# Out on the town under the occupation: 
concerts, operas, theatres and other performance venues

Photograph of a theatre performance  - Private collection, Mrs. Nicole LATOUR ©

Photograph of a theatre performance - Private collection, Mrs. Nicole LATOUR ©

The invasion of Belgium by German troops is succeeded by a few long months of dismayed silence. After some hesitation, despite the war and the occupation, the Belgian population gradually resumes its desire for entertainment. This is to the great displeasure of the ultra-patriot militants for whom it is in bad taste to have fun while the men are valiantly fighting at the front… Accordingly, very often, this irrepressible need for music takes on a charitable purpose: helping unemployed artists as well as the families of soldiers at the front. Small intimate concerts are therefore organised for the privileged classes. Gradually, then, theatres, concert halls, cinemas and cabarets once again open their doors more or less normally, and the entire populace attends with pleasure… But very soon, with administrative constraints and censorship not helping, it becomes increasingly difficult to gather a large number of performers, and in the end, original initiatives become rare. In Brussels, other than the Conservatory transformed into a Protestant temple by the German occupier, many performance halls are required to change purposes of their own volition, to keep up with the available material means and public interests. There is singing, dancing and laughing. Anything is good to get away from the rigours of the occupation, at least for one night! It's a willingness to forget that is also found in the aftermath of the war: the explosion of patriotic works appearing as of the armistice will quickly make way for the Roaring Twenties.

Music to help the needy

Even before the war, the bulk of Brussels musical life focused on the opera, with symphonic activities being rather reduced. Only 3 institutions have certain degree of success: the Concerts du Conservatoire, the Concerts Populaires de musique classique (created in 1865) and the Concerts Ysaye (1894) named after violinist Eugène Ysaye in whose name the prestigious Queen Elisabeth Music Contest will later be created. Upon arriving in the Belgian capital, the Germans transformed the Conservatory into a Protestant temple and requisitioned the Théâtre de la Monnaie and the Théâtre du Parc for their own musical troupes. Eugène Ysaye takes refuge near La Panne and regularly gives concerts for Belgian troops stationed on the other side of the Yser ; as for the Concerts Populaires, they will remain mute until the autumn of 1919… As such, the music was stilled. Three months after the start of the hostilities, the Concerts Artistiques are the first to resume their activities in the rue d’Arenberg. Many Belgian and foreign musicians stuck in the capital will perform there, and despite the closing hour of 9 PM imposed by the German occupier, success comes quickly. In February 1915, it's the turn of the Heures de Musique d’Arthur Van Dooren, a well-known composer and pianist, to see the light of day in the premises of the Union Coloniale Belge, at 34 rue de Stassart ; thereafter, other small recitals, easier to organise than orchestra concerts, will increase in number on the initiative of charitable women. Indeed, the objective is primarily to help musicians in distress and the families of soldiers.

The fact that these concerts are primarily philanthropic indicates that there is a certain discomfort within the Belgian population with regard to entertainment… at least at the start of the conflict! In his war journal, on 23 November 1914, Belgian dramatist and writer Paul Max indicates: "Last night, a dance hall in the rue Haute dared to reopen its doors. Agents out of uniform, posted at the door, took the names of everyone who came out, and had them struck off from the "soup" lists of the Committee (National Relief and Food Committee created in September 1914). Also, ketjes (= "young guys" in the Brussels dialect) from the rue Haute quickly took care of this dance hall: its windows, mirrors and chandeliers were soon in pieces. You don't have to have much in the way of morals to think about dancing or having people dance in such sad times as these." However, with boredom growing as the conflict drags on, this behaviour of exacerbated patriotism finally goes by the wayside, particularly as of the end of 1915. The population wishes to forget the rigours of the occupation for an evening, and the performance halls, theatres, cinemas, café-concerts and so on reopen their doors, despite the censorship and many material difficulties. The success is such that, at 16 May 1916, the German occupier slyly decides to increase the tax on the proceeds of performance halls to 10%.

The fact that these concerts are primarily philanthropic indicates that there is a certain discomfort within the Belgian population with regard to entertainment… at least at the start of the conflict!

The show must go on, come what may!

Alongside classical music, short lyrical seasons are also organised, including at the Théâtre de la Bourse (name provisionally given to the Pathé Palace) located in the boulevard Anspach and at the Palais de Glace linked to the Saint-Sauveur entertainment complex in the rue Montagne aux herbes potagères, a stone's throw from the Théâtre de la Monnaie. The orchestra and troupe from La Monnaie, in fact, having been displaced from their normal venue by the Germans, set up at the Palais de Glace as of 1916 and there they perform, on 4 January, "La Favorite" by Gaetano Donizetti. It was the first opera performance by a Belgian troupe since May 1914, according to Paul Max who describes the evening in his journal in the following manner: "The performance was triumphant. For my part, it caused great emotion in me since, seeing all of these familiar faces again (i.e. the singers, dancers and musicians), I couldn't help but think of the wonderful evenings spent at La Monnaie at a time when we didn't even think that a war would be possible." At the same time, the Belgian star Angèle Van Loo, after having left the Palais de Glace sometime earlier, takes over the management of the Théâtre de la Bourse that had been confiscated from the French group Pathé by the occupying authorities; she is nevertheless compelled to organise at least two German or Austrian operettas each year. Indeed, it is as a result of the many administrative annoyances and of the censorship imposed by the occupier that musical initiatives become increasingly rare.

