Gregorian Chant: Invention or Restoration?

By Mahrt, William | Sacred Music, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Gregorian Chant: Invention or Restoration?


Mahrt, William, Sacred Music


In a very stimulating article "Sacred Music, Sacred Time," David P. Goldman makes an astonishing claim: "Musicologists have proved that the "ancient chant" promulgated in the nineteenth century by the Benedictines of Solesmes was, in fact, their own invention rather than a historical reconstruction." (1)

Moreover, when challenged on blogs and in correspondence, he reinforces this claim as being the consensus of scholarship, relying particularly upon the writings of Katherine Bergeron and Leo Treitler.

Katherine Bergeron's book (2) places the revival of chant at Solesmes in the context of the Romantic revival of the past, and makes a number of very valid and interesting correlations with the culture of the time; she does, not, however, claim that the chants published by Solesmes were an "invention;" in fact, indirectly she demonstrates the opposite: the assiduous cultivation of medieval manuscript sources at Solesmes was the basis of good editions of Medieval chant from its earliest notations.

What was new at Solesmes was a rhythmic method. Over the centuries, the tempo of chant had been gradually slowed, so that each chant note was sung as a beat and, when accompanied, was given a separate chord change. The Solesmes school sensed the need to subsume the individual notes into a larger and quicker phrase rhythm, and as a result made theoretical inferences about the rhythm. Their rhythmic theory is not so much historical as it is systematic; it is the work of performer-theorists more than historians.

Leo Treitler's collected essays (3) represent a lifetime of scholarship on Medieval melody, dealing with questions centering around the relation of oral, written, and literate musical cultures; music and poetry; reading and singing. These extraordinary contributions are not even marred by his view that chant was in a state of improvisational flux until it was written down; this controversial view, while accepted by some, is far from a consensus; see for example the work of Kenneth Levy and David G. Hughes. (4)

Chant is plainsong; its pitches are fixed, but its rhythm is subject to interpretation. Even in the context of a striking variety of rhythmic interpretations, the melodies remain the same melodies. …

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