Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Wonder of Gregorian Chant

~from Christian Science Monitor

This was in the days before Internet travel: pre-MapQuest, pre-Travelocity, preglobal-positioning systems, pre-cellphones. You located a spot on a map, got there one way or another, and began asking questions.

Yes, the abbey was two miles away. No, there were no buses or trains. Is there a town nearby called Solesmes? Well, yes, but it's mostly just the abbey and a hotel for Catholic tour buses making the rounds of French religious sites.

Okey-doke. Not having anything better in mind, I started walking. I was on a pleasant, gentle country road, like something out of a Truffaut movie, with lines of swaying trees, an easy breeze, a narrow little river I walked beside, and no hills to speak of. My rucksack was intentionally light.

Eventually I arrived at the edge of a small village – it was about 5 or 5:30 in the afternoon and I could hear bells ringing somewhere ahead.

In my high-school French, I asked a face in a window where the abbey was, and I was pointed farther ahead, up the single main road. The face shouted after me, "Hurry up, you can make vespers, if you run."

It appeared that I was in a typical, small rural French village – at the center of which was a walled collection of stone buildings. One of the buildings was clearly a church. Soon I found a main entrance, a sort of gatehouse with some signs and tourist information.

Inside, I spoke to my first monk – nondescript, amiable, middle-aged. Yes, of course, just throw your backpack under this table and hurry, hurry, you can go out that way, there, yes, toward that door.

Pushing open the massive door to the church was like entering a movie set. Inside, I found seats in the dim light and waited, not knowing anything. There were no other visitors.

The sound began quietly – literally from far away. From somewhere on my left, the sound grew in volume as it approached, then a door opened and the monks arrived, walking in pairs in a long, slow line, singing as they walked.

They wore black robes – no special dress or vestments – this was a simple vespers service. They filed their way past me and settled into their own places up front – in two halves, facing each other. The singing was in Latin – unaccompanied.

The old cliché was true: I had never heard anything like it in my life. Maybe clichés are about all one has at such unearthly, beautiful, inexpressible moments.

I carefully watched the faces of the men as they trooped past at the end of the service. They could have been a collection of Rotarians at any mid-size city in America – young, old, ordinary, grizzled, unremarkable.

It was not until a year later that I read up on the abbey. Without knowing it, I had visited one of the world centers of Gregorian study – renowned to musicians, historians, believers, unbelievers, any and all. Not only was I hearing this sublimely beautiful music for the first time, I was hearing it sung by its premier practitioners.

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