Alex Papen (Paepen) was a scion of a family of organists from Ekeren, his father Frans being organist of the local St Lambert's church. Thanks to his father's lessons he already played the organ during the services right from childhood. Alex was sent to the Minor Seminary of Hoogstraten to prepare for university studies, but as he preferred to take up music studies he schemed to be expelled from school for bad behaviour. Subsequently his father sent him to the Lindemans boarding school in Opwijk: if he succeeded in becoming the top student of the class he would be allowed to go to the conservatory. Meanwhile his teacher August De Boeck taught him to play the piano and to improvise.
Papen studied counterpoint, harmony and fugue at the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp with Lodewijk De Vocht and took organ lessons first with Jozef Callaerts, and from 1902 with Arthur De Hovre. With the latter he earned his first prize for organ soon after, the years 1902, 1903 or 1912 being recorded respectively as graduation years in different sources.
At Antwerp Cathedral he was appointed in 1904 (1905) as ‘auxiliary organist’ next to Gustaaf Brees. When his father passed away on 15 July 1906, he was appointed as his successor in Ekeren, yet he stayed in office for just a short time, becoming organist of the Holy Ghost's church in Antwerp in 1909. From 1920 to 1928 he was music teacher at St John Berchmans' grammar school, concurrently teaching solfège at the Conservatory.
On 14 April 1926 in the Antwerp City Reception Hall he inaugurated the Schyven organ renovated by Jos Stevens. By way of thanks for his selfless cooperation he was appointed as honorary organist of the city of Antwerp. In that same year he succeeded Gustaaf Brees at Antwerp Cathedral as titular organist, a function he held until 1962.
When his former organ teacher Arthur De Hovre passed away in 1931, Alex Papen succeeded him at the Antwerp Conservatory, counting Clement D’Hooghe among his pupils. From 1947 on he took advantage of the early retirement option and officially retired in 1955. Meanwhile Flor Peeters had succeeded him in July 1948 as organ teacher.
In addition to his long career as a teacher and as Cathedral organist he was also active as concert organist, especially being widely known for his improvisatory art. He inaugurated several new organs in the Antwerp region and also played at the World Exhibition of 1935. He regularly performed abroad as well, though the details are harder to verify. It is known for sure that he had strong ties with London: for instance the Cinq petits préludes en sol majeur et mineur, published in the series Maîtres Contemporains de l’Orgue (1912) were dedicated to Walter W. Hedgcock, who from about 1896 to certainly before World War I was organist and conductor in London's Crystal Palace. In this prestigious hall Papen played several concerts and in April 1938 he was guest of honour at a meeting of the London ‘Society of Organists’. Early in 1939 he was made honorary member of this society: along with Marcel Dupré he was till then the only foreign organist to whom this honour was conferred. In 1947 The Musical Times published favourable words concerning Papen's commitment to British organ music.
Furthermore Papen was also offered some inviting proposals to come and work in ‘Dollar land’, yet he was too much devoted to his organ in Antwerp Cathedral to accept these offers. According to another story he was able to convince no one less than Alphonse Mustel of his musical capacities to such an extent that the latter invited him twice to come to give a concert in Paris. His love for the harmonium was a thread throughout his life. Thus a portrait of 1964 states: “With melancholy and regret Alex Papen concludes that the interest in harmonium music is steadily dwindling. Soon not one single professional craftsman is even likely to be found anymore to repair the world-famous Mustels. The idea that one day this perfect instrument is bound to be lost is a hard one for Alex Papen to bear up against.”
For his lifelong merits as Cathedral organist he was awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice cross, in addition to being honoured as a Knight in the Order of Leopold and in the papal Order of St Sylvester.
He legated a sum of money for organising a biennial Alex Papen prize, at which his Concert Study in G major was to be the set work. The competition was first held in 1966.
As a composer he only published a few works, among them the above-mentioned Concertstudie in G and 5 petits préludes, an Aria and a Fantasie for organ. For the Antwerp Cathedral choir he wrote a four-part Onze-Lieve-vrouwemis (Our Lady's Mass) and religious songs such as Jesu allerliefste kind (Jesus Dearest Child ) and a Tantum ergo. In the Antwerp Letterenhuis several autographs of his are kept: liturgical music, songs and some works for organ.
© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Annelies Focquaert (translation: Jo Sneppe)