Choir music in Flanders: a tradition bursting with life

MATRIX [New Music Centre] and Flanders Arts Institute invited Rudy Tambuyser to offer a bird’s-eye view on choir music in Flanders.

In 2020, Flanders will be hosting the World Choir Games. That alone is a statement. But what about the choir scene in Flanders itself? We will provide both a brief historical outline and an update: a ‘Who’s Who’ of choir-friendly composers in Flanders. From household names to exciting newcomers, firm favourites to promising youngsters.

People have been singing since the dawn of human memory, and probably even before that. You might even think that singing is a natural state. Singers know better.

It is likely that this field of tension lies at the root of the unusual position choirs occupy on the music scene. Flanders – the region of Belgium whose choir scene we will be considering here – is no exception.

It is difficult to say whether the choir community in Flanders is ‘typical’ without an in-depth study of other singing regions. One might suspect that it is, if we are to go by the history of the region and the impressive list of choirs and composers for choirs that we came across when preparing this article. However a disclaimer is required here: this text is not exhaustive, and neither does it attempt to be. Its only aim is to illustrate how worthwhile it can be to explore Flemish choir repertoire, irrespective of the style or musical dialect one is looking for.

The human urge to sing may indeed be universal, but still it is more than a mere platitude to call the Flemish a singing people. When making this claim, people often refer to the illustrious Franco-Flemish School, the ‘Flemish Polyphonists’ of the period from before 1400 until after 1600, who shaped and dominated almost all of Western art music for more than two centuries.

If Flanders is a region of singers, it is certainly also a region of people who sing together. It is striking how few great solo singers Flanders has produced, despite its history as a singing region. And although the modern state of Belgium was born after the revolutionary flame was sparked at the opera, there are no Flemish operas of historic significance. Perhaps there is one exception: Aquarius by Karel Goeyvaerts, which we will discuss in a moment.

After 1600, Flanders had to cede its role as a musical and vocal pioneer to the Italians and Germans. In any case, that was the period in which instrumental music was increasingly gaining in importance almost everywhere.

There was a striking revival in Flemish music, including vocal music, after the Second World War. Flanders became a hotbed and hothouse for the modernism and electronic music of the time, represented for example by Flagey (the magnificent broadcasting building) in Brussels and the Institute for Psychoacoustics and Electronic Music (IPEM) in Ghent. Looking back on history, it is striking how two traditional principles have continued to dominate vocal music in Flanders, despite the emergence of the classical avant-garde and the equally rapid decline of Christianity. Firstly, religious themes have continued to play a particularly significant role even today, both in terms of repertoire and performers. The repertoire still has a considerable sensitivity to liturgical and other Christian themes, and many choirs and organisers of choir concerts have a history, if not a daily practice, that is linked to a parish, cathedral or other ecclesiastical body. And secondly, even after more than three centuries in the shadow, the primary reflex and probably the strongest aspect of the art of composition in Flanders has remained intact: the sense of structure, sound form and savoir faire, what one might call the crafted, objective side of artistic quality.

Historically, Flanders has tended to be a highly compartmentalised society: in the 20th century, the socialist left, the conservative, Catholic faction and, as a somewhat uneasy piggy-in-the-middle, the liberals all had their own organisations, institutes and spheres of influence in every area of social life. The same phenomenon inevitably applied to choirs. Clearly these social distinctions are not as sharp today, but their traces can sometimes still be felt.

Generally speaking, one might say that Ghent, Leuven, Antwerp and Brussels all have a sphere of influence in Flanders. A leftist, free-thinking mentality predominated in Ghent, with its conservatory (today University College Ghent), the former Rijksuniversiteit (now Ghent University) and the IPEM, and intense innovation took hold more easily there than elsewhere. A considerable amount of music has been written in Ghent for choirs, but it tended to be written for the sake of the music itself rather than in response to the needs of choirs.

The heart of the Flemish choir scene is in Leuven, with its historically staunch Catholic Lemmensinstituut (today the Luca School of Arts) and its Catholic university. Choral singing is still compulsory for all music students and the ability to direct an ensemble well is a high priority. Composers for choirs in Leuven are often organists, and hence people who go to church.

The Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp (today the AP School of Arts), founded by Peter Benoit (1834-1901), was predominantly pro-Flemish to begin with, a nationalist aspect that has completely disappeared today. Today it is less compartmentalised, and the styles we have encountered there through the years have also been highly diverse.

The Royal Conservatoire in Brussels (today Erasmus School of Arts) has strong historical links to the style of the Conservatoire in Paris. Harmony, fugue and counterpoint, the traditional disciplines, were considered essential there for longer than elsewhere. Another important centre in Brussels is the iconic Flagey radio building which, as mentioned above, was a global centre of the pioneering mentality in music, particularly electronic music, in the 1950s. This may explain the impression that people sometimes have that there is an axis between Ghent and Brussels on the Flemish composition scene.

Choirs in Flanders

This article will mainly discuss composers, but in order to understand the Flemish choir scene properly we must also discuss the choirs themselves. Besides the choir at Opera Ballet Flanders, which has hardly anything to do with singing choir music (since that is neither its job or its mission), there are only two genuinely professional choirs in Flanders: Philippe Herreweghe’s world-famous Collegium Vocale (which, despite an unmistakeable extension of its repertoire over the years, still mainly concentrates on early music and only rarely performs or premieres a Flemish piece) and the Vlaams Radio Koor (or Flemish Radio Choir, once part of the public broadcasting service, which does assume this role somewhat more but still not to the extent that its founders probably intended, many years ago.)

Furthermore, there are a number of project choirs driven by the energy of a passionate, always very highly trained conductor and a small group of supporters. They perform ad hoc programmes sung by a combination of seasoned amateurs and professionally trained singers who are prepared to sing for a pittance: most of them earn their living by teaching at the music academies (the academies in Flanders are run by the Ministry of Education). Composers are generally pleased with the opportunity to have their work performed by this type of choir.

Last but not least, there are an inestimable number of amateur choirs in Flanders, also often led by highly-trained, professional conductors. They rehearse weekly at their venue (a church or local function room) for their proverbial annual concert. There is often a non-profit association behind such choirs, or at least a team of volunteers for whom the choir is not only a musical instrument but also a social circle. Their concerts are attended by well-wishers. Small grants were available from the provincial authorities until recently, on the basis of a lenient classification system. The consequences of the disappearance of these grants remain to be seen. Incidentally, several of these amateur choirs achieve a decent artistic level, although of course they cannot reach the standards usually required for instrumental settings.

This situation is in stark contrast to the abundance and quality of the musical material available. Koor en Stem (‘Choir and Voice’) is a government-subsidised body that provides documentation and facilitation for the benefit of Flemish amateur choirs, but it does not cater to the world of professional choirs on principle. However, the latter are increasingly thin on the ground in Flanders, especially now that Kurt Bikkembergs’ Cappella di Voce and Marc De Smet’s Aquarius have effectively ceased to exist.

Clearly this situation has also had an influence on the music that is being composed: choir composers tend to be very pragmatic and nowadays they shy away from scores that are too technically challenging. To a certain extent, this means healthy resistance to the old modernist school that all too often seemed to think that ‘difficult’ was a necessary condition for ‘decent’. Conversely, it is clear that this approach does not really offer much artistic freedom, and that reflection is needed on how to improve in this area.

Composers

We would like to cite the composer Lucien Posman here, because his character sketch of ‘the’ Flemish composer contains great wisdom that cannot be improved upon – at least not if you read it with Posman’s wide, magnanimously mocking smile in mind.

“To sound the depths of the various styles in Flemish music, we must take account of certain essential characteristics of the average Fleming or Belgian. As the British historian Patricia Carson pointedly remarked: ‘The Flemish hate the central government and their capital city, Brussels; they are undisciplined, contrary and try to get around the rules; tax evasion is their national sport and they adapt well to any circumstances.’

This is partly due to the fact that many Flemish cities historically offered shelter to refugees and that they were hotbeds of resistance to the feudal rulers. These characteristics are reflected in the way that Flemish composers relate to the various styles and trends in music.

Flemish composers are highly individualistic and refuse to obey stylistic rules; that makes it impossible to put them into unequivocal categories.

