Jongen’s Chant de May; Enigma With An Unbroken Code

If we want to see the Organist timeline during history, perhaps Jongen’s Chant de May will be a shining point in there.

Jongen’s Chant de May, premiered 100 years ago, continues to puzzle organists in terms of both performance and title. John Scott Whiteley takes a fresh look at the evidence

Jongen’s Chant de May; Music Story

On 1 January 1919 a concert of violin and organ music took place at the church of St Stephen, Bournemouth. The performers included the organist of the church, Henry Holloway,1 and an exiled Belgian, the grand compositeur2 who had spent the four-and-a-half years of the first world war as a refugee in London and Bournemouth, Joseph Jongen.3

The programme listed a number of organ solo items shared between Holloway and Jongen, whose own contribution consisted of two pieces he had written while in England: Prélude élégiaque, op.47 no.1, and Jongen’s Chant de May, op.53 no.1.4 The Prélude was included in deference to the mourning that then surrounded them, and the Chant de May as a contrasting haven of optimism, ‘given with great charm and delicacy’. 5 Jongen played the Chant de May in most of his recitals after he had written it in April 1917.

Chant De Mai for organ, by Joseph Jongen.
Chant De Mai for organ, by Joseph Jongen. From Deux Pieces, Op.53.

The 37 diaries of Lucy Broadwood6 recall, for instance, that on 3 September 1917: [we went] to the R.C. church to hear … the ‘admirable’ Juliette Folville7 … play her violin accompd. on the organ by Mr Joseph Jongens [sic] – Liège organist and very best Belgian composer of the younger generation. … Mr Jongens played César Franck’s third organ Choral etc. etc. The newly-composed Chant de May was almost certainly included and was repeated at another recital Jongen gave at that same church – Sacred Heart, Richmond Hill, Bournemouth – on 27 December 1917.8

(left) Her Serene Highness Princess May of Teck (1906-94) wearing the enamelled star pendant given to her by King Edward VII; (right) Jongen’s pencil autograph of the Chant de May
(left) Her Serene Highness Princess May of Teck (1906-94) wearing the enamelled star pendant given to her by King Edward VII; (right) Jongen’s pencil autograph of
the Chant de May

Having returned to Belgium after the war, Jongen was later appointed director of the Brussels Conservatoire. When he occasionally appeared as organ soloist in concerts there he would programme the Chant de May, and in his farewell recital at the Conservatoire on 12 January 1945 he played it in a suite of three pieces: Chant de May, Menuet-Scherzo and Toccata. 9 In America, this ‘fanciful and effective piece [with its opening] theme suggesting the Flowery Mead in Parsifal’10 was played in both Philadelphia and New York City after the war, and when Harvey Grace drew attention to it in the Musical Times of Jan-Feb 1918 it quickly gained a popular following in England. George Thalben-Ball raised its profile again when he played it at St Paul’s, Portman Square, on 8 February 1934 for the Organ Music Society.11

Related Article: Brian Morton New Choral Requiem; Dance To The Music

The Title Dilemma

Jongen’s spelling, May, appears quite clearly on the manuscript (see illustration, above) but whether this is the English version, medieval French or even Walloon dialect remains unclear.12 ‘May’ is indeed the spelling of the month in Walloon. Jongen was capable of writing letters in Liégeois patois, and in 1896 he had set a cantata for men’s voices in the Walloon dialect (On joû d’osté, W.81); but the obvious problem with this is that the first two words of the title are in standard French, and are not dialectal.

The most likely form of the Walloon, although occurring in various regional versions,13 would have been Tchant d’may. The name of the month in both Walloon and French has, following the standardisation that finally prevailed after the later middle ages,14 demanded lowercase: may, or in modern French, mai.

Jongen wrote neither. This then suggests that one solution to this semantic puzzle would be that May was not the month at all and was in fact a person’s name. Ever since the piece was published this has been the subject of popular conjecture, but no clear evidence for it has ever come to light. There are, nonetheless, circumstances that allow a speculative theory. It is no more than that, and tempting though it is to believe it, for the present it must remain conjectural. Jongen was quite often given to dedicating his keyboard pieces to children of his acquaintance.

