Pieter Jan Van Paesschen was an important figure in the music scene of the Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where he worked from 1839 to his death as a composer, organist, music teacher and conductor. He was born, however, in "the Gate of the Campine Region", the Limburg village of Zonhoven, where his father Arnold was a cobbler.
Far removed from Antwerp and Brussels, in language and spirit cut off from Liège, the province of Limburg remained for a long time a vacuum in the field of music. Zonhoven counted one village school, with one schoolmaster, but an institutionalised music education wasn't anywhere near yet. Young Pieter Jan, showing since childhood a great talent for music, therefore depended on private tutoring: he regularly walked on foot to Peer, later to Meerhout and Hasselt (7 km further on) for lessons including piano instruction, theory of music and presumably organ as well. Hasselt boasted a tradition of musical societies, which organised concerts and music education. In the figure of Ulysse Claes, the well-to-do president of the ‘Société de Musique de la Ville de Hasselt’, Pieter Jan Van Paesschen as a matter of fact found a maecenas for his music studies.
Little is known about his career before 1839. Possibly he played the organ of St Quintinus' church in Zonhoven, of the chapel of Ten Eikenen (a hamlet of his native village), and of St Quintinus' cathedral in Hasselt. In the 1830s he gave private piano lessons in Hasselt. He also composed, for in a review published in Le Nouvelliste du Limbourg of 8 March 1835 we read: "a young music teacher in this city, Mr Van Paesschen, is also entitled to praise; with great pleasure we enjoyed listening to his composition piece, performed by himself on the piano".
In 1839 Van Paesschen put in an application for the vacancy of organist at St John's cathedral in ’s-Hertogenbosch (the Netherlands), in which he profiled himself as "piano teacher in Hasselt", while J.W. Swaans from Hasselt praised him in a letter of recommendation as "an excellent master on the piano, (…), generally respected for his competences, (…) also being a composer". No mention then of a (permanent) position as organist. Yet Van Paesschen passed the competitive exam with flying colours over his rival J.N. Bartholomeus, who was organist at St Servatius' church in Maastricht, and got appointed on 12 August 1839 as organist of the cathedral of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. He held the function for almost 50 years, in that period establishing for himself a solid reputation as organist and improviser.
In addition to his commitments as organist, Van Paesschen gave lessons of Gregorian and singing to choir boys a few days a week, in 1847 founding the cathedral choir. Meanwhile he was also appointed as director of the Royal School of Music (from 1840 on), where he taught singing lessons to some 150 pupils that were allowed to follow free music classes: "for this position by City Council on 3 July of the mentioned year (was) appointed the skilled music master and brilliant composer Mr Van Paesschen, organist of St John's cathedral, who diligently accepted his appointment, already that year forming plenty of good trainees", said R.A. Van Zuylen in his jubilee book on the Royal School of Music (1859). Eight years later, however, the music school was closed due to a lack of financial means. Therefore, in the period till 1874, ’s-Hertogenbosch no longer had any official institution for music education. During that time numerous choirs and instrumental societies were created, many of them stimulated by Pieter Jan Van Paesschen. Concurrently he gave private tutorials of piano, organ and singing.
Besides Van Paesschen also acquired a reputation as founder and conductor of several successful male choirs. He took the initiative to the formation of the ‘Mannen-Zangvereeniging Caecilia’ (Men's Singing Society Caecilia, 1847), probably the first Lieder Table of North Brabant. The phenomenon of the lieder table came from Germany, finding a ready reception in Belgium and the Netherlands: sociability might have been even more important there than making (high-quality) music, but nevertheless the choirs have meant a lot for the democratization of music practice. With this choir as well as other male choirs such as ‘Oefening en uitspanning’ (Exercise and Recreation) Van Paesschen regularly performed compositions of his own.
Van Paesschen remained organist at St John's until he suffered a stroke around Christmas 1886, passing away shortly after.
His oeuvre counts some two hundred compositions, almost all of which are preserved in the cathedral archives of ’s-Hertogenbosch. The bulk of them consists of sacred songs he performed during the services as organist and conductor of the cathedral choir. Many of these works, including five masses, two Te Deums, plenty of hymns such as Ave Maria (20), Tantum Ergo (36), were written in the romantic style current in those days, in imitation of Mozart, Haydn, Jommelli and Mendelssohn. According to R. Bouman the best characterization of Van Paesschen is "a late Haydn with a Beethoven-like instrumentation". In a later period the influence of Caecilianism, a movement pleading for the revaluation of the polyphonic Palestrina style, became prominent to a more taut and purified effect.
The profane vocal works include patriotic songs such as De Lentehymnus (Spring Hymn) and Neêrlands Trouw (Holland's Faith), party songs such as Toast, occasional works like De Uitverkorene (The Chosen One), Noord en Zuid (North and South), works for male choir like Saint-Louis en Egypte, L’éducation des Filles, etc.
The significance of this musician primarily lies in his undeniable contribution to the flourishing of male singing culture in the Netherlands, as founder and conductor of male choirs in 's-Hertogenbosch, and as composer of sometimes smashingly popular works for male choir. In addition, together with musicians like Henri Cooymans, Léon C. Boumans and Martinus Oigier he made sure that in ’s-Hertogenbosch new music of Liszt and Wagner was performed at an early stage. Yet although the majority of Van Paesschen's compositions show great professional skill and musicality he was certainly not an innovator nor a pioneer.
© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Karolien Selhorst (translation: Jo Sneppe)