Finding the source
Sacred musical treasures from Gaul to Solesmes
Finding the source
Sacred musical treasures from Gaul to Solesmes
Singing and music have been an integral part of Christian worship from the earliest days of the Church. Early Christians chanted psalms and prayers and, throughout the centuries, a body of chant was composed for use in the Mass and daily prayer of the Church which was sung in unison, unaccompanied, and without a fixed rhythm. This repertoire, known as plainchant, absorbed elements from the modes or scale systems used in contemporary Greek and Roman music. During his reign from 590 to 604, Pope St. Gregory the Great organised this repertoire so it could be used throughout the liturgical year and gradually, most Christians adopted the core plainchant repertoire that was used in Rome. The chant of the Roman church, which was later called Gregorian chant, was not the only chant in contemporary use; regional variations of chant in Milan (Ambrosian), Spain (Mozarabic), and Gaul (Gallican) were also sung in Latin. Pépin III, King of the Franks from 751 to 768, abolished the use of Gallican chant and, in 789, his son Charlemagne issued a decree to all clergy in his empire to unify liturgical practice by adopting the standard Roman Rite. Many Gallican elements, however, were later incorporated into the Roman Rite and the medieval Roman liturgy was an amalgamation of Roman and Gallican sources.
Although the Council of Trent (1545-63) reaffirmed the importance of plainchant in the liturgy, this style of music was gradually eclipsed by elaborate Renaissance polyphonic compositions which became the dominant music of the Church. From 1614-15, the Medicean press in Rome published a series of chant books that attempted to revise and simplify Gregorian chant repertoire. These editions were debased and not widely adopted, in particular, in France, where the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was gradually asserting its independence from Rome and its right to self-governance in matters concerning liturgical practice. From the seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries, the practice of the liturgy in France was not regulated by the Pope but was left to the discretion of individual bishops. This resulted in a period in which there was a lack of consistency in liturgical practice throughout the country, an abandonment of traditional plainchant, and the composition of a new body of chant by composers, such as, Henry Du Mont and Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers.
As the nineteenth century progressed, it was evident that the Catholic Church in Europe was undergoing major liturgical and structural reform. Ultramontanism, i.e. the belief that papal authority was infallible and supreme over the state in all areas of life, was the prevailing ideology in Rome from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. Gradually, the Church was transformed from a decentralised group of local churches to a highly centralised structure in which power flowed from the pope to individual bishops. Reform of church music followed through the efforts of the Cecilian movement (Allgemeiner Deutscher Cäcilienverein) which was centred around the Bavarian city of Ratisbon (Regensburg). The movement advocated the restoration of Gregorian chant, the reintroduction of sixteenth-century polyphonic works by composers, such as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Orlandus Lassus, and the composition of new liturgical music in a similar style.The hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Ireland was profoundly influenced by ultramontanism and the Cecilian movement’s attempts to reform liturgical music. The appointment of Paul Cullen as Archbishop of Armagh in 1849 and primate of all Ireland in 1850 ushered in a period in which an ultramontane ideology prevailed in the practice of liturgical music throughout Ireland.
The decline in the popularity of the Cecilian movement at the end of the nineteenth century coincided with a gradual rise in the influence of Dom Prosper Guéranger (1805-1875) and the Benedictine monks of Solesmes. During the 1840s and 50s, monks from Solesmes were sent to archives all over Europe to view manuscripts, copy notation, and compare the results. Gradually, editions of the chant based on these old, reliable sources were published and parishes, cathedrals, and monasteries adopted the model of Solesmes.
The history of plainchant since the seventeenth century is a fascinating one and it is documented in the rich and wide-ranging selection of sacred music in the collection of the Old Library and Historical Archives of the CCI. For this exhibition, we have chosen some music and books that illustrate the story of its decline and revival in the Catholic Church in France, Ireland, and further afield from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries.
The Source and the Summit
The Mass, consisting of the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, is the central liturgical rite of the Catholic Church. Lumen Gentium, one of the principal documents of the Second Vatican Council, describes the Eucharist as the ‘source and summit’ of Christian life.
The most important prayer that the Church offers to God after the sacrifice of the Mass is the Divine Office - the daily prayer marking the hours of each day. Music for use at the Mass is contained in the Graduale Romanum (Roman Gradual), and the Antiphonale Romanum(Roman Antiphonary) includes the chants for the Divine Office of Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline for every day of the year. The Vesperale Romanum (Roman Vesperal) is an excerpt of the Antiphonary containing the chants sung at Vespers, or evening prayer.
The main books of chant used in the celebration of the Mass and the Divine Office feature strongly in the collection of the Old Library and Historical Archives and it is interesting to compare and contrast the text and music from graduals and antiphonaries published in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in France. An analysis of various editions of these books shows significant differences in liturgical practice and the performance of chant between parishes before and after the turbulent and transformational Revolution of 1789. The Concordat of 1801 restored freedom of worship to Catholics in France but these books suggest that there was little consistency in liturgical practice from parish to parish in the post-revolutionary period. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that most French dioceses returned to the Roman Rite, i.e. the liturgical rite used in the diocese of Rome.
What is plainchant?
Plainchant dominated Church music of the medieval period but its popularity was eclipsed in the 16th century by richly textured polyphonic pieces written by Renaissance composers. There was a gradual loss of interest in, and knowledge of the subtleties and complexities of chant repertoire, including neumatic notation (square-shaped music notes used during the Middle Ages), scales, modes, and signs.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a number of books were published to address the dearth of information on the interpretation and performance of chant. Le Maistre des novices dans l'art de chanter ou règles générales, courtes, faciles, et certaines, pour apprendre parfaitement le plein-chant (1744) by Fr Rémy Carré is a typical example of a method which provides information on the history and practice of plainchant. This work was intended for novices and young religious who had no other resource to learn plainchant because they were based at small abbeys or priories in rural areas where they did not have the guidance of professionally trained musicians/cantors.
Méthode populaire de plain-chant romain et petit traité de psalmodie (1858) highlights the urgency of educating the clergy and laity in the art of plainchant in the nineteenth century. The phrase ‘C’est par un enseignement sagement organisé que, de nos jours, on sauvera le Plain-Chant d’une ruine imminente’ appears on the title page. Méthode populaire includes definitions of plainchant, Gregorian chant, chant romain, and a key to understanding notation, clefs, and signs used in various chant collections.
Ultramontanism and the German Cecilian movement
The Cecilian society was inaugurated in Bamberg, Germany in 1868 and Franz Xavier Witt was elected its first president. Witt, who was a Catholic priest, composer, and church musician, outlined the objectives of the Society in his inaugural speech as follows: to further Catholic Church music, particularly plainchant; to encourage congregational singing; to include Renaissance and newly-composed polyphonic vocal music in the liturgies; and to promote organ playing of suitable music. Pope Pius IX recognized the Cecilian society in 1870 and the German firm of Pustet obtained a monopoly on the publication of chant books from 1871 to 1901. The new edition of the Gradual, the first of a series of books of liturgical music authorised by Pius IX, was published at Ratisbon in 1871.
Through the publication of music by prominent German composers and scholars such as Witt, Franz Xavier Haberl and Michael Haller in Ratisbon, and Kaspar Ett and Johann Aiblinger in Munich, the Cecilian society endeavoured to educate clergy and church musicians about the laws of the Church relating to the use of liturgically appropriate music. Haberl and Witt were influenced by the compositions of Palestrina and, over a period of three decades, Haberl gathered data and material for a critical edition of his works which was completed in 1908 in thirty-three volumes. Palestrina’s works became the model for many compositions by composers connected with the Cecilian movement because his compositional style was characterised by smooth, elegant melodic lines and a sensitive setting of sacred texts. These works, along with Gregorian chant, constituted the greater part of church music in France and Ireland in the late nineteenth century.
Liturgical Music in Ireland and the Irish College
Following the convening of a national synod (an assembly of the clergy) in Thurles in 1850, it was evident that there was an appetite among those who attended to initiate reform of church music in Ireland; this was facilitated by the foundation of the Irish Society of St Cecilia by Fr Nicholas Donnelly in 1878. Donnelly was heavily influenced by the research and publications of Haberl, Witt and others, and he translated Haberl’s Magister Choralis into English in 1877. At the Synod of Maynooth in 1875, it was decreed that the Ratisbon edition of the chant was to be used in all churches and seminaries in Ireland and that church music reform would be based on the model espoused by the Cecilian movement in Germany.
William Joseph Walsh, who was appointed president of St Patrick’s College Maynooth in 1880, was an ardent supporter of the Cecilian movement and much of the content of his book, Grammar of Gregorian Chant, was drawn from the work of Haberl and Donnelly. He was an outspoken critic on the negative influence of the French church on the practice of liturgy in Ireland and among Irish priests who trained at the Irish Colleges in France. He suggested that a section of clergy had adopted Gallican practices, in many cases without being aware of their actions. Walsh lamented that these practices could not be undone amongst older, established clerics but insisted that strict uniformity in liturgical practice, in particular, in the singing of Gregorian chant, must be encouraged in the seminaries.
By the end of the nineteenth century, it was evident that the influence of the German Cecilian movement was waning in Ireland. From the final decade of the nineteenth century onwards, there is a marked shift away from repertoire published by the Cecilian movement towards the use of hymns and hymnals associated with the English Catholic church.
Back to the source: the music of Solesmes
Solesmes Abbey, located in the Pays-de-la-Loire region of France, became the focal point of the restoration of Benedictine monastic life and the reconstitution of Gregorian Chant by Dom Prosper Guéranger in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Dom Guéranger, Dom Pothier and their fellow monks researched the most reliable manuscript sources of Gregorian chant and later published these chants in a range of liturgical books. The first edition by the monks of Solesmes of the Liber Gradualis was sold out and the second improved version was issued in 1895. The Liber Usualis, a book of chants commonly used in the mass and Divine Office, was compiled by the monks and edited in 1896 by Dom André Mocquereau (1849–1930). Mocquereau worked as an assistant to Dom Pothier and challenged the domination of the German Ratisbon editions in the journal Paléographie musicale which he founded in 1889.
The Liber Gradualis and Liber Usualis were published by the Saint-Pierre de Solesmes printing press at the abbey throughout the 1890s but were not officially authorised by the Vatican until after the election of Pope Pius X in August 1903. In November of that year, the newly elected pope endorsed Gregorian chant as the official chant of the Church. In 1901, the monks of Solesmes were forced to leave their abbey because of the Law of Associations which supressed almost all religious orders in France and confiscated their property. Two Belgian brothers, Jules and Henri Desclée, were profoundly influenced by the work of Dom Pothier and Dom Mocquereau and offered to continue the publication of their books of chant at their printing press in Tournai.
Éditions Desclée, who also published under the title of Societatis S Joannis Evangelistae / Société Saint Jean l'Évangéliste, published manuals for organists interested in the art of accompanying chant. The authors of manuals, such as Méthode d'accompagnement du chant Grégorien et de composition dans les huit modes suivie d'un appendice sur la réponse dans la fugue (1923) and L'Accompagnement des psaumes, highlighted the need for organists to familiarise themselves with the theory of the eight modes and basic rhythmic principles used in chant before attempting accompaniment.
The meticulous and rigorous scholarship of the monks of Solesmes over many decades left a rich musical legacy to the Catholic Church in the twentieth century. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) enacted sweeping reforms to modernise the Church in the mid-twentieth century but a reform of chant was neither proposed nor envisaged. In fact, Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, explicitly reiterated the importance of Gregorian chant stating that it was 'specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.' Over the last five decades, Gregorian chant has all but disappeared from Catholic parishes around the world. The once revered music which unified people from different cultures and countries in one voice praising God has largely been replaced by musical forms associated with popular culture.
In the musical palaeography workshop at Solesmes, however, the work initiated by Dom Guéranger, Dom Pothier and others continues to the present day with the publication of liturgical chant books and facsimiles of old manuscripts. The aim of the monks at Solesmes is to restore Gregorian chant to the heart of a living liturgical tradition. Over a century ago, Pope Pius X published his motu proprio Tra le sollecitudini (1903) (an apostolic letter) in which he lamented the neglect of sacred chant; a few months later he entrusted Dom Pothier with the restoration of Gregorian chant for the entire Church. Perhaps the current generation of monks will emulate the achievements of their predecessors and revive an interest in 'a treasure of inestimable value' for the Catholic Church in the twenty-first century.
Scientific direction: Dr Mary Louise O’Donnell
Musicologist and musician
Fulbright Scholar 2019/20
Research Fellow at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, 2019
This exhibition on the story of the decline and revival of medieval chant is complemented by a number of original recordings by 8 contemporary musicians who have been invited to reinterpret scores from the archives of the CCI, including Vespers for the Feast of St Patrick. The manuscript was hand-written by the choir master of the Irish College.
Listen to these exclusive works by Garth Knox, Olesya Zdorovetska & Nick Roth, Rioghnach Connolly, Sam Comerford, Catherine Sikora Mingus & Eric Mingus, Oscar Mascarenas.