[Before I can even begin to tell the story of Jozef Sterkens, I need, first and foremost, to publicly thank Pierre at Jozefsterkens2.com. for his absolutely indispensable assistance. Pierre ‘s site is one of the oldest and most respected on Youtube, and he is certainly the foremost authority on Jozef Sterkens, after whom he has named his site. I owe to him the videos and the biography which I have used in the preparation of this article. Secondly, it is important to point out that Jozef Sterkens’ life consists of two distinct parts: artistry and politics, and the two influenced each other. He was a leading figure of the Flemish artistic renaissance in Flanders, during the very stressful period of WWII. I can only deal here with the artistic life. Edmund St.Austell]
Jozef Sterkens (pseudonym of Jozef Steuren) was born in Antwerp in 1893. His parents had a laundry in Antwerp, and hoped that young Jozef could study to become a teacher. He was a good scholar, and so they arranged—although their funds were limited—to send him to the Normal School in Ghent, in 1908. Bright boy though he was, he failed to develop much interest in his studies, generally speaking, but he did have the chance to take music lessons from the Flemish composer Emiel Hullebroeck, who soon discovered that young Jozef had a beautiful tenor voice. Hullebroeck strongly recommended singing lessons, but family finances made it impossible for Jozef to do anything but become an art teacher after graduation. Within a few years, WWI broke out, and Jozef joined the armed forces, where he spent the next four years working as a nurse in a military hospital. While in the army, he had the opportunity, along with other artists, to sing for soldiers at the front. His patriotic diligence and hard work led to his being decorated on four different occasions.
After the Armistice, Sterkens returned to Antwerp and resumed his teaching career, while also studying at the Royal Flemish Conservatory. In 1923, he sang for the music critic of a local newspaper, who in turn introduced him to Edmond Borgers, the leading heldentenor of the Royal Flemish Opera. After hearing Sterkens sing “In Fernem Land,” he offered to give him singing lessons. In that same year, Sterken’s career began, in a modernistic vein that would characterize much of his later work. His first concerts consisted of works by Flemish composers Peter Benoit, Jan Blockx, Jef Van Hoof, and Renaat Veremans, and were presented to largely Flemish-speaking audiences.
One of the main reasons many opera lovers, especially in this country, do not know much about Sterkens’ career now is that from the very beginning he became strongly associated with presenting Flemish music, and music in Flemish. There were two opera houses in Antwerp: The Royal French Opera and the Royal Flemish Opera. The French Opera dedicated itself largely to French and Italian works, and the Flemish house to German works, and works in Flemish translation. Because of Sterken’s association with the Flemish house, he did not have much opportunity to sing the French and Italian repertoire that held so many great roles for tenors. There were strong political pressures for him to adhere to Flemish. At this time, Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, was completely dominated by French speakers and French culture, and the need was greatly felt, by the Flemish, to establish Flemish art and culture in Flanders. Sterkens was, in fact, to become an important figure in that Flemish struggle for cultural liberation.
He joined the Royal Flemish Opera in 1925, and his first big success was Tamino, in 1927. He quickly became the leading lyric tenor in the company. The following year he sang the St. Matthew Passion in Paris, under the baton of the famous Flemish conductor Lodewijk de Vocht, and made his first recordings for the French Gramophone Company. He was also becoming a fixture on Belgian radio. In 1929 he sang Florestan opposite the Leonore of Lotte Lehmann, who was a frequent performer at the Royal Flemish Opera. During this period, he took part in presenting the Dutch versions of Sadko (1925), Paganini (1927), Jenufa (1927), Sly (1929), Die tote Stadt (1932), and Daphne (1939)
Sterkens’ story from this point until his death in 1952 is primarily a story of administrative work, both at the Royal Flemish and elsewhere. Unfortunately, it is a sad one, full of the political intrigues and politics of the time. He was even jailed at one point, after the liberation of Antwerp in 1944, for a period of about 8 months. After that, he fell into obscurity for a long time, but slowly began to regain his reputation. Just at the moment when he was to be given a significant post as chairman of the Musical Copyright Society, he died of a heart attack. The year was 1952. It’s a rather depressing story, really. Those interested in reading of these matters in more detail can consult 401 Divas, http://401dutchdivas.nl/en/belgian-singers/440-jozef-sterkens.html I am indebted to this site for my biographical information.
I think it is important to first hear Sterkens in one of the most lyrical and beautiful renditions I know of the aria “Glück das mir verlieb,” from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt:
Now isn’t that just absolutely beautiful! I certainly think it is! What kind of voice is it, essentially? I think of Sterken’s voice as being in the Gigli/ Tagliavini/ Schipa fach, which is to say high lyric tenor, but with a decidedly German/Dutch color. If you associate colors with vocal sounds, this might be called “brown,” as compared to the darker, “black” quality of the typical Italian voice—or at least that of Gigli, perhaps not so much that of Tagliavini. Of one thing there can be no question: this is a very beautiful voice, absolutely without strain or harsh edge, a superb lyric tenor.
Next, we can hear in Sterken’s voice the introduction of drama, of a dark and mysterious kind, in Respighi’s Campana Sommersa, a mythical opera concerning a sunken bell between two worlds, the world of humans and that of fairies. Choices have to be made, and tragic consequences may hang on the quality of the choice. It is basically a verismo fairy-tale with dark forebodings:
The voice, while lyric, has here acquired some edginess; it is also more dramatic, with greater dynamic variations. Clearly, the potential for development into a slightly darker voice is there, but it was never pushed. It was always the lyric and the beautiful that dominated Sterken’s singing.
Finally, to illustrate that point even more, here is a real rarity, the only known film footage of Sterkens. It is from a silly, light-hearted comedy of the kind that proliferated during the 1930’s. Here is the Dutch song “Elisa,” from the movie “De Witte:
Notice the voix mixte high C sharp at the end? A famous voice teacher once told me that opera voices would be better and longer-lived if singers and conductors ever figured out that most people far prefer what is pretty to what is simply loud!. Case in point! I cannot help but wonder what Sterkens’ fate would have been if he had been born in Italy or France, in years of relative peace, and had had the opportunity to sing extensively in the standard Latin repertoire of those countries. I believe I would be telling an entirely different story