Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Singing Unto the Lord

~from the New York Times

The monks, 55 of them, inhabit the monastery that hovers over the village like some great granite mother hen over her chicks. But in recent times the monks have gained a measure of fame for their dedication to Gregorian chant, the simple vocal music whose cadences, in Latin, for centuries adorned the Roman Catholic liturgy.

Now, a constant stream of visitors comes to Solesmes to sit in the monastery church and listen while the monks sing the psalms and prayers, seven times a day, of the sacred liturgy.

“They want their calm,” Mr. Server, 65, a retired schoolteacher, said of the monks. “And after all, the monastery was there before us.”

The monks’ dedication to Gregorian chant dates to the 19th century, when the monastery was refounded as the Benedictine abbey of St. Pierre de Solesmes, after having been closed after the French Revolution.

When it came to life again, in 1833, the monks resolved to restore Gregorian chant to its proper place in the church, after centuries of neglect. With time the papacy came to recognize Solesmes’s role as the guardian and propagator of the chanting.

“Monasteries have always been places where you conserved a patrimony in the church,” said Dom YvesMarie Lelièvre, who left a career as a professional violinist to become a monk and the monastery’s choirmaster.

That mission was hurt in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council, which opened up the liturgy to contemporary musical forms and a greater use of instruments. “The council was an opening, an evolution,” said Dom Lelièvre, 42, taking time between Holy Week services to receive a visitor. “But after the council, parishes dropped Gregorian chant,” he said, and deserted the Latin texts of the liturgy for the vernacular.

But with the church’s sanction, the monks of Solesmes, the oldest now 95, the youngest 22, remained faithful to their mission, spending their days researching ancient Gregorian manuscripts, publishing updated texts and retaining Latin as the language of their chanting.

They were encouraged recently when Pope Benedict XVI, in a papal pronouncement known as an apostolic exhortation, decreed that — especially at international gatherings — the liturgies should be celebrated in Latin, except for the readings and the homily. Moreover, he said, “If possible, selections of Gregorian chant should be sung.”

Some saw the pope’s remarks as a sop to traditionalists, like the followers of the schismatic Archbishop Marcel Lefèvre, who have steadfastly refused to accept the liturgical changes adopted by the Vatican council.

Others saw the remarks as a slap in the face to contemporary church music, with its sometimes lively public participation. “Exit the guitars and the xylophones,” wrote Henri Tincq, Le Monde’s Vatican correspondent, adding, “Condemned are all ‘abuses’ in the adaptation of liturgies to local cultures.”

Dom Lelièvre, a compact, friendly man who entered Solesmes 14 years ago, was naturally pleased with the pope’s endorsement of Gregorian chant. Yet he said that Gregorian chant did not need the pope’s support for revival.

“Beginning 10 or 15 years ago in France, chant has regained interest in the musical milieu,” he said, “as have baroque music and medieval song.” The monks of a Benedictine monastery in Spain, Santo Domingo de Silos, recorded several internationally popular CD’s of Gregorian chant in the 1990s.

Despite their cloistered life and flight from the world, the monks of Solesmes have accepted invitations to lecture and provide demonstrations at conservatories in Paris and other places.

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