Chant Forum Meeting at Quarr Abbey, 13 - 17 July 2015

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So successful and appreciated was the Chant Forum Meeting at Quarr and Ryde Abbeys in July 2013, that its formula was repeated in 2015. That is: participants met for three full days at Quarr and Ryde, during the month of July, receiving input from three main speakers. The target audience was primarily monks and nuns, but interested lay people were also warmly welcomed. This 2015 meeting was the eighth such session in the history of the Forum, founded in 2006 by Dom Erik Varden, now Abbot of Mount St. Bernard, and Dame Margaret Truran, now resident at Santa Cecilia in Rome. We had around twenty eight full time participants, including a good group of lay people, and representatives from the monasteries of Quarr, Ryde, Pluscarden, Chilworth, Ealing, Belmont, Crawley Down, the Ware Carmelites, and the Friars of the Renewal. As before, our numbers were augmented at the Ryde sessions by additional Sisters from the community there taking advantage of the opportunity to attend from within their enclosure.

The theme of the 2013 meeting had coalesced around the Ars bene dicendi: the art of pronouncing and singing the sacred words of the Chant well, led by Joseph Cullen; the Ars bene modulandi: the art of setting the words well to music, according to their modal conventions, led by Giedrius Gapsys, and the Ars bene orandi: the art of praying the Chants well, led by Dom Xavier Perrin. This time Gregorian music for the Blessed Virgin Mary, and especially for her Feast of the Assumption, was chosen as a unifying theme. Once again, Dr. Giedrius Gapsys, musicologist and Chant specialist of the Paris Conservatoire School, spoke on the history and interpretation of the Chants, as deduced from study of the ancient manuscripts. Père Xavier again focussed on their spirituality. Our third speaker this year was Sr. Bernadette Byrne of St. Cecilia’s Abbey Ryde, who led us in the practicalities of singing the Chant as a Choir, suggesting also ways of leading others to enter well into its spirit.

I attempt to note here just a few of the main lines of the instruction received at this meeting. Apologies in advance for any errors or notable omissions.

 

Giedrius gave nine lectures, all most professionally prepared; illustrated with power point slides and also paper hand-outs. Anybody who missed these lectures missed something really good. They were interesting, illuminating, entertaining and most helpful. Certainly they were warmly received by all present.

The earliest Chant Manuscripts, going back to the early ninth century, and even the late eighth century (Gradual of Mont Blandin), prescribe a set of pieces for Mass of the Assumption on 15 August: Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, Communion. Across Western Europe, the same repertoire is found everywhere, constant and unvaried for some two hundred years; that is, from the early ninth to the early eleventh centuries. There was however some variation in the text supplied for the Alleluia verse, as was quite normal. Also a poetic Sequence was added to the set in the Einsiedeln Gradual of the late tenth century. All of these Chants were set to texts from Psalm 44, the Royal Wedding Psalm, understood as referring spiritually to the Blessed Virgin and the Lord. From these texts, it should be noted, the word “Assumption” is entirely absent.

Then there came a second period of around two hundred years, from the early eleventh to the early thirteenth centuries, when we find manuscripts, from all over Western Europe, displaying much more variety of repertoire, and adding a great deal of new material: sometimes with newly composed texts which include explicit mention of the Feast. A special Vigil Mass for the Assumption appeared; an Octave was added; and Sequences, Tropes and Prosulae were composed to expand and augment (very considerably) the standard chants. (A “Sequence” follows the Alleluia of the Mass. A “Trope” inserts newly composed text, and new melody as well, into an established piece. A “Prosula” adds syllabic text to an inherited melody, previously sung as a melisma on a single syllable. Just to complicate this simple little explanation: the “Kyrie” repertoire notably deviates from it. The texts placed underneath the notes of the melismatic “Kyrie”s are universally referred to as “Tropes”: but they are really Prosulae! Got that?).

As well as these additions, there arose in these centuries the practice of Polyphony, or Organum. The composers of this music faithfully preserved the notes from the tradition, but they would now be rendered in such a way as to be barely recognisable: for example as slowly moving ground bass underneath florid ornamentation. An example of an early polyphonic Manuscript is the Winchester Troper, dated around 1000, which sets out some 270 pieces to be sung by two voices: “punctum contra punctum” (“counterpoint!”). Only rather recently have scholars been able to reconstruct with some confidence the melodies of the earliest polyphony; interpreting in the light of contemporary descriptive treatises the neumatic signs, which give no precise indication of pitch. If there were gains in this manner of singing the Chant, an inevitable loss was all sense of the true Gregorian rhythm, with its free and flowing movement, and its remarkable sensitivity to the sound and meaning of the words being sung.

In terms of Gregorian Chant, the period from the thirteenth century to the Council of Trent was less musically important, or innovative. After Trent came the Missal of 1597, edited by Palestrina, with many Chant melismas heavily edited and cut.

The monks of Solesmes in the 19th century happily restored the ancient melodies, receiving official recognition for their work at last with the publication of their Graduale Romanum in 1908. The case of the Feast of the Assumption illustrates, though, how they did not feel it possible then to restore the most ancient selection of pieces. Under 15 August, the 1908 Gradual offers, not the set provided by, for example, the Mont Blandin Manuscript, but that of the printed Missale Romanum of 1470.

Further change to the list of Chants for the Assumption was to follow the solemn dogmatic definition by Pope Pius XII in 1950. In response to that, monks of Solesmes composed a new Introit, Signum magnum, and a new Communion, Beatam me dicent. Each of these fine pieces was based, of course, on originals from the authentic tradition; and each of them survived into the post-Conciliar 1974 Graduale Romanum. Through all that change, the Seventh Mode Gradual Audi filia has remained in place throughout, just as we find it (thrillingly!) noted in the Mont Blandin MS dated to the late eighth century.

For Giedrius, all this indicates that the Chant has ever been not so much a museum, as a living body, ever adapting itself to a living, changing liturgy. For much of its history it has been a house under construction, or under deconstruction!, in which people also have to live. At Cluny the first great Church was pulled down to make way for a greater one; and then that in turn was pulled down to make way for a third, greater still. Contemporary with that process occurred the huge expansion of the Chant repertoire already noted above. Most interestingly, we seem to discern in this expansion already the first stirrings of the new Incarnational theology of St. Anselm, St. Bernard, the new Universities and the new mendicant Orders. As the manuscripts testify, already in the eleventh century the Chant was being used as a vehicle for extra-liturgical sacred drama, with the Cantors dressed in special costume, taking the role of actors in a pageant; their focus, it would seem, ever increasingly on the Sacred Humanity of Jesus, and our personal relationship with him.

For computer-friendly people: if you want to view some of the great variety of extant Chant Manuscripts, pretty well all of them are now available on line. Try Googling, for example, GALLICA, which gives free access to the vast collection of digitally recorded manuscripts held by the National Library of France. Also try: CESG.UNIVFR. - that is, “Codices Electronici San Gallenses”, which gives free access to the manuscripts of the monastery of St. Gall. And while you are at it: at the GradualeProject on YouTube you can freely listen to every piece in the Graduale Romanum, plus large numbers of reconstructed early Chant polyphonic recordings, or chants from the Old Roman, Ambrosian, Mozarabic, Beneventan etc. traditions. And there’s a very great deal (but with Italian text) to be found at La Scuola di Canto Gregoriano: well worth checking out, if you have the patience.

Before leaving the instruction of Giedrius, I note finally two points he insisted on.

First: the great detail of marking in the early manuscripts has meaning and value for us, and is well worth our close attention. Often we find the nuance indicated will have not just a musical finality, but a theological one also, often of both depth and subtlety. Discovering these ancient hints of interpretation can give us most wonderful insights into the profundity and greatness of this music we are still privileged to sing.

Then: Giedrius insisted on the interpretive Rule that every neum, every phrase, every piece in Gregorian Chant is directed towards its end. So we should be careful not to lean unnecessarily on first notes, as our sensibilities rooted in the classical tradition of Western music predispose us to do. We should ask ourselves: what is the goal of this group of notes? Where is it heading to? Then: we should boldly head for that!

