Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Chant Release Date in US is Today

Today Chant: Music for the Soul by Stift Heiligenkreuz is released in the U.S.; Amazon starting shipping last week. We can hope that it does as well in US charts as in UK charts, for that would mean several hundred thousand people, or perhaps millions, will be introduced to the holy sound of this great music, perhaps for the first time. Listeners will also be impressed at the sheer quality of the singing and the style. I think I can confidently say that I've never heard chant this well done, ever. It really sets a new standard in my own mind.

Now, I've raised this topic one or twice here and not really seen it addressed, and I'll put this more in the form of a question because I really am not sure that I know the answer. By way of background, the monastery was founded in 1133. Recall that this is not the Roman Graduale they are singing but the Cisterian Graduale which is just slightly different, so there are charming surprises along the way for anyone who knows the Liber Usualis, for example.

What is striking to me is that the style is not exotic or artsy or experimental or edgy or randomized, or eschewing the musical line to place sole focus on the textual line, according to some far-flung rhythmic theory, as sometimes people imagine the chant might have been sung in the 10th century, such as you hear on some early-music CDs. Rather, what we have hear is peace and stability, a regular pulse behind the music that the monks stretch this way and that to better shape both the musical and textual phrase. To my ear this conforms precisely to what I read in Mocquereau's rhythmic treatise.

Now, here's my question. Why shouldn't this CD be considered a somewhat reliable guide to how chant was sung in the middle ages? The stability and continuity of sung prayer in a monastery founded in 1133 would seem uninterrupted. A new monk alone, or even several monks with a new theory, would not be able to force a change in the way they pray. Older generations would teach the younger ones and so on for hundreds of years. The chant teachers I've known have tales of attempting to change the way monks sing but the next day they always revert to the previous way.

Now, I suppose that a major change in the musicological climate could force a disruption in the continuity of style. But if that had happened, wouldn't there be some record of it? Wouldn't we know that in, say, 1910, the monastery suddenly decided to abandon an 800-year old tradition of singing without a steady pulse and then, suddenly, in response to the work of Mocquereau, decided to impose one? I ask these questions with all sincerity and without trying to make a rhetorical point. If this recording is not a reliable way to hear how their chant was sung in the 12th century, and we might plausibly push it back a couple of centuries earlier, why not?

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