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Friday, January 1, 2016

Emmanuel V. Leemans, Accomplished Church Musician, A Good and Faithful Servant

Long-time Hoboken resident Emmanuel V. Leemans died on November 19, 2015, one day after suffering a heart attack. Manny combined faith, culture, intelligence, decency, courtesy, and diligence in a manner that above all was humble and without the slightest pretension. He was a true gentleman of the old European sort no to be seen again.

Manny was born in Belgium of a Flemish speaking family where he endured four years under Nazi occupation. Manny attended the Royal Music Conservatory in Brussels, Belgium, and studied with Flor Peters, one of the most prominent organists and composers of the 20th century. Manny came of age in a musical culture still wed to the Church where the liturgical renewal had flowered in an extraordinary way before it all went to the weeds with the Second Vatican Council. Manny would remark how every Belgium school child could sing the entire Gregorian repository of standard ordinaries by memory!

Manny immigrated to the United States in 1958, taking the position of musical director and accompanist for the Boys Town Choir in Omaha, Nebraska. Together with the famous Monsignor Francis Schmitt, Manny produced a sound that at Boys’ Town that set a national standard (recordings of which can still be purchased). Manny would assist Fr. Schmitt at his famous yearly Liturgical Music Workshops, assisted with publication of the Cecilia periodical, and was there when the Catholic Music Association of America (CMAA) was founded.

After moving to New York, and later New Jersey, Manny studied composition and musicology at the Julliard School of Music and he received a master's degree from Columbia University where his thesis topic dealt with the Bach chorales. Manny directed these short but beautiful pieces with unique enthusiasm and insight, in churches and choruses, for the next fifty-plus years.

Over his career, Manny was organist and music and choral director at St. Michael's Monastery in Union City, NJ, and later at Our Lady of Grace Church in Hoboken, NJ. Manny had an almost symbiotic relationship with the church’s great organ, a 1907 Wirsching, which Manny used to great expressive effect (the organ, alas, underwent unfelicitous renovations after Manny had left OLG). Manny also taught music at Our Lady of Grace School which was attached to the church.

For many years, Maestro Leemans directed the Hoboken Renaissance Singers. Manny loved classical music of all styles and eras, but his favorite composer was Johann Sebastian Bach. At the time of his death Manny was in the process of completing his collection of recordings of Bach's two hundred-nine surviving cantatas. Manny was a member of the American Guild of Organists, the American Choral Director's association, and the Columbia Club.

Long before anyone had heard of the phrase, Manny was putting the hermeneutic of continuity into practice. In 1965, when suddenly all over the United States (and soon the world), Latin become stigmatized and there was a rush to sing in the vernacular, Our Lady of Grace had the singular benefit of Manny translating the texts into English in a way that fit the ancient chants. Thus, the parishioners of Our Lady of Grace in Hoboken were never bereft of “that choir from which is removed this language of wondrous spiritual power, transcending the boundaries of the nations, [whose] melody proceed[s] from the inmost sanctuary of the soul, where faith dwells and charity burns – We speak of Gregorian chant.” Sacrificium Laudis, Paul VI. One has the feeling that if Manny had been in charge of music in the Church, everything would have been all right. Yet in this corner of NJ, Manny kept the candle burning and passed on the art of Gregorian Chant to new generations, handing over the collected wisdom, as it were of generations and of the Solemes school in particular. Who can forget being instructed by Manny how to properly articulate the thesis and antithesis of a Gregorian phrase? And who could forget the marvel of an octogenarian having better breath control than anyone else in the choir as he demonstrated the expressive articulation of an extended melisma?

From Fall of 2003 through the mid point of 2004, Manny took over the reins of the Cantantes In Cordibus Choir which sings the Latin Liturgy in downtown Jersey City (then at Holy Rosary now at St. Anthony’s) , saving it from dissolution after a period of problematic leadership. Although Manny only directed the choir for less than a year, he left an imprint on it that has sustained the group ever since.

Manny’s aesthetic was expansive however, and not only Renaissance polyphony but the entire repertoire was his. Indeed, Manny kept all the glories of sacred music in parochial settings during even the darkest period. Our Lady of Grace, at a time when Hoboken had not yet been re-discovered and was still a working class city on the waterfront, the music of kings was resounding as Mozart Masses with full orchestra thrilled the common man and raised their hearts to God at OLG.

Manny’s efforts extended beyond the church. The aforementioned Hoboken Renaissance Singers were founded in 1976 and brought the avant garde of the early music scene to New Jersey. This group, made of music lovers of all faiths, sang together continually until the week before Manny’s death constituting a true musical family. Famously, Manny was able to inspire the most gifted singer while also put at ease the less talented who together made sublime music.

Manny is survived by his beautiful wife, Antoinette, and his brothers Paul and Constant, who live in Belgium. Also surviving are children through marriage Daniel DePalma, Annette DePalma, and Angelo DePalma, plus eight grandchildren and several nieces and nephews.

He will also be remembered for his intellect, musical accomplishments, and dry humor by scores of friends, students, and colleagues. Dostoevsky famously said that beauty would save the world. This, truly, was a motivating thread through Manny’s long life.

A Month’s Mind Mass (delayed by Christmas) will be offered on Saturday, January 2, 2016, at 11:00 AM at St. Anthony of Padua Church . The combined choirs of Cantantes in Cordibus and the Renaissance Singers will sing the Morales Requiem. An original setting of the In Paridisum by Emanuel Leemans will conclude the liturgy..

Euge serve bone, et fidelis…intra in gaudium Domini tui!

Well done, good and faithful servant…enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.

Matt. 25:21

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