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"I never write my music at an instrument", Flor Peeters once told me, "but always at my work-table or occasionally during long journeys on night trains or aeroplanes". The fugue of the Toccata, Fugue et Hymne was written on the train between Hamburg and Cologne; the Concerto op 52 was conceived in an old abbey near Antwerp, where the composer had nothing but long walks in the surrounding woods for recreation. Composition for him is often a means of relaxing through music.

The ideal conditions he finds at home in his Malines studio, with its restful view of his garden and the beautiful park beyond. Flor Peeters is an outwardly simple man and in no sense an 'ivory tower' composer. His work, as we shall see, is based on deep religious feeling and musicianship combined with a sound Flemish practical sense. Now, at the age of 65, although still as active as ever, he can look back on a remarkable working career as organist, teacher, and composer with perhaps the longest list of organ works to his credit of any living composer.

Flor Peeters was born on July 4, 1903 at Thielen, a small village about halfway between Antwerp and Turnhout, a district still rich in fine and historic organs. He had his first lessons in Turnhout and then went to the Lemmens Institute in Malines. His teacher there was Oscar Depuydt, who had studied with Alfons Desmet, a pupil of Nicolas Lemmens, the teacher of both Guilmant and Widor. Peeters' other teachers at Malines were Canon van Nuffel for Gregorian Chant and for composition Lodewijk Mortelmans, whom many years later he was to succeed as director of the Royal Flemish Conservatoire in Antwerp.

In Paris Peeters became strongly influenced by the personalities and music of Charles Tournemire and Marcel Dupré although, contrary to what has often been believed, he never had lessons with either. The influence of Tournemire was a powerful one and one which Flor Peeters is always quick to acknowledge and which he confirmed in the dedication of the Toccata, Fugue et Hymne of 1935. Tournemire, in his turn, left Flor Peeters the original console of Franck's organ in Ste Clotilde - the one shown in Rongier's portrait - and it now occupies a place of honour in the Malines studio.

Since those early days in Paris Peeters' life, when he is not away touring as a recitalist and teacher, has been centred on Malines, where for 45 years he has been organist of the Metro-politan Cathedral of St Rombaut, a post which he has combined since 1952 with the directorship of the Antwerp Conservatoire, where his influence has been considerable and is now culminating in some remarkable new buildings which will make this one of the best equipped music colleges in Europe. As would be expected from a composer so long associated with a cathedral organ, most of Peeters' large output has been written for the instrument he knows and loves best and which still has a compelling fascination for him. On one occasion his wife chose a small village in Switzerland for their summer holiday merely because it had no organ and must therefore provide an enforced rest from playing; only a few days passed, however, before her husband discovered a splendid little instrument in a neighbouring village and was able to play to his heart's content for the rest of the holiday.

His list of works includes orchestral and chamber works, songs, piano pieces, and a number of fine masses, but it is the predominance of organ music, perhaps, which keeps Peeters a little apart from the main stream of contemporary music although he is perfectly aware of present trends (five of his recently published Six Lyrical Pieces, op 116, (1) have no fixed key centres). The greatest influence, again as one would expect in a composer so long associated with the Roman Catholic Church, is Gregorian Chant, though Flemish folksong and the early Netherlands masters such as Dufay, de Monte, and Pieter Cornet (whose works he knows intimately) have also played an important part in determining an idiom which over the years has gradually taken on an individual personality, one which in the later works such as the Lied Symphony, the three Preludes and Fugues (op 72) and the many sets of chorale preludes is instantly recognizable. Outstanding among the larger works composed before the war are Variations and Finale on an old Flemish Song (2); Ten Organ Chorales, op 39 (3); Toccata, Fugue et Hymne (4); Flemish Rhapsody (3); Passacaglia e Fuga (3) and Suite Modale (4).

The variations, dedicated to Marcel Dupré, were Peeters' first big recital work and like most first attempts at composing on a large scale it is only partly successful. The modal theme is a good one but the various, frequently elaborate, treatments it receives too often suggest virtuosity for its own sake, and must partly account for the comparative neglect of the work. The Ten Chorale Preludes on old Flemish Songs, on the other hand, are frequently played and justifiably popular. The first of Peeters' sets of chorale preludes (they were composed during the winter of 1935 and 1936), they follow a pattern he was later to establish by always including one 'partita' in which the melody is treated in variation form, in this case four variations and a finale on Lord Jesus hath a garden.

Special mention must also be made of the neglected Passacaglia e Fuga of 1939 which Peeters considers one of his most important works and in which he shows exceptional contrapuntal mastery and spontaneity, and the Suite Modale of the same year. In this suite, "I wanted", the composer says, "to write a new and much more modal Suite gothique than Boëllmann wrote some decades ago". It follows roughly the same pattern as the earlier work, a Chorale followed by a Scherzo (instead of the Menuet), an Adagio (instead of the Prière) and a Toccata, a specially fine movement in which brilliant keyboard figuration grows in complexity to an impressive climax over the pedal theme.

