Twentieth-century music, often described as iconoclastic, restless, oblivious to tradition, and passionately dedicated to innovation, also boasts of several great organist-composers who knew how to express the spirit of their time without neglecting tradition. Exemplifying the grandeur of modern organ music, Flor Peeters left a rich legacy of works whose spiritual depth and technical perfection continue to fascinate many listeners. Particularly captivating are his fluid, natural, finely wrought melodies. A well-known example of Peeters's art is his Toccata, fuga en hymn op "Ave Maris Stella," op. 28, a powerful, moving, technically brilliant composition that reflected the artist's deep knowledge of Catholic church music and traditional compositional techniques. Scholars have singled out the fugue in this work as an example of flawless contrapuntal organization. Peeters's organ work invites the listener to fully appreciate the immense sonic resources of this extraordinary instrument. The qualities that grace Peeters's organ music can also be heard in a variety of vocal and instrumental works, including compositions that employ the rich tones of brass wind instruments.
Peeters has been called a conservative composer, but as John Hofmann pointed out in his book, Flor Peeters: His Life and Organ Works, "conservative" does not mean oblivious to modernity. The term that Hofmann preferred to use is "inclusive." Peeters reached to the foundations of Western music, incorporating elements from Gregorian chant and early Renaissance choral literature into his personal idiom. "A great musical mind such as that of that of Flor Peeters," Hofmann wrote, "is inclusive. As a conservative composer, aware of the various paths chosen by his contemporaries, he prefers to discover new formats using familiar language. The inclusive composer—for example, Bach or Mozart—takes the things he hears around him and synthesizes. He shares with the experimental composer, whose approach is more or less the reverse, the primary goal of communication." Peeters's music, although profoundly historical and steeped in the immense tradition of Western music, from the Middle Ages to modern times, also speaks clearly and meaningfully to the modern listener, regardless of his or her musical and spiritual background.
Peeters studied the organ, Gregorian chant, and composition at the Lemmens Institute in Mechelen. Graduating with the highest possible distinction, the Lemmens-Tinel Prize, Peeters became a professor at the Institute in 1923. He also became affiliated with St. Roumbouts Cathedral in Mechelen, first as assistant and later taking Oscar Depuydt's place as organist. Peeters would remain associated with St. Roumbouts Cathedral until the end of his life. In 1925 he succeeded Depuydt, his teacher at the Institute, as professor of organ. His other teaching appointments included professorships at the Ghent and Tilburg (Netherlands) Conservatories.
Already recognized as an organist and composer as a young man, Peeters followed Depuydt's example and devoted much of his immense energy to teaching. According to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, he "won renown as a teacher both in Europe and the USA." Peeters frequently taught masterclasses, and his annual masterclass at Mechelen Cathedral "provid[ed] 20 scholarships for students from countries having cultural links with Belgium."
The 1930s were a decade of exceptional artistic accomplishment for Peeters. During this time he composed his Toccata, fuga en hymn op "Ave maris stella," op. 28, which he dedicated to his friend, the celebrated French organist-composer, Charles Tournemire (1870-1939). Tournemire was the organist at St. Clotilde in Paris, the church where famous Belgian-born composer Cesar Franck (1822-1890) had been organist. Tournemire invited Peeters to give a recital, and Peeters played at St. Clotilde in 1936.
During World War II Peeters remained in German-occupied Belgium but adamantly refused to play for the Germans. Although the German authorities retaliated by taking his passport, Peeters was able to travel to the Netherlands, where he taught masterclasses. In addition he served both the Dutch and Belgian church authorities as a messenger. Works composed during the war, exemplified by the austere Sinfonia, reflected the composer's opposition to German rule. But his Organ Concerto, composed near the end of the war, expressed the composer's belief that an era of hope was finally replacing years of terror and despair.
During the 1950s and later, Peeters's style developed in many ways: still tonal and basically traditional, his music nevertheless reflected his efforts to find new ways to express his spiritual and musical insights. Scholars have discerned introspective moods in certain works of this period, particularly his Six Lyrical Pieces. Changes in his style, some subtle, some more explicit, reflected the composer's effort to translate his musical inspiration into a wide variety of forms. In his experimentation with structure, exemplified by varieties of texture and harmony, Peeters never strayed from his personal and clearly identifiable musical idiom.
