Flemish Organists in Ireland
An Illustrated talk by James McConnell with Flemish organ music by David Stevens, Armagh RC Cathedral.
On Saturday 6th of April, James McConnell presented a lecture on the topic of Belgian Organists in Ireland, within the opulent surrounds of the Synod Hall. The talk gave an interesting insight into what was a unique phenomenon in Irish Church Music History. Since the mid-1800’s, the Irish Catholic Church had sought the expertise of Flemish organists to provide a standard of music, befitting the many magnificent churches and cathedrals built in the wake of Catholic emancipation in 1829. The reliance on graduates from the great schools and conservatoires at Mechelen, Brussels, Ghent etc. may be explained, in part, by the lack of an indigenous school that specialized in the music of the Catholic liturgy, with the repression of public worship under centuries of Penal Law. Conditions in Europe, during both World Wars had also been a factor to encourage job-seeking Flemings to Ireland which, for an earlier generation, had been a place of opportunity and welcome.
Many organists in Ulster and across the island will recall the names of Delafaille, Seeldrayers, Gebruers, Van Dessel, De Regge and many others who made Ireland their country of adoption, in order to raise the standard of church music to a level found on the Continent. Many also involved themselves in music education as well as directing the many choral and operatic societies throughout the country- this was especially true for Gus Toremans. The speaker, James, was clearly enthusiastic and knowledgeable in all aspects of this fascinating feature of Irish church music. Such passion on the topic can be easily understood; his predecessors at Clonard Monastery included two of the Lemmens Institute’s most famous laureates- Arthur de Meulemeester and later, Léon Rittweger.
Without doubt, one of the highlights of the afternoon was Baron George Minne, along with his charming wife, who were invited as honorary guests. It was a special privilege (if a little daunting!) for James, to speak in tribute to his friend and his many Flemish contemporaries’ contribution to Catholic church music. Minne has been organist titulaire of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh since 1959, a fact that was recognized and celebrated by USOC with a special presentation.
Later, we relocated to the Cathedral where David Stevens (Master of the Choristers, St Anne’s Cathedral Belfast) gave a most interesting recital of Flemish organ music. The programme included works by the well-known and familiar Belgian organist Flor Peeters – Partita: Alles ist an Gottes Segen, alongside lesser-known works by Arthur Meulemans (2e Symfonie), Jozef Callerts (Petite Fantaisie) and Edgar Tinel (Improvisata) a short work which displayed typical 19th century chromaticism.
Almost all of the pieces displayed a strong sense of European Romanticism- both in harmonic and dynamic expression. Stevens use of registration was highly imaginative, and a wonderful symphonic sound filled the generous acoustic of the magnificent Gothic Revival Cathedral. Stevens concluded with the famous Fanfare by Lemmens, making great use of the striking reeds of the old Telford organ. The day, graced by beautiful weather, was both enlightening and entertaining. All of those gathered who gathered that afternoon will agree that Minne remains a charming orator, consummate musician and now the last-surviving exponent to the great Belgian organ tradition in Ireland.