By Fr. George Welzbacher
Apri 22, 2007
In last week's Pastor's Page I alluded to Pope Benedict's intent to restore to the liturgy of the Western Rite a more abundant use of Latin. Such restoration will include the singing (in Latin) of Gregorian Chant. In so doing, Pope Benedict is in no way subverting either the word or the spirit of Vatican II. Rather he is affirming what the Second Vatican Council taught. The Council's document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, declares that, among all the options for the musical enhancement of the liturgy, Gregorian Chant enjoys pride of place, even as the pipe organ (as compared, let us say, to a guitar) is to be judged the instrument best suited to evoking the sense of grandeur that befits the worship of Almighty God. How the Council's praise for Gregorian Chant as the preferential option for music at Mass should have come to be perceived as a mandate for abolition is a mystery. Equally mysterious is the misconstruing of the Council's allowing the use of the vernacular in the Mass, without prejudice to the status of Latin as the official liturgical tongue, as in some way an interdiction of Latin. It would seem that in the minds of some the phrase "may be used" converts rather too easily to "must be used".
There is much to be said for Pope Benedict's campaign for the restoration of Gregorian Chant. The reverent singing of these ancient melodies in their original tongue can reinforce our sense of unity with successive generations of the Catholic past as well as with the faithful dispersed around the globe today. Reminding us that we belong to a community that transcends political borders and etlmic boundaries, these chants can strengthen our allegiance to an order that is holier and higher than the more recently emergent entities and values that compete for our allegiance today. Moreover a widespread familiarity with certain basic Chant settings for the Latin texts of the Common of the Mass will provide in this age of global travel a practical advantage, greatly facilitating at international gatherings such as Catholic World Youth Days a more active participation in the liturgy.
In the aftermath of the French Revolution and the frenzy of demolition that accompanied it those who turned to the study of Gregorian Chant with the intent to restore its employment in the the liturgy were the monks of the Benedictine monastery of St. Peter at Solesmes (pronounced: Soh-lemm). (If you think of France as shaped like a tea-pot with its spout pointing to the west, Solesmes is located where the spout joins the pot).
During the later decades of the nineteenth century enthusiasm for the restoration of Gregorian Chant spread from Solesmes to much of the rest of Europe. And with the call of Pope St. Pius X (1893-1914) for its use throughout the Latin rite its serious study took root in our seminaries here in America. But paradoxically-indeed, inexplicably-beginning quite suddenly in the mid- nineteen sixties and in open defiance of the explicit pronouncements of Vatican II the American Catholic Church, supposedly in the "spirit" of Vatican II, was seized with a frenzy of its own, in which every piece of music that suffered from the disadvantage of pre-dating the Beatles was consigned to the dumpheap. Catholic congregations were in consequence subjected to an era of hip-swinging, thwanking and whanking self-celebrating guitarists, belting out anthems such as "Here We Are, All together as We Sing Our Song, Joyous-lee-eey!" Trash such as this became coin of the realm, in irrefutable demonstration of Gresham's Law.
In time a reaction set in against these proletkult imbecilities, and American Catholic churches tentatively at first, and following as often as not in the footsteps of our "separated brethren" (who were blessed with better taste), began once again to draw from the whole immense range of the Catholic musical repertoire, from Chant and polyphony through the triumphs of the Baroque and the masterpieces of the School of Vienna to the exuberant lyricism of the Romantic Age and the astringent neo- mysticism of major compositions of our own time. The Church of St. Agnes in St. Paul, Minnesota, under the pastorate of Monsigner Richard Schuler, helped spectacularly to lead the way. Eventually it would come to pass that recordings of Gregorian Chant sung by the Spanish monks of the monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos would be flying off the shelves of CD stores all over the world.
In view of all of this I thought you might be interested in reading about the monastery where the "resurrection" of Gregorian Chant began: the Benedictine monastery of St. Pierre de Solesmes.
Let's book passage with Reporter John Tagliabue of the New York Times for a visit to Solesmes via a story that appeared in the April 10th issue of The Times.
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At the Local Abbey, Singing Unto the Lord an Old Song
By John Tagliabue
One of the tasks of Roger Sever 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 chanting of the [Divine]Offices. You can admire the sculptures in the church.' But the monks say, 'We're not here to receive tourists; we're 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 being 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 Solesmes's role as the guardian and propagator of the chanting.
"Monasteries have always been places where you conserved a patrimony in the church," said Dom Yves-Marie Lelievre, who left a career as a professional violinist to become a monk and the monastery's choir-master.
That mission was hurt in the 1960's by [the misrepresentation and botched implementation of] the Second Vatican Council, which opened up the liturgy to contemporary musical fors and a greater use of instruments. "The council was an opening, an evolution," said Dom Lelievre, 42, taking time between Holy Week services to receive a visitor, "But after [though not at the command of] the Council, parishes dropped Gregorian chant," he said, and deserted the Latin texts of the liturgy for the vernacular.
But with the church's sanction, the monks of Solesmes, the oldest now 95, the youngest 22, remained faithful to their mission, spending their days researching ancient Gregorian manuscripts, publishing updated texts and retaining Latin as the language of their chanting.
They were encouraged recently when Pope Benedict XVI, in a papal pronouncement known as an apostolic exhortation, decreed that....at international gatherings....the liturgies should be celebrated in Latin, except for the readings and the homily. Moreover, he said, "If possible, selections of Gregorian chant should be sung."...
Some saw the remarks as a slap in the face to contemporary church music, with its sometimes lively public participation. "Exit the guitars and the xylophones," wrote Henri Tincq, LeMonde's Vatican correspondent, adding "Condemned are all 'abuses' in the adaptation of liturgies to local cultures."
Dom Lelievre, a compact, friendly man who entered Solesmes 14 years ago, was naturally pleased with the pope's endorsement of Gregorian chant. Yet he said that Gregorian chant did not need the pope's support for revival.
"Beginning 10 or 15 years ago in France, chant has regained interest in the musical milieu," he said, "as have baroque music and medieval song." The monks of a Benedictine monastery in Spain, Santo Domingo de Silos, recorded several internationally popular CD's of Gregorian chant in the 1990's.
Despite their cloistered life and flight from the world, the monks of Solesmes have accepted invitations to lecture and provide demonstrations at conservatories in Paris and other places.
More recently other church choirs in France have begun to adopt Gregorian chant. In nearby Le Mans, the cathedral choir has begun using Gregorian chants, as has a church choir in Nantes.
The mayor here is pleased that the growing interest is translating into a somewhat heavier flow of tourists. The monks, for their part, take in visitors in several monastery guest-houses, some for religious retreats, and are generally content with the flow of tourists, who recently have shown signs of better preparation for their visit.
"Tourism has always existed," said Dom Lelievre. "Maybe it's more specific today. Before it was just visit. No there isless of that. Now there is more interest in discovering this way of life.
Most townspeople say relations between the village and the monks are good. Didier Guilot, 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."