Gregorian Chant: A Guide to the History and Liturgy

Author: Daniel Saulnier

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For a century and a half, the monks of Solesmes have been working for the revival of Gregorian Chant, through their daily practice and their scientific research. This book will guide you into the discovery of Gregorian Chant, an amazing world of art and spirituality.

Laudetur Review Laudetur is the monthly review from the monks of Saint Michael’s Abbey, Farnborough, please enquire for subscriptions Dom Daniel Saulnier provides an excellent introduction to the chant repertoire in a truly accessible way. This is not a practical “how to” guide, nor is it an academic treatise, but rather it is a simple exposition of what is essential when considering Gregorian chant in its native environment – the liturgy. In the last twenty years there has been a tendency for chant scholars to try and separate the repertoire from where it is meant to be heard. With some luck this small guide, in the hands of the next generation of scholars, might help to redress the balance. They might even deign to enter a Church. Whilst the current standard guides (Hiley largely replacing the earlier Apel) are strong on presenting facts and figures, and give more than adequate accounts of the history of the chant, Saulnier writes both as the daily practitioner and considerable theorist he is, bringing new significance to areas charted by his scholarly forbears, particularly of the Solesmes school. The essential difference in this guide, when compared with “potted” histories or practical manuals, is its integration of the most recent streams of research, Gregorian semiology and modal analysis, with a holistic view of the chant as an event in history and particularly faith history. These two approaches have challenged many presuppositions in the last 40 years. The work of Dom Eugéne Cardine (1905-1988) on the semiology of the chant took its name from a system of analysis which looked at the deeper meaning of signs used to convey ideas. In this case the neumes that were to be interpreted as musical gestures. He was amongst the first to apply this new literary approach to a music repertoire some twenty years before the extensive musicological work of analysts such as Nattiez, Dunsby and Ayrey. It is perhaps significant that one of literature’s greatest semiologists, Umberto Eco, produced the decidedly monastic Name of the Rose. Modal analysis of the chant is a newer development largely associated with the work of Dom Jean Claire. Its practical influence can be detected in some Solesmes publications, particularly the book of prefaces of the Roman Rite. This approach goes right to the core of the music, stripping away decoration to reveal what actually holds the tonality together rather than presenting a random selection of notes. At this level of examination closer details may be observed explaining aspects of the relationship between text and music and, in the case of the chant repertoire, its relation to Ecclesiastical Latin accentuation. Saulnier’s book commences with a concise history of the repertoire avoiding the hagiography often attached to the first millennium. Thankfully he sticks to proven facts and this bears fruit in an excellent quartet of pages on the influences that the Roman and Frankish cantors brought to bear on each other as the repertoire moved from Rome and then returned in new clothing bought on the holiday. He manages to outline with admirable simplicity how this may have come to pass concentrating on its actual consequences rather than the minutiae of travel itineraries that have fascinated some scholars. The pages dealing with the Restoration of the Chant instigated by Dom Guéranger (1805-1875) are open ended not only in his belief that there is further study of the authentic shape of melodies needed but also that the work: “will only be completed when Gregorian chant has been integrated, in a customary and vibrant way, into the liturgical practice of an assembly (monastery, parish, etc.)” [p.16.] Whilst he does not labour the point, a transition section (with a rather useful table on p.25) places the chant within its proper liturgical framework without going into excessive detail of areas beloved by liturgists (where they have made too many presumptions) and where liturgiologists have been wise to avoid making principles by which to live or die. Each of the main genres of the repertoire is given a clear exposition – Psalmody, the Divine Office, the Proper and the Ordinary – these are well illustrated by appropriate, and familiar, chants. Finally he spends some time in an overview of the manuscripts. This is where the closest homage to the work of Dom Cardine may be found. Whilst many worked to find and classify the various chant manuscripts in existence it was Cardine who unlocked many secrets of the early notation of the chant before the rather modern innovation of square neumes and four lines. In itself this concise guide is a tribute to semiological principles. It can be read at many levels: either (i) as an introduction to the whole corpus of chant, or (ii) as a resource book explaining the various liturgical genres that make up the repertoire or (iii) as a work of considerable poetry itself revealing the deep spirituality that lies beneath the chant itself. It is not surprising that such a work springs from Solesmes as, through the various stages of the modern revival of chant, the monks have been there to remind even the most sceptical that the interpretation of the chant must commence with the meaning behind the texts. This approach to the analysis of the chant heads straight to a nexus between the immediate response that is made to the “sound” of the repertoire and the meaning and aspirations of the liturgical texts themselves. Whilst this guide does not claim any origin for the chant it does demonstrate that the search for the source, almost the musicologist’s Holy Grail, is not dead. The book is well produced and reasonably bound. Some minor problems occur with the presentation of the footnoting. The superscripted references in the text often present two digits in different font sizes. The print is clear, especially with the generous illustrations provided. The chant excerpts are largely complete rather than “details” which can give the reader a better view of a particular feature as it might be found by the singer. The notes at the end of each chapter serve as a bibliography of sorts with references largely to French language publications but not without the occasional Saxon intrusion. Some sacred cows are put out to pasture quite gently. Amongst these Palestrina’s maligned reputation is redeemed and charges against him for mutilating the chant are dismissed (p.18n). We would have liked to have heard more in his defence. Does this mean that Anerio will now languish longer in that part of Purgatory reserved for sins against music?

DAN Solesmes, 2003. Paperback, 128 pp.

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Weight 0.21 kg