the later polychoral style) and helping develop the canzone and ricercare.
He was also an incredibly influential teacher, and musicians and composers came from Europe to study under his tutelage.
7. Wim Mertens
Wim Mertens is a modern composer born in Neerpelt in 1953.
He studied music at the University of Ghent, the Ghent Conservatory, and the Royal Conservatory of Brussels.
By 1980, he had made a name for himself as a talented composer with his ensemble piece “Struggle for Pleasure” and “Maximizing the Audience,” played as part of a play in Venice.
Mertens’ musical style is unique; critics have described it as experimental and avant-garde while maintaining apparent minimalism.
It fits well with other postmodern artists and contemporary movements.
He’s a prolific composer who has released more than 60 albums.
Most of his compositions fall into one of three broad categories: commercial ensemble compositions, compositions for piano and voice only, and minimalist “cycles” for one, two, or an ensemble of instruments.
The last category tends to be his most experimental.
Mertens’ work has successfully made the jump into popular culture.
Several of his tracks have been sampled or used in dance music, DJs, and soundtracks.
8. Henri Pousseur
Henri Pousseur passed away relatively recently in 2009 at the age of 80.
During his lifetime, he gained notoriety as a composer, music theorist, and teacher.
He taught throughout Europe (including his home country of Belgium) and even in the United States at SUNY Buffalo.
Pousseur was heavily influenced by his contemporaries and was very collaborative, working with peers on several important projects.
In terms of compositional style, he is known for blending seemingly dissonant styles and types of music, even though his music is generally regarded as part of the Darmstadt School, which was most prominent in the 1950s, the early years of his career.
Among his most famous works is Couleurs Croisees (Crossed Colors, 1967), a series of variations on the famous civil rights protest anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
He made a follow-up in 1970 entitled Croisées des Couleurs Croisées (Crosses of Crossed Colors).
His work has continued to be influential after his death and likely will be for many more years to come.
9. Eugène Ysaÿe
Eugene-Auguste Ysaye earned the nickname “The King of the Violin” through his incredible performances, but he was also an accomplished composer and conductor.
Born in Liege in 1858, his career spanned two centuries until he died in 1931.
While Ysaye was incredibly talented and came from a family of musicians and music artisans, he struggled early in his career while training since he had to help support his young family at the same time.
He was such a renowned violin virtuoso that many other composers, including Debussy and his fellow Belgian Cesar Franck, composed pieces specifically for him to perform.
Unfortunately, Ysaye suffered from several health conditions that impacted his ability to play, even after touring throughout Europe, Russia, and the United States.
He turned to teaching and composing more and more as he aged and trained some of the next generation’s most notable performers.
He was also a prolific composer, creating works for violin, violin and piano, chamber music, orchestral and concertante works, and operas.
10. Guillaume Lekeu
Guillaume Lekeu (1870-1894) made an indelible mark on Belgian music despite his short life.
His compositions are highly cyclic in style and fit into the long tradition of 19th-century orchestral practices.
His works were highly original but certainly influenced by Beethoven, Wagner, and fellow Belgian Franck.
His works include orchestral pieces, chamber music, concertante and ensemble works, songs and choral pieces, and compositions for piano.
Unfortunately, he passed away before he could create more masterpieces.
He contracted typhoid from contaminated sorbet and died one day after his 24th birthday.
Nonetheless, his contributions remained influential long after his life ended.
Music scholars agree that he had a considerable impact on some of the most prominent 20th-century avant-garde composers.
Summing up our List of Famous Belgian Composers
As you can see, while Belgium might not be the first country that you think of for great composers, there are a number of fantastic ones creating music.
If you think we’ve missed any important Belgian composers of our list let us know and we’ll add them in.