04 June 2014

Report of meeting of Monastic Chant Forum

Meeting of the Chant Forum, Quarr and Ryde Abbeys, 1 - 5 July 2013

At the beginning of July 2013, two years after the previous meeting at Douai in May 2011, the Chant Forum gathered at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight. There had been no such meeting in 2012, because the Monastic Musicians that year made Gregorian Chant the focus of their own annual session. This Quarr event was the seventh Chant Forum gathering. Hitherto the formula had been for a meeting of two full days only, but this time we made it three full days.

How many attended the Quarr meeting? That’s by no means an easy question to answer. There were fourteen resident guest participants at Quarr. It was good that several of these were lay folk involved in the running of Gregorian Choirs. The number of monastic communities represented was, however, disappointingly small. These fourteen were then augmented by three Quarr monks who attended all the sessions; also by one or two others who dropped in for single days; also by nuns from Ryde, and the former Wantage Sisters, who came, in varying numbers, for most, if not all of the Quarr sessions. That would add up to round about twenty five people. But on the Day spent at Ryde Abbey, the sessions took place in the large parlour, so that Ryde Sisters could attend from their side of the grille. Counting all of those, our numbers rose to around forty.

Instruction was given by three speakers: Joseph Cullen, Dr. Giedrius Gapsys and Dom Xavier Perrin OSB, Prior of Quarr.

Joseph is very well known to many of us. He has often visited both Pluscarden and Ryde, in both a personal and a professional capacity. He gave memorable sessions, in tandem with James MacMillan, for the Panel of Monastic Musicians, meeting at Pluscarden in 2000. Joseph is a professional vocal coach, Choral director and organist. Perhaps the best known of the Choirs he has worked with are the London Symphony Chorus and the Huddersfield Choral Society. As well as giving many solo concert performances on the organ, and acting as occasional organ consultant, he has been organist or assistant organist at Leeds and Westminster Cathedrals. Joseph is currently involved in the new John Henry Newman Institute for Liturgical Music in Birmingham, the Ste. Cecilia International School of Gregorian Chant in Rome, and the Musica Sacra Institute in Glasgow.

At our Quarr meeting, Joseph gave six sessions, all marked by his unforgettable style: most entertaining and amusing, and also, without any question, forceful. Joseph is a man on a mission. He has declared open warfare on lazy, sloppy singing; on incorrect pronunciation of Latin vowels; on the unthinking insertion of gaps in the music to follow gaps on the printed page; on breathiness; on Latin dipthongs! Many are the exercises and tricks he has to teach, both to those who wish to sing well, and those who have the responsibility of directing Choirs. He is also a man on a mission as a passionate lover of Gregorian Chant, and in general of music that is truly worthy of the liturgy. He is very much a lover also of Benedictine monastic life: and all of that came across in no uncertain terms during these Our second speaker was Dr. Giedrius Gapsys. He is a Lithuanian musicologist who lives with his wife in France. He is fluent in French and also in English. He gained his doctorate from the Sorbonne, and was a fellow student with Jaan-Eik Tulve at the Paris Conservatoire. Now he teaches at the Conservatoire school; working also with the Gregorian Choir of Paris. Those of us who know Jaan-Eik could recognise many common traits, rooted in shared doctrine and experience. But their specialities are entirely different. Jaan-Eik is interested in the practicalities of directing Choirs which sing Gregorian Chant. Giedrius is very much the theoretician, fascinated by the intricacies of modal theory, and by the layers of evolution according to which the Chant as we know it took shape. Giedrius gave nine sessions. He has actually read, and understood, the ancient and mediaeval treatises on music of which we have perhaps heard, but which for most of us had remained, hitherto, impenetrably obscure. The subject is certainly very far from simple, but Giedrius succeeded in shedding much light on it, with the help of many handout sheets, blackboard writing, reference to examples in the Graduale, and his own limitless enthusiasm. He is an avowed disciple of Dom Jean Claire of Solesmes, who first articulated the theory of three archaic modes, based on the notes C, D and E. He is in accord also with the published musical theories of Dom Daniel Saulnier, who was principal editor of the new Antiphonale Monasticum published by Solesmes.

