Gregorian chant

In the 8th century, in Metz, the Frankish kings imported the Roman liturgy into their churches and monasteries. Thus was born the Gregorian repertoire, the Frankish cantors, whilst using the same texts, would transform the melodies to give them a new force, flexibility, a new energy and at the same time a greater interiority from meditating on the words as they are sung and a deep sense of adoration. This would make Gregorian chant so successful in abbeys, where it was learnt by heart, developed and transmitted further...

However, nothing can remain changeless, and several factors contributed to alter the interpretation of these works. Firstly, the singing “instructions” were in the form of neumes; then, to facilitate rote learning and dissemination of the works, the melodies were written on staves of one and then of several lines. At the same time, the advent of polyphony in churches brought further evolutions in interpretation. Eventually, metered rhythm was introduced during the middle ages. Gregorian chant, henceforth called plainchant, entered into decline as cantors, and especially the faithful, could discern only interminable multitudes of equal notes. In Italy during the renaissance and in France during the classical era, composers tried to create alternative, more contemporary-sounding melodies.

In the 19th century, dom Guéranger, abbot of Solesmes, with his monks, notably dom Joseph Pothier, future abbot de Saint-Wandrille, decided to breathe new life into the prayer of the Church through the return of Gragorian chant. Using the old musical scores, he reconstructed the original melodies and established the principles of its correct interpretation: clear diction of the words must always take precedence over the musical aspect. At the end of the following century and the beginning of the next, Gregorian chant enjoyed a spectacular revival thanks to the monks and to the directives of pope Pius X. However, after Vatican II (the second Vatican council), and in spite of its recommendations, Gregorian chant fell largely into disuse. Nevertheless, it maintains its freshness thanks to its unique character and suitability for the Roman liturgy we celebrate. The experience of singing it in a schola monastica demonstrates that it can still express and magnify the faith of the Church in prayer, and nourish the spiritual life of contemplatives.

Gregorian chant at Saint-Wandrille

At Saint-Wandrille, following the restoration of monastic life in 1894, the arrival of dom Joseph Pothier as abbot marks the starting point of a special focus on Gragorian chant within our community. As he was appointed by Pie X as president of the commission responsible for publishing hymn books for mass and for the office (1908 and 1912), Dom Lucien David, his secretary and future choir master of Saint-Wandrille, he became the ardent defender of these works, and also of the principles of the performance of Gregorian chant that he had learnt from dom Pothier – not without a certain rivalry with the palaeography workshop of the abbey of Saint-Pierre de Solesmes.

In the inter-war period, the foundation of Saint-Benoît-du-Lac in Quebec afforded an occasion to take the Gregorian apostolate across the Atlantic. Just as dom Pothier had so masterfully accomplished, dom David, in his efforts to breathe life into Gregorian chant, did not hesitate to composer or adapt texts and melodies such as the Lumen hilare antiphon, which we still sing.

On his death, dom René-Jean Hesbert, a monk from Solesmes who arrived at Saint-Wandrille in 1949, became the new choir master and until his death in 1983, benefitted our community with his vast knowledge and deep admiration of Gregorain chant as an act of adoration. He was the author of the Missale sextuplex and Corpus Antiphonalium Officii (or CAO; if anyone should wish to procure this, please contact us), two fundamental works on both the musicology and history of the liturgy. After him, our choir would be directed for almost thirty years by dom Jean-Paul Armanini, the gifted pupil of dom Jean Claire and canon Jeanneteau, from whom he had learnt all about modality, rhythm and neumatic notation. Our choir and schola have been able to drink at the best spring of scientific, artistic and spiritual renewal of Gregorian chant by taking part in his weekly class, ever informative, stimulating and fun, thanks to his abounding sensitivity and enthusiasm!

The current heirs of this long history endeavour, so far as their feeble means permit, to uphold and increase the appreciation of and the care dedicated to this art, in the service of the liturgy and the prayer of the Church.

Glossary

Cantor : member of a schola or a soloist, singing in a religious ceremony. Previously, a lay person or priest, secular or of a religious order, this was a specialist in church music who knew the repertoire by heart. But also a man of prayer, meditating on scripture daily.
Introït : entrance (mass) antiphon sung in Gregorian. The text, always short, is an extract from a psalm and presents the theme of the Sunday or feast day.
Roman liturgy : the collection of prayers and rites used in the mass and for the offices in the Roman Catholic church and all those founded by or stemming from her. Originally in Greek, it was for many centuries celebrated only in latin, and today is also celebrated in local languages.
Neume: firstly, it indicates the stress on a syllable, comprising one or more notes that are linked together and ordered between each other; secondly, it is a symbol representing these neumes in musical scores between the 10th and 13th centuries.
Word of God : brought to us through biblical texts when they are read as a Church in the light of the Holy Spirit.
Psalms : prayers from the Old Testament, said and sung by Christians because Christ himself prayed them and explained religious attitudes with them.
Schola : group of singers responsible for the most difficult parts of hymns.
Verse : a sentence taken from a psalm, mediated on at length, becomes a prayer or hymn.
Solesmes : abbey near Le Mans, from where the Benedictine monastic life, killed off during the Revolution, was reborn.
Synagogue : Jesus was a Jew, and thus heir to the long tradition of prayer of the God’s chosen people. During assemblies (that is what the word synagogue means), Biblical text were always read in song.