Friday, February 26, 2010

A Confession

Just a quick (and early) post today, because I have to spend the rest of it writing a paper on the history of exegesis of the story of Lot and his incestuous daughters in Genesis 19; if I come across anything interesting maybe I'll do a post about it later. But please say a prayer for me, it is going to be a stressful day, down to the wire.

Anyway, I have a confession to make: I don't particularly like Gregorian Chant. Nope.
To be honest I find much of Gregorian Chant, at least according to the Solesmes method, to be...well, incredibly boring, stiff, dull, and tedious.

However, I was recently reminded of
interpretations like that by the choir Ensemble Organum, and of the existence of manuscripts (and even attempted recordings) of the Old Roman...and they've given me hope that maybe I'm not the problem. That maybe plainchant preformed according to a better method can be made moving emotionally for me, for I find the examples I'll give just heavenly.

Though some would find their sound more "ancient" than "medieval"...I am starting to believe that this is simply based on a modern imagination of the medieval musical aesthetic created, in fact, by the modern method of performance. Unlike the literary and visual arts, we don't have preformed music lying around still, as it disappears on the wind in an instant. The question of "authentic performance," then becomes a very tricky one, and can change a lot based on the values you prioritize. Personally, I'd like to think chant sounded more like this, as when I hear Solesmes Gregorian, the medievalist in me screams out, "It couldn't have been that way!" even though I have absolutely no musicological expertise on which to base that. It's just an instinct, though one admittedly perhaps just as biased by a modern sense of the musically "exotic".

But, anyway, here is an example from Ensemble Organum:

That is simply the familiar Kyrie XI, but it is done in a way that is simply transporting, to me it evokes the medieval. The only weird thing is the way that men are doing the ison, yet women the main part alternating with a soloist. I'm not sure in what context that would have ever happened, but its beautiful nonetheless.

The Kyrie is sung using the original "tropes" from which the Mass setting "Orbis Factor" (ie, number XI) takes its name. Tropes were poetic expansions of the text that were used to fill the melismatic notes instead of simply continuing the one syllable. The Ordinary chant settings take their names from these tropes on the Kyrie, though actual troping was banned since Trent (somewhat revived in a palsied and artificial form in the Novus Ordo).
It's also a bit odd how in this recording they alternate untroped verses with troped ones, going thus well beyond the traditional 9-fold structure of the Kyrie, though I suppose they were trying to lengthen the track for their CD.

You will also notice the distinctly "Eastern" presentation of the chant. This is certainly not the reading the Solesmes method would give to the manuscripts! And yet, I like this one better, "scholarship" be damned. There is just something so mystical and transcendent about this way of singing the chant. It goes back to what I was saying about reinfusing the Latin Rite with the spirit of the East.

The history of plainchant would be worth looking into, though I'm no expert on musicology. I do know, however, that the Gregorian chant we have today is in some ways a 20th century invention of Solesmes, and that chant has been an incredibly diverse and evolving phenomenon. One need only look at the difference between the Solesmes restoration of the medieval melodies, and the "Medici Graduale" chants used since at least around the time of Trent (the last edition being Ratisbone's in the 1870's) according to a simplifying interpretation at Rome that Palestrina, the great composer of polyphony, was put in charge of implementing in the 16th century.

The history is fascinating, and I encourage you to read up on it. Of course, Solesmes based its interpretation on the living tradition in monasteries, and I think the result is generally better (and certainly spurred a revival of chant starting with Pius X) but, at the same time, I also have to wonder if there isn't supposed to be a difference between diocesan and monastic chant, and if the former maybe would do well to be simplified in many circumstances. If only so that it will be actually used more easily. After all, the "Graduale Simplex" certainly finds one wonders whether the "Medicean" version, having at least some historical precedence, might not be a more traditional "simplex'" repertoire.

Nevertheless, considered in itself, I think the Solesmes restoration of the melodies was excellent. But I cannot say I am all that inspired by their method of performance interpretation. That is where groups like Ensemble Organum give me hope.

Additionally, many people don't realize that even our "Gregorian chant" of today, is really a post-Carolingian hybrid of styles. The truly "traditional" chant of Rome, is the so called "Old Roman," which was later severely Gallicanized. I don't have time to go into detail, I encourage you to read into that yourself, but suffice it to say, the Old Roman especially can be interpreted in a way that is significantly more Eastern or at least Mediterranean:

Well, I've procrastinated long enough listening to all this beautiful music. Maybe someday we'll hear it in our churches, after the dry dusty sand of the Solesmes-method has slipped through the hour glass...


Mark of the Vineyard said...

Their [Ensemble Organum] rendition of Tantum Ergo seems to be quite original. For some reason, to me at least, it seems to convey an idea of power. there's something quite majestic and pwerful about it. Have you heard them singing Dum Pater Familias? I especially like that one. Imagine what it would be like to be in Santiago de Compostela if the Vespers for St. Jame's feast where actually sung like their rendition of it!

Michael D said...

I think you're right about the Old Roman chant, somehow it does sound more ethereal than the Gregorian Chant, an example of which I found here:

This Old Roman chant is beautiful in its own right, but it is also enjoyable for evoking a feeling of immersion within the medieval Cathedral, or maybe a kingly hall from a Lord of the Rings movie.