Friday, April 27, 2018

Solesmes Chant Recordings Re-Released


Anybody seriously interested in prayer or music is familiar, at least, with Gregorian Chant: what the Gothic arch is for sacred architecture, so Chant is for sacred music. This year, Paraclete Press is re-releasing a number of rare chant recordings sung by the famous Benedictine Monks of Solesmes, France. You can purchase them at the Paraclete Press website (click here).

The lovely folks at Paraclete Press sent me some review copies of these recordings, and instead of writing yet another yawning treatise about chant’s place in the liturgy, I’ve decided to offer my observations about the recordings themselves, from my perspective as someone engaged in Sacred Music on a daily basis in a very large parish church in Phoenix, Arizona. 
At heart, I’m a pragmatist. I know that word causes a twinge of pain for some readers, but I mean it in the best way. I seek practical ways to help as many ordinary people as possible to experience the richness of our tradition. I want to help people connect with something outside of the immediate culture of our own time. That much is part of evangelism, isn’t it? But I also need something personally sustaining in my work. On that note, I did not fully understand the value of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories until I read them aloud to children as an adult. As a child, an outsider to the world of adult responsibility, I enjoyed the stories for their face value, as fun stories. As an adult, I saw an entirely new layer of humor and play. “Heffalumps” were Elephants, mispronounced, and the mysterious footsteps in the Hundred Acre Wood were actually Pooh and Piglet traveling in circles unknowingly. This is the genius of A.A. Milne: to create a story which is fun for the child, and even funnier for the adult at the same time.
So also with Gregorian Chant. For the neophyte, chant communicates a mood of mystery, timelessness, peace, beauty, and contemplation. Some twenty years ago, I encountered Chant for the first time. Having grown up in the Presbyterian Church with amplified praise and worship and some hymnody with organ, chant was otherworldly and downright foreign. Chant wasn’t simply at the threshold, it had seemingly already arrived and lived in the place that so much other Christian music was still striving to reach. Two decades later, my experience of Gregorian chant has only become richer and more sustaining, especially when I’m teaching it or helping others to hear it for the first time. I notice even more nuances, more ways that chant teaches prayer, more ways the chant is a loving exposition of scripture and sacred tradition. I’m still in love, and it still “works” for me. It’s still sustaining.
The success of Gregorian chant in the past century and the centered richness of prayer it brings to all of us are almost singularly due to the herculean efforts of the Benedictine Monks of Solesmes, France. By the 1800s, through time and wear, some eighty percent of the original Gregorian melodies had been effaced or lost. Arguably the chant had lost its wings. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Monks of Solesmes reconstructed the entire chant “curriculum” from the inside out, using the most authentic manuscripts and ancient documents to recover the original melodies. Then, they found a concise and effective way to promulgate these restored melodies, and the proper manner of singing them, to the world.
It would be easy for some to see the work of Solesmes as purely academic, but we ought not to forget that Solesmes was primarily an active Benedictine Monastery, not a research university. Chant wasn’t some cream-puff Sunday driver, it was the work vehicle. We might well say of Solesmes what St Paul writes in Hebrews 13, 15: “Let us offer the sacrifice of praise always to God, that is to say, the fruit of lips confessing to his name.” When love becomes a habit, something done always, it takes on the nature of sacrifice. No longer a brief fascination with something new, as chant was for me the first time I heard it, this sacrificial habit of love is worn like a garment, transforming the one who wears it. Chant has both the initial appeal and the sustaining richness for it to serve as a regular diet. Chant clearly also worked for Solesmes.
For readers of NLM, so much is preaching to the choir… or dare I say “chanting to the schola?” But what then is the unique value of these historic recordings of the Monks of Solesmes, which Paraclete Press is re-releasing in their entirety? Of course, the first excitement is that these rare recordings are now accessible again. Thank you, Jim Jordan, and thanks to the whole team at Paraclete Press!
For chant aficionados, or those seeking to learn chant by listening, why THESE recordings? Why not just click a Spotify playlist or youtube channel? What is the unique value of these historic recordings? Why not a new recording of a Grammy-winning professional vocal ensemble or a skilled solo cantor? I listened with a pencil and paper, asking careful questions, and several details in these recordings stand out. See what you think: 