An active recitalist since the 1940s, Peeters stopped touring in the early 1970s; the world traveler, now known as Baron Peeters, decided to dedicate more of his time to teaching, particularly his international masterclasses at Mechelen Cathedral. In addition, he continued performing despite illness. Peeters's wife, Marieke, died in 1981. His last recital was in 1982. Peeters continued composing after his retirement as a performer. His Ricercare was dedicated to the memory of his wife. In his later years the Belgian Society of Composers, Authors, and Editors honored the composer by creating a Prix Flor Peeters. Peeters died on July 4, 1986.
Symfonische Fantasie (organ), 1925.
Missa in honorem reginae pacis (two voices, organ), 1933.
Toccata, fuga en hymn op "Ave maris stella," op. 28 (organ), 1933.
Speculum vitae (voice, organ), 1935.
Vlaamsche Rhapsodie (organ), 1935.
Passacaglia e fuga (organ), 1938.
Suite modale (organ), 1938.
Sinfonia (organ), 1940.
Organ Concerto, 1944.
Sonata for Trumpet and Piano, 1945.
Missa festiva (five voices, organ), 1947.
Motets (four voices), 1947.
Lied Symphony (organ), 1948.
Concerto (organ, piano), 1951.
Choral Preludes on Gregorian Hymns (organ), 1953-54.
Suite for Four Trombones, 1955.
Inviolata (four voices, organ), 1958.
Jubilee Mass (four voices, organ), 1958.
Old Flemish Christmas Carols (chorus, wind ensemble, organ), 1964.
Six Lyrical Pieces (organ), 1966.
Canticum gaudii (chorus, two trumpets, two trombones, organ), 1971-72.
Paraphrase on "Salve regina" (organ), 1973.
Sonata quasi una fantasia (organ), 1977.
Ricercare (organ), 1981.
Prière pour une paix (organ), 1985.
For the Record …
Born Florent Peeters on July 4, 1903, in Tielen, Belgium; died on July 4, 1986, in Antwerp, Belgium; married Marieke Peeters; children: Guido. Education: Graduated from the Lemmens Institute with the highest honor, the Lemmens-Tinel Prize.
Named professor at the Lemmens Institute, 1923; appointed professor of organ, 1925; assistant at St. Rombouts Cathedral in Mechelen, later rising to the post of organist; Ghent Conservatory, professor of organ, 1931-48; Tilburg Conservatory, Netherlands, professor of organ and composition, 1935-48; Antwerp Conservatory, professor of organ, 1948-68, director, 1952-68; started giving annual masterclasses at Mechelen Cathedral, 1968; toured Europe, the United States, and South Africa as an organ recitalist from 1947 to 1971; active as a performer until 1981.
Awards: Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, 1958; created a peer of Belgium by King Baudouin, with the title of Baron, 1971.
Concerto for Organ and Orchestra; Tocatta, Fugue andHymn on "Ave Maris Stella," Motette, 1995.
Concerto for Organ and Orchestra; Missa Festiva, Klara, 2003.
Hofman, John, Flor Peeters: His Life and Organ Works, Birchwood Press, 1978.
Sadie, Stanley, editor, New Grove Dictionary of Music andMusicians, Macmillan, 2001.
Orgelkunst, June 2003.
Peeters, Flor, outstanding Belgian organist, pedagogue, and composer; b. Tielen, July 4, 1903; d. Antwerp, July 4,1986. He studied organ with Depuydt and Gregorian chant with van Nuffel at the Lemmens Inst. in Mechelen, succeeding Depuydt as prof, of organ there in 1925, and holding this position until 1952. From 1931 to 1938 he was a prof, at the Ghent Cons., and then at the Tilbourg Cons, from 1935 to 1948. He became a prof, of organ at the Antwerp Cons, in 1948, and was its director from 1952 to 1968. He was elevated to the peerage as Baron Peeters by King Baudoin in 1971. He composed nearly 500 works for organ alone, and also wrote much sacred choral music. His works for organ include Passacaglia and Fugue (1938), Sinfonia (1940), Organ Concerto (1944), Lied Symphony (1948), 30 Short Chorale Preludes (1959), 213 Hymn Preludes for the Liturgical Year (24 installments, 1959–67), and 6 Lyrical Pieces (1966). He also publ, several vols., including Anthologia pro organo (4 vols., Brussels, 1949–59), Ars organi (3 vols., Brussels, 1952–54), and Little Organ Book (Boston, 1957).
P. Visser,F. P., Organist (Turnhout, 1950); J. Hofmann,F. P.: His Life and His Organ Works (Fredonia, 1978).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire