Thursday, September 13, 2007

Psallite sapienter: A Report for the NLM by Dom Christopher

[The following report was prepared by Dom Christopher Lazowski, OSB, a monk of St-Wandrille Abbey in France and relays information about an annual Gregorian chant workshop for monastics. There are some good bits of information in the piece, including a warning against any opposition between chant and polyphony, and also the importance of chanting the liturgy rather than simply speaking the texts. There is something in here for everyone.]

by Dom Christopher Lazowski, OSB

Last Monday, feast of St. Gregory the Great, our conventual Mass was sung by Dom Xavier Perrin, prior and choirmaster of St. Anne's Abbey, Kergonan. He was here at Saint-Wandrille with twenty-eight other participants in a Gregorian chant workshop, mainly for monastic choirmasters and mistresses, but also for other monks and nuns sent by their abbots and abbesses, and a few laymen and women. Dom Daniel Saulnier, a monk of Solesmes who teaches at the Pontifical Institute for Sacred Music, organizes this workshop every year in a different French monastery. Dom Saulnier gave three lectures a day, each lecture followed by work on different pieces of the chant repertoire under the direction of Jaan-Eik Tulve. Participants came from as far afield as Keur Moussa, a monastery founded by Solesmes in Senegal at the invitation of the last vicar apostolic of Dakar. The choirmaster of Pluscarden usually attends, but was unable to come this year.

One of the advantages of the workshop's being held in a different monastery every year is that the monks or nuns of the host community can participate. I was able to attend most of it, and found it both interesting and useful. Jaan-Eik conducts chant remarkably well, and has a real gift for conveying the movement of the music as it flows towards the accent in each sentence or phrase. He also tells you, with a radiant smile, how wonderfully you have been singing before pointing out everything that you have been doing wrong! Jaan-Eik made two concrete suggestions which I thought I might mention. One is very specific. While we were working on the introit for the first Sunday of Lent, he told us not to turn the page before singing the last word, “eum”, but to look at the “eum” which precedes “eripiam”, which is identical to the last one. By the way, there is no need to turn the page in the 1956 edition of the GR. The other is more general, and concerns the neumes of Saint-Gall and Laon given by the Graduale Triplex. What the scribes who invented neumes tried to do was to produce a graphic representation of the rhythm of chant. Whereas the later, square, neumes give precise, and indispensable, information about pitch, they are less useful for indicating rhythm. So the older neumes are necessary to get a more accurate idea of the rhythm. The best way to arrive at an understanding of their meaning is simply to sing using a Graduale Triplex; the meaning of the signs will gradually become clearer. There is no need to get sidetracked into the sillier sort of semiological speculation.

I won't try to resume everything Dom Saulnier said, but I just thought I'd pass on two things that I found particularly interesting. The first is about the relationship between chant and polyphony. Dom Saulnier warned against seeing them as being in opposition; rather, they share common roots, and both have a legitimate and privileged place in the Roman liturgy. Polyphony grew out of chant, as anyone who knows about organum must realize. A twelfth century antiphoner written for St. Peter's basilica, one of the most liturgically conservative places in Christendom, introduces the antiphon “Christus” at Lauds on Maundy Thursday by this rubric:

“Hanc antiphonam cantamus simul totam et sine organum.”

This implies that at St. Peter's, in the twelfth century, and doubtless in the preceding centuries, the schola continued to sing polyphony throughout until Lent until Lauds of Maundy Thursday.

He also emphasized the importance of chanting by the celebrant. The “Insitutio generalis” in the 2002 edition of the Roman Missal is more detailed on this point than the previous version, and states clearly states that the first things to be sung are the dialogues between the priest and the people. Dom Saulnier did raise the problem of priests who claim that they can't sing. He feels (and I think that he is correct) that singing engages the whole person, including the body, in a way that simple speech does not. This is why liturgical chant is so important, because it involves the whole person, body and soul; it it also why many are reluctant to sing, because they are afraid of such an engagement, and of the exposure they risk. Nonetheless, we must all take this risk! Personally, I think that priests have a duty to sing at Mass, except in rare cases of genuine incapacity. What is expected of celebrants isn't all that difficult. What can be difficult is persuading them.

Dom Saulnier also spoke at length of the fusion of old Roman and Gallican chant which gave rise to what we call Gregorian chant. However, I won't go into detail on this, as it is rather technical, and involves dealing with questions of modality that are outside the range of my competence.

During the workshop, the visiting monks were in choir for Mass and the Office. Most of the priests concelebrated at Mass. One of the two from Flavigny celebrated in private according to the “usus antiquior”, as did Dom Jehan (who arrived at Bédouin a few days after Dom Gérard, back in 1970) from Le Barroux, whose Mass I served every morning after Vigils. The gradual or the alleluia at Mass was sung either by the nuns, or by our schola augmented by the visiting monks. On the last day (Friday), we sang “Dirigatur” instead of “Timebunt gentes”, which we had been singing nearly all week, and when we repeated the first part of the chant after the verse (which we don't normally do), the nuns joined in. I managed to record it with an MP3 player. I was a bit hesitant about sending Shawn the file; one of our cantors made a mistake near the beginning! However, in the end I swallowed my pride and sent it along anyhow. (Listen)

On Thursday evening, the community and its guests had dinner together in the guesthouse garden. It is always interesting to meet monks and nuns whose history and traditions are similar, but different. I was particularly impressed with the nuns from Jouques. This is certainly not a criticism of the others, but as there were four of them, you could form a better idea of the quality of their community life, which is clearly excellent. Father Bouyer, who lived here after his official retirement from teaching, always spent Christmas at Jouques, and never tired of singing their praises. The nuns, who have fond memories of him, were able to visit his tomb in our cemetery. I was impressed to learn that not only do they have Mass in both forms of the Roman rite, but that the ordinary form is celebrated both in Latin and in French, according to circumstances. This seems to me to be the sign of a healthy, deeply Catholic, attitude, not “either / or,” but “both / and.”

It was a memorable week, and if anyone has the opportunity of singing under Jaan-Eik's direction, I would strongly advise them to take it. “Dirigatur oratio mea sicut incensum in conspectu tuo!”

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