Skip to comments.At the Local Abbey, Singing Unto the Lord an Old Song
Posted on 04/10/2007 9:00:06 AM PDT by siunevada
SOLESMES, France One of the tasks of Roger Server as mayor of this quaint village in western France is to console misguided tourists who want to hear the monks in its 11th-century monastery singing in Gregorian chant. People come and ask, Can you visit the concerts?
Tourists are restricted to the back of the church, he said, shaking his white hair in mock exasperation. I tell them: You can visit at the offices. You can admire the sculptures in the church. But the monks say, Were not here to receive tourists; were contemplatives.
The monks, 55 of them, inhabit the monastery that hovers over the village like some great granite mother hen over her chicks. But in recent times the monks have gained a measure of fame for their dedication to Gregorian chant, the simple vocal music whose cadences, in Latin, for centuries adorned the Roman Catholic liturgy.
Now, a constant stream of visitors comes to Solesmes to sit in the monastery church and listen while the monks sing the psalms and prayers, seven times a day, of the sacred liturgy.
They want their calm, Mr. Server, 65, a retired schoolteacher, said of the monks. And after all, the monastery was there before us.
The monks dedication to Gregorian chant dates to the 19th century, when the monastery was refounded as the Benedictine abbey of St. Pierre de Solesmes, after having been closed after the French Revolution.
When it came to life again, in 1833, the monks resolved to restore Gregorian chant to its proper place in the church, after centuries of neglect. With time the papacy came to recognize Solesmess role as the guardian and propagator of the chanting.
(Excerpt) Read more at nytimes.com ...
Most townspeople say relations between the village and the monks are good. Didier Guillot, a chauffeur who occasionally drives for the monks, recalls the kind of open house for men only, of course that the monks organize every year at Christmas for people they do business with. Electricians, plumbers, drivers, everyone who works for them is invited, he said. They are very agreeable.
He paused, then added, They are men of another age.
They not only single-handedly unearthed all the old chant manuscripts, they developed the modern Gregorian notation. I have read standard staff notation all my life, got into shape note (Sacred Harp sol/fa notation) about a decade ago, but until we crossed the Tiber I couldn't read Solesmes notation. Now I can!
Some scholars fuss and say, well, they don't sing it like it was originally sung. But nobody's alive today who knows for sure (unless he's very, very old - like 1,000 years or so.)
I can’t sight-read Solesmes notation, but when my schola’s director starts-off a particular chant, I can follow along afterwards. I’m the same way when singing from regular musical notation. I can only sight-read when playing the piano.
Sounds like an oxymoron. Usually one speaks of modern musical notation or Gregorian/neumes notation.
Can I convince them to sequester my parish musical director for a year or so and get him properly oriented?
On the Night of Nights as we were singing the Gloria to a rumpety-tumpety melody that sounded like it was lifted from Sesame Street, I thought, "The man is a good musician but his taste in melody is completely inappropriate."
It's "modern" only in relation to the old manuscript methods which (1) varied from place to place and (2) were VERY difficult to read.
Dom Gueranger's notation
The OLD method . . . eeeek!
I took piano from the age of 5, about the time I started singing in an (Episcopal) cathedral choir school. So I can sight read both. But I think they go through different parts of my brain. The piano music leaps straight from my eyes to my fingers, the vocal music drops down through my head . . . that doesn't make much sense, but that's what it feels like. Two different paths.
Yeah, I know. Unfortunately, I only get a chance once a month at my parish.
You know, even if you sing trash, at least you'll be practicing sight-singing.
Could join a secular community choir, just for the practice . . . you might even find an early music group.
Thanks for the clarification.
I would like to clarify this statement. Solesmes did not invent the neumes. This is a common misunderstanding of what Solesmes did. As the article from Wikipedia below indicates, the square note system was in use by the 13th century.
In the early 11th century, Beneventan neumes (from the churches of Benevento in southern Italy) were written at varying distances from the text to indicate the overall shape of the melody; such neumes are called heightened or diastematic neumes, which showed the relative pitches between neumes. Shortly after this, one to four staff lines clarified the exact relationship between pitches, an innovation traditionally ascribed to Guido d'Arezzo. One line was marked as representing a particular pitch, usually C or F. These neumes resembled the same thin, scripty style of the chironomic notation. In 13th-century England, Sarum chant was notated using square noteheads, a practice which subsequently spread throughout Europe; in Germany, a variant called Gothic neumes continued to be used until the 16th century.
By the 13th century, the neumes of Gregorian chant were usually written in square notation on a staff with four lines and three spaces and a clef marker
It should be noted that our present form of modern musical notation developed from the square note notation and the 4 line staff.
What Solesmes did was to indicate the accent and rhythm of the music, that had not been done before. This is known as the Solesmes Method.
Using In Paradisum, in post 7, we can see the accent and rhythmic markings added by Solesmes. Notice the little tic marks under the notes that are over the syllables pa and di of paradisum. These are each called an ictus. This indicates that these notes receive the accent. In modern measured music, this would be the equivalent of the first note of each measure.
Notice too, the syllables di and sum. These have a line above the notes. This line, the episema, indicates that the note is lengthened, altering the otherwise monotonous rhythm of continuous eighth notes.
So, Solesmes gave us a method for interpreting chant that aids the singer(s) in singing with rhythm and vitality. Without these markings, it is anyones guess as to the interpretation, and often times leads to uninspired droning.
A quick example is the Easter hymn, O Filii et Filiae. Though it is pseudo-chant, it is found in square notation. When sung indifferently, it becomes a funeral dirge. But when the rythmic markings are followed, it becomes a jig, a dance for the soul.
Very interesting. Thanks!
Some of our hymns sound like show tunes or burdy gurdy music. I just do NOT understand why a music director doesn't understand this!
The Solesmes method started with the ancient neume system but modified/improved it to make it readable and consistent. They also revived it (hardly anybody had used it for years).
The small college attached to our church (it's an off-campus program of Spring Hill College) had a course last year in the History of Western Church Music. Taught by our music director, who has forgotten more about music than I will ever know. We spent a week on the development of the neumes . . . . Final Exam was held at the Crown and Anchor Pub . . . .
I will say that the alternate Anglican method for singing chant (with the tones only indicated without the accent and stress marks) works pretty well (if you have a decent choirmaster) -- "sing as you speak", stressing the words as though you were speaking (or declaiming) them.
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