You are here

The Feasts of Fear and Agony

The Feasts of Fear and Agony

for soprano and ensemble
2010 - 2012
(based on poems by Paul Van Ostaijen)



Vers 2

Vers 3


De Marsj van de Hete Zomer

This song cycle, based on poems from The Feasts of Fear and Agony by Paul Van Ostaijen (1918-1921), forms one coherent whole. My Three Songs (2010) based on Verse, Verse 2 and Verse 3 are incorporated in the cycle. The cycle concludes with The March of the Hot Summer, from which the first 20 pages were set to music. Although I originally intended to also include Verse 4 (2001) in the cycle, I have decided for stylistic reasons to continue to consider this early work as a separate composition.
Material from Verse 4 is, however, present as a landmark in the introduction and the interludes that connect the different poems with each other.

The whole is conceived as a monologue, performed by a character who is insane. The voice echoes the rhythm of the spoken word, except for some sung passages. Since the texts abound with contrasts, the solo part is a challenge for any singer, because the frenzied atmosphere should be reflected in the different types of voice in rapid alternations. In addition to the sung text on the one hand and the recited text on the other hand a combination of the two also occurs (the Schoenbergian 'Sprechstimme’) and also whisperings, shouting and screaming are part of the music in order express the frenzied drama.

Although the first Three Songs were written in 2010 and The March of the Hot Summer was written in 2011-2012, is The Feasts of Fear and agony is a single composition that is formally and harmonically connected to the same harmonic system.

At the opening performance Van Ostaijen’s manuscript was projected in sync with the music by video artist Klaas Verpoest. Especially for this occasion the manuscript was digitized by typographer Jo De Baerdemaeker.


Paul Van Ostaijen

The Feasts of Fear and Agony (1918-1921)

The Feasts of Fear and Agony stand out in Van Ostaijen’s oeuvre because of the radical turning point in form and language. The collection was published only after his death (and much later in the original colors) but it was the direct forerunner of the more famous collection Occupied City (1921), in which his Dadaist expressionism reigned supreme.
It is striking that in The Feasts the narrator gets attributed the main role and is no external subject like in Occupied City.

It is clear that Paul Van Ostaijen himself is the subject in The Feasts and therefore the collection of verses paints a picture of a young artist who is looking for a new language and therefore wants to start completely from nothing (this is suggested in the final lines 'I nudity the happening' 'in Verse 3, and 'I want to be nude and begin' in Verse 6 ). In The Feasts Paul Van Ostaijen undergoes a painful metamorphosis ('Is this struggle over' in Verse 3 ) as a result of his artistic tabula rasa.

In his quest he constantly questions himself and he unceasingly contradicts himself. When the word is written, the opposite has already been created. Extremes touch each other constantly. This dichotomy is therefore a common thread throughout the collection and is also reflected in the title. The constant struggle that the I-person has with himself shows different personalities and gives the reader the impression that this is the diary of a madman.
But no matter how honestly Van Ostaijen writes every word, the contrasts create a self-relativisation that often verges on the absurd, and therefore, because of its seriousness, almost becomes humorous. The casual reader will therefore be impressed by this particular aspect.

The new language that Van Ostaijen is searching for is a language reduced to its semantic essence whereby every superfluous linking word is deleted. 'One word can give a new direction to the development of a poem', he later explained. The handwriting in various colors, directions and fonts replaces the punctuation and the linking words.

The collection remains intriguing because there is a great deal of room for personal interpretation and the oeuvre can be read at various levels. This probably explains Van Ostaijen’s posthumous popularity, just because his poems make the reader feel a bit like a poet.

Two themes are recurring and really catch the eye when reading Van Ostaijen’s quest. Firstly, the eroticism that often has a homoerotic undertone (‘the gay men dancing, pallid gesture’ and 'lesbian idleness nakedness of my chest’ in Verse 2 ). On the other hand religion and philosophy are a recurring theme. Many verses are sincerely religious but are opposed to Catholicism, which is not surprising because Van Ostaijen wrote the collection when he was living in exile in Berlin after he had insulted a cardinal in Antwerp.
Nevertheless he repeatedly invokes God. ('My God, are you a Lord' in Verse 2 ) and Christ is a character that regularly pops up ('I want to be Christ at 3 pm ascend to heaven' in 'The March of the Hot Summer ). The cubist descriptions of a city are reminiscent of the later collection Occupied City, but are focusing specifically on a church steeple ('streets bear the perpendicular sun and cathedral' in The March of the Hot Summer ).

