Ernest De Regge was born in the family of Karel De Regge, sexton-organist and teacher at Overmere in the province of East Flanders. His talent was soon recognized and already in primary school he and his brother were tutored in music by organist Jules De Groote (brother of Emile De Groote, the organist of Ghent Cathedral). In his father’s footsteps Ernest, after his secondary education, pursued the training for teacher cum organist at the episcopal teacher training college in St Niklaas. He followed this up with studies of composition, organ and Gregorian plainsong at the Lemmens Institute in Mechelen. In 1922 he graduated there, earning a first prize of composition to boot, followed the year after by the prize of excellence, always in the same class as Flor Peeters.
However, De Regge’s musical career evolved not in Flanders but rather in Ireland, a country that the direction of the Lemmens Institute was already well-connected with. Ireland could boast well-maintained organs of quality, but had to cope with a paucity of well-trained musicians. There had been a lot of sympathy in Ireland for the sufferings of the Belgians during the First World War, and reciprocally the Irish struggle for independence was followed with keen interest in Belgium, particularly in Flanders. Thus it so happened that shortly after his graduation Ernest de Regge emigrated to Ennis (Inis) in County Clare, in the middle of Ireland. Bishop Michael Fogarty appointed him as teacher of music and singing at the renowned St Flannan’s College, a school where boys were prepared for the seminary. Concurrently he was appointed organist-choir master at the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul. His duties at the college included teaching Gregorian to the future clergy. Bishop Fogarty thus wanted, taking his cue from the papal Motu Proprio of 1903, to contribute to the restoration of Gregorian in his diocese of Killaloe, and to generally improve the quality of music education. De Regge performed this double duty with great stamina.
In the 1920s and 1930s De Regge often returned to Belgium with a view to taking private classes of harmony and orchestration with Paul Gilson and Lodewijk Mortelmans. Allegedly Paul Gilson advised De Regge about his piano concerto as work in progress, but because of Gilson’s death in 1942 the work remained unfinished.
De Regge managed to upgrade the Ennis Cathedral Choir, which was founded in 1859 by another Belgian (“Mons[ieur]” Charles Louis Nono), to a prestigious choir of high quality. Broadcasts by Radio Eireann from the cathedral included masses and concerts in 1930, 1933, 1935, 1946, 1947 and 1953. For the choir De Regge wrote three masses (including Missa Michaelis, 1929, and Mass in Honour of Blessed Oliver Plunkett, 1947), some forty motets and several Christmas carols.
Another part of De Regge’s creative oeuvre, and perhaps even more important, consists of songs, both in Gaelic and in English. In the early 1930s the young Irish Republic was very eager to acquire new Irish music and to publish it through the state publishing company “An Gum”. In collaboration with Michael O’Siochfhradha (an inspector of the primary schools and concurrently a talented violinist and singer), Joseph Rogers (teacher of Irish at St Flannan’s College) and sister Mary Albeus, De Regge spent several years adapting old Irish songs for school choirs, with commentaries in Gaelic. With O’Siochfhradha De Regge also published a textbook on music education in secondary schools: Rudiments of Music (Uireacht Ceoil) (1953).
Furthermore De Regge wrote works for organ, piano, chamber music, works for mixed choir, songs based on English and Gaelic texts, masses and motets. His total oeuvre counts some 300 compositions. Several works were awarded composition prizes, among them the Miligan Fox Prize in 1939, 1942, 1946, the Dr. Annie Patterson Prize in 1943 and 1953, the first prize at the ‘Dublin Church Music Festival’ in 1940, as well as first prizes at the annual Irish festival An t’Oireachtas Ceol in 1943, 1944, 1945, 1946, 1947 and 1956.
Despite this considerable success De Regge’s income as music teacher cum organist was not sufficient to support his large family. He tried his luck with diverse enterprises, such as breeding chickens and importing cars, or running a jewellery store in Ennis and a music store in Limerick. He also bought old pianos with a view to restoring them and selling them again. In 1958 De Regge lost his life in a dramatic way when the first floor of the historic Carmody’s Hotel in Ennis collapsed at a crowded furniture auction.
In Ireland De Regge is still regularly featured on concert programmes. Irish choirs such as the Nan Mulligan’s Choir and the De Valda Choir under the baton of Donagh Wylde have recorded several pieces on CD.
De Regge is remembered in Ireland for his fine musical talent, his devotion and his kindness. For his students and young choir members he was a second father, fostering their talents. In the event of emigration he was concerned about them, no doubt with his own experiences from the 1920s at the back of his mind. He was cherished by the people of Ennis and had a lasting impact on the musical and social life of County Clare, witness the presence of some of De Regge’s publications in the permanent exhibition The Riches of Clare Exhibition, in the Clare Museum of Ennis.
© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Karolien Selhorst en Annelies Focquaert, with thanks to Ghislaine De Regge (translation: Joris Duytschaever)