# When the German occupier imposes partitioning : 
the case of the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels

"Wilhelm Tell" by Friedrich von Schiller 
Poster for the last German performance at the Théâtre de la Monnaie, on 29 October 1918... i.e. two weeks before the signing of the Armistice.  - Archives of the City of Brussels ©

"Wilhelm Tell" by Friedrich von Schiller Poster for the last German performance at the Théâtre de la Monnaie, on 29 October 1918... i.e. two weeks before the signing of the Armistice. - Archives of the City of Brussels ©

As private performance halls gradually reopen their doors, the German occupier requisitions certain public buildings owned by the occupied cities. The Opéra de Liège (current Opéra Royal de Wallonie) is therefore confiscated for use as a stable and dormitory for German troops, and the Brussels Conservatory is transformed into a Protestant temple; the Théâtre de la Monnaie and the Théâtre du Parc, soon renamed in Dutch Muntschouwburg and Parktheater, serve as the venues for the occupier's own musical troupes. The objective? To expand Germanic culture within the Belgian capital while taking part in the Belgian cultural life. But this does not at all please the City of Brussels and its deputy burgomaster for Public Instruction and Fine Arts, Emile Jacqmain, who on several occasions categorically refuses the use of these venues, before finally having to resign himself to such use, under pressure from governor general Moritz Von Bissing. After 10 or so concerts organised in 1915 and 1916, despite several scuttling attempts by the director of La Monnaie, the occupier organises in the area of 60 performances between June 1917 and October 1918. Each week until the final days of the conflict, the Théâtre de la Monnaie is filled with the sounds of the greatest German music: Beethoven, Brahms, Goethe, Mozart, Schiller, Schubert, Strauss and of course Wagner, a favourite composer in Brussels. Also making an appearance was the only non-Germanic author, William Shakespeare, with a translation of "Midsummer night's dream" (Ein sommernachtstraum) and "Romeo and Juliet" (Romeo und Julia). Nevertheless, attending these performances is viewed as anti-patriotic for Belgians, and only the German public takes advantage of them.

Brussels, the French-speaking capital of Wagnerism

Before 1914, the Théâtre de la Monnaie is undoubtedly the most popular venue for Brussels musical life. The mythical opera hall, built in its current appearance in 1855, is at the time not only the reference stage for young French creations, but also, however ironic this may well be, the French-speaking capital of Wagnerism. Indeed, unlike the French who have long turned up the noses at him (particularly since the Franco-German war of 1870), the Belgian public is very appreciative of Richard Wagner's works, ever since he first came to Brussels in March 1860. Half a century later, the German composer remains the "glue" that holds the 1913-1914 musical season together with, on closing night, the best excerpts from "I Pagliacci", "Faust" and "Parsifal". The next day, while the company from La Monnaie fans out to the summer festivals, Wagner is once again heard with "Das Rheingold" (The Rhine Gold) performed this time by a German troupe, as part of a festival in honour of the genius composer. However, there is nothing unusual about having foreign performers; the Théâtre de la Monnaie also provides one week of performances by the Paris Comédie française before closing its doors on May 20th, 1914, as usual… But for longer than planned: exactly 3 months later, the arrival of the German army in Brussels, followed by 50 months of occupation, will delay the reopening of the main Brussels cultural centre for an indefinite period.

La Monnaie closed for good? Not at all! Even as the Théâtre de la Gaité (in October 1914) and La Scala (in February 1915) reopen their doors under their own management, the Théâtre de la Monnaie, owned by the City of Brussels, is in fact requisitioned by the German occupier. Very quickly, the latter wishes to give concerts in order to present Germanic culture within the Belgian capital, but its director Guillaume Guidé tries to put off the occupier by claiming that the acoustics are terrible, the lighting is defective and the heating has broken down... The Germans are nevertheless not fooled by these supposed arguments, and the city authorities are finally forced to yield, but while clarifying that the heating, lighting and personnel for the theatre will be at the occupier's expense. As such, on 13 March 1915, the Théâtre is occupied by the Cologne Orchestra : the works of Wagner make a grand return, accompanied by Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and Weber! Later, in a letter sent to Governor general Von Bissing, dated 14 April, the Brussels city authorities complain about having been put under pressure; they insist that " it is traditional, when difficult events afflict our country, for the Théâtre de la Monnaie not to open its doors" and recall that "Belgium is in mourning since many of our fellow citizens have died on the battlefield, others are wounded, and, finally, others are prisoners abroad." The German occupier pays no attention and organises two new concerts, on 4 and 5 May, presenting the local authorities with a fait accompli.

