The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge is experiencing another vintage year of musical and vocal excellence. In this latest CD for Hyperion, its trademark sound, immaculate yet energetic and joyful, is employed in the service of a fascinating selection of sacred choral works from the twentieth century.
Joseph Jongen brought his vast array of musical influences to the European sacred music tradition, creating works of unrestrained lyrical and melodic power which nevertheless illustrate the liturgical texts with reverence. Jongen’s Messe en l’honneur du Saint-Sacrement is a major work on a large scale, richly contrapuntal, interwoven throughout with plainsong melodies expertly manipulated, harmonically vivid and original. It is scored for brass and organ accompaniment reminiscent of Gabrieli and its sumptuous texture is perfectly captured here in the famous resonant acoustic of the chapel. Flor Peeters’ Missa Festiva is a similarly vibrant and enjoyable work.
Also recorded here, demonstrating the considerable individual talents of St John’s soloists, are three of Jongen’s sacred solo motets, each written for specific personal occasions, sensitively scored and imbued with emotional sincerity.
Joseph Jongen (1873–1953) was born in Liège and died at Cokaifagne, his country estate at Sart-lez-Spa in the Ardennes. Apart from his early training at the Liège Conservatoire, his own Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse, written in 1940, attach considerable importance to his early training as a chorister in Liège. It was, moreover, his experience as a treble soloist that first led him to compose. Emulating the church styles of Gounod and Franck, Jongen wrote his first Latin miniatures in 1887, and during the twelve years that followed he produced some thirty-eight motets. Although these were initially ‘very well made and practical’, as Edgar Tinel—later Director of the Brussels Conservatoire—politely put it, they gradually found greater inspiration in their assimilation of a vast array of influence. As a Belgian, Jongen’s hybrid nationality engendered a style that one critic referred to as revealing ‘a comprehension of the world’.
Such comprehension was formed from his hearing Ysaÿe perform the music of Max Bruch, from witnessing Widor play his own sixth Symphonie, from watching Richard Strauss conduct in Liège in 1889, from listening to concerts of music by Beethoven and Grétry. This inexhaustible list would have to continue with Jongen’s own performances of piano works by Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Moszkowski and Franck, and organ music by Bach, Mendelssohn and Widor; and by the time he came to write the ravishing Quid sum miser? in 1899, Jongen had been profoundly moved by Joachim’s performance of Brahms’s Violin Concerto, had studied with Strauss, and had experienced all the great conductors of Berlin, including Nikisch and Mahler. Jongen’s many composition prizes, furthermore, had culminated in his winning the Prix de Rome in 1897.
Nearly all of Jongen’s compositions were written for specific occasions. Two of the three motets recorded here were composed for funerals, their texts being extracts from the Messe pour les défunts (Requiem Mass). Most poignantly, Quid sum miser? was composed on the death of one of the children of the Conrardy family, François. It was Alphonse Conrardy who had given Jongen his first opportunity to play the organ in Liège as early as 1881, and the two families had always been close. The style of Quid sum miser? is equally poignant, for it now recognized far more than the mollified restraint of the Paris opera composers in their ‘Sunday best’. Look for the soaring melody of Strauss and you will find it; the fastidious charm of Fauré, the generative cells of Franck, the continuity of Wagner—they are all there in this warm farewell to his young friend.
Jongen wrote his Adieux à Marie: Cantique à la Sainte-Vierge (not recorded here) as a tribute on the death of his mother, Marie, in 1893. Other Marian motets may have been similarly intended, but although the Deux motets (Pie Jesu and Regina caeli) of June 1895 cannot be ruled out in this regard, they were in fact written as preparatory exercises for his first attempt at the Prix de Rome. Thus the Pie Jesu is contrapuntally neat, but herein we find a composer who has managed to escape not only the insularity of constrained sacred propriety but also the sentimental trivialities of Second Empire opera. As a result, a gentle, euphonious lyricism, more involved with late nineteenth-century pianists such as Grieg and Saint-Saëns, both of whom were revered by Jongen, is tempered by Gregorian influences, such as those that informed the Mass written fifty years later.
Having moved to Brussels in 1902, Jongen became involved not only in teaching at the conservatoires but also with the Libre esthétique, the chamber music society that presented premieres of many of his works. Here he met the pianist Valentine Ziane, whom he married in 1909. For the ceremony he wrote a setting of the wedding psalm (Psalm 128), Deus Abraham, the texture of which is modelled on Quid sum miser? but the spirit of which captures a bonhomie and optimism that, sadly, were little reflected in much of Jongen’s later life.
Vocal composition was always a tributary of Jongen’s mainstream output (his chamber and instrumental music), and after 1900 he produced only four more motets. There are nonetheless some sixty solo songs and a number of secular choral pieces, several written during his World War I exile in England. It was only after his retirement as Director of the Brussels Conservatoire in 1939, however, that he regained an interest in choral writing. This came about partly through a frequent correspondence with one of his lifelong friends, Georges Alexis, a wealthy amateur musician who had been a fellow student at the Liège Conservatoire. Letters from Alexis to Jongen written between 1943 and 1946 leave little doubt that it was Alexis who persuaded Jongen to compose the Messe en l’honneur du Saint-Sacrement (generally known as the ‘Messe de la Fête-Dieu’) to celebrate the seven-hundredth anniversary of the institution of the Corpus Christi festival at St-Martin, Liège.
Many ideas for the music also came from Alexis: ‘the propers of the Mass … for Corpus Christi … contain magnificent Gregorian themes; perhaps you may be inspired by them?’ A later mention of the choral works with organ and brass of Gabrieli certainly gave Jongen the idea for the scoring, and it was perhaps Alexis’s vision that caused Jongen to write in a more contrapuntal vein than usual: a fugato with a regular countersubject for the ‘Pleni sunt caeli’ of the Sanctus, for instance; the main theme of the Benedictus announced in canon at the fifth; and the use of strict counterpoint in the vocal parts of the ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ (Gloria) and the ‘Et resurrexit’ (Credo). Alexis asked for the Kyrie to be without clamour and for the conclusion of the Gloria and the ‘Hosannas’ of the Sanctus to incorporate ‘superimposed voices … with organ, rising in a Babylonian crescendo, as Lekeu would have said’.
Sadly, Jongen’s personal circumstances prevented his composing anything between August 1944 and March 1945. His brother Alphonse, to whom he was particularly close, died after a difficult operation (the Mass is dedicated to the memory of Alphonse) and the news that his son, Jacques, had been arrested by the Gestapo left Jongen without the will to live. His memoirs become morbid, later describing how he felt like a rag, incapable of anything. The year 1944 he simply referred to as deathly, but the tone changes dramatically at the end of March 1945: ‘Jacques was in Buchenwald … Suddenly … we learnt that he was in Weimar and was soon to be liberated by the Americans—WHAT A RESURRECTION! It was then that I began to write the Mass.’
So it was that Jongen began to compose this complex work in a state of relief. Subtly cyclical, the links between the movements are not always easy to decipher: the organ chant of the opening Kyrie, for instance, is not only used in the vocal lines of the final Kyrie but is also developed at the ‘Qui tollis’ and ‘Qui sedes’ sections of the Gloria. It relates strongly to the ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ fugato (Gloria) and more subtly to many of the lines in the Benedictus and even the concluding section of the Agnus Dei. There are also links in the embedded contrapuntal vocal sections, which are often texturally rather than thematically related.
Similar textural correspondences can easily be detected in the Missa Festiva of Flor Peeters (1903– 1986), and while it has long been clear that Peeters’ great talent nowhere approached the compositional genius of Jongen, it must be remembered that Peeters fell naturally into the mould of the organist and pedagogue who provided organists’ Gebrauchsmusik. This may not always be obvious from examining these two Masses, particularly since Peeters’ style was influenced by that of Jongen, as well as by his organ teachers, by Flemish hymns and—just as Jongen was—by plainsong and folksong.
Peeters, organist of St Rombout’s Cathedral, Malines, taught at the Lemmens Institute in Malines, and in 1952 became Director of the Antwerp Conservatoire. The Missa Festiva, the best known of Peeters’ nine Masses, shows the clear influence of Jongen in its approach to melodic development but is independent of Jongen in other ways, notably its more direct use of modality. The cyclical nature of Peeters’ melodic material demonstrates the link: the Gregorian motif, as if a psalm-tone, heard at the opening of the Kyrie recurs at the ‘Qui propter nos homines’ (Credo) and at the start of the Agnus Dei, for instance, and the rhythm initially established for this psalm-tone motif appears frequently, often modified, but notably at the beginning of the Credo. In the latter, the newly formed theme becomes another cyclical cell, appearing not only at the recapitulation (‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum Dominum’) but also at the ‘Qui tollis’ (Gloria) and in the accompaniment to the Agnus Dei.
Ingenious as Peeters’ construction may be, Jongen’s Mass was the product of a lifetime’s compositional refinement, its harmony highly individual (sometimes formed from unique ‘altered’ modes), its gestures unfailingly elegant and gently lyrical. While Peeters’ link between the opening of the Gloria and the later ‘Quoniam’ is clear, with Jongen the equivalent passages develop the brass theme of the ‘Christe’. Meanwhile, the organ’s quaver figuration grows out of the lines of the Kyrie. Jongen, furthermore, uses outlines from the Corpus Christi ‘Cibavit eos’ plainsong, although the correspondences are somewhat fleeting. Jongen’s Gloria then offers a grand restatement of the opening theme at ‘Jesu Christe’ before the organ’s quavers return, unifying the overall concept.
Peeters’ corresponding unifying idea is the organum-like accompaniment, the parallel chords heard more or less universally, and with greatest clarity at the conclusion of the Credo and more quietly in the Benedictus. Peeters’ small-scale settings of Sanctus and Benedictus suggest a liturgical purpose, in fact, while Jongen’s more expansive movements confirm that his Mass for Corpus Christi was nonetheless intended for concert performance. The fanfare of Jongen’s Sanctus relates to the ‘Quoniam’ fanfare of the Gloria to a degree, but the Sanctus proper takes the same movement of Bach’s B minor Mass as its model. The final pages of the ‘Pleni sunt caeli’ see the fanfare figures of the ‘Christe eleison’ and ‘et in terra pax’ combine, again cyclically, with the chords that follow ‘Deus Pater omnipotens’ in the Gloria. Thus Jongen’s Sanctus, curiously bathetic in its opening brass fanfare, is finally transformed by the brilliant concluding fanfares, which bond the movement with the others.
Jongen’s Benedictus, indebted to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, derives its lines from those of the Sanctus. A solo quartet makes its first appearance in this retrospective pastorale, and while the ‘Qui tollis’ of the Gloria of Peeters’ Missa Festiva introduces solo lines in similar fashion, Peeters never scores for solos separately.
Peeters’ Agnus Dei begins by restating the music of the opening Kyrie, but soon makes use of the triplet figure of ‘qui locutus est’, which then, with further parallel-chord ‘organum’ accompaniment, permeates the whole movement, including the drooping, Andante limpido conclusion. Many features of Jongen’s Agnus Dei refer back to earlier points in the Mass: the harmony of the final Kyrie, the ‘misereres’ of the Gloria and the concluding ‘eleison’ figures of the final Kyrie, the fanfares of the ‘Christe’ and the ‘Pleni sunt caeli’, the quaver figuration of the Gloria, the melodic lines of the ‘Christe’, the opening bass lines of the Gloria spanning a fifth, and so on. It is a complex, highly sophisticated movement, in which Jongen’s sometimes elusive grace and delicacy are balanced with a fastidious lyricism and a restrained intensity that characterize his finest works.
For each composer, the Credo took on a different role. Jongen found it dispensable initially, composing it as an independent movement some two years after the first performance, while for Peeters it was always central. Perhaps there was then a reverse influence here for Jongen, who began his opening ‘Patrem omnipotentem’ as if a grand march, just as Peeters had done, although the two textures are very different. Jongen’s a cappella writing, uniquely for the ‘Et incarnatus est’, also finds a parallel in Peeters’ setting of the same words. Yet, while Peeters is content to develop largely through varied repetitions of the hymn-like writing of the initial phrases, the generating force of Jongen’s Credo lies in its opening theme, a kind of second intonation, perhaps akin to Peeters’ psalm-tone motif. The essential lines of Jongen’s ‘et ex Patre’, the interlude before the ‘genitum non factum’, the ‘Et resurrexit’, the ‘Et iterum’, the ‘Et in unam sanctam catholicam’, and the final ‘Amen’ all derive from this opening theme.
Despite the attempts of Alexis, the final version of Jongen’s Mass, with the Credo, was never performed during Jongen’s lifetime. Consequently this movement was never orchestrated, and Jongen suffered what was to be one of his final disappointments. The first performance, however, of the ‘Messe de la Fête-Dieu’ (without Credo) had taken place in the Cathédrale St-Paul, Liège, on 23 June 1946, conducted by Jongen himself. The press reported well: ‘It left a profound impression of majestic grandeur and piety. Although musically rich and written with meticulous counterpoint, it nevertheless remained restrained … the effect [Jongen] obtained was moving, intimate, intense and very gentle.’
John Scott Whiteley © 2007