In England, the piano piece Crépuscule au lac Ogwen, op.52, composed in September 1916, was dedicated To My Dear Little Friend, Fiona McCleary, the daughter of the organist of Holy Trinity Church, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire.15 At this time the Jongens’ own daughter Christiane was aged six and their twins Jacques and Mizelle about three. At the end of the war Jongen dedicated pieces to all three of them – the Pages intimes, op.55 – and in later years his pièces caractéristiques were frequently written with children in mind.16

With particular relevance Jongen dedicated two compositions to SAR La Princesse MarieJosé de Belgique, daughter of King Albert I and Élisabeth.17 On Monday 23 October 1916 Jongen travelled to Windsor, where he was to perform in a concert at the Royal Albert Institute.18

concert at the Royal Albert Institute
The Royal Albert Hall is a concert hall on the northern edge of South Kensington, London.

This was the annual concert of St George’s Chapel Choir, for which Jongen had been invited by Sir Walter Parratt, organist of St George’s, to play some of his own solo piano pieces. Parratt had learned of this Belgian musician ‘of great refinement’19 from Walford Davies, who had himself become well-acquainted with Jongen at the South Place Concerts.

Walford Davies, a prominent figure at South Place, had been Parratt’s assistant organist at Windsor from the end of 1885.20 The Windsor concert was covered extensively by the local press: Music lovers were present in large numbers at the Royal Albert Institute on Monday evening, when the members of St George’s Chapel Choir gave their annual concert … conducted by Sir Walter Parratt, Master of the King’s Music … Among those present were: Princess Alexander of Teck … and Princess Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein.

The concert was a very enjoyable one and encores were frequent throughout the evening. The forces under Sir Walter Parratt’s command have been considerably depleted since the outbreak of war, no less than seven of the lay clerks having joined the Colours …

Notwithstanding this fact, however, the choir acquitted itself very creditably, and the programme was gone through in a most praiseworthy manner. The artists engaged for the occasion were all first class. The chief amongst them was … Dr Joseph Jongen [sic] the famous Belgian pianist, who was formerly professor at the Liège Conservatoire.

His contributions to the programme were quite a feature … The works he rendered were of his own composition, and his brilliant execution of them gained for him very hearty applause. He was recalled on each occasion. During the interval Sir Walter Parratt introduced the talented Belgian composer to the Princesses…21

Parratt’s choir included the choristers and the junior choristers, who sang a group of nursery rhymes.22 Children performed in this concert and it can be certain that children were also in the audience.

At the time, the then Princess Alexander of Teck (later Countess Alice of Athlone) and Princess Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein (Duchess of Albany), were, respectively, 33 and 30 years old, but it would have been perfectly possible, even likely – given the presence of other young children – that their own children would also have been in attendance.

The eldest child of Princess Victoria was the 10-yearold Prince Johann Leopold, but the eldest daughter of Princess Alexander of Teck was Her Serene Highness Princess May of Teck, a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria. After George V renounced all German titles for the British royal family, she became Lady May Cambridge.23

May was born on 23 January 1906,24 and so at the time of the Windsor concert she would have been nearly 11 years old. Jongen’s autographs of the Chant de May and its companion piece, MenuetScherzo, carry the simple colophons ‘Londres April 1917’, and the two pieces were first performed as interludes in a Blanche Marchesi Steinway Hall concert on 28 April.25 Jongen was busy with other London concerts up until 17 April 1917, and so it is more than likely that he wrote the pieces between 17 and 27 April.

Programme information, which was clearly required before this, led Jongen to submit the titles as Aria and Menuetto and it was thus that they were billed.26 So it would appear that Jongen only thought of the Chant de May title when he finally came to compose the piece, only days before the first performance. The April concert date distances yet further the concept of the month in the title, presuming, that is, that the Steinway Hall management did not for some reason bring the concert date back from May into April.

Searches have found no record of this, neither on the programme itself nor in any discoverable advertisement. However attractive this idea may be – yet more so in the whimsical imagining that Princess May might have sung or played the theme to Jongen at a reception on that October evening – there are other theories that are, at face value, more plausible. Yet in every case, when examined further, each of these becomes hypothetical.

A macaronic French/ English title is not out of the question but attempting to explain this only leads to further conjecture. Did Jongen simply wish to leave a tribute to the month of May as he experienced it in England? Was it, even, a deliberate gesture of a newlyconverted Anglophile after he had lived in England for almost three years? It may all seem more likely, but none of it can be demonstrated. A related poem is also quite plausible, since the Pensée d’automne, op.47 no.2, written two years previously, was inspired by the eponymous poem of Gabriel Fauré’s poet, Armand Silvestre.

