Friday, June 06, 2008

Norbertine Gregorian Chant

~Excerpted from the Canons Regular of Premontre website

A reader should not be surprised to learn that the Norbertine Order has its "own" Gregorian chant. As any other ancient Order, that of Saint Norbert also has its traditions and liturgical practices.

From its earliest beginning, the Norbertine Order gave special care to liturgy and daily prayer in community. Besides pastoral activities, which the Norbertines always had, the care for liturgical celebrations has always been very important.

Saint Norbert and his successor, Abbot Hugo, were very attached to a certain uniformity within the growing Order. About eight years after the foundation in Premontre, Norbert left France and was appointed Archbishop of Magdeburg (1126). At that moment, the number of monasteries in France, the Low Countries and Germany was already 41! A century later there were some 1,500 throughout Europe! Unity in matters of liturgy, rule of life, clothing, chant and obedience to the statutes was therefore really necessary to avoid splitting.

But where does "Norbertine Gregorian" come from? Neither Norbert nor Hugo were composers. Long before there existed any official Roman Liturgy, a number of flourishing Christian communities in Western Germany and Gaul had their own "proper" rites, essentially consisting of Greek and Palestinian elements. Any bishopric or monastery of a certain repute had its own liturgical books for Eucharistic celebration, with prayers, lectures and chants. It is therefore highly presumable that Saint Norbert, besides prayers and lectures, also took over chants from the diocese of Laon, as Prémontré was part of it. It is nearly sure that those liturgical chants must have been fixed, together with other prescriptions, for all establishments of the Order. An ancient version of the Statues (dated 1143) devotes explicitly a whole chapter to liturgical books. It actually says that "missal, lectures, gradual, antiphonary, hymns, psalms, rule and liturgical calendar" must be identical with the Order. Versions of the Statutes from later centuries all contain this strict provision. Even certain papal documents stress this obligation of unity and abbots were regularly encouraged to maintain these valuable practices. At the yearly General Chapter which, at first was held each time in Prémontré, practice could be compared to and contrasted with the existing prescriptions.

The differences heard in Norbertine Gregorian are not exclusively due to bad copying in the scriptoria; musical connoisseurs once stated that in the many remarkable melodies proper to the Norbertine repertory, adding one sole note or a group of notes could considerably enrich the melody, as it was often inspired by the desire for beauty and an ingenius sense of creativity.

Gregorian Chant was always called "The unsurpassable summit of unisonous music and an irreplaceable vivifying principle within the Western Christian liturgy."

The Second Vatican Council preserved this view, even if the Constitution of the Holy Liturgy (4.XII.1964) issued a lot of directives and possibilities aiming at a liturgy celebrated in a more popular way and in the mother tongue. After twenty years of experiments and composition, it is somehow felt that Gregorian has nothing to do with monastic music belonging to the period of the triumphant church, nor with a chant that people don't understand nor feel drawn to. On the contrary: The renewed interest that comes up here and elsewhere indicates that we need to reevaluate Gregorian Chant as liturgical music and a precious culture-bearer. Many are tired of those masses with pop and beat songs, all failures that soon lose their attraction. Priests and pastoral workers progressively realize that those "renewals" they introduced too fast and unconsidered, don't give the results they expected.

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