Alfons Moortgat was born in 1881 in Opdorp in East Flanders and received his earliest music education from his father. At the age of ten he sang and accompanied the Gregorian masses in his native village as well as regularly giving little organ recitals for the parish priest of the village and some friends. During his secondary studies in Tienen, Moortgat stayed as a boarder with his uncle Frans Moortgat, who also taught him music. Frans had studied at the Conservatory of Brussels and was organist at the St Germanus church in Tienen.
After his studies Moortgat struggled with divided loyalties about choosing between letters and music. As a student he was encouraged by his teacher Edward De Keyser to publish a volume of poetry. The selection Uit Woud en Weide (From Forest and Meadow, 1898) was not always acclaimed with enthusiasm. In the leading periodical Dietsche Warande en Belfort, a review by one A.C. stated unambiguously: "It’s a bad idea to fool a youngster of eighteen into believing that he is a poet when actually he is only a versifier".
All the same, Moortgat did not refrain from pursuing his literary interests, even after he had decided to commit himself fully to music. His home grew into a meeting place for prominent artists: Stijn Streuvels, Hugo Verriest, Valerius De Saedeleer, Ernest Claes and Gustaaf Van de Woestijne belonged to his circle of friends. Once in a while he wrote the texts for his songs himself or translated texts from the French. In 1903 he was also elected to the South Netherlandic Association for Language, Literature and History, and in 1920 the Royal Flemish Academy for Language and Literature awarded him a prize for his voluminous work Germanismen in het Nederlandsch (Germanisms in Dutch, 1925).
Much the same way that Moortgat was self-taught in literary matters, he was trained only sporadically in music. He took some classes at the Lemmens Institute with Edgar Tinel, among others. In 1902 he was appointed organist at St Genesius Rode and Lembeek, until in 1905 he became choir leader at Our Lady’s Church in Halle, where he stayed until 1919. The craft of composing was something he learnt through practice: he wrote several sacred and secular songs, motets and masses.
Fame came his way mainly through the mystery play Maria’s leven (Mary’s Life) on a text by Aloïs Walgraeve, composed on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the consecration of the church in Halle. Moortgat composed this majestic work in 1909-1910, earning immediate acclaim. Comparisons with the famous passion plays of Oberammergau abounded. Because the original hall in Halle was too small to accommodate the overflowing audience, a new hall with a capacity of 2000 seats was built in 1911. Emiel Hullebroeck write about Moortgat’s mystery play in the periodical Muziek-Warande: "Essentially Moortgat is a lyricist here, capable of expressing the whole range of feelings, from the clear and calm to the tragic and dark ones, from the sweet and dreamy to the enthusiastic, all of them in simple timbres, corresponding to the demands of the text."
These characteristics are also typical of Moortgat’s sacred and profane songs, often constructed as little masterpieces evoking a mood, while concurrently staying as close to the text as possible. He uses simple melodies that are easy to sing, supporting them with a varied piano accompaniment.
Moortgat applied himself first and foremost with a lot of dedication to the cause of sacred music in Flanders. In 1904 he started the publication of Geestelijke Liederenkrans (Sacred Song Garland), producing some six instalments and successive reprints. In the preface to his first volume Moortgat writes: "If this work can help to start cultivating the as yet partly underdeveloped field of he genuine sacred song, then we will consider our efforts richly rewarded." This wish was to be fulfilled, for in 1909 Pope Pius X awarded him the decoration 'Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice' for his contribution to the revival of polyphonic church music.
In 1923 he became the laureate of an international competition for church music organized by the 'Procure Générale de musique religieuse' in France. In 1953 he received the medal of Knight in the Order of Leopold II; in 1956 he received the papal decoration of St Sylvester on the occasion of his 75th birthday.
© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Veerle Bosmans (translation: Joris Duytschaever)