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An act of faith

img  Tobias

He moved in with three companions, on July 11th 1833. For decades, the building had been empty, much to the dismay of the local community and to the sadness all of those who had stayed there previously. A community of four inhabitants now lived within these walls, which some had called a fortress and a huge rock. A tradition of almost a thousand years seemed to have come to an end, a chain of generations striving for eternity had almost been broken. Things looked hopeless, but Dom Gueranger had decided that he did not intend to let this tragedy unfold without a fight. After all, he knew quite well that “all of life is a battle, often against oneself.” and he was not going to give in easily.

I am fascinated by traditions, maybe because most people I know never took them all that seriously and traditions demand to be taken seriously or be condemnded to loose their face. And the monastery of Solesmes is a perfect imbodiment of tradition. After all, as they state themselves, they “do not see time as "going by".” Founded in 1010, their most intimate place of worship has braved wars, political swings, ill luck and other forces of nature and men. Now, in the year 2006, it has become a place of worship and refuge for more than its monks, receiving guests from all over the world, who undertake the journey to France again and again. But it is not only its proud past that has brought (unintended) fame to Solemses. Closely connected to its history, to its daily life and entire philosophy (if I may use the word) is the history of Gregorian Chant.

It looks like Dom Gueranger never had a single doubt about his vocation in life. At least, he always wanted to be a priest. As a child, he had loved the solitude and special ambiance of a monastery and even been close to Solesmes as a young man, when he had been at a seminary at Le Mans (where Solesmes is situated). But at first, these were more an object and a form of like he felt close to rather than  things he viewed as parts of his own world. Instead, he studied at Angers and then, in 1827, went on to become a priest at the – even at the time – extremely young age of 22. In fact, a special written agreement had to be obtained to make this happen at all. Gueranger then worked as a secretary for the bishop for quite some time, dividing his time between Paris and Le Mans. It was during his work that he became aware that the empty premises of the former abay of Solemses were to be destroyed, as noone seemed to be interested in buying them.

What exactly is Gregorian Chant and where does it come from? It is interesting to note that even some of the better sources on the Internet and in your local library will tell you that it the same as Plainchant, while the true scholars of Gregorian Chant regard Plainchant as the sorry result of secular forces exhorting their influence. On a musical note, let’s give you Wikipedia’s definition, which is as good as any other on the subject matter: “Gregorian chant (...) is a form of monophonic, unaccompanied singing, which was developed in the Catholic Church, mainly during the period 800-1000. It takes its name from Pope St. Gregory the Great, who is believed to have brought it to the West based on Eastern models of Byzantine chant.” The monophonic singing is what lets many listeners regard the chants as “sad” or “mournful”, two terms which the boom of electronic projects in the early 1990s thankfully exploited in their quest to bundle these pure pieces with beats and harmonies. What most people do not know, however, is that it now seems all but certain that Gregory the Great (590-604) was actually not the composer of the first of these chants and that they are merely attributed to him. It is however a fact that the compositions, which for ages had been passed on aurally from his time on were notated in order to make sure nothing was lost.

Dom Guerenger thought back to his admiration of the holy aura that lingered in a monastery, which he had experienced in his youth and he was appaled at the fact that these monumental buildings were to be erased from the face of the earth. Lamenting alone, however, was not going to lead to anything  and so he made up his mind that he was going to save the property and restore its original purpose. Buying was no option, as the amount of money needed for that was beyond his reach. He did manage to secure enough to rent the premises, though. After two years of bargaining and hard work, he finally moved in. And after thirty years of silence, the faithful were again singing in Solesmes.

