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Nees, Staf

Mechelen, 02/12/1901 > Mechelen, 25/01/1965


Nees, Staf

by Els Stevens after Koen Cosaert

When in 1901 Staf Nees was born in Mechelen, this town had developed into a place brimming over with music. At St Rombout's Cathedral the 'Ecclesia triumphans' was experiencing glorious days all the more thanks to the foundation in 1916 of the St Rombout's Choir, which at once grew into the most important cathedral choir in Belgium, the cathedral organists Oscar Depuydt and Flor Peeters firmly defining the organ scene.

At the outskirts of the town the Interdiocesan Higher Institute for Church Music was situated, better known as the Lemmens Institute. When in 1918 Van Nuffel took over the helm from Aloys Desmet he managed to give this school a new zeal by the appointment of a number of young teachers such as Henri Durieux, Marinus de Jong, Flor Peeters and also Staf Nees. Since 1892 the municipal carilloneur Jef Denyn enticed quite a lot of spectators to come to Mechelen for his evening concerts.

Already before 1914 Staf Nees manifested a growing interest for the carillon, in Mechelen personified by the carilloneur Jef Denyn. At the outbreak of the First World War, however, the latter fled with his family to Tunbridge Wells in England, thus delaying Nees's carillon studies to the year 1919.

At that point Nees had been studying at the Lemmens Institute for three years, his teachers being Jules Van Nuffel, Lodewijk Mortelmans and Oscar Depuydt. In 1922 he obtained the Lemmens-Tinel Prize magna cum laude. At once he was appointed as organist of the Hanswijk church and also as conductor of the choir and orchestra of the Edgar Tinel Royal Art Society. Concurrently that same year he became both student and teacher at the newly founded carillon school of Denyn, then located at the Wool Market. In 1924 Nees and Lefévere were the first graduates to take the Laureate Degree of the Mechelen Carillon School.

As he had completed his carillon studies, Nees now had time to further develop his career as a music pedagogue. At the Lemmens Institute he taught harmony and chorale, a lifelong position he held unvaryingly, just like he did with his other tasks, to the end of his life. In 1945 he got appointed as director of the Carillon School, which was only a confirmation of a duty he had already assumed at the death of Denyn in 1941. Among his fellow-carilloneurs Nees was one of the few professionally trained musicians, so at once he was set on a pedestal. As second director in line of the Carillon School he guaranteed the dissemination of Denyn's range of ideas.

Teaching at the Lemmens Institute for Nees meant being jointly responsible for the further development of liturgical music in the Belgian Catholic Church. This is actually the reason why Nees's compositional oeuvre mainly consists of vocal music. Along with Jules Van Nuffel and his colleagues Flor Peeters, Marinus de Jong and Jules Vijverman he formed the so-called Mechelen school. The style of this school is strongly influenced by Gregorian music, in fact in accordance with one of the prime objectives of the Lemmens Institute at its foundation in 1879, fully in the spirit of the Motu proprio.

In Staf Nees's oeuvre the motet takes a prominent position: he composed some sixty motets in diverse casts. In keeping with the tradition of Mendelssohn's romantic oratorio Nees also composed two large oratorios: Simon (1935) and Maria (1938). His commitment to the choral world also brought about a number of brilliant choral compositions including Musica (1932) for six-part mixed choir on a text by L. Lambrechts. In addition he composed some 80 songs.

Instrumental music only constituted a minor part of Nees's oeuvre. For decades on end virtually each Sunday he played the organ in the Hanswijk church, and yet he barely wrote some ten small works for organ. Though he was an excellent pianist too, Nees likewise showed but little interest in composing for this instrument. His legacy contains only a foursome short piano pieces. With his music for carillon, however, Nees broke new grounds as a pioneer. He extended the repertoire with 44 new compositions, including 8 Preludes, 4 Fantasias, 4 Dances and 3 Variations.

When in 1922 Nees composed his first work for carillon, there was hardly any original contemporary music for this instrument. Some composers, such as Jef van Hoof and Paul Gilson, had been invited by Denyn to enrich the carillon repertoire with new works, but this initiative had not really been successful due to the enormous gap between the style of professional composers and the limitations in carillon playing techniques existing then, the instrument having lost its valuable musical status during the 19th century and belonging to folklore ever since. In order to boost the prestige of the carillon, Staf Nees opted for a repertoire that bore close resemblance to the traditional forms and styles of the leading instruments.

Until his death in 1965 he remained one of the most prolific composers for carillon. At the time he started composing, his sole example consisted of Denyn's few, rather improvisational preludes. Nees stimulated the birth of a more contemporary style of writing for the carillon and also thanks to the composition contests he organised from the fifties onwards he substantially enlarged the repertoire. Later he introduced his method and principles to friends and colleagues like Gaston Feremans, Arthur Meulemans, Jef Rottiers, Jos Lerinckx and plenty of students at the Mechelen Carillon School.

© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Els Stevens after Koen Cosaert (translation: Jo Sneppe)