The main difficulty when it comes to performing on stage is… having a stage. The troupe from the Flemish Theatre paid the price, having had its access revoked to the Vlaamsche Schouwburg (quai aux Pierres de taille) that was confiscated along with other communal buildings. On 15 November 1914, it therefore sets up at the Folies Bergères (rue des Croisades), temporarily renamed as the Volksschouwburg. With the Théâtre de la Gaité (rue du Fossé aux loups), these are the first two theatres to open. Others follow, such as the Comédie Royale now known as the La Maison de verre in 1915 and La Bonbonnière in 1916. The Théâtre du Vaudeville and the Théâtre des Galeries only open towards the end of 1916; they import comedies created and performed in Paris during the war, such as "Quatre femmes et un caporal" for the former and "Monsieur Beverley" or "Beulemans à Marseille" for the latter. The Vieux-Bruxelles (rue de Malines) is the only theatre to dare to create something new under the occupation, with the comic opera "Le Roi de Bohème" (May 1917) by Belgians Marcel Roels and Emile Raynaud. Vaudeville and operettas are quite frequent, reviews much less so. In fact, the war has put paid to such good-natured and cheeky programming: the censorship imposed by the occupier leaves little room for irony and mockery. Also, many authors such as Georges Garnir, Georges Hauzeur and Lucien Malpertuis refuse to write anything at all, and rather "serious" plays don't get much attention from the public.

When they don't definitively close their doors, such as the Cirque Royal (rue de l’Enseignement) and most of the music halls (normally frequented by an affluent audience), certain performance establishments change purposes: this is notably the case of cinemas that, deprived of the French films so appreciated by the public, include musical interludes in their shows or simply change into theatres. Both in the city centre and in the suburbs of Brussels, most of the less posh establishments fall back on variety performances. It's a rapidly developing genre that creates confusion between the name of the venue and the type of entertainment that it provides: Alt Heidelberg (rue de Laeken), Bruxelles Kermesse and Caveau flamand (located at the site of the current Ancienne Belgique), Cigale, Kursaal and Rinking (rue Neuve), Concert Victoria (rue des Fripiers), Cour de Bruxelles (place Fontainas), Minerva (rue Haute), Palais Baudouin (chaussée d’Anvers), Palais des Etoiles (rue des Tanneurs), Rathskeller and Walhalla (rue de la Montagne), Winter Palace (boulevard Nord), Jérusalem-Palace (chaussée d’Haecht) and Palace Toekomst (rue Van Ysendijk) in Schaerbeek, Renaissance Lyrique (chaussée de Wavre) and Théâtre Varia (still in business in the rue du Sceptre) in Ixelles… the list is still long of these venues, most of which have become mythical, that have nearly all disappeared today! The Halles centrales (between the rue de la Vierge noire and the rue des Halles) are transferred to charities and it isn't until 1919 that they resume their activities, as a skating rink in the winter (Pôle Nord) and music hall in the summer (Palais d’été).

Indeed, it is as a result of the many administrative annoyances and of the censorship imposed by the occupier that musical initiatives become increasingly rare.

Laughing is still better than crying

With the German invader having been driven out, theatres and cinemas now open their doors to a multitude of patriotic works that pay homage to the heroes of the homeland, soldiers or nurses, while deriding the Germans. Indeed, the Vieux-Bruxelles is one of the first theatres to offer an anti-German show with "Triple-Boche" by Fernand Wicheler and music by Arthur Van Oost, on 13 December 1918, in other words not long after the armistice. The next day, it's the turn of the Théâtre de l’Alcazar to perform "Débochons-nous" by Georges Hauzer for almost 3 months; while the Théâtre de la Bonbonnière is playing "Flotte, petit drapeau" by Léo Berryer... for 146 nights. While the title of this operetta doesn't say much, its advert "Wilhelm. Hideous and crooked prince!" with reference to the Kaiser leaves no doubt as to its revengeful character. On 5 February 1919, le Théâtre du Parc reopens its doors under the management of René Reding and performs "Les Semailles" by Gustave Vanzype, in order to inaugurate a season of new Belgian works (evenings) and lectures in homage to the theatres of the Allied states (mornings). The Great War therefore has an influence that is both decisive and paradoxical: it is virtually omnipresent (in the war news, the cinema, the theatre, in music) but the population is simultaneously striving to forget the suffering that has been endured. These performances of national glorification, though symbolic of the return of freedom of expression, end up growing tiresome, and the public then turns to lighter works.

In the city, performance halls gradually resume their normal activities, after having changed the functions several times. The fashion for dancing, somewhat timid during the hostilities, becomes all the rage, notably at the Palais de Glace that, in 1920, becomes the Palais de la Danse Saint-Sauveur, the capital's most chic dance spot. Belgium is now entering a period of strong economic growth and popular casualness, a period that will be referred to elsewhere as the "Roaring Twenties". Faced with the public's new concerns, the artistic and intellectual activities maintained during the war evaporate somewhat. Along more classical lines, the main Brussels institutions also resume their place after the liberation: the troupe and orchestra from La Monnaie once again have exclusive use of their theatre, but their style seems to have faded, almost "locked into dusty performances excluded from the bulk of the artistic avant-garde and mummified in its sepulcher of marble and gilded stucco" ; whereas the Conservatory, now returned to its initial function, gradually opens up to concerts by other companies. This is also the case for the various companies that accompanied the return of the Concerts Ysaye and the Concerts Populaires de musique classique, then directed by Henri Le Boeuf. The latter, a patron and music lover, will participate in the realisation of a project that dates back to well before the war: the construction of a true Palais des Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts Palace) intended to accommodate and promote all artistic forms, including music. Its construction, now visible today, began in 1925 on the basis of plans by the famous Victor Horta.

These performances of national glorification, though symbolic of the return of freedom of expression, end up growing tiresome, and the public then turns to lighter works.