Flemish composers seldom reveal their secrets; they conceal certain aspects of their work. Musicologists are looked upon as tax inspectors.

Flemish composers resist labels, which they find threatening.

Flemish composers do not sing their own praises and prefer to work out of the spotlight. In other words: you have to track them down.

Flemish composers take their time to evaluate innovations and love to undermine them.

That makes it very difficult to draw an accurate musical map of Flanders. We have representative composers for every style, but Flemish composers usually combine aspects of various styles. We call this Style Cocktailism, Meta-Style or Superior Eclecticism. But labelling Flemish composers is an extremely hazardous business. You run the risk of being stalked and hated for the rest of your life.”

All joking aside: because we also want to discuss the present situation in this article, we will restrict ourselves to an introduction of the true beacons in the landscape. Each of these is a choir composer who has earned a place in the international canon.

First and foremost, we must pay tribute to two very different figures of long ago. To begin with, we have the 19th century priest Jules Van Nuffel (1883-1953), still reverently referred to on the Flemish choir scene as Monseigneur Van Nuffel. He was the father of the ‘Mechelen School’ – note here that the Lemmensinstitute, now in Leuven, was based in Mechelen from 1879 to 1968. Much of the Flemish choir scene is difficult to understand without an understanding of his Psalms and Te Deum: intended to sound imposing (a masterly soundtrack to a kind of modern counter-Reformation), Van Nuffel’s works are utopian for small settings.

In the opposite corner, we have Norbert Rosseau (1907-1975). He was a child prodigy on the violin and a confectioner by profession. Just as Van Nuffel is a kind of clan father of the Catholic choir tradition in Flanders, Rosseau is one of the founders of the Ghent connection. His style cannot be pinned down. One might compare his four masterpieces Missa in honorem Spiritus Sancti (1967, a form of enriched Gregorian), the Mattheuspassie (1973, a cappella), the Messe des morts à Is (1959) and L’incoronazione di Maria (1969, the most natural treatment of serialism ever): they are limitless. It is a shame that he is not more widely known, even in Flanders.

The Silent Generation (1929-1945)

According to Pierre Boulez, modernism in Western art music began with Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune in 1893, long before the term modernism had gained its meaning. Likewise, Flemish choir music in the 21st century harks back in a certain sense to the later work of Karel Goeyvaerts (1929-1993), more specifically his mildly aleatoric piece Mon doux pilote s’endort aussi (1976).

The 1930s were a particularly blessed period for music-loving Flanders. Roland Coryn (1938), who is still composing, is certainly one of the most striking figures. He is often seen as something of a nostalgic romantic, but that is far from the truth: what is somewhat true to that tradition is his choice of a clearly recognisable tonal centre. Otherwise his work bears witness to a great generosity, an infallible sense of singability and a sophisticated taste in poetry. Not least among his achievements are his settings of Emily Dickinson’s work, for example in the powerful piece in five sections A Letter to the World (1993).

Another composer who is still alive and kicking, although no longer composing, is Raymond Schroyens (1933). Despite his career as a harpsichordist, teacher and producer at the BRT public broadcasting service – a position that many Flemish composers have held, incidentally – Schroyens has written around a hundred pieces, many of them for choir. His work reflects the influence of early music (transparency and a clear play of lines), as well as his admiration for the New German School (Distler, Pepping) and an adventurous use of dissonance. He seeks the essence in conscious experience rather than virtuosity, as can clearly be heard in his Three Canticles (1965), Pentalpha (1983) and the humorous ode to Bach Beobachtung (1999).

1936 gave us four significant choir composers: Vic Nees, still one of the giants of singing Flanders since his death in 2013, the former conductor of what is now the Vlaams Radio Koor, and a composer who devoted himself almost exclusively to works for choir; Frans Geysen, one of the most personal voices to date, who is mainly concerned with a hypersensitive version of repetitive music; Raoul C. De Smet, who calls his work an instinctive merging of stylistic and harmonic systems; and Jean Lambrechts, a member of the Limburg scene whose music needs to be given more regular exposure outside the region. In Lambrechts we note, among other things, an exquisite taste for text, whether religious or profane, from Racine to Garcia Lorca. Finally, we should also mention Jacqueline Fontyn (1930), André Laporte (1931) and Claude Coppens (1936), illustrious names who mainly wrote for other settings.

