Alfons Mervillie was born in 1856 in a very religious family. Of his fifteen siblings five became nuns, one a brother with the Friars Preachers in Ghent and one, like Mervillie himself, a priest. He started his education with his uncle Jan-Baptist in Dentergem, who also imparted to him the first principles of music. Later Mervillie moved to the Minor Seminary in Roeselare, where his teachers included Hugo Verriest (in his final year) and Johan De Stoop (music). De Stoop recognized Mervillie’s musical talent, appointing him as his adjunct organist and choir leader. After graduating at the Minor Seminary Mervillie took a one-year course in philosophy in Roeselare before relocating to Bruges with a view to starting his formative years in theology at the Major Seminary. In 1882 he was ordained as a priest.
In the meantime Mervillie had already been teaching organ and plainchant at the episcopal teachers’ training college in Torhout (1880-1891), where he was dubbed ‘Bach-Mervillie’. His classes of plainsong were based on the Traité de chant liturgique by Johan De Stoop. His pupils included Jozef Valckenaere, Remi Ghesquiere, Andries Bulcke, August Tanghe and Arthur Verhoeven. In 1886 he became honorary president of the Association of Organists of West-Flanders. The shape of his pastoral career developed as follows: in 1891 he became adjunct parish priest in Dudzele, in 1895 he relocated to Nieuwpoort for the same position, and after three more years he was appointed in Aartrijke, still as an adjunct parish priest. Here Mervillie became the soul and key figure of the choral guild, while concurrently founding the St Cecilia brass band. In 1913 he graduated to the position of parish priest in Nieuwkapelle. There he enjoyed tenure until his retirement in 1933, apart from a short stay during the First World War at Drincham in French Flanders.
Mervillie was not only active as a parish priest, he was also a poet, a composer, a conductor, and a writer on current affairs. Thus he wrote in 1904, after several trips to Italy, a comprehensive, two-volume monograph about the then Pope Pius X, which was translated into French and Italian. As a poet Mervillie became renowned with his translation of Longfellow’s poem Evangeline, for which he travelled to England with a view to getting steeped in the life and works of Longfellow. Henry Longfellow was rather popular with Flemish poets, what with Guido Gezelle also translating one of his long poems, The Song of Hiawatha.
In addition to writing poems, Mervillie composed several choral pieces and songs, including Duinelied Leve De Panne (Dune Song, Long Live De Panne 1878), the Christmas carol Duizende Sterren Versieren den Hemel (Thousands of Stars Adorn Heaven, 1879), and the harvest song Het Laatste van de oogst is binnen (The Last Harvest Has Been Reaped, 1902). However, pride of place belongs to his 14 liederen uit de gedichten van Guido Gezelle (14 Songs from the Poems of Guido Gezelle). For his pupils Mervillie composed 2 volumes for organ, entitled 6 Fugen voor orgel met of zonder pedaal (6 Fugues for Organ with or without Pedal) and 33 kleine en gemakkelijke orgelstukken zonder voetspel (33 Little and Easy Organ Pieces without Pedalwork). Two Masses for four parts, thirty Latin motets and several variations for organ also contributed to his oeuvre. Sometimes Mervillie mingled his poetry with his musical experiences, for example in the poem O die Klanken! (Oh, Those Sounds!) inspired by the piano playing of the prematurely deceased André Devaere (1890-1914).
© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek - Veerle Bosmans & Adeline Boeckaert (translation: Joris Duytschaever)