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Flor Peeters

born: 4 July 1903
died: 4 July 1986
country: Belgium

Franciscus Florentius Peeters was born in July 1903 in the Flemish village of Tielen near Antwerp, where his father was the village organist, sexton and postmaster. The youngest of nine children, Peeters grew up surrounded by music. All the family played an instrument, but he soon outshone the others, and was admitted to the Lemmens Institute in Mechelen when he was sixteen. He completed the eight-year Church Music course in four years, and his teacher Oscar Depuydt—Professor of Organ at the Institute and Organist of St Rombout’s Cathedral—immediately appointed him as his deputy. Depuydt died soon afterwards, in March 1925, and at the age of twenty-one Peeters succeeded him as both Professor and Cathedral Organist, a post he held for sixty years until his death on his eighty-third birthday in 1986.

Teaching, performance and composition were all essential to the expression of Peeters’ creative musicality. He was Professor of Organ at the Lemmens Institute (1925–52), the Ghent Conservatory (1931–48), the Catholic College in Tilburg, Holland (1935–48), and from 1948 at the Royal Flemish Conservatory in Antwerp, where he became Director in 1952. After his retirement in 1968 an annual International Masterclass was established under his direction at the Cathedral, sponsored by the Ministry of Flemish Culture, and he also taught hundreds of students in masterclasses in America. In 1971 the King of Belgium awarded him the title of Baron; Peeters was only the third Belgian musician to receive this honour since 1830.

Peeters’ concert career began in Belgium and Holland, and gradually extended around Europe. After the War he made his first American tour in 1946 and became a regular visitor to the UK, while more distant travels took him to Russia, South Africa and Australia. But above all he was a composer, and he wrote music constantly and prolifically throughout his life. Apart from some songs, piano and chamber works, he specialized in vocal and choral music for the church, and music for his own instrument; his first organ work dates from 1923, the year of his graduation, and his last (Op 140) from 1986, the year of his death. The organ music ranges from virtuoso concert works to shorter and simpler pieces for liturgical use, including over 300 chorale preludes. ‘I do not compose at an instrument,’ he said, ‘do not improvise to get in the mood, but I write at my desk. A composition grows from within. When an idea or musical theme has sufficiently ripened inside me, then inevitably comes the moment when I have to write it down, where and whenever it may be: at home, on a journey, in a train, boat, plane. The craftsmanship is very important, but it should be subordinated to the creative process … When one is fully dedicated to one’s work, the inspiration will come.’

Flor Peeters was trained at the Lemmens Institute as a Catholic church musician. Gregorian chant was a lifelong source of inspiration, and he found a natural means of expression in the strength and purity of the medieval modes, which formed the basis of his own musical language. Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens, who founded the Institute in 1879, was a central figure in the organ world of the nineteenth century. His complete technical command of the instrument was founded on rational and precisely formulated principles, which he passed on to his French pupils Widor and Guilmant; inherited and rigidly codified by their pupil Marcel Dupré, these principles formed the foundation of the teaching of the Paris Conservatoire until the 1950s. Peeters was brought up in this tradition, and his early works exhibit many of the characteristics of the French style, with rich chromatic harmony and conventional ‘symphonic’ registration. He performed some of Dupré’s major works, but his greatest love was César Franck; Franck’s music appeared in almost all his concert programmes throughout his life. Peeters also found a twin soul in Franck’s successor at Ste-Clotilde in Paris, Charles Tournemire, who shared his love of plainsong and the old modes. Although Tournemire was twice Peeters’ age, and they were only able to meet personally on rare occasions, they formed a close friendship. When Tournemire died in 1939, he bequeathed to Peeters the original console played by Franck at Ste-Clotilde, which had been removed when the organ was modernized in 1933. This unpatriotic bequest caused an uproar in Paris, but the precious relic eventually reached Belgium after the War, and held pride of place as a valuable teaching aid in Peeters’ music studio in Mechelen.

However, this sympathy with the shared French tradition was only one element in Peeters’ inclusive and diverse artistic personality. He was Flemish, not French, and his passion for the culture of his own land led him in a different direction. Its rich heritage of old organs and the glories of its Renaissance polyphony naturally led him towards early music, in which he became a specialist, editing and publishing many anthologies of Old Masters—Flemish, of course, but also English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. His mature music is often described as neoclassical, and most of it is essentially polyphonic, with an emphasis on simplicity and clarity, transparent linear textures and pungent, incisive tone-colours. Peeters was an almost exact contemporary of Maurice Duruflé, who shared his love of plainsong and the modes. But where Duruflé, with a typically French sensibility, conjured subtle impressionist soundscapes from his modal language, Peeters preferred sharper contours and brighter colours—Van Gogh, perhaps, compared with Duruflé’s Monet.

from notes by David Gammie © 2011


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