As in every area of society, including the arts, the 1940s display a scarcity of a demographic nature. We would like to mention two extremely different elders who are still at work: Boudewijn Buckinx (1945), our über-postmodernist, a notoriously productive composer and gifted orator. He jokingly refers to himself as the last modernist. Kristiaan Van Ingelgem (1944) has a very different pedigree: as an organist and carillon player, he is familiar with the Catholic tradition and he brings a modern modality to his work as an organist and improviser. There are no themes he eschews.

The Baby Boomers (1946-1964)

When this generation reached maturity, from quite a way into the sixties until after 1980, the almost religiously high expectations of modernism and the serialists had long since been put aside. Postmodernism, which called modernism into question, was being called into question itself. The result was a genuine kaleidoscope of styles: new tonality and other expressions of postmodernism, stubborn attempts to continue to honour the historic avant-garde, pious retro-music, hesitant attempts to bring lighter music into choir repertoire and so on.

In this cohort we find Lucien Posman (1952), a student of Coryn who spent years as a professor at the conservatory in Ghent. He is an excellent singer with a polite hatred of automatisms, who writes work of hugely varying difficulty without losing his own voice. From Ushururu – Lullaby for Eleasha (2015) to the only recently completed Songs of Innocence (for soprano, harp and choir, to texts by his favourite poet William Blake), his work always bears witness to vocal intelligence and a love of singing: basic conditions for pos(t)mannerism, the movement of which he claims to be the only representative so far.

Another of Coryn’s students is Rudi Tas, equally respected and unmissable in choir repertoire. Originally inspired by the avant-garde, he can be classified as more of a neo-Romantic or neo-Impressionist today (Miserere for cello solo and choir, 1999).

Lastly, within Ghent’s sphere of influence, we find three more composers of very different temperaments. Johan Duijck (1954) is a pianist, but he has devoted much of his career as a performer to conducting choirs: he leads the Gents Madrigaalkoor (an amateur choir) and is a former director of the Vlaams Radio Koor and chorus master at Saint-Martin-in-the-Fields. His music is often written in established forms (the Alma de la Musica cantatas) with their characteristic balance, and he has a particular penchant for a stylised expression of the text.

The percussionist Frank Nuyts (1957) has shifted shape from a postserialist in the atmosphere of the IPEM to a hardcore postmodernist influenced by Buckinx, although he has retained a love of virtuosity and speed that is somewhat atypical for a postmodernist. Be sure to listen to his XXX Songs (2018) for an excellent example of this.

Dominique Pauwels studied first in Ghent and later at the Berklee Institute. He is an interdisciplinary, hands-on man, one of few composers in Flanders who make a living from composition alone. He has written many tunes for the radio and TV, and has been more intensely preoccupied with vocal music in the last 15 years. Among his works for choir, Judaspassie (2009) and the music for Autopsie van een gebroken hart (2010) certainly deserve a mention.

Within the sphere of influence of the Lemmensinstituut, this generation of choir composers includes one colossal figure: Kurt Bikkembergs (1963), a student of Van Hove, although schooling has little relevance in his case. He is a self-declared neoconservative, but above all a composer with an unrivalled instinct for choir music. Jules Van Nuffel haunts the natural dynamics and sometimes ecstatic character of his music. Like that of Nees, his writing is both modern and timeless, and as with Posman, his intelligent use of vocality and singability is striking, although Bikkembergs favours a slowly shifting harmony and Posman concentrates more on the play of musical lines. It is impossible to choose from Bikkembergs’ oeuvre; those who are not yet familiar with his work might like to start with Im Nebel (1987) and De Profundis (2002).

Another well-known name is Piet Swerts (1960), who is a professor at the Lemmensinstituut along with Bikkembergs. Swerts is a pragmatic polystylist who learned much from Lutoslawski. He only works on commission, and he has been ask to write a considerable number of major works since his opera Les Liaisons Dangéreuses (1999). War (2014) and the Symphony of Trees (2017) are among his most memorable recent works.

