Gaston Feremans received his first music lessons from the composer-carilloneur Staf Nees and followed violin, piano and harmony classes at the Municipal Conservatory of Mechelen. Then he went to the Lemmens Institute, where in 1929 he obtained the Lemmens-Tinel Prize after his studies with Flor Peeters, Marinus de Jong and Jules Van Nuffel. At the Royal Conservatory of Brussels he also took singing lessons with Maurice Weynandt and studied orchestration with Paul Gilson.
Feremans had a successful debut as a tenor and tried to make a career as a conductor with an orchestra of his own. In 1934 he became director of the Municipal Music School of Aalst, a position he held until 1944. In 1936 he also manifested himself as a promising symphonic composer with the Symphony in C minor, dedicated to Staf Bruggen. The final part of the symphony has been constructed on a theme from Jef van Hoof's Vaandellied (Banner Song).
The nationalistic circles which Feremans frequented considered him as a renegade at that moment, because he had isolated himself for quite a while in order to work at his symphony. Feremans for that matter was convinced that with this symphony he had "done far more for the movement than (they had done with) ten years of yelling and shouting 'Hail and Hurray'!".
Due to the lack of a Flemish orchestral culture and as he saw few chances for performing his symphonic music, he subsequently limited himself to virtually writing vocal music only. Thus he composed plenty of religious works, such as the oratorios Johannes de Doper (John the Baptist, 1934), Maria (1936-1937) and Laudes Valentini (1955-1956), as well as six masses.
In 1936-1937 Feremans conducted the Vlaamsch-nationaal Zangkoor (Flemish-National Singing Choir), but he quit because foremost he wanted to be a composer and not a "political-musical fighter". However, as it became more and more apparent that he had hardly any possibilities for a career as a composer or an orchestra conductor, Feremans got increasingly involved with the nationalistic movement in music. Soon in fact he had already become active in organising the Flemish National Song Feast, for which he made propaganda throughout Flanders with the Vlaamsch Nationaal Gemengd Koor (Flemish National Mixed Choir). At this Songfest, between 1936 and 1943 and between 1959 and 1963 he featured as the conductor as well. And so he did at the Yser Pilgrimage and on the Day of the Flemish Song.
During the Second World War Feremans travelled through Flanders with his choir Het Vendel (The Flag), with which he also appeared at Radio Station Brussels and for right-wing organisations such as the Vlaamsch Nationaal Verbond (VNV, Flemish National Union), the Nationaal-Socialistische Jeugd Vlaanderen (NSJV, National-Socialist Youth Flanders) as well as the Duitsch-Vlaamsche Arbeidsgemeenschap (German-Flemish Collaborative Society). In this period he wrote battle songs like Dietsche jeugd (Youth of the Low Countries), Mijn volk wordt groot (My People achieves Greatness) and Het lied der Dietsche vrouwen (The Song of the Women of the Low Countries), on texts by Ferdinand Vercnocke.
From 1 May 1942 to 31 December 1943 he was director of musical services of Radio Station Brussels, in succession of Arthur Meulemans.
For these forms of cultural collaboration he was arrested in his dwelling-place Baardegem on 9 September 1944 and imprisoned in Mechelen and among other places in the detention camp of Lokeren. As a convict he composed several works, such as Gebed voor Vlaanderen (Prayer for Flanders, text by Remi Piryns, 1944), the Missa Recollectionis (1945) and songs on texts written by his fellow-detainee Bert Peleman. The Brussels court-martial sentenced him on 10 May 1946 to seven years of confinement, a fine of 50,000 francs and life disfranchisement of his political and civil rights. In consequence of this verdict the Aalst town council dismissed him as director of the music school on 6 December 1948 "because of a lack of civic loyalty", retroactively from 1 September 1944. In March 1947 he was released and in 1958 he recovered his civil rights.
Meanwhile for a living Feremans worked as organist, first at St Augustine's church and later at St Anthony's, both in Antwerp. He also arranged for orchestra several compositions of Jules van Nuffel and a series of popular songs for the concerts of the Belgian Radio and Television Broadcasting, as well as Willem de Meyer's Mijn land is Vlaanderen (Flanders is my Country). His best-known song, Gebed voor het Vaderland (Prayer for the Fatherland), which in Flemish radical circles virtually got the status of Flemish national hymn, also dates from this period. Furthermore, Feremans cooperated in the production of records for the European Phono Club.
Although as a tuberculosis patient he mostly spent his final years in sanatoriums, he remained active as a composer: in 1958 his Sonatine voor beiaard (Sonatina for Carillon) was awarded the Town of Mechelen Expo Prize and that same year he received an exceptional incentive prize in the Lodewijk Mortelmans composition contest for his Jaarkrans van geestelijke en wereldlijke liederen (Yearlong Anthology of Sacred and Profane Songs). In 1961 his oratorio Het Bronzen Hart (The Bronze Heart) was performed in Mechelen. It was dedicated to Staf Nees. Until shortly before his death he had been working at a composition commissioned by the Flemish Tourist Association - Flemish Automobile Association, a Geuzensymfonie (Beggars' Symphony), only one part of which he was able to complete.
© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek - Jan Dewilde (translation: Jo Sneppe)