“The Chant was unrecognisable in the 19th century.”, Frere Michael Bozell, who has taken some time to answer my many questions, says, “It sounded awful and heavy”. The status of Gregorian chant at the time of Dome Guerenger moving in at Solesmes was not a sudden crisis. It was the result of many hundred years of watering down the original essence of what had been written down at Gregory’s time. The renaissance is seen as the final fall of the true tradition. As the monks at Solesmes put it: “The melodies, which show the correct reading of the literary text by highlighting keywords and phrases, were "corrected" by official musicologists - the long vocalises, for example, reduced to a few notes each. Worse, the words, literary compositions which are the official text of the Roman liturgy, and that constitute a lyrical catechism, were also officially "corrected" against a verbatim reading of the Vulgate Bible. The mangled result which persisted for two hundred years is generally known in English as "plainsong".”

The first years at Solesmes were marked by hardship. After all, with financial means just big enough to pay the rent, there was little left to be done about the state of the buildings, which had not been repaired for many years. The French revolution had driven out the monks, throwing the community into its biggest crisis. There had been times before, when monasterial life had come to a momentary end, but monks had always remained confident and had been supported by residents of nearby towns. What posed the biggest problem was the fact that people outside of it had forgotten about Solesmes. For those who considered turning into a monk, it had disappeared from the map of choices and the abay had lost support from the church. And was it really going to be a young man, not even thirty years of age, who had never before lived in the confinement of a cloister’s walls, who was going to change this? One thing was for sure: He was not going to make it on his own. His friends helped incessantly, and managed to find supporters, who were willing to inject money into the nascent project.It was thanks to their charity, that good spirits remained. Four years passed and only then did Guerenger travel to the Vatican to ask for official recognition. He returned, however, with more than he had asked for.

Why was it so important that Gregorian Chant be returned to its original form? Very simple: Because, in the eyes and ears of a faithful, this is as close as one can get to the voice of God. Frere Michael explains: “It is prayer. It is talking to God. It is listening to God, because almost every word of the Chant comes from the Bible: it is inspired, and lifts us out of ourselves. The texts come from so long ago. They come from above us and beyond us. They take us out of ourselves and into Life and Love. The music is also, undoubtedly, inspired. Where does it come from? It has never really been surpassed as a purely melodic and rhythmic commentary of Scripture. It is other-worldly. It is on the edge of silence, a sonorous continuation of silence. It is born in silence and leads us back to it.” And, of course, it is the strenght which stems from the fact that one becomes part of a century-long congregation: “Thousands and thousands of men and women have sung these chants. In most European countries and even elsewhere. Men and women of every conceivable background and character. We have all found solace and uplifting strength in this prayer. That it is as old as the land gives us such strength and assurance. But it is also always new. I don´t know why. Maybe because it is pure. Purity is close to newness. Purity never grows old. Gregorian Chant is both ancient and pure.”

The Vatican not only offically recognised Solesmes, but also raised it from the status of priory to that of an abbey. Now the way was open for restoring monasterial life in full glory.


How exactly Dom Guerenger managed to both revitalise Gregorian Chant and bring it back to its roots, is hard to answer in a few words. “The melodies have been restored by very scientific methods which even I do not quite understand.”, Bozell says. But what is clear is that the results were astounding: “In the 1980´s the Japanese were allowed to restore the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s frescoes. When they were done, an explosion of fresh colours appeared. The restoration of the Chant is a little like that” The original accent and rhythm are brought back and a method of work is established, which places emphasis on finding the most reliable sources and comparing them against each other. The work that is carried out is not only that of Dom Guerenger, but also of two of his close friends: Dom Jansions and Dom Pothier. It is thanks to their enthusiasm and ceasless efforts that the chants slowly but surely regain their strength. "Les Mélodies Grégoriennes" is published in 1880 and the "Liber Gradualis" in 1883, both quickly becoming standard works. The reverberations of these books can still be felt today – the Wikipedia entry to “Gregorian Chant” contains a direct link to Solesmes.

