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Notes 60.1 (2003) 174-176

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Oscar Esplá in Belgium (1936-1949). By Jan de Kloe . Columbus, OH: Editions Orphée, 2001. [xiv, 264 p. ISBN 1-882612-21-3. $44.95.] Illustrations, index.

If forced to simplify, one might say that there are two main trends in biographical writing. On the one hand, there are narrative biographies—works in which the life of an individual is related as a tale or story with a conspicuous literary panache. An interrupted teleological thread punctuated by periodical narrative climaxes characterizes this type of writing. The writer, in this case, might indulge in psychological speculation or the likelihood of "what might have happened." In these biographies, the [End Page 174] author often provides explanations or descriptions of the works; compositions and performances are summarized, analyzed, and critically appraised. An extreme example of this narrative writing is Simon Schama, whose hefty volumes fictionalize characters and situations by presenting events in a format that dangerously blurs the line between fact and fiction, between narrative history and historical novel.

And then there are documentary biographies. Their advocates look at narrative accounts with suspicion because they presume that the graceful narration of facts (let alone their fictionalization) leads necessarily to a misrepresentation of the historical record. Purposely eluding interpretation—whether psychological, historical, or critical —these biographies provide the dry facts only because they aim at rectifying the wrong information that is transmitted in secondary sources (reference works and textbooks). In addition, because their immediate goal is to unearth unknown information, they shun the task of shedding new interpretative light on known data, since this information could presumably be wrong. (Would it be too broad a generalization to say that narrative biographies are more common in the Anglo-American world, whereas documentary accounts are more often found in continental Europe?)

Oscar Esplá in Belgium (1936-1949) belongs to the second type of writing—that is, documentary biography. The intentions of Jan de Kloe are established at the outset of this volume: "With this book I want to document the life and work of Oscar Esplá in Belgium from 1936 to 1949" (p. ix). This task seems justified since "new versions of encyclopedias and reference works continue to copy the few known facts about those shady years, and this publication tries to put these facts in the proper perspective while adding many facts that hitherto have not been documented" (p. ix). De Kloe's motivations for writing this book are also explained. A software engineer, musicologist, and concert guitar artist from the Netherlands, the author first encountered Esplá's works when he was studying guitar with Nicolás Alfonso Pérez-Fernández at the Brussels conservatory. This teacher, a Spanish exile, explained to him that Esplá lived and worked in Belgium during World War II and that he wrote in French for Le soir. Then and there, de Kloe decided that, one day, he "would locate the articles written by Esplá and find out about his life in this country" (p. viii).

Esplá lived in Belgium for almost fourteen years. He fled Spain at the outset of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and accepted an invitation to be a member of the jury of the first Concours Eugène Ysay¨e (1937). Once in Belgium, he decided to stay. The composer did not suspect, though, that soon another war would begin and that his adoptive country would be occupied by Germany; ironically, he had fled one tyranny to fall into another. In Belgium, life was not easy, even for a respected composer like Esplá. He therefore attempted to make a living as a composer, lecturer, and especially as music critic for the German-controlled Le soir. The catch was that he had to sign an allegedly pro forma oath of allegiance to the Nazi Propaganda-Abteilung. He did not refuse the job and, when Belgium was liberated, he was incarcerated twice, but he was never accused of collaboration. After his sojourn in Belgium and a short stint in France, he finally settled in Madrid in 1950.

De Kloe's main objective...


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