The passionate descriptions in Goethe’s Mailied, as Jongen could have known it in the second French version by Henri Blaze, Lied de Mai [sic],27 resonate quite invitingly with the musical substance in the Chant de May: ‘luminous sunshine, the voice of the brook, the lark’s song on the clear air, the clouds and flowers of the morning.’28 The first version of Goethe’s verses by Blaze is slighter while Meyerbeer’s so-called Chant de mai uses a different, original Blaze text called Chanson de mai, the title of which is a rather more literal translation of May Song. 29 Yet none of these poems has a direct link to Jongen, and their titles do not correspond with Jongen’s title. Furthermore, Jongen kept a book in which he wrote out his favourite poems. Goethe’s Mailied does not appear and neither does any other ‘May’ poem or related title. It has been alleged that Jongen is unlikely to have written the Chant de May for a German princess at this point during the first world war when, it is well-known, anti-German sentiment was strong. But May was born at Claremont and spoke English. Moreover, this very state of affairs could actually support a dedication to her. Pieces without dedications printed or written above their titles are extremely rare in Jongen’s middle-period œuvre. Of his 27 works composed in England, the Chant de May is unique in lacking such a dedication.30 This might indeed have come about through a perceived necessity to keep such a dedication secret. The enigma, however, persists. Did Jongen actually wish this to be so? Was ‘May’ in fact a ‘get-out’ in the form of an English month scapegoat lest someone at the time discover the true identity of the dedicatee: Her Serene Highness Princess May of Teck? Lisa Colton31 surmises: The title sounds like a nod to that sort of romantic medievalism that one gets quite frequently in c.1900 culture, [but the] one [a poem title] may not exclude the other [a person’s name] as an underlying reason for the title.


Technical devices of the op.53 pieces – parallel chords, symmetrical figuration and octave doublings – are part of Jongen’s ‘original style, in which the odd point of imitation of Debussy is not out of place.’32 The Chant de May is unified through the preservation of the ostinato figuration for the accompanimental material of the whole piece, while Jongen transforms the themes in a way indebted to both Franck and Liszt.33

Was ‘Jongen may’ A ‘get-out’ Lest Someone At The Time Discover The True Identity Of The Dedicatee?

The principle used by Franck of sequential melodic extension of phrases based around anchor-notes was described by Tournemire as phrases extensibles.34

Franck’s principle is never used in quite the same way by Jongen, who preferred to apply a process of variation to whole phrases – la phrase variée – creating a quasiimprovisando effect, sometimes shifting the pitch of the anchor-notes themselves.35 The principle is very clear at the return of the first subject in the Chant de May [Ex.1]. Many of Jongen’s melodic lines that seem to be plainsong themes are actually original; the second theme of the Chant de May is one.

These lie on the surface of the perpetual shifts and contrasts of harmony and modality that are at the foundation of Jongen’s compositional process.36 Both the op.53 pieces contrast altered versions of the whole-tone and pentatonic scales, the latter being the framework of the first theme of the Chant de May.

Jean-Pierre Delville 37 points out that the themes of the Chant de May omit the fourth and seventh degrees of major scales, which is merely another definition of the pentatonic scale, but Jongen’s note-omission process is the same with the other modes that occur. The repeat of the second theme adds a seventh to the pentatonic basis, but this is also the Mixolydian mode on G flat omitting the C flat. The top of page 4 [Chester edition] contrasts the Mixolydian mode in different positions: on G flat and D respectively [Ex.2a].

On page 5, line 3, bars 4-6, the emergence of the contrasting ‘Jongen Mode’ can be seen.38 This is the descending melodic minor scale but with the major third [Ex.2b]. The coda uses more conventional harmonic dissonance and resolution over a tonic pedal, but almost everywhere Jongen’s oscillating chromatic degrees can be seen. (e.g. F natural / F flat in the last line.)

This is a chromaticism that is completely different from that of Franck and it sets Jongen apart39 [Ex.3]. Notes communes The spectre of Franck, however, glowed more brightly in Liège during the 1890s than that of anyone else. Thus there can be no doubt that Jongen was aware of the notes communes principle. Jongen’s organ professor in Liège was Charles-Marie Danneels, who taught according to the École d’orgue of Lemmens as edited by W. T. Best (1884).40

So although Jongen left no specific instructions about notes communes, the conclusion has to be that, in a general legato texture, harmony notes that occur at the same pitch but in an adjacent part in a succeeding chord should be tied, unless there is an obvious reason not to do so.

This includes instances where harmony notes are also melody notes; for example, during the theme of the Sonata eroïca (Leduc page 5, line 3, bars 2-3) the bass b ties to the tenor b in the next chord, but on page 11, line 2, bar 3, the c2 does repeat, since it is a critical melody note [Ex.4]. In the Chant de May, two passages invite consideration of this principle. The first concerns the first two bars of page 4 [Chester].

It is feasible to tie the alto a1 flats from the first bar into the second, but Jongen’s slurs over the right hand part would suggest he did not want this [Ex.2a]. Here there is indeed an obvious reason not to do so. (The same thing occurs four bars later.) The second passage is the final Più lento coda. According to the principle, in the fourth bar of this the middle stave b1 should be tied to the upper stave c2 flat.

The same thing applies two bars later, but at end, the phrase-marks again dictate the tied common notes [Ex.5]. The only recording of Jongen playing the organ occurs with his accompaniment of his own organ and cello piece, Humoresque, op.92.41

There is just one instance that is relevant in this: page 2, line 1 [CeBeDeM edition].42 In the left hand part, which is totally harmonic and accompanimental, the a in the lower part at the end of bar 3 moves to the upper part in the next chord at the start of bar 4.

In the recording Jongen ties these notes, which are not marked with a tie in the score [Ex.6]. So there is some first-hand evidence, but there are then many places where notes communes cannot possibly be observed. Obviously, the introduction in the Sonata eroïca is one of these. Charles Hens, one of Jongen’s favourite pupils, recorded the Alma Redemptoris Mater, W.169. This recording ties few common notes.43

The Religioso section of the Divertimento of the Symphonie concertante, op.81, is worth analysis in respect of notes communes, but this is beyond the scope of this article. Jongen’s performances Chester, the publisher, kept the ink autograph of the Chant de May, which subsequently disappeared during the second world war; but Jongen’s pencil autograph reveals a number of misprints:

The published registration for the Chant de May is for the Steinway Hall 1912 Welte Philharmonic Organ,44 which was moved to Steinway’s new premises at 1-2 St George Street in the autumn of 1924. In 1945 this organ was sold to a private buyer in Austria.45 Jongen’s disowning of this registration is demonstrated in his personal copy, which exists in the library of the Brussels Conservatoire.

It contains two registrations including that for the concert hall Cavaillé-Coll/Mutin of the Conservatoire where he played the Chant de May frequently. There are extra instructions, as well as the opening combination:

  • G.O. Flûte 8, Bourdon Violoncelle Pos:Flûte 8, Cor de Nuit [expressif]
  • Récit: Musette (Octavin préparé)
  • Péd: Soubasse 16 et Flûte Douce 8 Récit à Pos.

The Octavin of the Récit was included with the Anches, while the Musette was with the Fonds. In both instances Jongen’s preference was for a solo reed at the opening, and not the alternative Flûte, and it is noteworthy that the Récit 2 was used instead of the Flûte douce 4 indicated in the printed edition. Jongen has also written ‘4 mins’ as the total duration, even though he gives no metronome mark.

The quicker middle section, rallentandos and Più lento coda make calculation of precise speeds difficult, but if 40 seconds are allotted to the coda plus the preceding pause, the remainder of the piece would demand an average tempo of about crotchet=85.

Arithmetically this can be apportioned so that, given the slowing of the tempo in the passage that leads back to Tempo initial, the opening may perhaps be at about crotchet 78, with an increase to about 90 for the Poco più animato.


