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The Hubris of Huybrechts

The Hubris of Huybrechts

By Eugene S. Robinson



Because success sometimes just requires not standing in the way of greatness. 

By Eugene S. Robinson

Sometimes you can’t succeed without first failing, and then there are some whose paths to glory are all about succeeding at failing. Like Belgian composer Albert Huybrechts.

A bona fide musical genius, Huybrechts, born in 1899, managed to win an Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Prize — the functional music equivalent of a Nobel — for his Sonata for Violin and Piano at the tender age of 27. Other recipients of the largesse: Aaron Copland, Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky.

So on the heels of success, with an invitation to the U.S., where he would be fêted and otherwise loved up, he decided … not to go. Even when Elizabeth Coolidge herself came to Europe to woo him, he refused to see her on the grounds that he didn’t want to play the part of “brilliant young artist.” To pile absurdity onto poor manners, there was the time he actually fled a party right before she showed up.

Almost as absurd as that reverse Horatio Alger tale is what followed: the re-rise of Albert Huybrechts.

Perfect. And Huybrechts doesn’t stop there. After winning the Coolidge prize and another — the Ojai Valley first prize for one of his string quartets — Huybrechts, whose work was still largely unknown and unsung, managed to lose all of his meager savings in the crash of 1929.

One of the few known portraits of Albert Huybrechts.

One of the few known portraits of Albert Huybrechts.

Source Creative Commons

This is the stuff brilliant failure is made of. While most of us would have stopped there, Huybrechts did not. He tried his hand at the far-from-lucrative sideline of mushroom growing before failing and moving on to dog breeding. Which is not to say he forgot music — he had to make ends meet, after all, which he did by giving piano lessons. Which is to say: He went from being the star student at the Brussels Conservatory to hitting rock bottom.

But almost as absurd as that reverse Horatio Alger tale is what followed: the re-rise of Albert Huybrechts with a professorship and a turnaround. Huybrechts as phoenix was, alas, short-lived. At age 39, one kidney failure later, he died. A historical footnote and cautionary tale of some kind having everything to do with hubris and hamartia.

Which all caught the eye of documentarian Joachim Thôme, whose film tribute to Huybrechts came out last year. “Huybrechts was written out of most music history books in Belgian,” bemoans Thôme from his home in Brussels. Which is “reason enough for me to want to make a movie about him.” 

As Belgian modern musician and former teen phenom Kris Engelen points out, being able to write music that conjures the “best of Debussy and Stravinsky in sublime greatness doesn’t always mean you’re going to be good at paying your rent.”

Clearly. But just because you can pay the rent doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to write something as wonderful as this:

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