The Lost Collection of Chant Cylinders

By Weber, Jerome F. | Sacred Music, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

The Lost Collection of Chant Cylinders

Weber, Jerome F., Sacred Music

The following article, adapted slightly from a talk presented to the thirtieth annual conference of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections held at Kansas City, Missouri in 1996, is reprinted with permission from the ARSC Journal, 29, no. 2 (1998), 202-05.

The real subject of this article is not Gregorian chant, and it is not the revival of early music, although both are discussed in order to lay the groundwork for my main point. The main point is storage and preservation of recordings and other cultural artifacts, and I am going to describe one particular case--an irreplaceable series of recordings that has apparently been lost as the result of inadequate attention to careful storage and preservation and the lack of appreciation of its lasting worth.

The earliest recordings of Gregorian chant that I listed in A Gregorian Chant Discography (1) were thirty chants on twenty-four discs made by W. Sinkler Darby for The Gramophone and Typewriter Company in Rome in April 1904 during the Gregorian Congress. These recordings remained in the H.M.V. and Victor catalogues for over twenty years, and they were reissued on LP as a set in 1982. I did not realize until recently that a much more extensive series of recordings preceded that set by more than four years.

Of the five choir directors that Sinkler Darby enlisted to direct his chant records, the one who concerns us here was Dom Joseph Pothier. He was the first monk to direct the research into medieval chant at the abbey of Solesmes. He published his theoretical treatise, Les Melodies gregoriennes d'apres la tradition, in 1880 (2) and edited the complete chants of the Mass in 1883. By 1895 he had edited four other books of chants published by the monks of Solesmes.

But in 1893 Dom Pothier was called away from Solesmes to become prior first of Liguge, a daughter monastery, and then two years later of the ancient Fontenelle, recently reopened as Saint-Wandrille (named for its seventh-century founder), near Rouen, about two hours from Paris by train. In 1898 he became its abbot.

Meanwhile, the 1890s had witnessed extensive debate about the merits of the Solesmes research into medieval chant. One of many musicians who promoted the work of the Solesmes monks was Charles Bordes. In March 1890 Bordes became organist and choir director at Saint-Gervais in Paris, a church near the Hotel de Ville where six Couperins had been the organists over the course of 175 years. There his choir sang long-forgotten music of the Renaissance. In 1892 he formed the nucleus of his choir into a professional chorus, Les Chanteurs de Saint-Gervais, that toured France and neighboring countries.

In 1894 Bordes joined the composers Vincent d'Indy and Alexandre Guilmant in forming the Schola Cantorum of Paris, a teaching institution to promote the revival of early music. Soon there were Schola Cantorum institutes set up in several other cities. The monthly bulletin of this organization, La Tribune de Saint-Gervais, was established at once, and the school opened in 1896.

These are some of the people who will figure in our story. Now, in late 1994 Gilbert Humbert, who lives in the south of France, published A Panorama of Pathe Cylinders and Early Discs. (3) It was nominated for an ARSC Award for Excellence last year, and a copy came into my hands. I discovered a footnote to the preface in which Humbert states: "We merely mention a quantity of recordings for liturgical use, published in 1900, which do not enter the numerical limits of our panorama but which remain to be discovered in some rectory attic. They were directed by Charles Bordes."

I wrote to Humbert about this citation, and he immediately sent me copies of several pages from a Pathe catalogue. Pages 37-40 list 205 cylinders in the 19000 series. The contents are identified so clearly that I was able to construct an index of about 480 pieces of chant on these cylinders. They comprise a systematic survey of the Ordinary and Proper of the Mass, of the major feasts of the temporal and sanctoral cycles, of the common of the saints, along with the Vespers antiphons for all of these offices, and an additional group of miscellaneous chants. …

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