Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Diversity of the Chant Tradition

Here is the second post by Richard Llewellyn on the history of the chant.

We have seen in our previous post that more and more professional musicians have a certain will to perform Church music as it was when it was composed. This is also the case for gregorian chant. Research has hugely expanded since the Council, and several specialised ensembles have produced many CDs of chant that present an aesthetics that is rather different from the benedictine school of Solesmes for example. It sadly often creates certain musical clashes with some of the clergy and faithfuls. 

Chant of every single spiritual tradition is based on cantilation. Through cantilation and the use of the resonance phenomena, human beings enable themselves to speak to God and to transmit His word. Words are chanted on a certain scale of sounds called modes. Each civilisation has used a certain set of modes based on the use and repartitions of tetrachords.

Before getting inside the styles of chant and liturgy most probably performed by the Roman Scolas of the Carolingian times, and before presenting the main chant treaties of the middle ages, we might want to come back to the true nature of the debates that took place in the 19th century when Dom Guéranger restored the Benedictine life in France. In order to do so, let us first remind ourselves of a few historical facts regarding gregorian chant down to the times of Dom Guéranger.

It seems fair to say that almost every century has produced two trends of church musicians : some willing to stick to the « original » chant, or to restore it when there was the feeling it had been « corrupted » ; some fostering the idea to adapt the chant to pastoral needs. To put it bluntly we could say that monastic heirs of Cluny and major collegiates have tried to keep the old principles. Other religious like Franciscans who wanted to devote their time to Evangelisation, or « civil servents » of the Roman curia who were busy, later produced books with much simplified chant. As we know, Franciscans worked alongwith the Roman curia and exported their simplified books to the various dioceses of Europe. Those were the Roman books of Cantus Ecclesiasticus until the end of the XIXth century. Of course, each century has produced new pieces of chant of different styles.

Most NLM readers probably know that the Franco-Carolingians kings and the popes of the time have started a hybridation between the Franco-Gallican and the Roman liturgy, in order to have one same Roman rite for everybody in « western Europe ». The musical search that started in the 1950s focused on « old-roman chant ». It led to the conclusion that there was also a Frankish-Roman musical hybridation with chant itself. And so gregorian chant is now strictly defined as « the Franco-Roman propers of mass excluding alleluias present in the north-east of France at the end of the 8th century ». This also shows that the divine office and other types of chant had different sources, and so different musical rules. Notably some chant pieces had a binary rythmic structure ; some others were to be sung in a rather « freer » style.

Frankish chant and liturgy were the product of the Evangelisation of Western Europe (ie Gauls) through Antioch. Rome also had strong links with Alexandria, the long-time second capital of Christianity of the late antiquity. We must also remember that the culture of the educated people of the late antiquity was Greek. Gregorian chant is so a mixture of Hebraic, Syriac, Coptic, Roman and Greek influence. We will come back to this when adressing the musical issues with the present performance practises of gregorian chant in more details.

In order that the new gregorian chant of the Carolingians could get its legitimacy, Pope John VIII alongwith the great historian of the time John Diacre Hymmonide organised a « campaign » in publishing the life of St Gregory the Great. They insisted on the fact that St Gregory the Great was the composer of Gregorian chant. They also fostered the Greek theoretical musical background thanks to De institutione musica by Boece (470-524) who was the greatest Romano-Greek christian musician of the late antiquity. His books on philisophy and music were second famous to the Bible. So, since the time of Charlemagne, almost every single music chant treaty, starting with those of Cluny at the time of its foundation, have transmitted these most important informations. Musical education until the beginning of the XXth century was based on Boece and Gregorian chant given to the Church by St Gregory the Great.