 

To pass now, more briefly, to the input provided by Sr. Bernadette:

In her first talk she noted a certain preponderance of the Second Mode in Marian Antiphons; also the complete absence of the upbeat and cheerful, major-key-sounding Fifth Mode. We have all been taught to think of the Second Mode as “sad”; as rather “minor key”. But this is belied by so many pieces, set in this Mode, which seem ready to burst with exuberant joy. So we should rather think of the Second Mode as expressing poverty of spirit, and therefore fully receptive of great things. To bear this out: Second Mode Psalmody has only one accent in each line, only one syllable of preparation, and only one final cadence. Its ambitus between tonic Re and Dominant Fa is only a minor third, with the full tone between Re and Mi creating a certain natural downward pull. This Mode is ideal, then, for expressing a mystery that is too great for words, and for the humility of Our Blessed Lady. Take, for example, the Introit Vultum tuum. The text heralds the triumphant Processional entrance of the King and Queen, and speaks explicitly of joy and exultation: Re-Fa; Fa-Fa-Fa-Re; Re-Mi-Re... The intonation “Vultum” is inverted from the more usual rising formula (as in “Salve sancta parens”); as if we bow reverently in the presence of the Queen. The Chant barely steps outside its narrow range, although just once we are allowed to soar up to the note La, on the word “laetitia” at the end. Typically, the effect of this very modest flight is much increased by its restrained setting; as also by its contrast with the downward movement of the beginning.

Sister spoke also of other modes used in the Marian repertoire. In the IVthMode we seem to encounter the gentle warm glow of light we find in a Rembrandt painting. Often texts about light are set in the IVth Mode! As for the IIIrd Mode: it attempts to express the inexpressible. Like an El Greco painting, it is full of fire; vibrant and ascending: never to be sung in a heavy way! Texts from the Song of Songs are often set in the contemplative IVth or the delicately mysterious IIIrd Mode.

The VIth Mode expresses the rock-like stability and strength and simplicity of the Faith. See for example the Antiphon “O Admirable commercium!” of 1 January, or the Communion “Tu es Petrus” of 29 June. This is the Mode of new life, and of spiritual infancy: so we find it most of all in Eastertide. The 3-fold Vigil Communion “Alleluia” is set in the VIth Mode.

Sr. Bernadette put great emphasis throughout on the care needed to pronounce words properly. The early manuscripts draw our attention to this necessary care in multiple ways. Especially they use liquescent notes, which have been retained by the 2005 (ff.) Antiphonale Monasticum: so we should be very alert for them all, and we will find they help us a good deal, if we make the effort to observe them. In fact, Latin is a perfect language for singing, with its pure vowels, and perfect balance of vowel and consonants. We should always be ready to relish the sheer beauty of the language!

People rather often tell us (generically) that we sing like Angels. But no! As a matter of fact we sing very much as human beings, with bodies, and human language. Following the logic of the Incarnation, we use both to the full when we want to express what is properly of the spirit.

 

Père Xavier led us each day in practice sessions for the Chants of the Mass we were to sing. He provided also hand out sheets with a musical and spiritual commentary on each Mass piece, which as a matter of fact differed each day.

One of his great emphases, in agreement with Giedrius though expressed differently, was our need to continue through a passage, or a whole piece, to the end. We find important notes en route highlighted, often with episema. But this is not to make us stop. Precisely it’s to send us on our way, as if from a spring board, with full voice and no audible breaths! Also: we should try not to put too much effort into our singing! That is: we need to sing smoothly, without any strain. Our singing should not be a tortured burden, but light, easy, enjoyable and uplifting!

The long melismas of the Chant can be thought of as a sort of verbal silence. The music leads us where words alone cannot go. Paradoxically, the rapidly moving melismas also make us pronounce the vowels of the words very slowly and carefully, and so savour their meaning.

In Choir Psalmody, each side gives the energy for the other side to launch its verse. Psalmody can be, should be, quiet and gentle, but also always full of energy, life and movement.

We should never sing a piece of Chant in the same way from beginning to end. There is always variety to be found, to make it lively, interesting, energetic.

There is no such thing as one perfect interpretation of the Chant. If we sing a piece very well indeed: still we will need to work at it again, and to find new, fresh, living ways of entering into it.