Ludo Claesen (1956) and Paul Steegmans (1957) are another two excellent craftsmen in the Lemmens tradition. Claesen, a trained percussionist, the recipient of many awards as a conductor and a professor, has a predilection for text and rhythm. Steegmans, who has often collaborated with him, is mainly a piano teacher and accompanist, and more of a neo-romantic than a technician. Both gentlemen have a fairly strong affinity with liturgical texts – see Steegmans’ settings of Psalms 8 and 84, for example. The work by Claesen that we would like to mention here is profane, however: Quam pulchra es and The Great Longing.

Wim Henderickx (1962), one of Flanders’ most successful composers, currently teaches in Antwerp. Percussion, interculturality and electronics are the most prominent aspects of his work. Henderickx is a good orchestrator; with the exception of a few works (Libera me and De profundis in 1992, Crucifixus in 2003), his interest in choir music is quite recent. Notable works include Visioni ed estasi (2015) and Missa Brevis (2017).

Johan Sluys (1964) is a pianist, and continued to study a range of disciplines, including choir conducting, for an unusually long stretch of his career. A strong interest in text and an advanced, refined taste for form and harmonic structure respectively reflect his first degree in classics and his teachers Kristin De Smedt and Claude Ledoux, who introduced him to spectralism. Highlights in Sluys’ oeuvre for choir include: Requiem for a Child Soldier (2001), Odi et Amo (2008), and Nachtelijke optocht (2015), to a text by Paul Van Ostaijen.

There are two major figures we cannot fail to mention. Although both have produced a few substantial works for choir, neither have the profile of a typical choir composer: the organist and polystylist Jan Van Landeghem (1954), a student of Cabus and Goeyvaerts who teaches in Brussels (Gezelletriptiek (1998)); and Luc Van Hove (1957), who taught for a long time in Antwerp like his own teacher, Kersters. He is a playful but serious constructivist who does not shy away from ‘coincidental’ tonality, as it were – his admiration for Ligeti has much to do with this. We would like to mention his Four Sacred Songs (2003) and Psalm 22 (2004).

Although Flemish composers can seldom be classified in any one style or category anyway, we will end our discussion of this generation with four extremely personal artists. Irma Bilbao is the nom de plume of the rock-solid singer and avant-garde vocalist Françoise Van Hecke (1957). Her approach to composition is visceral and eclectic, often for experimental settings, but always with a deep understanding of vocality. Kritsa (2008) is worth mentioning.

Alain De Ley (1961) writes in a very melodious, friendly idiom that feels ‘close at hand’, and does not shy away from excursions into pop music. Notable compositions include Missa pro Vivis (2013), Dies irae – Lux aeterna (2009) and a twelve-part Recordare (2005).

The works of the organist and singer Willem Ceuleers (1962) sometimes seem completely lost in our time: he composes in the musical idiom of centuries gone by that he loves most.

At the very other end of the originality spectrum is Walter Hus (1959), a hyper-individualistic pianist of an interdisciplinary bent, a maximalist, non-conformist and playful thinker. Listen to his Devouring Muses from 1997 for an immediate understanding of roughly what that means.

Generation X (1965-1980)

If the official soundtrack to Generation X is late punk, grunge and hip-hop, there is little of that to be found in the Flemish choir landscapes or in other countries with strong choral traditions. Nonetheless, there is plenty of variation.

Even if we only look at the scene surrounding the Lemmensinstituut in Leuven, we find a wide range of temperaments in this generation. Jeroen D’hoe (1968) started out as a musicologist, and as such finds guidance as a composer in historic, aesthetic and academic work just as much as in creativity. He studied under Swerts and Corigliano, is strongly inclined towards the American schools and does not have the typical profile of a choir composer. Nonetheless, we should certainly mention his Visions for choir and string quartet (2002), and perhaps also the charming Callisto’s Lullaby from 2015.

Erika Budai (1966) studied with Claesen, Swerts and Bikkembergs, and is particularly fond of choir work. Clarity, lyricism and rhythmic drive are the keys to her code. Her scope is fairly wide: from pop arrangements to the well-known work The Chocolate Factory (1991) through to her more recent pieces Hodie Christus natus (2010) and This Little Rose (2015) to a text by Dickinson, written as an obligatory piece for the highly-regarded European Music Festival for Young People contest in Neerpelt.

