Joyful Noise: Gregorian Chant by The Monastic Choir of St. Peter's Abbey of Solesmes

C. Michael Bailey By

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Every generation since the beginning of recorded music discovers Gregorian Chant. The most recent (re)discovery was in the mid-1990s with the phenomenally successful Chant CDs from The Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos released on Angel Records. The actual performances were recorded some 20 years earlier and released to less than optimistic reviews and sales at the time. Taking advantage of the New Age Movement of approximately the same period, these performances were rereleased, selling six million copies worldwide. With a treasure trove of recordings in the catalog, EMI subsequently released, Chant Noel: Chants for the Holiday Seasons (Angel 1994); Chant II (Angel, 1995); and Chant III (Angel, 1996). In 2004, Chant and Chant II were rereleased in a 10th Anniversary 2-CD Edition.

To be sure, the first Chant was an all-around excellent recording. The sonics, engineering, and performances all made the disc a worthwhile addition to any collection or as an entree to the genre. That said, these performances were neither the only or best performance recorded. I will mention one well-integrated and hyper-complete release by the Beuron Benedictine Monks of St. Martin and Chor der Benediktinerinnen der Kirche der Abtei Unserer Lieben Frau in Abtei Unserer Lieben Frau released Gregorian Chant: The Office, The Mass, Varia (Archiv Produktion, 2013) stands as a completely integrated educational touchstone for the performance and liturgical uses of Gregorian Chant.

There exist countless recordings of selected chants available over a 70 year recording period. There is a certain charm to the collections for present consideration. The Monastic Choir of St. Peter's Abbey, Solesmes, France in the late 19th century, was charged by Pope Leo XIII with the restoration and preservation of Gregorian Chant according to the original 10th and 11th century manuscripts. This charge provided the monastery a mission that could be pushed forward in time with the continual practice of Gregorian Chant by newer and newer generations, keeping this ancient mode of worship vibrantly alive into our present 21st Century. The result of this are several representative recordings of chant music of a certain honesty and genuineness. Like the original Chant Recordings, this music is being re-released 20 years after first being recorded and released, this time by Paraclete Press. The second time is indeed a charm.

Before considering these recordings further, prudence dictates a bit of education for the uninitiated, into the history and content of this music. First, "Gregorian Chant" is largely a misnomer. The more general "plainsong" or "plainchant" is probably are more accurate labelling of the vocal genre. Technically, a plainchant is monophonic, be made up of a single, unaccompanied melodic line. Its rhythm is generally freer than the metered rhythm occurring later in Western Music. It is thought that the Christian brand of religious song was an outgrowth of the Jewish tradition. Early Christian worship did integrate elements of Jewish worship that survived in later chant tradition. Canonical hours (more on this later) have their roots in Jewish prayer hours. The "Gregorian Chant" is a type of plainsong named after Pope Gregory I (6th century A.D.), although Gregory himself did not invent the chant. The tradition linking Gregory I to the development of the chant seems to rest on his assembly of a patchwork antiphony, short chants from Christian ritual, for which Gregory hand been responsible in his development of what would become the Christian liturgy.

It is commonly accepted that what passes for Gregorian Chant developed around 750 ACE from a combination of Roman and Gallican chants. The first extant sources with musical notation were written around 930. Prior to this, plainchant had been transmitted as part of the oral tradition. Development of music notation assisted the spread of chant across Europe. The use of chant in religious worship was originally used for singing the Office (by male and female religious) and for singing the parts of the Mass pertaining to the lay faithful (male and female), the celebrant (priest, always male) and the choir (composed of male ordained clergy, except in convents).

The Divine Office or the Liturgy of the Hours, is the sanctioned series of prayers that mark the hours of each day and blessing the day with prayer. The office is composed mostly of psalms supplemented by hymns, scriptural readings and other prayers and antiphons. Together with the Mass, it constitutes the official public prayer life of the Church. The Liturgy of the Hours also forms the basis of prayer within Christian monasticism which explains why most chant recordings are made my cloistered religious clerics.

For the purposes of this consideration, I will define the old structure of the Canonical Hours as these are what occur most in contemporary recordings. The Liturgy of the hours is composed of eight offices divided thusly:

Matins (during the night, at midnight with some); also called Vigils or Nocturns or, in monastic usage, the Night Office
Lauds or Dawn Prayer (at Dawn, or 3 a.m.)
Prime or Early Morning Prayer (First Hour = approximately 6 a.m.)
Terce or Mid-Morning Prayer (Third Hour = approximately 9 a.m.)
Sext or Midday Prayer (Sixth Hour = approximately 12 noon)
None or Mid-Afternoon Prayer (Ninth Hour = approximately 3 p.m.)
Vespers or Evening Prayer ("at the lighting of the lamps," generally at 6 p.m.)
Compline or Night Prayer (before retiring, generally at 9 p.m.)

The specific prayers, psalms, and harmonic modes used changes with the time of the years presented.

