This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990
Henri Adrien Marie Verbrugghen (1873-1934), musician, was born on 1 August 1873 in Brussels, only son of Henri Joseph Verbrugghen, textile manufacturer, and his wife Elisa, née Derode. He made his début at the age of 9. With the support of Eugène Ysaÿe and Joseph Wieniawski, Henri overcame parental determination that he study medicine and in 1886 entered the Royal Conservatoire of Music of Brussels, graduating with first prize in 1889. Having visited London with Ysaÿe in 1888, Verbrugghen gave violin recitals in England, but declined to make a world tour with Amy Sherwin in 1890 and worked mainly in Belgium as an orchestral violinist.
From 1893 he played intermittently with the new Scottish Orchestra Company at Glasgow, becoming concertmaster and assistant conductor under (Sir) Frederic Cowen in 1903. Verbrugghen played with summer orchestras in Wales at Llandudno (1895-97)—where he married the singer Alice Emma Beatrice Beaumont on 21 September 1898 in the parish church—and Colwyn Bay (1898-1902). Appointed professor of violin, chamber music, orchestra and opera at the Glasgow Athenaeum in 1904, he was also professor of violin at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, Dublin, and appeared as soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. For four seasons from 1903 he was concertmaster for the Queen's Hall Orchestra summer promenade concerts in London under (Sir) Henry Wood.
His interest in conducting stimulated by Ysaÿe, Verbrugghen studied closely the techniques of the conductors under whom he played, among them Saint-Saëns, Lamoureux and Kes. He appeared often as a soloist and in 1907 gave the English première of the Sibelius concerto; he also played in string quartets, forming his own in 1903. In 1911 he was appointed conductor of the Glasgow Choral Union. Although he conducted in Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Munich and St Petersburg, his greatest success was a five-day Beethoven Festival with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Leeds choir in 1914.
Chosen directly from 173 applicants by Ambrose Carmichael, in 1915 Verbrugghen was selected as foundation director of the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music for a term of five years. He reached Sydney in August, followed by his wife and family next February. His early staff appointments included Roland Foster, Alfred Hill, Frank Hutchens, Cyril Monk and Arundel Orchard. An inspiring teacher, Verbrugghen himself took classes in advanced chamber music, the diploma, the select choir and the students' orchestra. He was determined to establish an institution of international standing and one in the European rather than the English musical tradition.
His energy and charm persuaded the government to bring out the other members of the Verbrugghen String Quartet and to provide musical scholarships. The quartet gave twenty-four concerts each year (the entire corpus by Beethoven being always included) and Verbrugghen made introductory talks a popular feature of these performances. He also established a symphony orchestra of 45 members (96 after three years) which rapidly acquired an outstanding reputation and became the New South Wales State Orchestra. It toured New Zealand, Melbourne and Adelaide, as well as giving numerous concerts in Sydney and at the conservatorium. In 1921 the orchestra gave 180 concerts, most of which Verbrugghen conducted. An instance of his drive and his passion for Beethoven (a London critic had called him 'the Beethoven conductor par excellence') was the thirteen performances of the Missa Solemnis that he directed over three years.
Verbrugghen acquired a few enemies (he insisted, for instance, on proper decorum at concerts) and by 1921 his orchestra was in financial difficulties when John Storey's government decided to withdraw support unless substantial funds were guaranteed by public subscription. A Melbourne fund was established under Sir James Barrett and the New South Wales fund was directed by Ernest Wunderlich. That year Thomas Mutch, the minister of public instruction, offered a three-year extension of Verbrugghen's directorship at £1500 a year and a maximum fee of £1500 annually as conductor (£20 per concert). The proposed fees proved unacceptable to Verbrugghen: he had received 'not one penny piece' for conducting and felt that the government did not want the director to earn more than a senior bureaucrat.
He took extended leave in 1922, visiting Britain and the United States of America. After conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, he was invited by the chairman of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra to be one of five guest conductors for the 1922-23 season. Within two months he was offered a three-year contract as permanent conductor at a salary of $25,000. Negotiations with the New South Wales government continued, but agreement could not be reached. Verbrugghen formally resigned his Sydney position late in 1922 and began a successful nine-year term with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra; the other members of his quartet joined him.
As in Sydney, he broadened the repertoire with works by Stravinsky, Honegger and Bloch, sometimes to the outrage of his subscribers; he often reduced the strings when conducting Beethoven in the interests of authentic balance. His performances were said to be of the 'cerebro-dramatic school of conductors' and he was described as a 'flaming little volcano' on the podium. Verbrugghen's interest in novelty and experiment led him to include jazz-influenced works in his concerts and to employ a pillowslip full of peanut shells to achieve a particular sound in his orchestration of Hill's song, 'Waiata Poi'. He made few solo appearances for he found the concomitant nervousness debilitating.
With an elegant, waxed moustache and 'dark eyes so bright and keen that they convey a sense of inextinguishable youth', Verbrugghen was 'one of those short men who produce a tall effect on the beholder'. A colleague described him as genial in temperament, but capable of being domineering when the occasion demanded it. He had a fund of stories, 'some decidedly Rabelaisian in character', and a surprising fondness for horses and their breeding. A man of wide knowledge with highly cultivated tastes, he was especially well-informed on painting and sculpture. 'Most performers', he once observed, 'practise too much and think too little. Knowing history, philosophy and other things helps make a good musician'.
On 26 October 1931 Verbrugghen suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and collapsed during a rehearsal. He recovered sufficiently to head the music department of Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, but never directed his orchestra again. Survived by his wife, daughter and three sons, he died of hypertensive renal disease on 12 November 1934 at Northfield and was cremated.
John Carmody, 'Verbrugghen, Henri Adrien Marie (1873–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/verbrugghen-henri-adrien-marie-8913/text15659, accessed 6 December 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990