Ga verder naar de inhoud

Flor Peeters' roles as composer, teacher, scholar and recitalist make him the most prominent figure in Belgian musical life today. In 1971 the King of Belgium made him a Baron, 'in recognition of the exceptional merits acquired by promoting music culture in Belgium and its emanation in foreign countries throughout the world'; this is an honour rarely given to artists; he is the third musician to receive it. During 1973 he celebrates his 70th birthday and also 50 years as organist of the Metropolitan Cathedral of St Rombaut at Malines.

Certain influences early in Peeters' career and training helped to formulate his highly distinctive and personal style.[1] As a student of Depuydt at the Lemmens Institute, he followed a tradition of training for Roman Catholic church musicians, highly disciplined in detailed studies of form, technique and improvisation. Lemmens had studied with Hesse in Germany and was able to establish an authentic execution of J.S. Bach's works at the Institute he founded, where he numbered among his pupils Widor, Guilmant and Depuydt.

Peeters himself acknowledges that his melodic line is influenced by Gregorian chant and the polyphony of the Netherlands masters, on whom he is an authority. Like his compatriot Joseph Jongen, he is often inspired by Walloon folk themes, some of which are very close to Gregorian chant. From early in his career Peeters explored many possibilities of variation forms, and his Chorale Preludes show his great expertise in writing miniatures. One of the most attractive sets is the first he wrote (op.39, composed 1935-6), which contains the variations on King Jesus hath a garden. These illustrate his skill in creating a satisfying balance between the movements, varying textures and timbres as well as harmonic language; the simplicity of the first variation is followed by an exciting concertato, where he uses dual tonality and jazzy rhythms, demanding much more of the listener's ear; the third variation is open-textured and diatonic, preparing the way for the quiet intense chromaticism of the fourth, and the vigorous finale.
An admiration for Dupré is reflected in the dedication of the very fine set of Variations and Finale on an old Flemish Song op.20, where the pattern of movements is almost identical in form to that of Dupré's Variations sur un Noël, though Peeters' work is more extensive, employing pure organ techniques, whereas Dupré frequently uses pianistic figuration. The debt to Gregorian.plainchant is perhaps more obvious in such works as the Suite Modale op.43 (1939 - which he described as 'a new and much more modal Suite Gothique than Boëllmann wrote') and Toccata, Fugue et Hymne op.28 (1935), dedicated to his greatest friend, Tournemire (another composer for whom his admiration is reflected in certain aspects of harmonic treatment, though he never studied with Dupré or Tournemire).

Peeters' excursions in polytonality, for example in his Passacaglia and Fugue op.42 (1939), and employment of intricate contrapuntal devices have not led to complicated textures in his organ works; rather the reverse, as can be seen in even more lengthy works such as the 1950 Lied Symphony op.66. One of his greatest gifts is his ability to write a really fluid, generous melody, such as in the well-known Aria or the Largo op.70 no.2. All these facets of his style appear in the Concerto op.52, dated on the full score 'Mechelen 31.12.44'. Although composed during the war in times of greatest hardship, the Concerto is positive, energetic and full of lyrical themes, as if in protest at the oppression of Belgium in the early 1940s. Flor Peeters overcomes the many hazards of organ concerto composition and solves problems of balance with ingenuity. The scoring is for full symphony orchestra, the form classical and the language 20th-century, though strictly tonal and at times even lush and romantic. Flor Peeters discussed its composition with me recently, saying how the musical ideas germinated for many months, but that three weeks in the peace of an old ruined abbey brought the plans to fruition. He worked regular hours daily. The orchestral score was completed over a period of some months, but the short score took only those three weeks; it is in consequence a spontaneous work. 'My compositions', he said, 'are with me a long time before they are written on paper; when they appear, they are like old familiar friends'.

During the war Peeters undertook many dangerous missions. At the outbreak of war he travelled regularly to Holland for master classes; his refusal to play for the Germans resulted in the confiscation of his passport. He continued to make his journeys to Holland, however, on a false passport and acted as a secret courier, taking documents and letters from his cathedral authorities to the archbishop and bishops in the Netherlands. The Sinfonia per Organo op.48 (1944) was also written at this time. It is a work of intensity and of harsh harmonic language, which he described to me as 'my spiritual defence against the war'.

The Concerto appears to be the emotional antithesis to this with its lyricism and gay rhythms. In the first movement, Allegro symphonique preceded by a slow introduction, soloist and orchestra alternate with the thematic material, only combining for climactic points, and thus avoid turgid doubling. The nature of the two main themes, a lively concertante with material presented fugally by the strings and a sinuous chromatic tune, gives every opportunity for contrast, and they are developed rhythmically as well as melodically. The second movement Largo is in 5/4 and scored mainly for strings and organ with splendid opportunities for solo woodwind; it is a lyrical piece of great tranquillity. The chief departure from conventional form is the placing of the cadenza at the beginning of the last movement. It is a highly coherent exposition of themes in bright clear organ textures, so well organized structurally that, with only a few alterations and additions, Flor Peeters could publish it separately as the op.52a Concert Piece; this is already a successful recital work in its own right. When the orchestra enters, the interest is again in the fugal treatment of the main theme, which is ingeniously transformed from its original presentation in the cadenza. The last movement exhibits the most complex organization of the forces in the work, with themes shared through the complete orchestral texture in a kaleidoscope of colour. The themes are combined and transformed in the development, and the cadenza 2/4 material reappears as a brilliant coda. The strength of the organ writing lies in the fact that the virtuoso material is not used so much for display as in the logical development of musical ideas; like all his organ works, the Concerto is difficult but is eminently practical.

Whether composing, teaching or rehearsing, Flor Peeters' dedicated professionalism is patent in all his working. His practice involves up to five hours daily, including special finger exercises (which he humorously refers to as his 'sport') and work on Chopin and Czerny studies at the piano. A source of special pleasure to him is the recognition of his annual master class at Mechelen Cathedral by the Minister of Culture, who now gives 20 scholarships to foreign students from countries having cultural links with Belgium. His views on experimental works and current vogues in organ building are delightfully unpedantic; he is gently sceptical of the experimental approach, believing that to communicate well the composer must have something important to say and not rely on technical innovations for interest; again, he enjoys all the advantages of the new responsive tracker instruments, without being averse to the practical value of mechanical aids.

After so many recent extensive tours as a recitalist, involving more than 300 concerts in the USA alone, he now hopes to devote more time to composition, and is currently working on a new choral work, Psalm of Joy, ten easy organ preludes on old Flemish songs, and a concertino for harpsichord and positive organ. This last, he told me, is especially interesting, requiring a new approach with unusual technical problems to be solved - a challenge he patently relishes.

The first performance of Flor Peeters' Concerto for Organ and Orchestra will be given at the RAM on Saturday March 3 with the ERMA Senior Orchestra under Terence Lovett with Jennifer Bate as soloist.

[1] John Lade's article, Musical Times, July 1968, pp.667-9

Bate, J.: Flor Peeters at 70, in: The Musical Times, vol. 114, februari 1973, p. 185-186.