The other worship rite that chant was commonly used for was the Mass, the central act of worship in Roman Catholicism. Like the Canonical Hours, the Mass is very specifically divided into the Proper Chants, whose texts change with liturgical period and the Ordinary Chants, whose text uses the same text in every service of the Mass:

For the purposes of this consideration, I will define the old structure of the Canonical Hours as these are what occur most in contemporary recordings.

Proper Chants
Introit the entrance processional of mass celebrants
Gradual responsorial chants following the reading of the Epistle.
Alleluia or the Jubilus recited prior to the reading of the gospel.
Tract is a chant used instead of the Alleluia during Lenten or pre-Lenten seasons, in a Requiem Mass, and on a few other penitential occasions
Sequence sung poems based on couplets not necessarily scriptural in origin
Offertory chants sung during offering of Eucharistic bread and wine.
Communion chants sung during the distribution of the Eucharist.

Ordinary Chants
Kyrie -Kyrie consists of a threefold repetition of "Kyrie eleison" ("Lord, have mercy"), a threefold repetition of "Christe eleison" ("Christ have mercy"), followed by another threefold repetition of "Kyrie eleison."
Gloria -the Greater Doxology: "Gloria in excelsis Deo."
Credo -the Nicene Creed.
Sanctus -"Holy, Holy, Holy"
Agnus Dei -"Lamb of God."
Benedictus "Ite missa est" or "Deo gratias"

These liturgical elements comprise the greater subjects of the Gregorian Chants.

Musically, Gregorian Chant is modally driven. Gregorian chants were organized initially into four, then eight, and finally 12 modes. A mode is a type of musical scale coupled with a set of characteristic melodic behaviors. Think of Miles Davis' modal works like "Milestones" and the entire recording Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959). Instead of improvising within a standard chordal harmonic framework, the musicians construct solos based on these modal scales. A mode is similar to, and differs slightly from a "scale," which is series of musical pitches in a distinct order. Modes, in addition to addressing pitch, includes definition in melodic types (a set of melodic formulas, figures, and patterns). This added consideration increases the depth of the musical theory as it evolved from plainsong to today.

Considered here are four releases from Monastic Choir of St. Peter's Abbey, Solesmes, France from their noted mid-1990s recordings. There are universal elements to note. The sonics of the recordings are warm and expansive. Many chant recordings recall the chill expressed by Keats in the introduction of "The Eve of St. Agnes:"

"Numb were the Beadsman's fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem'd taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin's picture, while his prayer he saith."

The sonic environment of these performances are anything but this. There is a safe, cozy quality to these chants, smelling faintly of Mass incense.

There is a comfortable familiarity in these chants, one that indicates a certain spiritual intimacy between singers. The quality of the chants is an indication of the daily, workman attention paid to them over a long period of time. What is revealed is the genuine, the normal course of daily events. Not everything is technology, the radio, the television, smart phones, tablets, the internet and whatever comes next. This is art as close to us as skin, encoded into our western cultural genome.

The programming of these releases is interesting in the respect that upon first listen, one would believe that there is no programming at all. Therein lies the magic. This is music that requires, demands, multiple listenings and study should one wish to penetrate its intent and meaning. Certainly, one can listen to this music without knowing a thing about it, like I do most opera. But, one's appreciation is vastly enhanced with a little study and attention with the rewards being great.

Monastic Choir of St. Peter's Abbey, Solesmes, France
Learning About Gregorian Chant
Paraclete Press

I will give the Benedictine Order props for having education at the heart of their mission. The manifestation of this educational mission is the release of Learning About Gregorian Chant. A primer, if you will, Learning About Gregorian Chant, through the narration by Sarah Moule, is a tool, provides a historical context with the different examples of Gregorian Chant settings. Taken as a lesson, this release devotes instructional sections to "The History of The Gregorian Chant," a discussion of Gregorian musical forms with examples of The Proper of the Mass, The Ordinary of the Mass, and the Divine Office. The text written by Dom Daniel Saulnier, provides a thorough account of the development and practice of Gregorian Chant.

The musical examples, derived from the large library of recordings of the Monastic Choir of St. Peter's Abbey, Solesmes, France, are salient and representative. I had made the mistake of reading the CD liner notes before listening to the recording and was taken aback by the paucity of information contained therein. The notes from other Paraclete releases teemed with useful information about the music and its sources. However, this was me placing the cart before the horse. What the recording provides is a listening and learning experience that will help any interested listener understand the context of Gregorian Chant. In any event, Learning About Gregorian Chant is the place to start before moving on to the many recordings available.

That was a lot of introduction to discuss the reissue of music recorded twenty years ago. But, what goes around, comes around, and will continue to do so as long as memory remains fragile and malleable. According to author Wally Lamb in his novel I Know This Much is True (HarperCollins, 1998), "God is in the roundness of things," and the generational cycling through this oldest of music will likely happen again and again. We should only hope so.

