Gregorian Chant makes a comeback

Gregorian Chant makes a comeback

Simon Matthews

With the unexpected 'chart-stopping' success of what must be regarded as a straightforward if not ordinary recording of Gregorian Chant, the monks of the Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain have once again drawn attention to this great musical treasure of the Church.

Their international best seller Canto Gregoriano, distributed worldwide by EMI, has brought the monks both fame and wealth. Happily, their attitude to both has been one of detachment, if not concern, lest either provide a distraction from their monastic observance.

However, according to their Abbot, Clemente Sema, they are pleased that their success "will not only help considerably in letting people know about ... Gregorian Chant, but that it will also be an important channel for transmitting the Word of God to a wide audience." This, after all, is the essence of Gregorian Chant: to celebrate in song the mysteries of the Catholic faith throughout the Church's liturgical year.

The monks of Silos, however, are by no means the sole custodians of this rich tradition. Nor is their recording the only one on the market.

One cannot speak of Gregorian Chant in the modern era without noting the pioneering work of the monks of the Abbey of Solesmes in France. In scholarship, and in preserving the chant in their monastic life, Solesmes has led the world. Many of the recordings made of the chant as the monks live it are widely available.

While Solesmes has adapted the chant to the Novus Ordo Missal of Paul VI, one of its daughter houses, the French Abbey of Notre-Dame of Fontgombault, has retained the traditional Missal and thereby maintained the chant in its liturgical entirety.

Fontgombault, together with many other traditional French Abbeys, has proved a success story. The monastic life is conducted strictly, vocations are plentiful, guests leave the monastery uplifted by its spiritual and liturgical atmosphere. One priest visitor commented: "It's like going to heaven."

Yet Fontgombault's recordings of the chant on the Art et Musique label, technically superior by far to their brethren's at Silos, remain relatively unknown. They include three discs, all of which are accompanied by full musical scores. The first, Immaculee Conception (AMCD 107/38707), is of Mass and Vespers of that feast. The second, Florilege Gregorien (AMCD 107/39004), recorded to celebrate the ninth centenary of their Abbey Church, is a selection of various pieces of chant from different parts of the liturgy. Fontgombault's latest recording, Pentecote (AMCD 107/39301), contains all the chants from the Vigil Mass and Mass of the Day, as well as Vespers. These are fine recordings from a strong and living tradition of Gregorian Chant.

But it is not only monks who have preserved this tradition. Many choirs and societies worldwide have succeeded in nourishing people with the Word of God through performance of the Chant.

Worldwide prominence

The United Kingdom boasts one such group that is fast gaining worldwide prominence. Founded in 1975, and directed by Dr Mary Berry, the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge has achieved some notable successes.

Working from ancient manuscripts, Dr Berry's scholarship and the expertise of a small group of professional singers that comprise the Schola, have combined to provide many concerts and several high quality recordings of medieval chant on the Herald label.

Given the Schola's English origin, it is not surprising that the first recording is of 13th-century chant from Salisbury Cathedral: Like the Sun in His Orb (HAVPCD 148). This "compelling" recording was named "Best Plainsong on Disc 1994" by Classic CD Magazine. Another success followed: a recording of 10th-century chant from the Winchester Troper: Anglo-Saxon Christmas (HAVPCD 151). This disc was named the Mitchell Beazley Medieval Recording of the Year in 1994. A recent release of 12th-century chant: Peter Abelard: Hymns & Sequences for Heloise (HAVPCD 168), has received equally high praise from critics.

However, Dr Berry prefers where possible to perform the chant in its proper liturgical context. The Schola's recording Pentecote ˆ Pontigny (HAVPCD 161) is a good example. Singing at Pontigny since 1988, the Schola has performed chant from the Cistercian tradition, as well as chant composed in honour of the three great Archbishops of Canterbury who sought refuge at Pontigny in the 12th and 13th centuries: Thomas Becket, Stephen Langton and Edmond of Abingdon.

The Schola achieved a world 'first' early in 1994, again performing chant within its liturgical context, when it recorded Vespers of the Blessed Virgin with Marcel Dupre's fifteen antiphons, in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris. Herald plans to release the recording (HAVPCD 170) late in 1994.

Another liturgical recording is scheduled: a complete recording of Solemn High Mass of the Annunciation according to the Traditional Roman Rite, celebrated in the chapel of Arundel Castle.

The Schola also arranges the complete celebration of Holy Week and holds Associates' Weekends and Chant Workshops. Dr Berry is at the centre of these, training and transforming groups of musically unskilled people into Gregorian Choirs who perform chant for an Office of Mass. Her Australian lecture and workshop tour in 1991 left many hoping that she would return again to share her gifts with even more people.

The monks of Silos and Fontgombault, the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge, and the numerous clergy and laity who sing the chant around the world would all agree: Gregorian Chant is not just an interest or a hobby, but an integral part of the fabric of the Church's liturgical heritage which Vatican II called upon the Church "... to give pride of place in liturgical services" (The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 116).

Herald and Art et Musique recordings are distributed by Foxphonics, P.O. Box 1235, Coffs Harbour, N.S.W, 2250, tel. 066-526-846; fax. 066-526-823. Further details about the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge may be obtained from the Schola at 124 Cambridge Road, Barton, Cambridge, CB3 7AR.

Simon Matthews is 'AD2000's' English correspondent.

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