As such, on 13 March 1915, the Théâtre is occupied by the Cologne Orchestra : the works of Wagner make a grand return, accompanied by Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and Weber!

The Muntschouwburg or the occupied theatre

In December 1915 and January 1916, the Germans once again run roughshod over a new refusal on the part of deputy burgomaster Emile Jacqmain. Despite this, the occupying authorities order the evacuation of the cloakroom of the Théâtre, then occupied by a service distributing clothing to the needy of Brussels, and in late January schedule four concerts by the Darmstadt musical and theatrical ensemble (from Germany). In May, it's the turn of the German opera of the Netherlands to perform, over four nights, the essentials from Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen"... Thereafter, no further authorisation requests are submitted to the City of Brussels: the German authorities will use the Théâtre de la Monnaie as they like, organising nearly sixty concerts from June 1917 to October 1918, i.e. almost one performance every week (very often on Sunday evenings). The last performance, "Wilhelm Tell" by Friedrich Schiller, is given on October 29th; but it would appear that, to the very end, the Germans hoped to stay in Belgium, since the opening of "Mariechen van Nijmegen" was scheduled for November 18th (seven days after the end of the war). This 16th century Flemish piece was in fact part of the "Flemishisation" of the Théâtre de la Monnaie that began with the use of the "Muntschouwburg" name in 1916, in an effort to attract an audience other than the French-speaking bourgeoisie that was boycotting the occupier's performances.

Indeed, only very rare Belgians go to an occupied theatre, an action considered to be anti-patriotic, in the words of the American ambassador Brand Whitlock, in his memoirs published in 1922: "There was only a single Belgian at the concert at the Monnaie and, strangely enough, it was a professor of moral philosophy, and a great music lover. Perhaps he went without thinking, but he certainly paid the price." It was during the occupier's first concert, on 13 March 1915, and the said professor, Georges Dwelshauvers, was indeed obliged to resign from his position at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. However, it's unlikely that he was the only one since, as previously mentioned, the Brussels audience is very keen on the works of Richard Wagner, and the latter is well-represented in the programming at the Muntschouwburg and the Parktheather (Théâtre du Parc), another requisitioned City of Brussels property. Also, the German audience does not limit itself only to the Deutsches Theaters and for theatre-goers, the Belgischer Kurier regularly publishes the programming for some 15 theatres. In August 1916, this newspaper enthusiastically announces embellishment or enlargement works on certain venues, including La Monnaie where the heating system and washrooms will be repaired, and a smoking room installed. But nothing comes of it: at the very most, the city administration in charge of the building's upkeep continues the fulfilment of an order placed with the symbolist painter Emile Fabry well before the war. His paintings still adorn the theatre's main staircase.

It would appear that, to the very end, the Germans hoped to stay in Belgium, since the opening of "Mariechen van Nijmegen" was scheduled for November 18th (seven days after the end of the war)

Finally, in the aftermath of the war…

Starting on 26 November 1918, the Belgian audience returns to the Théâtre de la Monnaie during a concert by the Symphonic Orchestra of the Field Army, under the direction of Maurice Corneil de Thoran ; a celebration is clearly in order, and the Brabançonne (Belgian national anthem) is sung with gusto. A few weeks later, in March 1914, the musical season begins with a performance, "1914", written and set to music by Belgians Georges Garnir and François Rasse, followed by a series of patriotic scenes entitled "Vers la gloire" by the same Georges Garnir, with music by Léon Dubois. The company from La Monnaie is then practically re-established, the Théâtre can invest in a policy of grand performances as was its habit before the war. However, one question very quickly arises: is it or is it not acceptable to once again perform works by Wagner? This controversy provides a good reflection of the trauma suffered during the occupation, and divides public opinion. For some, the battle against the Germans must be continued, while refusing all Germanic influence; for others, Wagner's works must be recognised at their just value… The musicians from La Monnaie, previously great fans of the German composer, refuse to perform even the slightest of his works until June 1920, when only a few passages from the third act of "Tannhäuser" are performed in the last part of the concert. The controversy is definitively settled after a referendum organised, in February 1921, by the Société des Concerts Populaires de musique classique : three quarters of its 2400 regular members voice their approval for Wagner's return.

However, one question very quickly arises: is it or is it not acceptable to once again perform works by Wagner? This controversy provides a good reflection of the trauma suffered during the occupation, and divides public opinion.

Advert