Monastic Choir of St. Peter's Abbey, Solesmes, France
Gregorian Chant Anthology
Paraclete Press

Past Chant releases, particularly those derived from large archives for release often suffer from poorly conceived programming. Many of these are assembled indiscriminately with not attention paid to liturgical theme or any other organizing principle. It is as if the producers collected the first 20 chants from the reel and released them, no artistic integration necessary. Happily, that is not what the Paraclete group has done. Not only do they follow a thematic integrity, they do so in a measured and sensible way. In considering Learning About Gregorian Chant, the aim was clear: education with narrative and examples, examples selected from the existing catalog (a smart method should one chant ring a bell, the listener can trace it back to its recorded origin for more of the same. I was a bit fearful at considering Gregorian Chant Anthology and Gregorian Chant Sampler as volumes with these titles could easily go the ways of poor programming. But that hand ringing was for naught, in both cases.

Gregorian Chant Anthology assembles from across the catalog chant examples following the seasonal liturgical order: Christmas, Holy Week, Easter, and the Marian Feasts, representing the entire liturgical year. This collection extends the educational element of Learning About Gregorian Chant and offers the listener, both educated and novice, much rich and varied material to consider. Fresh and hopeful are the performances of the Christmas sections, with an example of an Ambrosian Gloria. Recall that the "Gloria" of the Mass is the prayer beginning "Glory to God in the Highest..." It is part of the Ambrosian chant (also known as Milanese chant) representative of the liturgical plainchant of the Ambrosian rite of the Roman Catholic Church. The Ambrosian rite is related to but distinct from Gregorian chant. It is primarily associated with the Archdiocese of Milan and named after St. Ambrose much as Gregorian chant is named after Gregory the Great. It represents the only surviving plainchant tradition besides the Gregorian to maintain the official sanction of the Roman Catholic Church, further illustrating the rich and textured history of the birth of Western music.

Included here are selections from the Marian Feasts. Of central importance to Roman Catholicism is veneration of Jesus' Mother, commonly referred to as the "Blessed Virgin." Mary is the source and inspiration for much of the chant repertoire as well as that music that evolved out of chant. Included here are selection from the Ordinary of the Mass in honor of Our Lady. The collection features other notable inclusions, one, the Closing "Te Deum" (Te Deum laudamus translated as as "Thee, O God, we praise"). The Te Deum has long been a popular subject of choral music. The second notable inclusion is of the original chant notation of the neume The Neume was the basic element of Western and Eastern systems of musical notation prior to the invention of five-line staff notation.

For the purposes of this consideration, I will define the old structure of the Canonical Hours as these are what occur most in contemporary recordings.

Monastic Choir of St. Peter's Abbey, Solesmes, France
Gregorian Chant: Vespers and Compline
Paraclete Press

Where Learning About Gregorian Chant provided broad, definitional examples, and Gregorian Chant Anthology ordered these examples in a year of worship; Gregorian Chant: Vespers and Compline concentrates on a single (or two single) subjects, those of the canonical hours Vespers and Compline, of the Divine Office. As previously stated, Vespers and Compline are the Evening and Night Prayers of the daily Office, respectively. Vespers typically proceeds at 6:00 PM. The example here is Sunday Vespers that includes Antiphon and Psalm readings for Psalms 109, 110, 111, 112. An antiphon is a short chant in Christian ritual, sung as a refrain. They are what are known in modern times as responsorial psalms. Their form was favored by St Ambrose and so they feature prominently in Ambrosian chant, but they occur widely in Gregorian chant as well. They may be used during Mass, for the Introit, the Offertory or the Communion. They may also be used in the Liturgy of the Hours, typically for Lauds or Vespers. This Sunday Vespers also includes the Litany and Chanting of the Paternoster (The Lord's Prayer).

Compline is the closing Office of the day, originally intended as a private devotional that was part of Vespers. It later became part of the daily series of Offices. The liner notes prove very informative about the evolution of Compline and the subtle differences between monastic orders. Gregorian Chant: Vespers and Compline illustrates the high-functioning workmanship of the Divine Office: codified worship for everyday rendered in beautiful simplicity.

Monastic Choir of St. Peter's Abbey, Solesmes, France
Gregorian Chant Sampler
Paraclete Press

I thought if this series of compilation chants were to go wrong, it would do so in Gregorian Chant Sampler. Where lesser producers dropped their creative guard and assembled a "sampler" without a second thought to the integration of content, the producers of this series instead put together a "sampler" of what they considered the most beautiful chants. Offered here chants from the Mass and Divine Office in all of the lustrous warm beauty. I caution the listener who claims that all chant sounds the same. This is too easy an out for the lazy, Adderall-addled attention span of the 21st Century. Anyone interested in the music of today must start with Gregorian Chant and move forward. These simple yet profound melodies provide the basic harmonic backbone of all Western music to follow. One should not be put off by the religious content of the music. In a period where all things spiritual are scrutinized to the point of exclusion, doing so it at our peril as like it or not, this is part of our Western and World history and to not acknowledge such is intellectual dishonestly. The Monastic Choir of St. Peter's Abbey, Solesmes, France and Paraclete Press should be commended in the re-issue of this important and essential music.

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