Joseph Jongen owes his fame almost entirely to the audiophile market; every innovation in recording technology brings a handful of releases of his extravagantly scored and generously melodic Symphonie concertante for organ and orchestra (1926). Little do audiophiles suspect that Jongen was a prolific and able composer in many genres, particularly but not exclusively in the field of organ music.
At age 7, Jongen entered the Liège Conservatory; it wasn't until he was 19 that he joined a locally important organ class, but within four years he was winning the highest honors for his playing. Simultaneously, he was making a name for himself as a composer; a string quartet of his won first prize in the 1894 Royal Academy of Belgium competition, and his cantata Comala brought him the Prix de Rome in 1897.
During the 1890s Jongen served as organist at churches in Liège, but at the turn of the century he also found time to embark on a four-year tour of Europe. During this period he took composition lessons from Richard Strauss, and met Gabriel Fauré and Vincent d'Indy, becoming thoroughly familiar with the Schola Cantorum's educational setup in Paris.
Jongen settled in Brussels in 1905, teaching at the Scola Musicae, the Belgian equivalent of the Schola Cantorum, while commuting to the Liège Conservatory. World War I drove Jongen and his family to the safety of England, where he formed the Belgian (Piano) Quartet. The end of hostilities allowed Jongen to return to Belgium, where he began teaching at the Brussels Conservatory and in 1925 became its director. He simultaneously directed two concert series in Brussels and tutored Princess Marie-José in harmony. After his retirement in 1939 he devoted himself to composing and designing an organ for Belgian Radio.
Jongen's musical style is difficult to classify. It is richly romantic, though Jongen drew inspiration as much from such early figures as Mendelssohn and Chopin as from such later stalwarts as Wagner and Franck. He was a superb colorist, especially in his chamber music, showing more than a little influence of Debussy's Impressionism. Ultimately, despite the late, mild influence of Stravinsky, he seemed most aligned with the aesthetics of Fauré, although Jongen was fonder than his predecessor of the grand gesture. His works, in addition to the Symphonie concertante, include several large organ compositions, most notably the Sonata eroïca, as well as a great deal of chamber music, concertos, and songs.