Part Three: Chant in the modern era – the battle between melody and harmony
From the first stirrings of man’s fascination with harmony, chant lost its ascendancy. We, reared in the age of recorded music, take harmony for granted; but in the 12th and 13th centuries, it was literally unheard-of.
Harmony was therefore of absorbing interest to musicians from the first moment its potential was sensed, while pure melody slipped back in the queue for the musician’s heart.
As a result, the history of chant from the 16th until the 19th century resembles some Dickensian tale of an abandoned child: callously stripped of her own charms by disapproving retainers intent on making her look like the other children; and subsequently clad in a panoply of fashionable outfits in an attempt to render her characterless features attractive.
The first of the chant’s charms to be lost was rhythm. Between the end of the Silver Age and the Council of Trent (1542-1563), the pace at which chant was sung seems to have slowed. Perhaps it was because organum (a line of melody sung simultaneously at pitch and a fifth or octave above and/or below that pitch) required a slower pace to ensure the singers kept in time with one another.
Perhaps it was because early polyphonic composers constructed their pieces upon a cantus firmus or tenor (a piece of chant with the rhythm subtracted), so that in early polyphony, the newly composed parts bubbled freely past a plodding foundation of chant.
Whatever the cause, by the time the Council of Trent took place, Europe had come to view chant as a measured form of music, like polyphony. The first complete chant book published after the reforms of Trent presented chant in proportional notation: the ordinary square note was allotted a value of one beat, diamond-shaped notes were presented as half beats and a pause sign over a square note meant the note had two beats. This stolid singing style rendered chant most unattractive to listeners. Imagine humming Beethoven’s 5th Symphony with one note per beat, and you will get some idea of how tedious the chant sounded.
Next to suffer substantial change were the melodies.
Between 1577 and 1613 various Roman polyphonic composers were asked to realign the chant melodies so that they fitted the texts adjusted by the Council of Trent. The composers entered zealously into the spirit of the thing (as reformers are wont to do) and, going well beyond their brief, modified the music to make it conform to the rules of 16th century polyphony.
Changes included cutting out long melismas (many notes sung on a single syllable of text), adjusting the length and number of notes per syllable to conform to short and long accents in the Latin text, altering the cadences (or closing notes of a musical phrase) and adding musical patterns or cliches to represent certain words. These reformed chants were published as the Medicean edition and accepted by the Church as the official version of post-Trent Gregorian chant.
It is therefore not surprising that in some regions during the 17th and 18th centuries, chant seems to have dropped out of use altogether, replaced by more enjoyable and up-to-date works.
In Italy and France, baroque and operatic sacred music, marked by trilling solos and instrumental accompaniment, was popular; in Germany and Austria, during the 18th century, many congregations were devoted to symphonic Masses, such as those composed by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The story goes that when the Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790) implemented liturgical reforms such as forbidding Masses to last for more than three hours, Catholics that lived near the Austrian border travelled on Sundays into Bavaria, where they could still enjoy the liturgical spectacles they preferred.
At the opposite end of the musical spectrum were the congregations fond of vernacular German songs.
Finally, there were some regions, such as Mainz in Germany, which remained committed to chant, refusing modern compositions.
Where the Medicean chant continued to be used, it was decked out in frills designed to conceal its rather drab character.
Figured chant, based either on new melodies or Gregorian chant that had been further trimmed back, was elaborately ornamented by the singers, accompanied by the organ or doubled by a bass instrument, and often tossed between solo singers and a choir.
Introduced in France in association with the 18th century neo-Gallican movement (which instituted many changes to the liturgy as part of its rejection of the papacy), figured chant later spread to Germany and the Netherlands. Counterpointed chant was a sort of improvised polyphony, in which the standard chant melodies served as a stem around which singers wove impromptu lines of counterpoint.
Accompanied chant was supported by chords on the organ.
Chant also continued to be used for a time by the Lutherans in 16th century Germany, although (like all the post-Trent forms of chant) it was made metrical, like a hymn, to facilitate congregational singing.
The Church seems to have largely put up with the changes to liturgical music, merely laying down principles to preclude practices that seriously impeded the liturgy; for example, she insisted repeatedly that the orchestra should not dominate the voices of the choir and that the music must serve the liturgy, rather than vice versa.
The 19th century, with its crop of liturgical movements, ushered in an entirely different attitude to music of the past. In Germany, the Caecilian movement was formed to improve church music in Europe and the Americas. Its primary aim was to promote the use of 16th century polyphony and reform of the chant.
The Caecilian movement was strongly supported by the Church, one of its chief representatives, F. X. Haberl (1840-1910), being employed by the Church during the 1870s to edit a revised version of the Medicean chant books, the Ratisbon edition.
In France, post-Enlightenment anti-papal feeling declined and was followed by a period of spiritual renewal. It was widely felt that the Church in France should adopt the Roman liturgy once more, but the merits of the Medicean edition were subject to considerable debate. New medieval manuscripts were discovered; scholastic studies of the chant began to appear; and some attempts were made to produce new chant books based on the manuscripts.