One piece we practised was the Kyrie of Mass XVI. For many of those present, this is utterly familiar: a very simple melody, sung every ferial day of Ordinary time, year in, year out. Yet Père Xavier declared it to be perhaps his favourite piece in the entire repertoire: meriting great attention, and careful practice. The more familiar it becomes, the more he thinks we need to work to ensure it remains ever alive and moving; fresh and new every day; always with something to teach us; always ready to help us express our prayer.

 

I hope I have succeeded in conveying at least something of the richness of content of this meeting.

For a wonderful example of our three speakers in full flow, complementing each other’s approach to a single theme, see the Autumn 2015 Monastic Musicians Newsletter, Issue number 41. The Editor, Sister Jean Wilcox OCD invited each of the three to comment on the Christmas Midnight Mass Introit Dominus dixit ad me. What they say is well worth reading! For a copy contact jeanmusiccards@hotmail.co.uk

At the final barbecue at Quarr a speech of thanks was given, in which various rather remarkable points were noted.

First of all: the constituency of the Chant Forum is small. Nowadays, in spite of Pope Benedict XVI, Gregorian Chant is almost never, or only very rarely, sung in ordinary Catholic parish Churches in these Islands. Let us admit that Missa de Angelis and Credo III, which are pretty well the most you could possibly expect to encounter, do not really count as authentic Gregorian Chant. In most British monasteries, if the Chant is sung at all, it’s usually with only a minuscule repertoire. Then, in both the Church and the Nation at large: musical, theological, liturgical, artistic culture just now is generally at a low ebb, on the back foot, in retreat. The Humanities these days have to struggle for continued existence in our Universities, which were founded primarily for their study. YET: here on the Isle of Wight, in these few days in the year 2015, the quality of instruction our little group received was outstandingly excellent. Could so high a standard be found at any comparable gathering anywhere else in the world? Maybe not?! Or again: could such a gathering have happened 40 or 50 years ago? Surely then it would have been barely conceivable. What about 100 years ago, in the great and glorious Good Old Days? But then the ancient manuscripts were not understood as they are now, and certainly no one had immediate access to all of them, with the ability to throw appropriate sections onto a screen at the touch of a button! Yes: we participants sat there astonished, as we were treated over these days to a profound, coherent, informed, accessible display of the very best scholarship, and musicality, and spirituality, and intelligent understanding of the Chant, rooted in long practical experience as well as deep study; all perfectly allied with a truly religious and Catholic and orthodox sense. And it took place in a setting of faith and worship, surrounded by good company, and friendliness, and warm-hearted ordinariness, free, entirely, from the sort of cracked eccentricity one might perhaps have expected to find. Now is not all that rather extraordinary?! And a gift and blessing of God, to console and encourage us in our day?

The meeting was generously supported financially by a grant from the Fernham Trust.

The hospitality provided by both Quarr and Ryde Abbeys was most generous, and acceptable, and deeply appreciated.

A questionnaire was circulated among participants at the end, asking for comments. A series of headings was provided, to be marked from 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent). Nearly everyone put 5 by every heading. Some added the odd “+ + +”.

Were there no criticisms? Well, just to be honest: the lack of an effective sound system in the lecture hall left one participant, who has slightly impaired hearing, struggling to keep up.

Another would have wished for more free time amidst the very crowded timetable. But the organisers tend to the view that maximum use has to be made of this opportunity, only now once every two years. They would just note that anyone wanting to miss the odd session should of course feel free to do so.

Then, delicately to paraphrase one comment received: if anyone were looking for Luxury Five Star Hotel accommodation, they might be well advised to seek for it elsewhere than at the Quarr Abbey guesthouse.

Finally: if the world is still going in the summer of 2017, we hope to hold another such session. Anyone interested should watch this space, with careful attention.

 

Dom Benedict Hardy OSB

Pluscarden Abbey

31 December 2015.

 

After-word

I once gave, as a community conference, a commentary on the 11th century Prosula “Inviolata”. This beautiful piece is an appendage to the Responsory Gaude Maria. Ambrosius Autpert, who died in 784, clearly refers to that Responsory in an extant Sermon. In those days the Responsory was sung for the Feasts of the Annunciation, Purification and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. The Pluscarden community sings the Inviolata daily in the Novena preparing for the Immaculate Conception. Giedrius honoured me at the meeting by recommending my conference, which he had read. Well: should anyone else wish to see it, they can let me know, and I’ll send it.