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Lekeu was born in Heusy, a village near Verviers, Belgium. He originally studied piano and music theory under Alphonse Voss, the director of the brass band at the local conservatory. In 1879, his parents moved to Poitiers, France. He continued to pursue his music studies independently while at school, composing his first piece at the age of 15. From 1885 onwards, he regularly composed new music, especially for piano, and studied harmony and violin from 1887 under Octave Grisard.
In June 1888, his family moved to Paris where he began to study philosophy. He was introduced to the works of Téodor de Wyzewa and continued his studies under Gaston Vallin. In August 1889, he traveled to Bayreuth to see the operas of Richard Wagner. On his return, he studied counterpoint and fugue privately with Cesar Franck. Franck encouraged him to continue composing; after Franck's death in the autumn of 1890, Wyzewa introduced him to Vincent d'Indy, who taught him orchestration and encouraged him to compete for the Prix de Rome, awarded in Brussels. In 1891, he won second prize in the competition for the cantata Andromède.
In 1892, d'Indy introduced Lekeu to Octave Maus, then secretary of Brussels-based Le Cercle des XX. Eugène Ysaÿe commissioned a work from him, the Violin Sonata in G Major, which premiered in March 1893, and which is highly regarded.
Lekeu contracted typhoid fever from a contaminated sorbet in October 1893. He died in his parents' home in Angers on 21 January 1894, the day after his 24th birthday. On 26 January 1894, he was buried in a small cemetery in Heusy.
Musical style and influences
Lekeu's personal style was present in his earliest compositions. In 1887, he said "Bien plus, ce sera bizarre, détraqué, horrible, tout ce qu'on voudra; mais, du moins, ce sera original" ("Even more, it will be weird, mad, horrible, anything you like, but at least it will be original").
Lekeu's string quartets were inspired by Beethoven, and exposure to Wagner's operas at Bayreuth influenced his approaches to melody. He described this as "des mélodies de telle longeur qu'un seul exposé suffisait à parfaire ... un morceau de musique" ("melodies of such length that a single presentation was sufficient to complete ... a piece of music").
His primary influence was Franck. Many of his works are characterized by a certain melancholy: in his own words, "la joie [est] mille fois plus difficile à peindre que la souffrance" ("joy is a thousand times harder to paint than suffering").
Lekeu composed about 50 works, and left a number of unfinished compositions after his death. Two of these, a Cello Sonata and his Piano Quartet, were completed by D'Indy. All have been recorded at least once, and several of them more than once, notably the Violin Sonata in G Major and the Piano Trio in C minor. The first time the Piano Sonata in G minor had been completely performed was live by pianist Paweł Albiński in Cracow on 20 August 2014.
His style, prophetic of early-twentieth-century avant-garde French composers like Satie and Milhaud, was influenced by Franck, Wagner and (especially in the Trio) Beethoven, though these influences did not manifest themselves as mere imitation. His larger compositions are cyclic in structure; that is, themes in his works will often recur from movement to movement, something no doubt inherited from a long tradition of nineteenth-century European composers, as well as from many works of Franck and d'Indy. In general, Lekeu is regarded as a highly talented composer whose death cut short a promising musical career.
Works for orchestra
- Première étude symphonique (1889)
- Deuxième étude symphonique (1889)
- Overture on Burgraves by Victor Hugo (1890)
- Contrapuntal fantasy on a Liège cramignon (1890)
- Adagio pour quartet d'orchestre (1891)
- Fantasy on two folktunes from Angers (1892)
- Overture and Adagio for brass band (1892)
- Fantasy for orchestra on two popular Angevin tunes (1893)
- (Les) Burgraves
- Etude symphonique No. 1: Chant de triomphale délivrance
- Etude symphonique No. 2
- Andromède, poème lyrique et symphonique for soloists, choir and orchestra (1891)
- Chant lyrique for choir and orchestra (1891)
- Choral (À mon oncle Pierre Lekeu)
- Trois Poèmes, for soprano and piano, with texts by the composer.
- String quartet in G major (1888)
- Cello sonata in F major (1888)
- Piano sonata in G minor (1891)
- Piano quartet in B minor (1892/93, completed by d'Indy)
- Piano trio in C minor (1890/91)
- Violin Sonata in G major (1892/93)
- (La) Fenêtre de la maison paternelle
- (Les) Pavots
- Morceau (Andante sostenuto)
- (L')Ombre plus dense
- Quelque antique et lente danse
- Randel, Don Michael (1996). e Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music. Harvard University Press. p. 496. ISBN 067-437-299-9.
- Chihiro. "Lekeu, Guillaume". Chihiro.net. Retrieved 11 August 2012.
- Keyser, Félix De. "Centenaire de la Mort de Guillaume Lekeu". Philagodu.be. Retrieved 11 August 2012.
- Verdebout, Luc (1996). Guillaume Lekeu: Correspondance. Mardaga. p. 516. ISBN 978-2870095577.
- Christopher Palmer/Luc Verdebout, Grove Music Online.
- PAP, Forgotten Composers on Paweł Albiński's Piano Recital, "Gazeta Wyborcza", 20 VIII 2014.