Summer holidays are a time for relaxation and renewal. Many musicians take the opportunity to attend one (or more) of the numerous summer schools or courses organised in England or further afield. The pleasure of attending such courses is not limited to the formal part of the programme but extends to the informal chat in the canteen, in the bar, at the tea-breaks etc. Tom Cunningham describes how two such chance conversations led to a treasure hunt in a Belgian library, to the publication by Oxford University Press of a major choral work and to a world première in Brussels.
In 1985 I decided to celebrate St Cecilia's Day by putting on a complete programme of 20th-century Belgian music with the Brussels Choral Society. Searching in the library of the CeBeDeM (Belgian Centre for Music Documentation), I unearthed the Mass Opus 130 by Joseph Jongen (1873÷1953), a Belgian composer well-known for his organ music but whose other compositions are largely neglected. I took the score off to Scotland for my summer holiday and became more and more excited as I discovered the unexpected beauty of the work.
The Mass is scored for choir, organ and optional brass ensemble and was first performed in 1946. There was no Credo, although Jongen was known to have subsequently added a Credo which was never performed and was believed lost. The work received several other performances in 1946÷48 but then lay neglected for more than 35 years until our performance and subsequent broadcast.
Standing in line for dinner on the first evening of the 1987 Convention of the Association of British Choral Directors (ABCD) at Oxford, I got chatting to my neighbour (who turned out to be the well-known composer, John Rutter) and I mentioned the piece. He asked to see the score and listen to our tape. John Rutter's enthusiasm for the piece and his kind remarks on our performance encouraged me to suggest the work to Oxford University Press, who decided to publish.
During a tea-break at the York ABCD Convention in 1989, I met John Scott Whiteley, assistant organist at York Minster. I discovered that he is a leading authority on Joseph Jongen and shares my enthusiasm for the Mass. What is more, some years before, he had been through all the files in the CeBeDeM library, carefully noting their contents, and knew where to find the missing Credo!
As publication (without the Credo) was imminent, I rushed off to the library, followed John Scott Whiteley's directions and found the manuscript of the Credo, filed apart from the rest of the Mass. Unfortunately the manuscript ended in mid-phrase! John Scott Whiteley consulted his CeBeDeM notes again and told me by telephone where I should find an isolated page of 10 bars of unidentified manuscript in yet another file. This proved to be the last piece of the jigsaw and the Mass has now been published complete.
After all this excitement, I wanted to ensure that I would conduct the world première of the Credo in Belgium. I obtained permission from OUP to use pre-publication copies of the movement, and the Brussels Madrigal Singers agreed to perform the piece during a church service. This took place in July 1990 in the Eglise des Carmes in Brussels where Jongen himself used to play the organ. Janet Hughes, a British organ student at the Liège Conservatoire, played the remarkably well-preserved romantic organ. Most of the congregation were unaware of the significance of the unannounced event that was taking place in the gallery during the mass, but the spontaneous applause which broke out after the triumphant Amen proved that they appreciated it. One elderly member of the congregation remembered when Jongen used to play the organ but said that the singing was never as good in his time!
Now, after so many years of neglect, the Mass is receiving performances in Britain, the USA and elsewhere. It will be studied and performed at a Sing for Pleasure choral singing week in Malvern (10-17 August), and the first CD recording will appear this year.
Although this magazine does not (as yet) have a section devoted to performances outside the UK, let me tell you about our own concert performance of the Mass in Brussels on Thursday 27th June. The complete Mass will be performed by my choir, the Brussels Choral Society, with the Ensemble de Cuivres Luc Capouillez and Janet Hughes, organ. The concert, which will be recorded by Belgian Radio, will take place in the Eglise du Chant d'Oiseau which has a famous modern organ. Any visiting choral enthusiasts will be most welcome!
Tom Cunningham, 1991