Monday, 18 April 2016

In answer...

A reader asked me to clarify what I had meant about the "corrupt Solesmes" chant as contained in the Liber Usualis. Since music is not my area I referred the question to an expert in sacred music, whose insightful response, for which I am very grateful, is here:

"It is a complex issue. Styles of Plainsong changed many times – often to do with fashion. Nicholas Wiseman in England pushed for uniformity and Italian pronunciations in England well before they were imposed by Pius X. The Ultramontane goal was to do away with regional – especially Gallic - variations in chant and centralise everything by coming up with a single version to be exclusively used.

"The Liber Usualis is basically based on a mediaeval style as imagined by monks who could never have known how plainsong was sung in mediaeval times. They worked on up to forty variations of a given melody and constructed a new melody on a democratic basis; so if eight of their models had certain notes at a certain part and twelve of their models had something different they would incorporate the latter.

"Performing plainsong at an almost funerial pace started in the Renaissance, as did slowings and speedings to give a word-emphasis. The slow paces, once they had been officially adopted by Solemnes, stuck.

"Personally, much plainsong – the way it is now - I find unbeautiful and depressing. I think monks probably always sang it at a slow pace because there was no rush but that was not the case outside where a lighter and faster pace was common.

"This has not really answered your question but the extracts from the following book might be of help:"

On a personal note, I might also recommend this channel on YouTube, which has a trove of chant traditions, both Eastern and Western.


  1. Thank you.

    I had encountered that channel before, specifically its “Old Roman Chant” which sounded exotic and yet also familiar at the same time.

  2. A few comments of my own.

    It's interesting what my friend says about word-emphasis, which was the opposite of polyphony. It's interesting that this Solesmnes tradition went counter and parallel to the choral music so criticized by Perosi and Sarto in Tra le sollecitudini, among other criticisms (such as the venerable tradition of the Castrati, which, so far as I know, by 1900 were solely limited to the Sistine Chapel choir). Word-emphasis seems almost Puritanical to me. How curious that a movement to purify the plainchant melodies of the Gradual by placing the emphasis on word, rather than note, was pioneered by monks!

    "Styles of Plainsong changed many times - often to do with fashion." Very true. The canons of Notre Dame pioneered polyphony during the 14th century on high days, presumably on an ad hoc basis and under the supervision of the Precentor. Why? It's an embellishment and serves to distinguish, for example, a sonorous Tract from a joyous Alleluia.

    I too find much modern plainsong depressing. Some of it is incredibly hard to sing too, the Vidi Aquam for instance. Hardly suited to a parish choir.

  3. Patrick, I well remember attending a presentation of Corsican Plainchant once in Paris whilst a seminarian; after that experience, I also tended to find the Solesmnes chant extremely tiresome. But then, most chant traditions that exist today, eastern and western, are in some manner a recreation and reflect the tastes of the day.

    I really still prefer the ponderous plainchant of even Helmore over the French version.

  4. You have some good reflections on church music, something in which I have some experience. It all started at the Council of Trent when there was a movement to abolish all music other than Gregorian chant. Palestrina saved the day with the Missa Papa Marcelli.

    I was in charge of music at seminary and I made it a matter of pride not to follow the Ward Method for teaching Gregorian chant. My resistance was answered by Fathers Wach and Mora bringing in the “Vamps”, two elderly ladies from France who used the strict Solesmes-Ward method. Instead of hearty chant, it was all “mi-mi-mi”, or “bouilli de chats”, a mish-mash of simpered and insipid singing. I was soon farmed out to a “parish” in Marseille and my organ loft with the old 18th century Tronci organ went to another seminarian who was more compliant with the new directives.

    The only positive thing with the Solesmes movement was the restoration of mediaeval notation and its system of neumes as opposed to the nasty style of notation that was introduced in the 18th and 19th centuries. That was something positive which Dr Renwick has used for his editions of the Sarum gradual and antiphonary. The notions of binary and ternary rhythm introduced by Solesmes (Dom Gajard) were quite artificial as are signs like the episema for slowing down in places. I think more priority should be given to the natural rhythm of the text.

    I have had a lot of sympathy for Perosi and I have recordings of most of his oratorios. Puccini held Perosi in high esteem, despite Perosi being accused of plagiarising Puccini. When I come to his church music, much of it is quite nice, but I am an Anglican, and see that he didn’t have a patch on Stanford or Parry among the many other English cathedral organists of the Victorian era. When I installed an organ at the Abbey of Triors in France, I played for high Mass and played Howells Saraband for the Morning of Easter. It was much too flamboyant and Anglican. Those men are used to Nicolas de Grigny and Couperin! I learned many things from that experience.

    Many gregorianists disapprove of organ accompaniment of Gregorian chant. I disagree. Harmony gives warmth to the melody as a good sauce prevents meat from being too dry to eat. I always use a soft 8 ft stop and keep the harmony very simple: tonic, dominant, subdominant and relative minor. That also helps to prevent the whole piece sliding down as happens with people singing without good breath and support.

    All that seems moot in most places as music is once again based on secular standards and bad taste. You have done well to bring up the subject.