Jules Van Nuffel was born on 21 March 1883 in the family house situated in the town of Hemiksem near Antwerp (Belgium) as the second son of Eugeen Van Nuffel and Maria Vermylen. After Jules, the family was completed with two younger brothers.
Jules as a child
Jules grew up in a music-loving and militant catholic environment. Mother taught the boys the first notions of music-reading and piano. Father, a general practitioner who would also become mayor of Hemiksem, was an excellent piano and harmonium player. Jules' exceptional musical ability was recognized at a very young age ; he was allowed as a child to play on the town's church organ.
From 1892 to 1903 Jules went to school in the Minor Seminary in the city of Mechelen. His musical talent did not remain unnoticed. He learned to play the violin and the organ, and was appointed the school's organist in 1898. As a young man he was known to be full of temperament, and, on school holidays, he enjoyed cycle racing.
Called to the priesthood, Jules entered in 1903 the Major Seminary in Mechelen. His musical education was continued with teachers such as Oscar Depuydt and Alfons Desmet, who initiated him further in the secrets of harmony, counterpoint, composition and organ technique. He was noticed by Edgar Tinel, and made his début as conductor of the students' choir. The first compositions date from this period.
Van Nuffel developed his musical knowledge through self-education and was very much interested in church music. Under the strong influence of the papal letter Motu Proprio, the promotion of properly performed sacred music became his life-purpose.
Jules Van Nuffel was ordained priest by Cardinal Mercier on 25 May 1907. He was appointed music teacher in the Minor Seminary, and was allowed to follow courses in the Mechelen Interdiocesan Institute for Church Music, better known as the Lemmens Institute. It was clear from the outset that Van Nuffel's talent would be put at the service of the Church and that he would be assured of a musical career. The young priest and teacher continued through these years his musical self-education, wrote articles and worked on compositions.
On 26 July 1916, during the German occupation of Belgium, a student choir under Van Nuffel's direction performed in the St. Rumbold's Cathedral the psalm Super Flumina Babylonis that he had recently composed. The text and the music echoed the oppressed and rebellious mood of the population. The performance was much appreciated and laid the foundation for the creation of the St. Rumbold's Choir that was placed under Van Nuffel's direction. In 1918 Jules Van Nuffel was appointed director of the Lemmens Institute.
The young priest, 1907
The St. Rumbold's Choir and its conductor gained a great reputation in the period between the two World Wars. They were regularly invited to perform at the church ceremonies of the Belgian Royal Court. The choir made concert tours abroad, and the big tour of 1934 in Italy, with a performance in the presence of the Pope, was a true triumph.
Greeting the king and queen, december 1934
Van Nuffel used this powerful choir as an instrument to further his ideas on the performance of church music, and notably the interpretation of Gregorian chant and polyphony. Van Nuffel's greatest compositions, such as the Psalms and a Te Deum, were created in this period, with the possibilities of a great cathedral choir in mind.
The Lemmens Institute also flourished under Jules Van Nuffel's directorship, and grew to become a musical school with international reputation. The best students, such as Henri Durieux, Marinus de Jong, Flor Peeters or Staf Nees joined the teacher's staff.
Scientific work was not neglected in these times. Van Nuffel became the editor-in-chief of the periodical Musica Sacra, and wrote numerous articles in which he defended his views on music teaching and liturgical chant.
Together with Gustaaf Van Doorslaer and Charles Van den Borren, he worked on the project to trace and publish the works of Philippus De Monte, a sixteenth-century polyphonist from Mechelen. In 1933, Van Nuffel, who in the mean time had been appointed canon, obtained a readership in musical history at Louvain University. His courses, in which he used the piano and played records, were very popular with students, and laid the foundation for the creation of a musicology department at the university.
drwaing by kan. Misonne
Jules Van Nuffel lived to the fullest and made his talents available everywhere he could. He was demanding for others but also for himself, and this was detrimental to his health. His compository work decreased little by little. During the Second World War he directed the Nova Organi Harmonia project, a collection of organ accompaniments to Gregorian chant. The liberation of Belgium by the allied forces inspired him to write a grand Te Deum, hoping that it could be performed to celebrate the return of the King. The political situation prevented this return, and the Te Deum was performed at the occasion of the grand tribute that was organised in Mechelen on 19 May 1946 celebrating the St. Rumbold's choir's 30th anniversary.
At this occasion Van Nuffel was awarded by Cardinal Van Roey the honorary title of Secret Chamberlain of the Pope and could henceforth be adressed as Monsignor.
Mgr. Van Nuffel was admitted to St. Augustine's Hospital in Wilrijk near Antwerp in August 1952 after suffering a stroke. There he passed away on 25 June 1953. The demise made the front pages and for the solemn funeral service St. Rumbold's Cathedral was filled with dignitaries and numerous sympathizers. Jules Van Nuffel is buried between his parents in Hemiksem's town cemetary.
In accordance with his mission to promote and modernise church music, Van Nuffel's musical heritage is limited to, with just a few exceptions, vocal religious work with or without organ accompaniment. Some works have later been orchestrated.
Van Nuffel's music continues to sound suprisingly modern. The composer sought striking harmonies and colour effects for the delivery of the text. The works bear testimony to the deep and strong religious sensibility of the artist. Critics have found influences of Gregorian chant, Bruckner, Wagner, Debussy, ... but always acknowledged the original and identifiable character of the music.
If the composer had not been absorbed by the duties of the school, the choir and research, he could have left a bigger oeuvre. Performances and recordings of his most impressive works – the psalms- remain relatively rare; they require a large choir, an enthoustiastic conductor, a skilled organist and great church vaults to do them justice. Thanks to a number of happy initiatives there now exist a few cd recordings with excellent performances of the most important works. Van Nuffel also wrote quite some small pearls that remain popular with choirs and audiences, such as the moving O keer' din' ooghen (a song to Holy Mary), Kerstlied-Vredelied (A Christmas Song of Peace) that was written during the First World War, or the choral adaptations of old Flemish Christmas carols.
During his life, Jules Van Nuffel was a celebrity in Belgian catholic and cultural circles. The memory of this personality faded little by little in later generations. But his music has stood the test of time and continues to thrill new audiences.
This short biographical sketch has drawn on the book that Eugeen Van Nuffel wrote in 1967 on his older brother, entitled “Mgr Jules Van Nuffel 1883-1953 – Herinneringen, getuigenissen en documenten”.
Further biographical documentation can be found in Nele Van Espen, “Muziek verzacht de zeden? Jules Van Nuffel (1883-1953), schepper van liturgische schoonheid”, dissertation in modern history, Louvain University 2006.