Martin Slootmaekers (1968) is another of Swerts’ students who is also a choir director. He mainly composes for choir, and around half of his works are pieces for young people and educational works. His other pieces are often more advanced in terms of their technical level and tonality: listen to his Rembrandt triptiek (1999) or 5 Passiemotetten (1996).

Sebastiaan Van Steenberge (1974) is an organist and student of Van Hove. He is the Kapellmeister at Antwerp Cathedral and only composes on commission. His style is tonal and pragmatic, with a good understanding of the limitations and strengths of an average choir. He recently attracted considerable attention with the cantata Meester R (2018) for Rubens Year in Antwerp.

Another Leuven-based composer, but one from a completely different planet is Yvan Vander Sanden (1972), a student of the extremely progressive thinker Godfried-Willem Raes and the comparably extreme, conservative free thinker Bikkembergs. Vander Sanden is a computer specialist and incorrigible experimentalist, but also a choir singer; he probably moved beyond pure choir work some time ago, but we would nonetheless like to mention Analysis of Concept (2008) and For Chester Greenwood (2011).

Bert Van Herck (1971) is without doubt the most modern composer in this Gen-X collection, in the classical, mid-20th century sense of the term. He is a thinker, with a great interest in the latest developments in musicology, and his CV makes that clear: after Van Hove, his teachers included Brewaeys, Harvey, Grisey and Lachenmann. He is the opposite of a postmodernist and far from prolific; perhaps the two observations are linked. His Psalm (2010) for six voices and electronics, and Tenson for 16 voices (2006) have a fairly high degree of difficulty.

We find a comparable level of diversity on the Ghent-based choir scene. Filip Rathé (1966) is primarily a conductor (of the Spectra ensemble, among others) and is rumoured to possess the best set of ears in Flanders. With mentors such as Herman Sabbe, Lucien Goethals and Claude Coppens, it will come as no surprise that there is deep thought behind his compositions. Nevertheless, he is an irrepressible man of action: ingenious, progressive and inventive. Memorable compositions include Por qué la muerte es mentira (2005), but he has far more compositions worth discovering.

The guitarist Petra Vermote (1968) also studied in Ghent. She was trained by Nuyts, Goethals, Coryn and Van Hove: it goes without saying that a composer with such a broad field of vision also has a very varied style. She has written a fair amount for choirs. Two of her more recent works are Fusée (2014), to a text by Apollinaire, and the ambitious Scents of Fragrance (2016) for two choirs, percussion and cello, to texts by Brontë, Wordsworth and Blake.

Annelies Van Parys (1975) and Joachim Brackx (1975) were both initially trained by Raes, but their creative work is substantially different. Besides being a composer, Brackx is primarily a choir singer. One might call him a pragmatic aesthete: economy of material is important, and what you hear is what you get: he sees no reason for inaudible elements of structure (Whispers (2008)). Van Parys, who was highly influenced by the spectralist Luc Brewaeys, inevitably sees things differently (Lux (2002), Ruhe (2007) and Frammenti (2012)).

The violist Nicolas De Cock (1979) studied composition under Dirk Brossé. He is an aesthetic pragmatist who has written a large amount of film and brass band music, and he is also a choir conductor. He recently made an impression with In Flanders Fields (2017), to the famous text by John McCrae.

Last but not least are the Brussels-based composers: Natalie Goossens (1976) is a clarinettist, singer, composer and conductor. Her main starting point for composition is silence, out of which she constructs an introverted, sober world of sound, somewhat in concordance with her modest temperament. However she is close to the practical side of the musical community, which is noticeable in her clear scores. Her most recent works, to classic texts, are O quam pulchra es and O sacrum convivium (2016).

Maarten Van Ingelgem (1976) is a pianist who studied composition under Wim Henderickx. The son of Kristiaan Van Ingelgem is absolutely one of the most striking representatives of his generation. Van Ingelgem performs a considerable number of premières with the amateur choir De 2de Adem, which was incidentally founded by a major figure on the Flemish choir scene, the conductor Marc-Michael De Smet. He has few fixed rules as a composer: on the one hand, he is very well acquainted with the lifeblood of music; on the other, he draws many ideas from his chosen texts, which genuinely permeate his work rather than merely providing a semantic element. A richness of ideas and expressive power and striking qualities in Van Ingelgem’s work. His oeuvre for the voice is already considerable, and we should certainly mention Onvoltooid Landschap (2014) for no less than four choirs, percussion, saxophone quartet and narrator.

