Cecilia Callebert is one of the few female Flemish composers from the beginning of the twentieth century. She was born in an artistic family: her grandmother played Beethoven, her mother was a talented singer, her father took care of the harmonizing in several works, her sister played the violoncello and her brother, who died in Germany as a prisoner of war, was a violinist. In other words: she was bottle-fed on music.
From an early age on she was given piano lessons by her father, and soon it became clear that she was very gifted. When the family relocated to Roeselare (Roulers) in 1892 her aunt Pauline Desmedt became her piano teacher. Already at age twelve she played works by Chopin, von Weber and Moszkowski. She pursued advanced studies at the ‘Collège Musical Belge’ in Antwerp, a private school for music chaired by Jan Blockx from l899 on. Emile Wambach and Camille Gurickx were members of the board and imparted on Callebert the subtleties of harmonics and of piano playing, respectively. There she earned her diploma of piano in 1901, with special distinction. Subsequently she enrolled at the Brussels Conservatoire, where she studied piano (Camille Gurickx), theoretical harmony (Martin Lunssens) and composition (Paul Gilson). She was awarded the diploma for piano in 1903 as well as the second prize for theoretical harmonics, the latter enabling her to compete for the diploma. That she did earn her diploma was quite a sensation in Roeselare. As a matter of fact Callebert was received by the city council at the town hall, and a month later the people of Roeselare were invited to pay her homage as well.
In 1904 Callebert ended second at the competition for the Prize Van Cutsem. This concourse was organized by the Brussels Conservatoire by Henri Van Cutsem, an art collector who also acted as a Maecenas for musicians. Despite the overwhelming applause of the public that was eager to see her as the winner, she had to leave the victory to her fellow competitor, Marika Casantzis of Athens (pupil of Adolphe François Wouters). It is said that Callebert also intended to compete for the Prix de Rome. Allegedly Paul Gilson had advised her, given her talent, not to miss this opportunity. Why she never participated after all is not entirely clear: one reason may have been her frail health, another one her dubitative intention to enter the order of the Carmelite nuns. Although eventually she refrained from doing so, she regularly rendered services as an alumna of the Poor Clares to that convent community and its school in Roeselare. In 1921 she was instrumental in the founding of the music school of Roeselare, and in the subsequent year she completely applied herself to her musical activities: giving private lessons and composing.
Callebert could have made it on the concert circuit as a piano virtuoso if her health had not failed her. Even so, once in a while she played a recital in a Belgian or northern French town. For example, in Oudenaarde she played works of the local composer Herberigs. However, these moments were exceptional; generally she was more to be found in Roeselare, imparting piano lessons to some twenty pupils.
Callebert composed her first fourteen songs on French texts, in keeping with her French and religious education. However, through her daily contacts with the Poor Clares of the Franciscan order her Flemish consciousness was stimulated. From 1920 on she limited her work to religious and Flemish inspired compositions. On purpose she kept aloof from the new musical movements that dominated the scene at the beginning of the twentieth century. She remained loyal to a rather conservative style, composing in obeisance to the classic rules she had learnt from Paul Gilson.
Callebert composed a number of piano sketches entitled Op naam van (In the name of). These are short pieces, ranging from four to sixteen measures, the main melody being borrowed from the vowels and consonants from the name of the person mentioned in the title. Besides works for piano and organ her oeuvre consists for the larger part of religious songs and masses based on texts of the Poor Clares or of Flemish authors. She also wrote music - most prominently choirs with a rich melody - for some theatre pieces: Karel de Goede (Charles the Good), Roode dageraad (Red Dawn, 1926) and Uit kracht van de gehoorzaamheid (On the Strength of Obedience, 1931).
© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Lien Alaerts (translation: Joris Duytschaever)