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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 César 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 is "his most famous and oft-recorded work".
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 longueur 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 at the time of 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 Piano Sonata in G minor had been completely performed on live by pianist Paweł Albiński in Kraków, Poland 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. In general, Lekeu is regarded as a highly talented composer whose death cut short a promising musical career.
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. The recurring themes in the violin sonata have led some scholars to suggest that it was an inspiration for the Vinteuil Sonata, an imaginary work described by Marcel Proust in In Search of Lost Time. However, the structure imagined by Proust is also similar to the violin sonata by Franck.
List of works
- Barberine opera (unfinished)
- Andromède, poème lyrique et symphonique for soloists, chorus, & orchestra, in 15 parts (1891)
- Chant lyrique for chorus & orchestra (1891)
- La fenêtre de la maison paternelle for mezzo-soprano & piano
- Les pavots for tenor (or baritone) & piano
- L'ombre plus dense for tenor & piano
- Quelque antique et lente danse for soprano & piano
- Chanson de Mai for tenor (or baritone) & piano
- Andromède for soprano & piano quintet (piano & string quartet) (arr. of fragments of choral/orchestral piece)
- Trois Poèmes for soprano (or baritone) & piano (texts by the composer) (Sur une tombe; Ronde; Nocturne)
- Trois Poèmes for unaccompanied soprano (arr. of soprano & piano pieces)
- Trois Poèmes for soprano & piano quintet (piano & string quartet) (arr. of soprano & piano piece)
- Chant de triomphale délivrance (Etude symphonique) (1889)
- Etude symphonique no. 2: Hamlet et Ophelie (1889)
- Introduction symphonique aux Burgraves Overture after Victor Hugo's Les Burgraves (1890)
- Adagio for string orchestra (arr. of string trio piece) (1891)
- Fantaisie sur deux airs populaires angevins (Fantasy on two Angers folktunes) (1892–93)
- Prelude from Act II of the opera Barberine
Concertante and Ensemble works
- Adagio op. 3 for orchestra with solo violin (1885–88)
- Epithalame for strings, 3 trombones, & organ
- Larghetto for solo cello & ensemble
- Introduction et Adagio for tuba & wind orchestra
- Fantaisie Contrapuntistique sur un Cramignon Liégeois (Contrapuntal fantasy on a Liège cramignon) for chamber orchestra (1890)
- Overture and Adagio for brass band (1892)
- Choral (À mon oncle Pierre Lekeu) op. 3 for violin & piano (arr. of a fragment of the orchestral Adagio op. 3) (1885–88)
- Menuet for string quartet (1885–88)
- Thema con Variazioni for string trio (1885–88)
- Adagio molto espressivo for 2 violins & piano (1885–88)
- Minuetto for 2 violins (1885–88)
- Andante più tosto adagio for violin & piano (1885–88)
- Molto adagio sempre cantante doloroso (Mon âme est triste jusq'à la mort) for string quartet (1887)
- String quartet in G major in six movements (1887–88)
- Cello sonata in F major in 4 movements (cello & piano) (completed by d'Indy) (1888)
- Piano trio in C minor in 4 movements (piano, violin, cello) (1890–91)
- Adagio for string trio (1891)
- Violin sonata in G major in 3 movements (violin & piano) (1891–93)
- Piano quartet in B minor for piano & strings (piano, violin, viola, cello) (movements 1 and 2 only; completed by d'Indy) (1892–93)
- Méditation in G major for string quartet
- Andantino semplice e molto espressivo for piano (1885–88)
- Tempo di Mazurka for piano (1885–88)
- Allegro marcato for piano (1885–88)
- Berceuse et Valse for piano (1885–88)
- Moderato quasi largo for piano (1885–88)
- Adagio religioso col piu grand' espressione for piano (1885–88)
- Andante for piano (1885–88)
- Piano sonata in G minor (Prélude; Fugue; Fugue; Dans un mouvement plus lent; Finale) (1891)
- Fantaisie sur deux airs populaires angevins for piano 4 hands (arr. of orchestral piece) (1892–93)
- Morceau (Andante sostenuto) for piano 4 hands
- 3 Pièces (Chansonette sans paroles; Valse oubliée; Danse joyeuse) for piano
- Morceaux égoïstes for piano in 4 movements (Andante; Lento doloroso; Andante; Andantino malinconico)
- Berceuse for piano
- 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.
- Woolf, Jonathan. "Lekeu, Complete Works".
- 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.
- Matamoro, Blas (2017). "El universo musical de Marcel Proust (programme notes)" (PDF) (in Spanish). Fundación Juan March.