Sunday, August 31, 2008

Report on Gregorian Institute of Canada Colloquium

Here is a very informative post on the recent colloquium on chant sponsored by the Gregorian Institute of Canada:

Pardon the length of this post - I thought that this may be of interest to some readers of this forum.

Last weekend I attended the colloquium of the Gregorian Institute of Canada, a non-denominational organization dedicated to chant study and performance in Canada. The theme of the colloquium was the centenary of the Vatican edition of the Graduale Romanum. The key presenter was Dom Richard Gagne, OSB, former choirmaster at Solesmes (1996-2004) and current choirmaster at his home abbey of St-Benoit-du-lac.

This was the third annual colloquium of the GIC and the first one I attended. My impression is that previous colloquia had more of a practical element, but at this one there was only minimal time allotted to singing. The reason for this was simple: throughout the colloquium the participants attended the hours and Mass at the monastic oratory. We were asked not to participate in singing along with the monks, as they have a well established chant rhythm and if the colloquium participants (who well outnumbered the monks) were to chant along with them this would likely throw them off and disturb the rhythm of their prayer. The request seemed to me quite sensible and there was much to be learned simply by listening to the monks and participating interiorly in the prayer. The participants were, however, given the opportunity to sing the ordinary at Mass in alternation with the monks, and at the Sunday Mass the monastic choir "sat out" the offertory chant and allowed us sing it instead.

The majority of the participants (80% or more) were francophone and the colloquium was conducted almost entirely in French. Happily, most of the English speaking participants knew enough French to follow the presentations.

The colloquium opened with a very interesting presentation by Jean-Pierre Noiseux (director of the accomplished Schola St-Gregoire in Montreal and one of the main organizers of the colloquium), on the subject of the history of the Vatican edition. Noiseaux pointed out that it is surely the melodies from the Vatican edition that each of us would have first heard and sparked our interest in chant. Whatever its shortcomings, the Vatican edition is of monumental importance in the history of chant study and practice.

Dom Gagne's presentation on gregorian rhythm, spread out over two days and entitled "Le Rythme verbal de dom Pothier et Le Nombre Musicale de dom Mocquereau", was certainly a highlight of the colloquium. Dom Gagne gave us a detailed explanation of Dom Pothier's teaching on chant rhythm. I had not been aware that Dom Pothier's rhythmic approach is reflected in the Vatican edition, which indicates the rhythm by a system of blank spaces of various sizes between the neumes (1/2 space, 1/4 space, full space, etc.) and by bar-line division. All of the subsequent editions based on the Vatican edition, including the 1974 Graduale, retain the exact spacing between the neumes of the original - this is considered an integral part of the Vatican edition which must be reproduced in any official version.

Dom Gagne then took us through the central points of Mocqereau's theory on which the classical Solesmes method is based. He concluded by giving us a brief explanation of the "new Solesmes" approach (essentially that which is outlined in Dom Jean Claire's unsigned preface to the Liber Hymnarius) using an example from the new Antiphonale Monasticum. This represents something of a synthesis in continuity with the theories that went before, a return of sorts to dom Pothier's verbal rhythm taking into account recent scholarship.

Interdisciplinary scholar Antoine Oullette gave an interesting presentation on the diversity of interpretations of Gregorian chant in the 20th century, with musical samples from a number of recordings. The workshop participants found some of these interpretations rather bizarre and others strangely pleasing. Although this diversity is evidently of great interest and value from a musicological perspective, Ouelette conceded at the end of his presentation that for regular liturgical use, it would be difficult to replace the Solesmes method.

On Saturday evening we attended a splendid concert at a church with wonderful acoustics in a nearby town. Three chant choirs took us through a tour of the melodies of the Vatican edition. The event was well attended and the choirs were excellent.

Here it is worth noting some observations on chant practice at St-Benoit-du-lac. The monks sing Lauds and Vespers almost entirely in Latin (the readings from scripture are in French) with light organ accompaniment. They do not appear to use the new monastic Antiphonale; I could not tell whether they were using the Psalterium Monasticum or some other books. Compline is chanted mostly in French, without organ accompaniment, to adapted Gregorian melodies. Matins are chanted in French, unaccompanied and recto tono. (I did not manage to attend other minor hours.)

At Mass at St. Benoit everything is chanted. The introit, gradual, alleluia, offertory, and communion are the proper chants from the Graduale. A large number of the faithful assist at Mass at the monastery and it is probably for this reason that the ordinary is Kyrie XVI, Gloria VIII, and Sanctus/Agnus XVIII, apparently every week. The responses, Eucharistic prayer etc. are chanted in French. The chant is in the style of the recent Solesmes recordings - a light tone of voice, high in pitch. The approach that the choir under Dom Gagne takes to the propers is really not that much of a departure from classical Solesmes, with some nuances. (Dom Gagne mentioned during his presentation his admiration for the Solesmes recordings from the 1950s under Dom Gajard, which he prefers to the recordings from the 1930s under the same choirmaster--he characterized the latter as "true Solesmes".)

At the practical workshops we rehearsed the offertory we were to sing at the Sunday Mass, under J.P. Noiseux's direction. I felt that I learned quite a bit about effective chant performance from these brief sessions. This was my first introduction to singing from the St-Gall notation and I admit that this particular aspect left me somewhat confused (at one point some folks were questioning whether a mark on the page was a rhythmic indication or just a speck of dust from the photocopier).

Noiseux told us that 10 people singing chant in perfect unison will have a fuller sound than a hesitant group of 40. At the end of the day, I would have to say that our group did not achieve this unison. I came away from the weekend persuaded by the possibilities for beauty offered by a nuanced approach to chant rhythm--and also as convinced as ever of the value of the Solesmes method for achieving a consistent result with limited rehearsal time.

The Gregorian Institute is a promising initiative for Canada, and I am grateful for having had the opportunity to attend this event.

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