Pierre-Jean received initial music lessons from his father, Jean-Baptiste Van Damme, a primary school teacher and sexton-organist in Sint-Laureins near Eeklo. Already during his secondary school career at the Minor Seminary in Sint-Niklaas the young man displayed exceptional talents, graduating as ‘primus perpetuus’. His father interfered with his desire to continue his piano studies, but nevertheless Pierre-Jean still managed to practise studying on a wooden board on which he had delineated a clavier. Concurrently he also tried on his own to analyse the harmony and counterpoint of the works he studied. Music, and above all church music, was to remain a lifelong passion, yet he was neither able nor allowed to respond to the call of his muse.
In 1853 he took up studies of philosophy at the same Minor Seminary and from October 1854 on he studied theology at the Major Seminary of Ghent. In 1858 he was ordained as a priest in Bruges and got appointed as private teacher of the family De Volder in Destelbergen. After six years he resumed his studies, this time in classical and oriental languages at the University of Leuven. However, less than a year later, in 1865, he was appointed as final-year teacher at the Minor Seminary in Sint-Niklaas, which again prevented him from finishing his studies. At this school he revealed himself not only as an expert on Latin and Greek, but he also knew Syrian and Hebrew and was fluent in French, German, Spanish and Italian.
In 1869 Van Damme was appointed at the Major Seminary of Ghent as teacher of church history and music. With a view to preparing himself for this commitment, he made a study trip to Rome, where he stayed for two months. Disappointed with the level of sacred music in the Roman churches he travelled to Germany near the end of the same year. One of the sites he visited was Regensburg, the birthplace of Cecilianism, a movement founded by Frans Xaver Witt aiming at raising the level of religious music. In the Major Seminary he mainly applied himself to the study of music, being also charged with improving and organising music teaching. Not only did he have intensive contacts with Gevaert, but he also collaborated with the latter's Vademecum de l’Organiste.
From 1876 on he played an important part in founding the 'Ecole de Musique religieuse' of Mechelen (1878), establishing contacts with Lemmens at the request of the Belgian bishops and convincing him to direct the school. Van Damme was also the driving spirit in the foundation of the St Gregory Society in 1880, which was strongly connected with the school. Starting in 1881 he was also the editor in chief of Musica sacra, the society's periodical. Owing to pressure of work and restless study zeal, however, his health declined: in the course of 1891 he fell victim to a nervous disease which kept tormenting him until his death seven years later.
It is obvious that as a composer Van Damme was exclusively devoted to religious music. Primarily he arranged the harmonisation of Gregorian music, for example the Missa de Angeli, Tantum ergo, Pange Lingua, Ave Maris Stella, Ave Maria, Magnificat, Iste Confessor. He also wrote four-part settings of procession chants in honour of the Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady, as well as accompaniments for the Missa de angelis, the Missa pro defunctis, the Ordinarium Missae and Vesperae et Laudes Vespertinae. Moreover he composed motets, a Te Deum and organ works including a Pastorale. As editor in chief of Musica Sacra most of the articles on Gregorian chant flowed out of his pen.
© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Annelies Focquaert (translation: Jo Sneppe)