Sunday, February 17, 2008

The amazing achievement of Solesmes

Many modern Catholic musicians, singing from the Graduale Romanum every week, hardly think about where our chant editions come from. The truth is that they are a fairly recent creation, though they are rooted in deep in Catholic history. Maybe you have noticed that chant editions after the 16th century and before the 20th century are not nearly as beautiful.

The monastery of Solesmes in France not only reconstructed the chant editions themselves; they came up with a new typography that looks like what the music sounds like, and each is a work of art--even visually. Absolutely beautiful.

They came about after a very long struggle set off by Pius X's call for a standardization and official editions of chant. There were many competitors for the status of "official" and to read about the politics and jockeying, sometimes quite wicked, is truly alarming. Who knew that musicians could behave this way? Or maybe musicians can easily believe it! In any case, it's hard to imagine that the editions we use today were so steeped in this history of fierce competition.

If you know nothing of the struggles here, you will be particularly intrigued by this little polemic written in 1904 by a German monk who is defending the Solesmes editions against competitors, and he provides many examples of how diverse the chant editions had become in the previous 500 years. Antony Ruff, who is writing an introduction to a new printing of this, tells me that it is particularly notable that a German monk would be writing in defense of editions produced by French monks!

I really like this document because it illustrates just how white hot the controversy became. We should all have a greater appreciation of the amazing contribution of Solesmes to making the chant revival happen. It is a sad and tragic thing that the development was cut off after the chaos following the new rite, but we are last able to pick up where we left off and continue the progress -- but only thanks to the work done by monks more than a century ago.

Thank you to the CMAA for making this available.

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