There are a few things which the fantastic DVD “Le Chant mysterieux du Silence”, about Solesmes, makes clear. Two of them are especially noteworthy. For one, the beauty of the chants is still dependent on the work of the monks today. Through vocal classes, they continue to improve their interpretations in individual lessons and, then, through joint singing. One of most wonderful scenes is when, in one of these classes, the teacher works on a certain passage and then raises his voice to explain what he means – you can really hear how much knowledge and love goes into his words and performance.
Secondly, that there are truly worlds of sound luring behind the seemingly simple surface of the chants. There is a profound difference between the songs for various festivities, even if these differences are sometimes hard to understand at first (or on a theoretical level): “The Chant cannot fully be understood without an understanding of the mysteries they evoke.”, according to Bozell. “I am not saying you cannot be overpowered by the beauty of the Chant if you are not a believer (many, many people come to listen to our chants and love them, without being Christians, or even believers of any sort). But I am saying that to understand the fullness of the message, and the subtle differences between mysteries, you have to know something about them. And it is much, much fuller when you live these mysteries through faith. But that is another matter. Paques (Easter) is filled with a serenity that blossoms after the torments of the Passion. It is life springing from death. Noel (Christmas) has a child-like tenderness, a sparkle which springs from the wonder of the Incarnation: God is born into the world, and this Child is its Saviour. They are both joyful, but with different tonalities”

Various Succesors continued Dom Guerenger’s efforts. The project enter a new stage under the auspices of Dom Prou, who sets out to document the singing on record.

There is actually a recording dating back to 1930, which has been transferred to CD, but the methodical taping of the monks begins in 1978. Since then, Solesmes has not looked back and despite the fact that there have always been lengthy periods without new sessions, the catalogue has grown massively. The counter has stopped at thirty the last time anyone has asked, but is sure to continue in the future. There is no comparable collection anywhere in the world, even the famous Monks of Silos in Spain, who had their fifteen minutes of fame, when Enigma used their recordings for his debut disc (and their double-CD collection “Canto Gregoriano” turned into a million-seller) don’t even come close. What it shows is the way the chanting develops over the years (the 1930s recording is characterised by Bozell as “much more rugged and forceful”) and the way interpretations differ from one monastery to another – certainly, the chants at Solesmes are now brighter and smoother than those at Silos, even though that may have changed as well. Some have therefore referred to Silos as “earthy” and to Solesmes as “celestial”. To some, the latter was too much, as was the case with a journalist who named the sound “saccharine” – hardly a friendly characterisation, and even less appropriate.

The latest releases all come in absolutely excuisite digipack, made of heavy cardboard and with extensive booklets. When asked, whether “beauty” played an important part in these packages, Bozell agrees: “Yes. God is Beauty. Prayer is beauty. The Chant is beauty. It was important for us that the albums themselves be beautiful. Not just to the eye, but even to the touch. The texts (Latin, French and English) were worked on repeatedly so as to give, even in the language, a sense of wonder. But obviously, the most captivating thing about the albums is the Chant.” Certainly, this edition is one of the most remarkable of the last few years. And you’ll have to listen to it to fully understand what Solesmes fought for when a tiny community decided to settle in the premises again.

What can Gregorian chants mean to you today? Bozell has a few suggestions: “It can awaken curiosity. Many people have come to the spiritual and even Christian dimension of life through the Chant. The Chant is a formidable language that speaks to people of all cultures and clearly overflows beyond Christianity. It evokes that dimension of reality which is spirit. It hints at the dimensions or reality which totally surpasses reality as we see and touch it. There is so much more, Tobias, than what our senses perceive. The Chant suggests this other world that co-exists with the one most people are content to live in. Maybe they are not content, but they often stop there. The Chant beckons them into the awesome universe of the spirit.” If we have succeded in awakening that curiosity, then this mission has been fulfilled.

Dom Guerenger died at Solesmes on January 30th 1875. He not only counts as the man who resurrected life in Solesmes and restored Gregorian Chant, but also as the founder of a whole new liturgical movement in France.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Solesmes
Homepage: Solesmes at Wikipedia
Homepage: New Advent

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