Sometimes Van Ostaijen’s 'twists' look as if they are the result of free association, whereby a certain thought generates a link to a greater whole. Such recurring thoughts are a great opportunity to work thematically. However, one theme is rarely a melody in this composition, but rather a musically evolving element.
For formal reasons, I also sometimes allowed to reoccur a lot more material than Van Ostaijen suggested. In addition to displaying the drama I also wanted to compose a balanced musical whole.


From text and typography to music

In The Feasts I have always been intrigued by the overriding musical link of the text with a musical score. I have therefore fully respected the text (by avoiding word repetitions and free approaches) and I have regarded the layout as a blueprint for my score. Since many verses at first sight have no substantive connection with each other, the idea arises that poetry does not necessarily have to mean something concrete.
Although this principle would have been very modern in the literature of the time, it however inextricably refers to abstract music. After all, what more does music express than the sound of nature (thunderstorm, lightning rippling water, etc.)? It can apparently exist entirely on itself by its own 'laws' and it expresses itself.

On the other hand The Feasts sometimes quite specifically refer to music by the prominent use of musical terms, instruments and dancing. It is impossible for a composer to pass up on the words 'waltz' or 'minuet'. However this became complicated because of the absence of any stylistic link with the music I wished to write. Following a compositional 'struggle' (coincidentally also the key word that Van Ostaijen used during the waltz in Verse 2 ?) the dances nevertheless became part of the music. The music sometimes refers to ancient dances with their corresponding typical rhythm, but this rhythm is taken out of context by adding all sorts of odd musical metres. This work process is somehow similar to the technique used by Van Ostaijen (changing the traditional grammar and even the spelling).

In the The March of the Hot Summer Paul Van Ostaijen quotes the refrain of the French song Sous les Ponts de Paris by Vincent Scotto. Since Van Ostaijen wrongly quotes the original, I had a reason for doing something completely different with the text. In my composition the song acquired a 'habanera' character and the singer is allowed to imitate Edith Piaf.

Also in other areas Van Ostaijen’s poetry is musical. Often there is no substantive meaning to be found in the verses, but there is a rhythmic link. In Verse 2 where the word 'Waltz' appears twice, most words can be sung in a waltz-like way (the typical dotted waltz theme is born out of the rhythmic identity of the words 'worsteling' or 'struggle', 'ganse gaan' or 'go all the way', 'flets gebaar' or 'pallid gesture', etc.). Also other verses that have no link with each other in meaning, font or text color, acquire a connection in the music by incorporating their rhythmic similarity into the music (such as 'appels barsten zaad valt droog' or 'apples bursting seed become dry' and 'nieuwe klokken blinkend dorp' or 'new bells shiny village' in The March of Hot Summer ).

Of course the layout also inspired me to arrange for some musical elements to reoccur which I linked in my imagination to a particular font. But no matter how consistently I tried this, it often was not enough to make this the only musical form to bear the entire composition. Especially the longest poem The March of the Hot Summer showed me that I had to intervene in terms of form. From a musical point of view this poem is a succession of contrasting 'miniatures' or thoughts, in which the innovative aspect is precisely the lack of different titles.
For reasons of form I therefore decided to terminate the composition after the first 20 pages written in red. The remaining four pages, which were not set to music were written in blue.

The Feasts of Fear and Agony 1/4

Bram Van Camp - The Feasts of Fear and Agony 1/4

The Feasts of Fear and Agony 2/4

Bram Van Camp - The Feasts of Fear and Agony 2/4

The Feasts of Fear and Agony 3/4

Bram Van Camp - The Feasts of Fear and Agony 3/4

The Feasts of Fear and Agony 4/4

Bram Van Camp - The Feasts of Fear and Agony 4/4

Liesbeth Devos - Soprano

Het Collectief, cond. Vykintas Baltakas
Kinetic typography: Klaas Verpoest & Jo De Baerdemaeker

35 minutes
  • Flute / Traverso
  • Clarinet in Bb / Bass Clarinet in Bb
  • Alto Saxophone in Eb / Tenor Saxophone in Bb / Baritone Saxophone in Eb
  • Piano / Harpsichord / Celesta
  • Percussion (1 player)
  • Soprano/Tambourine
  • Violin
  • Viola
  • Violoncello
Commissioned by
Het Collectief


deSingel, Antwerp, Blauwe Zaal
Liesbeth Devos - Soprano, Het Collectief, cond. Vykintas Baltakas