  1. Henry Holloway (1871-1948) was assistant organist of Worcester Cathedral before he moved to St Stephen’s, Bournemouth in 1894. (John Henderson, A Dictionary of Composers for Organ, 3rd Edition, Swindon, 2005.)
  2. Jongen was so addressed by Eugène Ysaÿe in a letter dated 15 Feb 1928.
  3. Marie Alphonse Nicolas Joseph Jongen (1873-1953) was born in Liège and held the posts of organiste titulaire and co-titulaire at the Collégiale St Jacques, Liège, from 1894 to c.1908. Before the first world war he was professor of harmony at the Liège Conservatoire and after the war he was appointed professor of counterpoint and fugue at the Brussels Conservatoire, where he became director in 1925.
  4. The title printed on the programme was Poème élégiaque, but as this was a solo organ item it can only have referred to the Prélude élégiaque.
  5. Bournemouth Daily Echo, 2 Jan 1919.
  6. Lucy Broadwood, Diaries, 17 Aug 1914 and 23 Sep 1917. I am grateful to Alan Gibbs for providing this reference.
  7. Juliette Folville (1870-1946) was professor of piano at the Liège Conservatoire and she was also a refugee in Bournemouth during the first world war.
  8. Details of the Brindley & Foster organ at this church may be found on the National Pipe Organ Register,
  9. The two pieces of opus 53 are the Chant de May and Menuet-Scherzo. The Toccata was that in D flat, op.104.
  10. Robert Walker Robson, ‘Repertoire of the Modern Organist’, Musical Opinion, London 1925, 42.
  11. Programme, Conservatoire Royal de Musique de Bruxelles [CRMB], Fonds Jongen.
  12. Chester’s mid-20th century reprint irresponsibly altered the title to Chant de Mai: this was unauthorised, misleading and incorrect. Unfortunately it is an error that has been perpetrated elsewhere, including in the British Library catalogues.
  13. See and Accessed 10 Oct 2018.
  14. Communication from Lisa Colton, Reader in musicology, University of Huddersfield, 9 Oct 2018.
  15. Registers of the Royal College of Organists, London, 1887-99.
  16. See Appendix V in: John Scott Whiteley, Joseph Jongen and his Organ Music, Pendragon, Stuyvesant & New York 1997, 228 et seq.
  17. Habañera op.86 and Jeux de nymphe op.91 no.2.
  18. The Royal Albert Institute was in Sheet Street, but was demolished in 1977. [wiki] Jongen had a concert in London on the previous evening, and so a Monday morning journey is virtually certain.
  19. Whiteley, J.S., op. cit., 89.
  20. H.C. Colles, Walford Davies: A Biography, OUP 1942, 13, 17. The South Place Concerts took place at the South Place Institute in Finsbury Square.
  21. Windsor, Eton and Slough Express, Windsor, 28 Oct 1916, 5.
  22. By Parry, Stanford and C.H. Lloyd from Kookoorookoo and Other Songs, A. & C. Black, London, 1916.
  23. For a few days in July 1917 she was just Miss May Cambridge before the title was confirmed. [wiki]
  24. Before she agreed to be known as Queen Mary, following the accession of George V, Princess Victoria Mary of Teck was informally known as ‘May’ after her birth month. George V and Queen Mary were highly supportive of the Belgians in the first world war, but Jongen’s children were certain that Jongen did not have Queen Mary in mind. (Interviews Aug 1980 and Jun 1993.)
  25. Blanche Marchesi (1863-1940) was a French mezzo-soprano who left descriptions of her London concerts, in general terms, in her autobiography, Singer’s Pilgrimage, Grant Richards, London 1923.
  26. Programme: CRMB, Fonds Jongen.
  27. Poésies traduites par M.H. Blaze, Paris 1873, 26.
  28. For the complete version see Whiteley, J.S., op. cit., 107-8, where it is stated that this was the version used in a setting by Gustave Huberti. In fact, Huberti took a different French version by G. Lagye.
  29. Poésies complètes de Henri Blaze, Charpentier, Paris 1842, 283.
  30. That is, the opus 53 pair, Chant de May and Menuet-Scherzo.
  31. As note 14.
  32. Nouveau Journal, Lyon, 8 Feb 1927: écriture orginale, où une petite pointe de Debussysme n’est pas déplacée.
  33. Whiteley, J.S., op. cit., 107.
  34. Charles Tournemire, César Franck, Delagrave, Paris 1931, 23.
  35. Whiteley, J.S., op. cit., 100.
  36. Ibid., 99.
  37. Jean-Pierre Delville, L’œuvre d’orgue de Joseph Jongen, Mémoire, Musique en Wallonie, Liège 1975.
  38. Whiteley, J.S., op. cit., 99-100.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Joseph Jongen, Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse II, Mazères, 1940 et seq., 47. Manuscript held by the CRMB, Fonds Jongen.
  41. 78 rpm record: Columbia LFX 87, recorded c.1930.
  42. CeBeDeM (Centre Belge de Documentation Musicale), having gone into bankruptcy in 2015, now continues under the auspices of the Brussels Conservatoire.
  43. Whiteley, J.S., op. cit., 154-5.
  44. For further details on this organ see Whiteley, J.S., op. cit., 133-4, 201.
  45. Letter to the author from Henry Z. Steinway, 30 Nov 1992.


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