The Millennials – Generation Y

With the Millennial generation, we enter the age where it is theoretically no longer possible to speak of typically Flemish work for choir. After all, their essential characteristic is their international outlook, communicative talent and the exchange of ideas. Schools are disappearing and styles are becoming completely intermingled: this is a matrix in which we might expect the imagination to become all-powerful again, rather than background or artistic pedigree. The reality may be more complex.

Here is a brief outline of the youngest composers in choir-loving Flanders.

Frederik Neyrinck (1985) is one of the most successful and productive Flemish composers of his generation. His teacher Jan Van Landeghem introduced him to Goeyvaerts’ music, from which he derived his concept of evolving repetition. Neyrinck is not a typical choir composer, but his Il Pleut (2008) for choir and Quasi-Palindrom II for 12 voices (2013), for example, reveal his fine sense of vocality.

Noor (previously Gwendolyn) Sommereyns (1982) studied at the Lemmensinstituut with Henderickx and was later trained by Bikkembergs, Van Hove and Van der Roost. She began composing at an early age, in a lyrical, flowing, eloquent style with tonal underpinnings, but decided to suspend her composition activities in 2009 (Poor Corydon (2005), Three Japanese Songs (2008)).

Hans Helsen (1989) studied with Jeroen D’hoe, is a singer himself and has a very explicitly choir-based profile. His Missa Brevis (2014), which won the European Award for Choral Composers, is his most memorable piece to date.

Jef Callebaut (1994) trained as a percussionist like Wim Henderickx, with whom he has been studying composition since 2013. He has written work for dance, theatre and film. (De Bijen, 2017, to a text by Steiner)

Koben Sprengers (1993) is a linguist and jazz double bass player. He has been familiar with choirs since an early age: his father is a choir conductor. He is just beginning his career as a choir composer. Vreemd fruit (2017) is an adaptation of Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday’s song of accusation that has become a standard; Letters from the other side (2017) was written as a counterpoint to Karl Jenkins’ famous Mass for Peace, for the 100th anniversary of the Armistice.

Lente Verelst studied with Henderickx and Van Hove, and is now studying composition for screen at the Royal College in London. The Appletree (2017) tells the story of Snow White from the unusual perspective of the apple.

Liesbeth Decrock (1990) also studied with Henderickx and Van Hove. Her titles certainly reveal a clear sense of originality and a wide sphere of interest: Fruitsla voor het koor (2018) and We would have been safe (2017) to a text by Jonathan Safran Foer.

We have a while to wait for Generation Z, but there is plenty to listen to in the meantime.

Listening tips

What contemporary choir compositions are worth checking out? Based on a survey by MATRIX we’ve put together a non-exhaustive list of works you can listen to online.

Find more about choir music in Flanders

Koor&Stem
Koor&Stem supports + 1000 choirs and + 35 000 singers and conductors across Flanders. Koor&Stem brings people together through song, promotes fresh perspectives on the future of choral life, helps and inspires, creates learning opportunities and performance prospects.

World Choir Games 2020 in Flanders
The biggest choir competition in the world will take place in Flanders. Read more.

Recordings
Among many commercially available recordings of Flemish choir music from this and the previous centuries, the CDs on Belgian record label Phaedra deserve special mention. The series In Flanders’ Fields contains choir music by o.a. Lucien Posman (In Flanders’ Fields 74), Roland Coryn (In Flanders’ Fields 81) and Kristiaan and Maarten van Ingelgem (In Flanders’ Fields 82).

Let me be your guide
Our online special on classical (incl. contemporary) music in Flanders and Brussels.

R.T.

Rudy Tambuyser studied physics, music theory and singing. He is a mathematics teacher, singer and freelance music journalist. Current writing activities include Pianist magazine (Dutch, German and British editions) and Eliso Virsaladze’s biography.

You are reading: Choir music in Flanders: a tradition bursting with life