Decadent Enchantments: The Revival of Gregorian Chant at Solesmes

By McCulloch, David Benedict | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Decadent Enchantments: The Revival of Gregorian Chant at Solesmes


McCulloch, David Benedict, The Catholic Historical Review


Decadent Enchantments: The Revival of Gregorian Chant at Solesmes. By Katherine Bergeron. [California Studies in 19th Century Music, 10.] (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1998. Pp. xv, 196. $35.00.)

Gregorian chant, the oldest written form of European music, is seen in a stimulating new perspective in Bergeron's study. The author traces the history of the restoration of Gregorian chant during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, in which story the community of Benedictine monks at Solesmes in France played a leading role. The restoration of Benedictine monasticism after the French Revolution was begun in 1833 by a young priest, Prosper Gueranger. Bergeron suggests that Gueranger envisaged a Benedictine monastery as not just a spiritual center oriented totally to the glorification of God, but also a means of recovering the cultural heritage of the medieval "age of faith." She situates this revival of monastic life in the context of the Romantic thirst for a return to a more civilized age.

Bergeron recognizes that the monks of Solesmes desired to live fully the imperative of the Rule of Saint Benedict: "ora et labora," pray and work. One of the many works of Solesmes was the reconstruction of the authentic repertoire of Gregorian chant through painstaking study of manuscripts. Gueranger sought to re-establish the liturgy at the heart of monastic prayer and saw in Gregorian chant a suitable climate for the community prayer of a monastery, which, in Saint Benedict's words, is a "school for the Lord's service.' This aim also harmonized with his vision of a renewal of the liturgical life of the Church. It may be said that perhaps Bergeron gives insufficient weight, in her study of the motives for chant restoration, to Gu6ranger's attempts to demonstrate the superiority of the Roman liturgy against the variety of Gallican liturgies used in France in the first half of the nineteenth century.

While authentic Gregorian melodies reverberated again at Solesmes and its daughter monasteries, it also took written form in liturgical books. Dom Joseph Pothier, the choirmaster of Solesmes from 1860, was the first to realize that a viable Gregorian performance practice would need the accompaniment of a revised notation. Bergeron compares Pothier's first volumes, "Les Melodies Gregoriennes" (1880) and the "fiber Gradualis" (1883) with the typographical work of William Morris, in aiming to reanimate the medieval age as an era of beauty.

The 1890's brought a change of direction in the work of Dom Andre Mocquereau, based more upon an interpretation of the rhythmical signs in chant manuscripts than a reconstruction of melodies. …

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