  • The monks’ chanting is living, strong, unvarnished, and imperfect. Especially in older recordings, the chanting is more like the rough stone of cathedrals or the stretching redwood with its bark, than a smooth consumer product intended to be consumed and replaced. So often parishes lack courage to do the “full Gregorian” propers, because they are difficult and won’t sound as refined as simpler settings... at first. As an NLM writer on Parish Liturgy, and director of sacred music in a very large parish which chants well and often, I will take the opportunity to remind our readership that authentic Gregorian Chant is always better done than not done, and refinement will come with practice and experience. It’s something learned by doing it, by finding a voice as a community of prayer. Commit to singing chant regularly with a group of people! It’s also learned through training and competent instruction. Get thee to a chant workshop!
  • These recordings are a monument to collaboration. It’s easy to imagine the monks disagreed on interpretation – after all, this was the focus of their academic expertise, and the manuscripts were nearly 1,000 years old. Some later developments would contradict earlier ones, and changes were not uncommon. The monks did, however, come together and sing together for their sung prayer. Similarly, while readers of this article may disagree wildly about chant interpretation, how to sing various neums or observe certain markings, may these recordings encourage us to sing together with one voice when we are together in prayer. Ubi caritas et amor…
  • As the newly re-released recordings make clear, Gregorian chant does not fall into one genre, dynamic level, or tempo. There are hymns, antiphons, and psalms sung to tones; some chants are melismatic and ornate, others are Spartan, simple, and robust. The spirit of “Gregorian” prayer is varied and complex; it isn’t an attempt to cram the wideness of human experience – or the wideness of divine revelation— into one emotional state.
  • Generally the chanting in these recordings is free, quick, “on the breath,” and unaffected; but more notably it is sung at a moderate or even higher pitch. Reciting tones are rarely lower than A or B flat. Most commonly the reciting tone is B. I do not believe this is simply “sprezzatura” or an attempt to make difficult things seem easy; nor, sadly, do I see this as an attempt to show favor to the tenor voice (we tenors always thought we were better). Rather, speaking as a teacher of singing, I believe it was a decision made toward some specific outcomes: first, the chanting requires more support and physical effort; second, the chant is organic and text based, revealing the grammar of larger phrases and not note-by-note rules; and lastly, and the singing is full and not attenuated. It is impossible to sing freely and healthily in a high tessitura (vocal range) without confidence and strength. In other words, while we often listen to chant recordings on quiet volume, or hear Gregorian chanting from the choir loft at a much quieter dynamic than the organ or full choir, the fact is the singing technique is robust and well-supported. The monks are singing “lustily,” as John and Charles Wesley would put it. All of this was done, despite the recordings clearly having some older voices joining in the chant. “Low and slow” is not the answer; at least, this isn’t the model proposed by the Monks of Solesmes.
  • The recordings present entire liturgies, most likely sung live. For those interested in the interrelation of the parts as understood by Solesmes, these are entire, intact recordings. Most notably, I hear an unbroken connection of pitches between the various chants and prayers in the recordings of the Divine Office. In practice in most parishes, how rare this is, if we even chant the liturgy! More often, each person will chant in his own way: one psalm or antiphon will start at a different and unrelated pitch to what came before, especially if the pitch has dropped. At Mass, the celebrant will start the Our Father in a completely different mode and pitch than the doxology and Amen at the end of the Eucharistic Canon, not realizing that they can and should work together. The sense of unbroken, focused prayer is only made clearer by continuity in the chant, when regardless of the celebrant or leader, the chant remains even and steady throughout the liturgy, a sign of our attention to God in prayer. This is a legitimate and worthy goal!
I could go on. Some of us have been listening to chant, or even singing and directing it, for years. People have passed on recordings to us, and we have our favorite monastery or seminary choirs. Wherever you are, do yourself the favor and check out these recently re-released recordings. Listen carefully and ask questions. There’s something incredibly fresh and new, even with the oldest 1930 recording, which is well worth your attention.
Thank you again to Jim Jordan and the team at Paraclete Press, for their generosity in making these recordings available again, anew. May the sacred music of the 21st century be deeply enriched and shaped by the beauty of Gregorian Chant.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: