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Messe en l'honeur du Saint-Sacrement, Op 130
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.

from notes by John Scott Whiteley © 2007

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Details for CDA67603 track 6
Agnus Dei
Recording date
12 July 2006
Recording venue
St John's College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Mark Brown
Recording engineer
Julian Millard
Hyperion usage
  1. Jongen & Peeters: Choral Music (CDA67603)
    Disc 1 Track 6
    Release date: April 2007
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