Cyriel Van den Abeele was born in the East-Flanders little village of Ursel, as scion of at least three generations of sexton-organists. In this tradition he received his first organ lessons from his father Hyppoliet, who had been sexton-organist in Ursel since 1872. In 1893 Cyriel Van den Abeele enrolled at the Conservatory of Ghent, where in 1895 he obtained first prizes for organ (Jozef Tilborghs and assistant Adolphe D'Hulst), theoretical harmony (Paul Lebrun), practical harmony and figured bass (Frans Van Avermaete) as well as composition (Adolphe Samuel). The first prize for fugue followed one year later (Samuel). In 1897 he graduated with the final degree for organ ('diplôme de capacité'), a prize that is only rarely awarded. Among his fellow students at that time he counted Emiel Hullebroeck, Jaak Opsomer (who on his own final exam for organ played a work by Van den Abeele) and Ernest Brengier. Together with the latter he participated in the Prix de Rome competition in 1899 with the cantata Bruiloftsklokken (Wedding Bells), without however earning a prize. Unlike many other candidates he never ventured a second attempt. In that same year his first songs were published in Heyndrickx' Studentenliederboek (Anthology of Students' Songs).
In 1901 Cyriel Van den Abeele became organist of the Ghent St Nicholas' church, in succession of Désiré Van Reysschoot. There until his death nearly half a century later, Van den Abeele had the lifelong privilege of playing the famous Cavaillé-Coll organ. He was well-known and much-beloved among the public for his improvisatory talent in the non-theatrical contrapuntal style of the old masters, so the Sunday high mass became a big attraction for music lovers from Ghent and its environs. This is how Floris Van der Mueren described these moments: “Those who have known Ghent the last 50 years were aural witness of the great surge of people towards the organ Mass on Sundays at 11 a.m. in St Nicholas' church. There for three quarters of an hour one could hear the humble yet extremely well-trained Cyriel Van den Abeele, pupil of the old Tilborgs (sic), improvising on themes out of the liturgy of the day in a continuous contrapuntal polyphony, both striking and interesting, a powerful reminder of the predilections of the old Bach. Thousands of people heard him, holding him in great esteem, and in the Ghent region a core of faithful listeners attended Mass each Sunday to enjoy the unadulterated and unaffected yet very diverse and legato contrapuntal playing of this fine musician, flowing as a piece of nature right from his heart. He was an organist truthfully honouring a tradition that still sporadically generated an offspring of the art of the fugue.”
When in 1902 Jozef Tilborghs retired from the Conservatory as organ teacher, Van den Abeele had to face a disappointment: not he, but the young Léandre Vilain was appointed as successor. The Ghent incrowd cried shame over the fact that the francophone Emile Mathieu, director of the Conservatory since 1898, had appointed the francophone Vilain without submitting him to an exam, thus passing over Van den Abeele; some sources suggest that in this matter, which caused a stir in the newspapers, Van den Abeele's catholic Flemish nationalism had also played a part. In any case Van den Abeele subsequently mainly withdrew into his organist function at St Nicholas' church, hardly composing anymore. In 1931 he put himself up again as organ teacher at the Ghent Conservatory, this time in succession of Léandre Vilain: yet it was Flor Peeters who got the job.
By missing out in 1902 on his appointment as organ teacher, Van den Abeele felt forced to open a grocery shop in Ghent together with his wife as well as travelling around as a sales representative. In addition he became a private music tutor and also music teacher at the Josephites' school in Melle.
In the lyrical biography which Lambrecht Lambrechts published in Muziek-Warande in 1926, he encouraged Van den Abeele to start composing again, while also arguing that his exceptional improvisatory talent could actually better be used in a higher improvisation course. Indeed from the 1920s on Van den Abeele apparently took up composing again, yet the idea of a higher improvisational course didn't materialise. Van den Abeele still experienced one modest glorious moment when in 1946, shortly before his death, he gave an improvisation recital for officers of the liberation army.
As a composer Van den Abeele was mainly active in the relatively short period between his last years of study (around 1895) and his marriage in 1904, and again from the 1920s onwards. His record of achievements counts songs, works for piano and chamber music as well as some works for orchestra, in addition to the obvious sacred music (cantatas, motets, Masses, partly published as musical supplements of the periodical Musica Sacra). Van den Abeele only composed two works for organ: an Andante con espressione published in the series Les Maîtres contemporains de l'orgue of abbé Joubert (3rd part, 1912), and a Scherzando (fantasia). His compositional style for religious works is classical and in function of liturgy, whereas in his orchestral and chamber music works a partiality for Wagner can be noticed.
A great amount of his compositions was donated by his family to the library of the Antwerp Conservatory in 2010.
© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Annelies Focquaert (translation: Jo Sneppe)