Van Nuffel, Jules

Hemiksem, 21/03/1883 > Wilrijk, 25/06/1953


Van Nuffel, Jules

by Karolien Selhorst after Luc Leytens

Although Jules Van Nuffel's oeuvre can by and large be subsumed under the limited category of vocal music and even more specifically under the label of sacred music, he has to be recognized as one of the most prominent Flemish composers of the twentieth century. Jules Van Nuffel was born in a well-to-do family. His mother was his first teacher of music. His grammar school formative years were spent as a boarder at the Minor Seminary in Mechelen, the city where he was going to settle down for the rest of his life. In 1901 he went for the priesthood and in 1907 he was ordained by Cardinal Mercier, who immediately appointed him as music teacher of the Minor Seminary. In 1918 he was appointed as director of the Lemmens Institute and in 1933 as lecturer at the Catholic University of Leuven. Furthermore he became an honorary canon in 1926 and a 'supernumerary private chamberlain' of the pope in 1946.

Jules Van Nuffel's musical education did not follow the normal course. He never attended a conservatory and was taught mostly in one-to-one tutorials. It was only at the Major Seminary in Mechelen that he was in a position to take advantage of more or less regular courses by Edgar Tinel, Oscar Depuydt, and Alfons Desmet. Sometimes he also consulted with the composer Joseph Ryelandt, who was living in Brugge. However, first and foremost Van Nuffel remained a self-taught musician. Whatever inadequacies may have been the result of this, they were made up by a cultural backbone and a musical literacy surpassing by far the level of professional musicians in those years. 

First and foremost Jules Van Nuffel could be dubbed a born choir leader. By virtue of the impression made by his Minor Seminary choir, the St Rombout's choir was founded in 1916. Particularly after the Great War his fame increased dramatically, both at home and abroad. Under his leadership the St Rombout's choir became the model of a great twentieth-century cathedral choir. With this instrument Van Nuffel devoted himself fully to the cause of Gregorian music, the masters of polyphony and numerous contemporary composers. He conducted this choir until 1949. 

Of great importance was also his tenure as director of the Lemmens Institute which he, after a period of decline during the First World War, managed to revive again. From 1927 on he succeeded in resuming the publication of the periodical Musica Sacra, discontinued in 1914, and in establishing it as an authoritative medium in the field of church music.

Van Nuffel also has to be counted among the founding fathers of musicology in Belgium. The edition of works by the Mechelen polyphonist Philippus de Monte (1521-1603) was published by him between 1927 and 1939 in collaboration with Van Doorslaer and with the eminent Brussels musicologist Charles van den Borren. In 1943 he laid the foundations for a complete musicological department at Leuven, the first of its kind in Belgium. 

His life-task-project was the advancement of religious music. Catholic church music had reached a turning point at the beginning of the twentieth century. The encyclical letter Motu Proprio, issued by Pope Pius X in 1903, prescribed a purification of sacred music from profane influences. Van Nuffel's mission fitted into this perspective: he wanted a kind of church music that met not only the liturgical requirements, but also the most exacting technical and artistic qualities. Van Nuffel's earliest compositions, most of them unpublished, contain a series of Gezelleliederen (Gezelle Songs), among others. Especially productive were the years 1907-1914, when a considerable number of short motets were written, both for equal voices (male choir) and for mixed choir. Among them are pearls of musicality, unadorned and exceptionally fresh.

Surely one wonders why Van Nuffel left behind only four masses, each one for a different cast. The first one is the Drievuldigheidsmis (Trinity Mass, 1914) for male choir and organ. The Missa in honorem Sacratissimi Cordis Jesu, 1916) is the only one for mixed choir and organ. Then followed the Sint-Jozefsmis (St Joseph's Mass, ca.1924) for three equal voices a cappella, and the Missa Paschalis (1927) for two boys' voices and organ, but the design of these works was more concise.

The most impressive works by Jules Van Nuffel originated after 1920. They were completely conceived in accordance with the strength and the capacities of St Rombout's choir. This was the period of the great psalm settings, the point of departure certainly being Super flumina Babylonis (1916). Except for Voce mea (1935) for a cappella octet, all psalm settings were written for a mixed choir of 4 to 6 parts with organ accompaniment. Several of them were also orchestrated. 

In the same spirit as the psalms some splendid occasional motets have to be mentioned: Statuit (1924) and Ecce Sacerdos Magnus (1926), as well as three Te Deum compositions. In addition to these grand pieces he also delivered shorter, but not less impressive motets later in his career. 

Finally worth mentioning is that Van Nuffel wrote some works inspired by Dutch texts. First of all, there are the Drie Geestelijke Liederen (Three Spiritual Songs) and the Twee Kerstliederen (Two Christmas Songs), dating back to the dark war winter of 1917. Also his adaptations of old Flemish Christmas songs remain very charming. His stage music for Vondel's Lucifer (1922) for soloists, choir and orchestra, was widely acclaimed, though there was never a rerun afterwards. 

Jules Van Nuffel's compositions had a refreshing impact not only on catholic church music in the first half of the twentieth century, but also on Flemish music generally. It developed an idiosyncratic synthesis of old church modes, Gregorian melodies and harmonies seeped in impressionist colours. All this was combined by Van Nuffel with a profound knowledge and a perfect vocal sensitivity for the speech melody of religious texts, coalescing into an exceptional achievement of wholeness. Because of their originality several of these works became also famous abroad (they were distributed by the German publisher Schwann, among others). 

Already before 1914 he advocated the adoption of a style that was then still considered as 'daringly modern' in church music, and he stuck to his guns throughout his career.

© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek - Karolien Selhorst after Luc Leytens (translation: Joris Duytschaever)