To recapitulate it all very briefly: already in the 4th had developed for the sung pronunciation of the words in the Latin liturgy. This musical language was passed on orally. Some of our simple and common melodies (“Dominus vobiscum”) survive intact from that period. But this musical language evolved, or developed, as if by its own natural force, and musicologists are able to trace its progress. By the end of the 5th was singing the more complex pieces of the Mass. Members of these scholae were semi-professional singers, who spent long years learning the repertoire by heart. This all worked very well until around 780, when the Frankish rulers of much of Europe North of the Alps decreed that the Gallican liturgy had to be Romanised. The Gallican liturgy was Latin, but its Chant had evolved independently from the Roman Chant, and had acquired its own proper characteristics and peculiarities. Now the Gallican singers had to re-learn their entire repertoire, in order henceforth to sing it in the approved Roman way. Two important changes resulted. The first was that the music in the Frankish Empire itself changed, neither remaining purely Gallican nor becoming purely Roman, but morphing into a hybrid mixture of both. We call what resulted: “Gregorian Chant”. And since it proved almost impossible to teach or learn so much material in so short a time, ways were sought of writing it down: also of explaining it in a coherent and easily memorisable fashion. So the theorists at this time set about forcing the music they already knew into conformity with the musical rules they had learned from the Byzantine East. Hence arose our system of Eight Gregorian Modes: the “octoechos”. Giedrius convincingly demonstrated in multiple ways that this is a very ill fit. It was devised long after the melodies themselves had been composed, and many of them stubbornly refuse to fit into it. Melodies composed after around 800 would be consciously devised to conform to the Rules of the octoechos; but in earlier Chants - the “authentic repertoire” - we can still detect very ancient formulae which elude its strait-jacket The four line stave we know came into being in the early 11th us through the complicated evolution of that also. Once that had been refined and become well established, for the first time in history composers could write notes for others to sing, independently of a living aural tradition.

According to Giedrius, in order to interpret a piece well, we need to bear in mind three or four of the elements that go to make it up. The first is the text; then the mode in which it is set; then the notation which attempts to transcribe what is sung onto the page; then the melodic formulae which are Although Giedrius is very much an academic musicologist, nevertheless his love of the Chant is not merely abstract. He not only recognises the greatness of this music; he also values it as a favoured vehicle for prayer; for conveying the faith of the Church. Like Joseph Cullen, he also is an unashamed lover of the Benedictine life, and repeated many times how happy he was to have the opportunity to contribute to our session.

Our third speaker was Dom Xavier Perrin. He himself is no mean musician and Chant scholar; also a very experienced organist and Choir director. He was the main speaker at the Downside Chant Forum meeting in 2009. His focus at the Quarr meeting was on the spirituality of the Chant. How do we pray the Chant? How do we enter into its spirit? How does it help us enter truly into prayer; help us praise God worthily? As Père Xavier loves to insist, through the Chant we pray with our bodies. The true Cantor of the Chant is Christ himself. Singing the Chant, or even just listening to it, we pray with him and in him; adoring his Father; with him receiving the Father’s love. Or sometimes, as his Bride the Church, we pray to him; or else we address the world, calling on it to praise him (“Omnes gentes plaudite manibus!”) The Choir director has to situate his Choir within the space of this prayer; he has to help it receive what the Chant has to give it. This reception continues without end. Even when a piece is frequently repeated, and known entirely by heart, it will always have something new and fresh A dictum about the Chant current in early mediaeval times may be adapted to sum up all this teaching. What Joseph Cullen taught us above all was the Ars bene dicendi: the art of pronouncing the sacred words well. For his part, Giedrius Gapsys taught us the Ars bene modulandi: the art of singing these words well, according to their modal conventions. And Père Xavier taught us the Ars bene orandi: the art of praying these Chants well.

Clearly this was a wonderful meeting, very much appreciated by all who took part. It was generally agreed, though, that the constituency is probably too small to warrant meeting each year. A hope was expressed, nem. con., that the Chant Forum re-convene some time in 2015. Most participants seemed to think the formula of three full days to be a good one.

Nothing has yet been decided about any of that: but Giedrius has already expressed his willingness to come again, and to speak to us, perhaps on the subject of Gregorian musical formulae. As for venue: again the field remains at present open. Perhaps it may be said here, though, that Quarr has many advantages. It is quite well placed for those living in the South of England. It has plenty of space, and is close to Ryde. It belongs to the Solesmes Congregation, with its venerable tradition of excellence in the Chant, and is always very open to those who wish to deepen their knowledge and ability in that. We shall have to see what eventually transpires, according to the mysterious workings of Divine.

Dom Benedict Hardy OSB; April 2014

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