In the early years of his career, Flemish composer Peter Benoit (1834-1901) found a lot of inspiration in folk tales. A notable example is the 15-part piano cycle Contes et ballades, which he wrote around 1860. Although he was residing in Paris at the time – or perhaps because of it – the work is filled with memories of his hometown Harelbeke: each part of the cycle is inspired by a folk tale Benoit had encountered in his younger years.
At the time, the kind of folk tales Benoit refers to flourished primarily within an oral tradition – stories about, for instance, fictional creatures such as Kludde and the Leiegeest (the ghost of the river Lys) were typically transmitted through speech and through recitation. Delivering a good story must have been a craftsmanship in itself, which was highly valued in society. For the performer of Benoit’s music, this is more than just some interesting information: the presence of an oral tradition in this (instrumental) repertoire has an essential impact on the dramatic narrative. In the Contes et ballades, the musician – in this case the pianist – takes the place of a storyteller, reciting the story content to the audience.
This project approaches the concept of the musician-storyteller as one of the guiding principles within the historically informed performance of Benoit's music. The research reconnects the repertoire with its understudied context of origin, namely the nineteenth-century oral culture. It focuses on themes at the intersection between spoken and musical recitation: the narrative form, the meaning of the story, the physical act of storytelling, and the influence of historical keyboards. The ultimate goal is not only to make Benoit's music resonate again, but also to have his language spoken again.