Saturday, October 18, 2008

Birthday Lecture for Graduale Romanum 1908

On Sunday, I'll be giving a talk on the 100th anniversary of the Graduale Romanum. I'll be doing some examples of before and after chants to illustrate what this book meant from the Roman Rite.

Here is a pumpkin spice cake I baked for the occasion--I hope it tastes better than it looks--and here are my lecture notes. I'm not including the chant samples and things I'll pass out. I hope to video it, but we'll see.


The Council of Trent was a period of reform: a revised Mass, Breviary, Catechism, and even Vulgate. It was inevitable that Trent would spawn a revision of the Graduale too. Palestrina of polyphonic fame was put in charge of assembling a team that would adapt medieval chant books to modern times.

Their fundamental principle was to let the text drive the music, so the music was adapted in every way under the view that this would make the text ever more clear. They took out melismas on off accent syllables. They rearranged words. They reconstructed musical phrases to be more predictable, going from low to high and back to low again.

Unfortunately, the application of rationalist principles to art almost always leads to egregious error. So it was in the late 16th century when the first Medicean Graduale was being produced. The process had been successfully stopped by the intervention of the Spanish court, but it was picked up again later. Finally the first edition of the Medici Graduale appeared in 1614.

Meanwhile, there was a different trend taking place within the monasteries, which have often been mercifully spared the main trends in the Church at large. They all had their own chant books. There was Benedictine chant, Dominican chant, Cistercian chant, Nobertine chant, Franciscan chant. Here we had an uninterrupted chant tradition at work -- preserving the past and continuing to develop it in continuity.

In the main Roman Church however we saw a long period of decline taking place. This was due to two main factors: the development of polyphonic music apart from its chant roots, and the corruption of that chant tradition in a manner that had little to do with its long tradition.

But let us be clear what we are speaking of here. We are not speaking about the chants of the Ordinary. We are not speaking about chants of the celebrant. Nor are we talking about the main chant hymns, though all those were affected to some extent. The main area affected were the propers, which is to say the chants that are mostly sung by the choir alone. This is the core of the Gregorian repertoire and its most elaborate and rooted part. The chants most profoundly affected are five: Introit, Gradual or Tract during Lent, Alleluia, Offertory, and Communion.

In the 19th century, two general trends were at tensions with each other. Scholars and monks all over Europe became the serious effort to restore chant manuscripts. What would become the fountainhead of the reform effort was the newly founded monastery of Solesmes, which attained a high status because of the liturgical writings of Dom Gueranger. This monastery was refounded in 1833 and over the years attracted many of the greatest scholars. In addition, they accumulated manuscripts that permitted the chant to be restored.

At the same time, the Vatican was being pushed to authorize a single version of chant for the whole Church. In 1883, the Vatican settled on the Medici edition now being printed in Germany, so it became known as the Ratisbon edition. This was the corrupted edition that came out of Trent.

For Solesmes to prevail against the the approved edition was a daunting task. It had to repeal the official status of the Ratisbon edition, and it had to overcome an entrenched practice in Cathedrals and parishes all over the world. The main musical establishment at the time was dominated by the growing Cecilian movement, which was a kind of fundamentalist movement that was attempting to purge music of its classical and operatic influences and replace it with reduced versions of Renaissance polyphony and chant, and the version of the Graduale to which they were deeply dedicated and firmly attached was the Ratisbon edition.

Impetus for reform came with Pius X's Motu Proprio on Sacred Music called Tra le Sollecitudini. It was a wonderful document. Despite the fact that that Pope was also personally attached to the old Ratisbon Graduale, it was this document that gave to energy to the movement for new and restored chant books for the Roman Rite, with the goal that the chant would be heard and sung in every parish.

The main two players at Solesmes were Dom Joseph Pothier and Dom Andrew Mocquereau. They worked diligently, using 9th through 12th century manuscripts, to build on the prior work of Dom Pothier to produce a new Vatican Graduale to replace the one that emerged after Trent. The Pope himself, now convinced that Solesmes was the institution to lead the effort, had imposed an extreme deadline for publication. The two great scholars split on what many people today would consider minor issues before the Graduale came to print. This splits and differences manifested themselves in long battle over copyright that wasted fantastic amounts of time and resources and delayed progress.

The new Graduale benefited greatly from technology and economic development, which allowed the wide circulation of printed books. After the Graduale appeared, Solesmes went ahead with its own version under the direction of Dom Mocquereau, and this one included rhythmic signs. More publications began to circulation, including the Liber Usualis. Eventually the reformed chant displaced the old Medicean edition. Progress in chant mastery continued through Vatican II, which took further steps to place chant at the center of Catholic liturgy.

The story of this reform effort belies certain stereotypes. It is not the case that older is better in this case. The further we look back to Trent, the more ahistorical the emergent chant is likely to be. The restorationist effort--to return to pre-Tent chant--was a 20th century phenomenon. Nor is it the case, as is usually assumed, that "we used to sing chant in Latin but now we sing hymns in English." The Latin chant that prevailed for hundreds of years was deeply flawed and was only restored 100 years ago, and the effort to bring chant to the people met with a long tradition of vernacular hymnody that had largely displaced chant. Vatican II, in at least its musical intention, hoped to further this progress for chant against vernacular hymnody.

Finally, we can learn from the Vatican edition that progress towards authenticity and liturgical ideals is a struggle that has existed in every age and will continue to do so. The patience, scholarship, integrity, and evangelistic efforts that were part of Solesmes's restoration should serve as a model for reformers today.

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