In 1948, while on a concert tour of America, Peeters sketched his Lied Symphony (5), a Benedicite inspired by the rare beauty of the landscape. It is divided into five movements or 'lieds', to the ocean, the desert, the flowers, the mountains, and the sun (another splendid toccata) and it marks the culmination so far of Peeters' solo music on a large scale. The symphony was published in 1950 and the following year came the Three Preludes and Fugues op 72 (3) composed respectively in the lydian, dorian, and mixolydian modes. Here Peeters, far from being handicapped by the use of modes has on the contrary absorbed them to an extent that they have become so much a part of his musical language that it is often difficult to tell whether a modal idea is original or borrowed from the liturgy. Neither the Concerto for organ and orchestra op 52 (5) nor the Concerto for organ and piano op 74 (1) has so far been performed in this country. Op 74 is unknown to me but op 52 has been played with great success on the continent and deserves to be heard here. In order to make the work more accessible Peeters has composed a brilliant Concert Piece op 52a (5) based on it, of which he gave the first London performance at the Festival Hall in 1955.

Something of a turning point occurred in Peeters' career as a composer when following his successful American tours of 1946 and 1947 a publisher (5) asked him to compose a series of chorale preludes based on familiar Protestant hymn-tunes. They were to be not too long, not too difficult, and not too 'modern'. Peeters, having already composed a number of two-stave pieces (Miniature; Heures intimes), took readily to this enforced discipline.

The first volume (op 68) was ready in December 1948, the second (op 69) two months later, and the third (op 70) only six months after that. Each set of ten preludes, following the pattern of op 39, contains a partita and one or two specially easy pieces giving the work as a whole an appeal not only for the experienced player but for those of more humble ability. The tunes are the ones we are familiar with from Bach (a number of them appear in our own hymn books), and just as Bach intended his pieces for everyday use so Peeters ignores the virtuoso and turns to the ordinary practising organist, in all probability not a professional musician, who needs suitably appropriate pieces for use in church services. The craftsmanship in these chorale preludes is superb and above all Peeters never gives the impression that he is writing down or is in any way restricted by the limitations of his brief. In fact he uses all his resources, dissonance, chromatic and modal harmony, and intricate contrapuntal devices, and yet achieves that rare thing, simple music which is nevertheless vital and interesting. The chorale melody is always easily located and never becomes obscured by a mass of irrelevant detail even when it appears in a highly decorated form as in Abide, O dearest Jesus or when, as in How brightly shines the morning star, it is given out on a high pedal stop with cascades of glittering semiquavers in the treble.

These three sets of chorale preludes were soon followed by three more (op 75, 76, and 77) (5), all completed by June 1954. This time 30 Gregorian hymns were chosen, and again the preludes are in three books, each containing a partita. There is greater freedom of treatment here, partly because the tunes are less formal in shape, partly because, as has already been pointed out, Gregorian Chant has assumed a natural fluency in Peeters' musical speech. The popularity of these different sets of chorale preludes led to yet another request, this time a more staggering one, for 24 volumes of preludes and postludes for the complete church year covering some 213 tunes.

These (op 100) (5) were scheduled to appear in two parts, each of 12 volumes, of which the first is now available and the second is soon to follow. The conception this time is more ecumenical in character since the tunes come from Nonconformist, Anglican, and Roman sources. Once again the brief seems to have been "not too long, not too difficult and not too "modern"", and again the freer the melody the more scope it gives to the composer. In Book 1, for example, which includes Advent and Christmas tunes, there is a most beautiful, almost naively simple setting of Divinum Mysterium and again in Book 2 an equally simple one of an early Polish melody. Sometimes the treatment is more elaborate and complex, as in Nun danket all' (Book 2), but there is nothing too difficult for the average organist and much that can be attempted by the near beginner. This is a colossal undertaking, many might say an impossible one; yet it is astonishing how seldom one feels the composer's inspiration is being stretched beyond the limit by a particularly unpromising tune, for example, Ellacombe in Book 12.

If to all this one adds Flor Peeters' work as an editor of early music, as the author of a comprehensive organ method Ars Organi (3) and the Little organ book (6) for beginners it seems incredible that he has also had time to direct a flourishing and progressive conservatory, play the organ for Sunday services at Malines, tour as a recitalist, give master classes, make gramophone records, and at the same time remain a charming and companionable human being. Perhaps it is his quality of friendliness which has enabled him to remember his less talented fellow organists and compose for them further valuable collections of music on two staves only. The most recent of these are Manuale, Praeludien und Hymnen, and Praeludiale, each consisting of 16 pieces. (2) All organists will wish to send Flor Peeters greetings for his 65th birthday. Perhaps it is not too much to hope that the next ten years will produce, besides major works, yet more chorale preludes!

Publishers: (1) H.W.Gray/Novello; (2) Schwann; (3) Schott; (4) Lemoine; (5) Peters; (6) McLaughlin (Boston)

Lade, J.: The Organ Music of Flor Peeters, in: The Musical Times, jrg. 109, nr. 1505, juli 1968, pp. 667-669.