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Thielemans, Pierre

Sint-Pieters-Woluwe, 22/02/1825 > Guingamp (FR), 03/12/1898


Thielemans, Pierre

by Annelies Focquaert

He got his musical initiation from his father, who was organist with the Jesuits in Brussels. Later he studied at the Conservatory of Brussels, where from 1838 he received a solid musical education, earning first prizes in solfège (1842, with Lados and van Helmont), harmony (1844 with Bosselet, as a fellow-student of Lemmens), composition (1845 with Fétis) and organ (1848 with Christian Girschner). In 1849, together with Stadtfeld and Lassen, he competed in the Prix de Rome (unsuccessfully so), and again in 1853 with the cantata Les Chrétiens Martyrs, equally without success. According to Gregoir he was organist of the Catherine Church in Brussels for sure in 1857, though this is disputed by Vannes. During his holidays he was teaching in Paris and London.

When Thielemans’s friend and compatriot Hippolyte Loret built a new organ for the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours basilica in Guingamp (Brittany), he asked Thielemans to inaugurate the instrument on 7 February 1865. For several reasons Thielemans was finally appointed as organist and choirmaster and settled permanently there. Loret undoubtedly played an important part as an intermediary for his arrival and subsequent appointment as organist. Already at the inauguration Thielemans convincingly proved his mettle by his playing style, his knowledge of the “old masters” and his predilection for clear melodies in a strictly formal framework. He worked for the Guingamp basilica until his death, for 33 years.

Among other reasons for his successful integration in Guingamp is certainly his marriage in 1866 to a daughter of a small businessman in that same town. An additional factor was that in Brittany he found a climate of simple and honest faith matching his ideal of a Catholic organist, as well as an extended network of professional organists. In Guingamp Thielemans became an intimate friend of the lawyer Sigismond Ropartz, father of organist Guy Ropartz. Sigismond Ropartz was a man of wide reading, very much an ‘homme de lettres’ intensely engaged in the history of Brittany. In this way he introduced Thielemans to regional movements advocating the Breton language, while also stimulating him to give expression in his music to the Breton identity.

Several works resulted from their collaboration, their first joint opus being the cantata Les deux Bretagnes, performed in the fall of 1867 in the framework of the ‘Congrès celtique international’ in Saint-Brieuc. This work may be considered as the first appearance of art music in the Breton movement. It was followed by an opéra-comique (Michel Columb, sculpteur breton, created in the theatre of Rennes, 1867), an anthology of songs Harmonies champêtres (1868), an oratorio (Au pied de l’autel, 1875), and a second cantata, Les Pélerins de Sainte-Anne-d’Auray (1876).

From a look at his oeuvre it transpires that the works from his Belgian period are scarce, and also that he only published 3 works for organ, which seems to indicate that for his own instrument Thielemans preferred to express himself by means of improvisations rather than compositions. Conversely he composed quite a lot of works for piano, which not only reflect the spirit of the times but also his activities as a piano teacher.

Yet the major part of his work - about 120 opus numbers - is for the benefit of Brittany, whether it is profane or religious music. Not only do the titles speak for themselves: Fleurs de Bretagne, L’Oraison de Mr saint Yves, Echos de la Bretagne, but also the music itself testifies of a very strong influence. Thielemans makes use for instance of dancing themes in his piano works (Les Dérobées) and of profane traditional songs from the Breton songbook Barzaz Breiz, as in his opéra-comique Michel Columb, dealing with the so-called Breton author of the memorial stones of the Dukes of Burgundy in Nantes Cathedral. Even more important is his harmonisation and transcription of religious popular songs into sacred compositions, in collaboration with Charles Collin, organist of Saint-Brieuc Cathedral. Examples are the Messe de Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours and the Cantate bretonne en l’honneur de saint Yves, both dating from 1890. He himself also collected popular songs in the region around Guingamp, publishing them for example in the supplement to Telen Rumengol (1867) and Telen Gwengamp (1869) of the poet J. P. Lescour. That's what earned him the Breton surname “Telenn d’Arvor” (the harp or bard of Brittany), such as mentioned also on his gravestone in Guingamp.

By dedicating his talent to the cultural identity of Brittany and by making use of modal tonalities, Thielemans established a relationship between ‘learned’ music and popular music, a link which he put first and foremost in his musical activities. His method is not an isolated case but fits into the framework of both the general awakening of the national spirit in the 2nd half of the 19th century and the search for a new point of view for tonality.

Although Thielemans spent the major part of his professional life in Brittany, he always kept the Belgian nationality. A great deal of Thielemans’ compositions are preserved in the Louis Lebreton Fund in the Breton library of the Abbey of Landévennec.

Thielemans was knight of the order of ‘Saint-Grégoire le grand’. His friend Charles Collin composed in 1906 a Marche élégiaque à la mémoire de Pierre Thielemans, organiste de la Basilique de N.-D. de Bon Secours à Guingamp.

© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Annelies Focquaert (translation: Jo Sneppe)