Foundation and Evolution of the Festival
At the start the ”Internationaal Gregoriaans Festival van Watou” was a national event mainly. Slowly but steadily the initiative gained professional and international status. Via organic growth the Festival has positioned itself as a major player in the world of music.
TheFestival was organzed for the first time in 1981. Six choirs including one participant from abroad (the Schola Cantorum from Helmond (The Netherlands), took part and appealed to an audience of some 1,200.
The second edition was organized in 1986. Ten choirs took part including the Kölner Domchor. The Festival welcomed 2.000 listeners.
The third edition meant a real breakthrough. In 1988 sixteen choirs took part in the event. The most famous choirs present were the “Westminster Cathedral Choir” from London en the “Choeur Grégorien de Paris”. The program took two days.
More than 4,000 people came to the concerts . The press reported intensively on the event. The organist was David Hill, Master of Music of Winchester Cathedral.
This Festival got intense acclaim in the press. Several conductors of choirs from abroad attended the Festival and they were deeply impressed by the impact of the event. This allowed the Festival to grow internationally.
The fourth edition, which took place in 1991, was spread over three days. Choirs from the former communist countries could participate for the first time. There were scholas from France, England, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, the D.D.R., the U.S.A., Lithuania and South Korea. Het Festival obtained the “place of honor” as the only international meeting place for Gregorian choirs. De quality of the choirs was remarkably better than during the third edition. De audience grew to 6,000. Press reports were again very positive.
The fifth Festival, which was organized from 13 to 15 May 1994, was again very successful and received wide acclaim. More than 8.000 people from Belgium, The Netherlands, France, Germany, Britain, Switzerland, Italy, Portugal, Australia and China attended the concerts . The events received exceptional attention from the press, and from radio and TV. The Dutch TV-station KRO and the German radio station SFB devoted half an hour’s program to the event.
The sixth edition took place from 7 till 11 May 1997. Due to its high artistic standard and its international radiation the Festival received the title of “Cultural Ambassador of Flanders.” In order to meet the demands created by the ever growing interest, the Festival was spread over five days instead of three. Also geographical spreading was practiced for the first time. Watou as the centre of the Festival was complemented by events in other locations: Poperinge, Wervik and Hazebrouck in Northern France.
This edition could again boast exceptional public and media interest. About 8,000 people attended a concert. On top of that the opening ceremony was broadcasted by eight TV stations via Eurovision, which enlarged the audiences by several tens of thousands of people. Some high quality ladies scholas performed in this edition.
The seventh edition took place from 31 May till 4 June 2000. Twenty-six scholas from fourteen different countries sang at the Festival. The major part of them came to our country for the first time. One evening was devoted to Hildegard von Bingen. The number of semiprofessional ensembles was growing, which resulted in a further rise of the quality level.
For the first time the ladies scholas were prominent and they performed on a very high level. Another remarkable feature: the members of most choirs were mostly quite young.
The average quality level during the last three editions had been heightening constantly and this edition intensified this trend. Choirs dared to sing certain pieces with more expressivity. They also took the oldest manuscripts into account for their interpretations . Finally the concerts showed up a greater unity thanks to the careful make-up of the program which focused on the new millennium.
The eighth edition was organized from 29 May to 1 June 2003. The participation of 22 scholas from 17 countries in 3 continents underlined the geographical and cultural diversity of the choirs. A number of scholas had never been in Belgium before.
Four youth choirs sang during this Festival edition. Their performances were recorded on CD. As during former editions audiences attended in great numbers.
The ninth edition took place from 24 to 28 May 2006. Twenty scholas from fifteen countries took part. Nine of them came to the Festival for the first time. The chore activities at Watou were extended by four evening concerts whereby local traditions formed the centre of attention. One evening audition was devoted to an alternatim repertoire organ-Gregorian chant on the historical Van Peteghem organ at Haringe. De opening mass of the Festival was broadcasted directly on radio 1and the Festival again welcomed thousands of listeners.
De tenth edition, taking place from 16 to 24 May 2009, confirmed the unique status, worldwide, of Watou in the field of modern Gregorian Chant choir practice. The theme of the chore auditions was “Imitatio Christi” . Since the saints followed Christ in a special way, the repertoire, partly to be found in the Sanctorale and partly in unedited Medieval manuscripts focused on them. The chore auditions brought a colorful pallet from that repertoire: from the “vieux fonds” (9th-12th century) to the Late Medieval period. Next to these chore auditions the Festival programmed a number of concerts with repertoires from local traditions. Finally a bridge was constructed linking Gregorian chant to more recent choir literature. “Les Vêpres de la Vierge” Opus 18 by Marcel Dupré, “In Circulo Anni” by Kurt Bikkembergs, and a number of compositions by Arvo Pärt. Pieces by Arvo Pärt were performed by the Estonian choir “Vox Clamantis”.
Thanks to more regional spreading of concerts and liturgy 24 scholas could perform for about 10,000 listeners.
From 12 to 20 May 2012 the eleventh edition of the International Gregorian Festival of Watou took place, the most important platform for Gregorian Scolas worldwide. And this edition was remarkable. According to many people who also attended the festival in the past, this edition was the most outstanding of all. With every edition the musical content and the quality of the performers improve. The program consisted of 25 diverse activities in which 28 ensembles presented themselves in a well-balanced program of auditions, concerts and liturgical services.
Also geographically the Festival was extended considerably with programs in 8 partner cities: Dunkerque, Poperinge, Koksijde, Brussels, Boëseghem (French Flanders, Wervik and Roosdaal-Strijtem. In this way thousands of people and 450 singers could be reached. The total number of people attending one or several concerts can be estimated at 10.000. By strict discipline going together with passion for this music, Watou boasts the most important Gregorian festival in the world.
By the participation of 28 rigorously selected choirs from 18 countries and 2 continents the festival, again, showed up considerable quality, a great originality and an intense international radiation. One important feature of this festival was the fact that many choirs consisted of young, vital singers. Apart from 5 youth choirs, most singers were between 18 and 35 years old. A lot of these choirs are professionally active or belong to music institutions or conservatoires. The audiences were immerged as it were in a tsunami of musicality, perfect text emission, fluent phrasing, homogeneous choir sound and breathtaking interpretations which resulted in authentic Gregorian chant. The festival has restated its unique position in this musical scenery.
The core program of the festival consisted of four auditions performed at Watou with a prescribed program. During the pre-sessions and evening concerts , apart from Gregorian chant, music was performed that is closely connected or inspired by the Gregorian repertoire. Notable here was the string ensemble Lundi Bleu from Amsterdam who performed improvisations on Gregorian themes. The musical intermezzo presented by three ensembles in the local hall on Ascension Day, as a form of gratitude to Watou, was much appreciated.
An important form of support for the organization of the festival is the cooperation of a large number of volunteers. They belong to the festival family and, in fact, it is their festival . They cherish the immense and warm remembrance of joy and gratitude, the remembrance of a week of hard, but constructive work. This voluntary work allows an incomparable hospitality, which, in turn, makes social contacts and exchanges possible, which create a human dimension.
The result is a miraculous happening: people from all over the world with their hearts tied to Watou, celestial singing, respectful silence among the audience and an atmosphere of happiness and friendship among 150 co-operators: heaven on earth.
The organizers of the festival and the other people in charge would like to thank everybody who participated and helped to realize the festival.