At the end of the first millenium there was an important development in western music, the widespread of musical notation on lines. It was the time of Guido d’Arezzo (992-1050) who also wrote what is arguably the most important western music treaty of the middle-ages, Micrologus. Thanks to an easier musical notation, musicians started to compose simple polyphonic music, which became the most attractive musical activity. Chant melodies started to be used as cantus firmus for contrapuntal music in « trendy places ». Since then chant has been « competing » with composed music of different styles. Traditional monasteries tried to keep « original chant » ; some others as well as cathedrals and collegiate churches always fostered new compositions. Some have seen this as a decadency, some as an organic constructive development. A few popes like John XXII have sometimes intervened in order to keep a true spiritual equilibrium in church music.

As a practical result, the « traditional » specific rythm of Carolingian chant often left place to a freer rythm : rythm based on either free inspiration or on what was useful to polyphonic compositions. Notably there was a switch from binary to trinary rythmic structure as far as chant was concerned. Hence the appearance of many rythmic versions during the middle-ages for both the propers and the main office antiphons. Regularly, some church musicians have complained about the loss of the original measured rythm of gregorian chant, and have seek the restorations of the « music scores ». In many places the simplest solution was taken ; a mixture of equal notes with some account of the quantity of the tonic accent and of the end of distinctions. If the original elaborated tradition of ornamentation roughly stayed amongst the French influenced orders and cathedrals, ornamentations were often simplified and solely left to long notes and intonations of antiphons in other places. In terms of music, Franco-Flemish composers were the ones who made the links between Rome and the rest of civilised western Europe. Nevertheless, when Palestrina was asked to restore the Graduale Romanum, he recognised that he was incapable of doing so.

Then it was the reign of Monteverdi and Baroque music. The main musical evolution was that of traditional modes evolving towards tonality in musical compositions. Musical theatre also took more and more importance. Mass was not the sole « liturgical drama » anymore. Dom Jumilhac, OSB (1611-1682) was arguably the most important chant specialist of his time. He was the first serious author of the « modern times » who really suggested that one should distinguish the different types of chant to decide on their rythm, ornamentation, etc.
For him, there was Gregorian plainchant on one side, to be sung with more or less equal notes ; poetic chant called Ambrosian chant. This one was divised between psalmodic and metric chant.

Like at the time of the Carolingians, Jumilhac describes two types of rythm : the first one was based on strict proportions or 1/1, 2/1 and 3/2 ratios. These proportions also governed the variations of chant tempi as described in the various ceremonials and older chant treaties.
The second type of rythm was less defined and used principaly for psalmody, and also verses, whether ornamented or not. It was a mixture of quantity and style of prosody that determined the way to sing.

Jumilhac influenced most European author’s of the XVIIIth century, whichever were their political affiliations. Amongst those trying to find a « musicaly correct » rythm and scores of the chant propers, some have developed their work towards what would become the rythme oratoire. Dom Pothier was raised in this tradition.

So, we can see that there has been a harmonious musical developement over the centuries, including in the treatment of chant. This development happened within a certain hemeneutic of continuity. In particular, in terms of aesthetics, musicians have always been looking for proportions, for perfect intervals : human music was to reflect the proportions of the universe created by God. Chant as well as polyphony were constructed to take advantage of the natural phenomenon of resonance. 

As we know, the French Revolution and the following Napoleonic period destroyed many things in Europe. When Dom Guéranger started to restaure the benedictine life in France in the 1820s, it was in the middle of a strong artistic, musical and political evolution. The arts were permeated with the passion for archeology, for a certain come back greco-latin culture, and also with a new mythical peaceful approach of the middle-ages. It was also a time when some writers like Chateaubriand were trying to reconcile revolutionary people with Christianity. Musically a major change was acknowledged in the 1820s : almost every composers had eventually adopted the equal temparement as the base for instrumental tuning. Piano was the key instrument, and one could compose in every single key. It was also the time of Europe colonising Africa and Asia. It was the time of the real development of North America.

So quite a complex process, which we are going to have to take into account when exploring the Solesmes’ restauration process, if we want to understand the current debates about chant. It will also enable us to assess whether our usual classifications of hermeneutic are appliable or not to church music.

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