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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Jozef Sterkens: Golden Voice of the Royal Flemish Opera

Introductory Note

[Before I can even begin to tell the story of Jozef Sterkens, I need, first and foremost, to publicly thank Pierre at for his absolutely indispensable  assistance.  Pierre 's site is one of the oldest and most respected on Youtube, and he is certainly the foremost authority on Jozef Sterkens, after whom he has named his site. I owe to him the videos and the biography which I have used in the preparation of this article.  Secondly, it is important to point out that Jozef Sterkens' life consists of two distinct parts: artistry and politics, and the two influenced each other.  He was a leading figure of the Flemish artistic renaissance in Flanders, during the very stressful  period of WWII.  I can only deal here with the artistic life.  Edmund St.Austell]

Jozef Sterkens (pseudonym of Jozef Steuren) was born in Antwerp in 1893.  His parents had a laundry in Antwerp, and hoped that young Jozef could study to become a teacher. He was a good scholar, and so they arranged—although their funds were limited—to send him to  the Normal School in Ghent, in 1908. Bright boy though he was, he failed to develop much interest in his studies, generally speaking, but he did have the chance to take music lessons from the Flemish composer Emiel Hullebroeck, who soon discovered that young Jozef had a beautiful tenor voice. Hullebroeck strongly recommended singing lessons, but family finances made it impossible for Jozef to do anything but become an art teacher after graduation. Within a few years, WWI broke out, and Jozef joined the armed forces, where he spent the next four years working as a nurse in a military hospital.  While in the army, he had the opportunity, along with other artists, to sing for soldiers at the front.  His patriotic diligence and hard work led to his being decorated on four different occasions.

After the Armistice, Sterkens returned to Antwerp and resumed his teaching career, while also studying at the Royal Flemish Conservatory. In 1923, he sang for the music critic of a local newspaper, who in turn introduced him to Edmond Borgers, the leading heldentenor of the Royal Flemish Opera.  After hearing Sterkens sing "In Fernem Land,"  he offered to give him singing lessons.  In that same year, Sterken's career began, in a modernistic vein that would characterize much of his later work.  His first concerts consisted of works by Flemish composers Peter Benoit, Jan Blockx,  Jef Van Hoof, and Renaat Veremans, and were presented to largely Flemish-speaking audiences.

One of the main reasons many opera lovers, especially in this country, do not know much about Sterkens'  career now is that from the very beginning he became strongly associated with presenting Flemish music, and music in Flemish.  There were two opera houses in Antwerp:  The Royal French Opera and the Royal Flemish Opera.  The French Opera dedicated itself largely to French and Italian works, and the Flemish house to German works, and works in Flemish translation.  Because of Sterken's association with the Flemish house, he did not have much opportunity  to sing the French and Italian repertoire that held so many great roles for tenors. There were strong political pressures for him to adhere to Flemish.  At this time, Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, was completely dominated by French speakers and French culture, and the need was greatly felt, by the Flemish, to establish Flemish art and culture in Flanders.  Sterkens was, in fact, to become an important figure in that Flemish struggle for cultural liberation.

He joined the Royal Flemish Opera in 1925, and his first big success was Tamino, in 1927.  He quickly became the leading lyric tenor in the company.  The following year he sang the St. Matthew Passion in Paris, under the baton of the famous Flemish conductor Lodewijk de Vocht, and made his first recordings for the French Gramophone Company. He was also becoming a fixture on Belgian radio.  In 1929 he sang Florestan opposite the Leonore of Lotte Lehmann, who was a frequent performer at the Royal Flemish Opera.   During this period, he took part in presenting the Dutch versions of Sadko (1925), Paganini (1927), Jenufa (1927), Sly (1929), Die tote Stadt (1932), and Daphne (1939)

Sterkens' story from this point until his death in 1952 is primarily a story of administrative work, both at the Royal Flemish and elsewhere.  Unfortunately, it is a sad one, full of the political intrigues and politics of the time.  He was even jailed at one point, after the liberation of Antwerp in 1944, for a period of about 8 months.  After that, he fell into obscurity for a long time, but slowly began to regain his reputation.  Just at the moment when he was to be given a significant post as chairman of the Musical Copyright Society, he died of a heart attack.  The year was 1952. It's a rather depressing story, really. Those interested in reading of these matters in more detail can consult 401 Divas,   I am indebted to this site for my biographical information.

I think it is important to first hear Sterkens in one of the most lyrical and beautiful renditions I know of  the aria "Glück das mir verlieb," from Korngold's Die tote Stadt:

Now isn't that just absolutely beautiful!  I certainly think it is!  What kind of voice is it, essentially?  I think of Sterken's voice as being in the Gigli/ Tagliavini/ Schipa fach, which is to say high lyric tenor, but with a decidedly German/Dutch color.  If you associate colors with vocal sounds, this might be called "brown,"  as compared to the darker, "black" quality of the typical Italian voice—or at least that of Gigli, perhaps not so much that of Tagliavini.  Of one thing there can be no question:  this is a very beautiful voice, absolutely without strain or harsh edge, a superb lyric tenor.

Next, we can hear in Sterken's voice the introduction of drama, of a dark and mysterious kind, in Respighi's Campana Sommersa,  a mythical opera concerning a sunken bell between two worlds, the world of humans and that of fairies.  Choices have to be made, and tragic consequences may hang on the quality of the choice.  It is basically a verismo fairy-tale with dark forebodings:

The voice, while lyric, has here acquired some edginess; it is also more dramatic, with greater dynamic variations.  Clearly, the potential for development into a slightly darker voice is there,  but it was never pushed.  It was always the lyric and the beautiful that dominated Sterken's singing.

Finally, to illustrate that point even more, here is a real rarity, the only known film footage of Sterkens.  It is from a silly, light-hearted comedy of the kind that proliferated during the 1930's.  Here is the Dutch song "Elisa," from the movie "De Witte:

Notice the voix mixte high C sharp at the end?  A famous voice teacher once told me that opera voices would be better and longer-lived if singers and conductors ever figured out that most people far prefer what is pretty to what is simply loud!.  Case in point!  I cannot help but wonder what Sterkens' fate would have been if he had been born in Italy or France, in years of relative peace, and had had the opportunity to sing extensively in the standard Latin repertoire of those countries.  I believe I would be telling an entirely different story.


JD Hobbes said...

Thank you again for an excellent article on a man we hardly know. I like your comparison to Gigli et al. But I still think I hear shades of Tauber in his voice in the video clip. I am always tickled by the videos in which a person sings arias and suddenly all the people around are suddenly inspired to listen and gather. Yes, "what if?" How many "what ifs" are there in artists who died too young? At any rate, thanks again.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Mr. Hobbes, for your comment, which I appreciate. I understand what you mean. I would only suggest that perhaps it was not so much a question of dying young in this particular case, at least; it was more a question of dividing his time between singing and administrative work. He was a man with a cause, and that takes a lot of energy and time away form the artistic career. Thanks, again!

Anonymous said...

Oh, wow! What a beautiful voice! I have to admit I have never heard Josef Sterkens sing, but what a treat. Such a pretty voice. I wish there were more recordings of him!


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Martha. Always nice to hear from you! Yes, there are few recordings. You can hear a little more if you go to the Youtube channel That's where they all are.

Thanks again,

Anonymous said...

The voice is certainly beautiful, I agree. I personally feel he is more of a leggiero than a lyric, however.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Well, as some of my readers know, I have a kind of thing about the many shadings of terminology applied to operatic voices. If you like the term "leggiero," then I certainly would not disagree. It's a light voice, call it what you will. I personally think "lyric" covers a pretty wide range. I have even made the point, on at least one occasion I can recall, that as far as I'm concerned, we could go with the choral SATB distinctions and make as much sense as we currently do:) So many of the finer distinctions in voices, when you get down to it, are simply the qualities of individual voices, as opposed to being the characteristics of types of voices.

Anonymous said...

Not a very big voice, but it sure is pretty!

Mark G.

Edmund St. Austell said...

That's a pretty good, if very succinct description, Mark:-)

Anonymous said...

A voice of quality. I have to resist calling him a "leggero" because we are not in Italy or the Italian repertoire. We must learn the language. I am not aware of any specific Flemish or Dutch categories, but it would seem appropriate to call him a Lyrischer Tenor or perhaps a light Jugendlicher Heldentenor. Of course those with more experience with Germanic classifications can please correct me if necessary. Certainly if he was of the French-speaking part of Belgium he would have been a demi-caractère, and probably one good enough to challenge Thill.

As often, a shame that nasty politics interfered with his career. I think, besides any vocal questions, singing a role such as Don Carlo would have been completely unacceptable for a tenor in his position.

Gioacchino Fiurezi-Maragioglio

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, my friend! A superb comment; knowledgeable and incisive. You are right in that you establish the proper delineations, cultural, personal, and vocal, within which his career must be considered. That makes all the difference, as it makes it possible to appreciate him for what he was and what he did. Everyone points first and foremost to the beauty of the voice--that is key. Putting all other considerations aside, the beautiful voice in and of itself merits our admiring attention. Again, thanks!

Anonymous said...

He could have made a big international career, if it were not for politics. Sad. Thanks for the article on this wonderful artist. The voice is beautiful and the singing is masterful and intelligent. His high C sharp reminded me of Lemeshev;it sounded almost as his high notes on mezzo voce.

I didn’t know that there were such political problems in Belgium.


Gerhard Santos said...

I Love this post, so much great information that's really really useful to know! .... Awesome post!!! Have a beautiful Monday Evening! Thanks, dear Edmund and *GOD BLESS*

Edmund St. Austell said...

To Natalie: Yes, the political problems have been very severe, as so often happens when different cultures square off in the same geographical area. I suppose it is somewhat similar to the situation of Quebec in Canada, at least during some periods when nationalistic forces arise. The forces of Flemish nationalism have become focussed again quite recently, and there has been increasing discussion, since 2008, of the whole issue, which is vexed to say the least. Thanks for mentioning Lemeshev. I had neglected to do so in the article, but there are passages where I also think of Lemeshev's voice.

To Mr. Santos: Thank you!