However, no consensus as to the correct melodies and rhythm of Gregorian chant was achieved until the work of the monks of Solesmes emerged from the shadows of their scriptorium.
… but what we have, we give you.
The Abbey of Saint Pierre de Solesmes was founded in 1833 in the province of Sarthe, France, on the ruins of a former priory. The founder was a 28- year-old former diocesan priest, Dom Prosper Gueranger (1805-1875). Like St Francis, Gueranger seems to have had a special calling to restore ruins, for the other great work of his life was to revive Gregorian chant. His purpose seems to have been to put together a functional set of Roman liturgy chant books for use in his own monastery. In the end, however, he not only instigated the retrieval of the Golden and Silver Age chant from the sea of misuse, disuse and new uses into which it had sunk in the preceding centuries, but, by means of his writings on the liturgy, he also gave a vital impulse to the movement to re-adopt the Roman liturgy and Gregorian chant in France.
Gueranger and his monks approached the task of restoring the original melodies by photographing and collating all the versions of each chant that could be found in medieval manuscripts throughout Europe.
(Subsequent events proved this to be a happy policy, for the Solesmes photographs remain the sole testimony to the content of many manuscripts destroyed by bombs during World War II.) The monks then compared the photographs, taking for each chant the melody and text presented by the majority of manuscripts to be the correct version.
The early work of restoration proceeded under the direction of Dom Joseph Pothier (1835-1923) and resulted in the publication during the 1880s of a series of chant books for use by the Solesmes Congregation. Pothier also published a treatise in 1880 explaining the principles used in restoring the chant and expounding his then-radical accentualist theory: that chant should be sung non-metrically, at a moderately slow speech pace, and using accents in the Latin text to determine which notes should be emphasised in the music.
Both these publications, being implicit criticisms of the chant published in the Medicean and Ratisbon editions, aroused vehement protests from the German publisher of the Ratisbon edition, Pustet, to whom the Sacred Congregation of Rites (SCR) had in 1868 granted a 30-year publishing privilege and an official approval of the Ratisbon edition as authentic Gregorian chant. Resistance to the Solesmes theories also came from the Caecilian movement: notably from Haberl, who had developed a quite different, metrical theory about the rhythm of the chant.
Following Pothier’s departure from Solesmes to serve as prior of another monastery, Dom Andre Mocquereau (1849-1930) directed the publication of a series of facsimiles of medieval manuscripts, the Paleographie Musicale.
Successfully designed to prove that the Medicean/Ratisbon melodies were not authentic Gregorian chant, the Paleographie led to widespread acceptance of the Solesmes research from musicians, clergy and, ultimately, the Church.
Between 1905 and 1908, a new Vatican edition of the chant books, based on the Solesmes version of the chant, was published by the Church. Later Vatican editions included signs developed by Mocquereau as rhythmic aids. (See Example 3.) Later still, the ancient graphic musical notation from particular manuscripts was transcribed above and below the chant, so choirs could follow the same written signs that their counterparts long ago used to prompt their memories. (See Example 4.) Use of the Vatican edition throughout the Church was made obligatory by Pius X, who had followed the work of Solesmes with interest from its earliest days. Pius X’s affection and concern for sacred music dated back at least twenty years, to the early years of his priesthood.
Previously, as Archbishop of Venice, he had instituted a reform of sacred music that claimed for chant the position of foremost music of the Church and encouraged the singing of chant, not only by choirs but also by the congregation.
Almost immediately after becoming pope, he introduced a similar reform for the universal Church in his 1903 document, Tra le sollecitudini.
Pius X’s initiative was not universally well received. Lovers of baroque, classical and modern sacred music were aghast at the directive to return to a predominant or exclusive use of chant and polyphony in the liturgy. Pius X seemed pleased with the fruits of his reform and, in letters and other documents, remarked on the re-emergence of chant throughout the world. Yet common liturgical practices from the first half of the twentieth century – the continuing presence of vernacular hymns and the prevalence of low masses -stand like question marks at the end of his reform. The aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, above all, leads us to question how widespread, deeply rooted or comprehended the reform was.
The Second Vatican Council closed Pius X’s effort to graft Gregorian chant onto the 20th century. Whatever the intentions of the Council, the references to sacred music in the Council documents effectively legitimated the replacement of chant with vernacular hymns and folk music. A new chapter in the history of chant is perhaps now taking shape through the thrust of the traditional rite movement and the thirst of a secular world … but like all nows, the promise of the present remains for the moment no more than a whisper through the darkness.
The Gospels tell us that, after Christ’s death, when Peter and John were confronted by a cripple begging for money, Peter said to the cripple “Gold and silver we have none but what we have, we give you”, and stretching out his hand, he healed the cripple. We, today, may still not sing the chant as it really was in the Golden and Silver Ages, but we have the best restoration that scholarship can give us; and although chant, like the other gifts that traditional rite Catholics have to offer to the Church, may not be what the rather crippled Catholics of modernity are seeking, it may turn out to be a gift that can help the Church to get on her feet once again.