Back to the future – Gregorian Chant in the age of Web 2.0

Everyone who has lived in France for any length of time knows that leaving Paris by car on the first Saturday of the school holidays is an enterprise fraught with danger. The likelihood if you don’t play your navigational cards right is that you will find yourself frying in 35°C temperatures reading a sign on the autoroute marked ‘traffic jam for 27 kilometers’ right next to another that says that the next exit is 28 km away. This is the first good reason for making sure that you leave the French capital before 7 a.m. The second one,  as I discovered this last Saturday, is that if you’re headed out West towards the Atlantic, you can make it to the Abbey of Solesmes for the 10 a.m. service.

One of France’s most famous monasteries, the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes is currently celebrating a thousand years since its foundation in 1010. Paradoxically, however, its fame is relatively recent; for the first few centuries of its existence, it was a fairly small community in a rural French backwater. Indeed, it might well have disappeared completely in the wake of the violent anticlericalism of the French Revolution (which for example saw the monastery of Cluny – once the largest church in Western Christendom – taken apart stone by stone, and the equally famous Abbey of Mont St-Michel transformed into a prison). It was rescued from demolition by a young priest named Prosper Guéranger, who rented the property in 1833 and moved in accompanied by three friends intent on ressuscitating the site’s monastic tradition. Within a few years Solesmes had become the seat of a new Benedictine French congregation and began to attract steadily increasing attention for Guéranger’s work in pioneering a revived monasticism.

Central to this revival was Gregorian chant, which remains Solesmes’ chief claim to wider public fame (the Abbey library contains one of the world’s most important collections of medieval plainchant manuscripts). In opposition to the prevailing fashion in which chant was sung in the nineteenth century in French churches – hammered out squarely and unmusically – Solesmes promoted a lighter, more subtly phrased performing style in an attempt to retrieve the spirit of the Middle Ages, leading to ground-breaking publications of the Gregorian repertoire.

From a twenty-first century standpoint it is easy for historians to criticise the work at Solesmes under Dom Guéranger and his successors as naïve neo-medievalism, running parallel to similar trends in architecture (the building restorations of Viollet-le-Duc in France, or the neo-Gothic style in Britain). Gregorian studies have of course moved on considerably, exposing the Solesmes performing style as a modern reconstruction rather than an unearthing of authentic tradition. Yet it is precisely this affirmation of the modernity of the project of Solesmes which I find intriguing, in that it provides a striking example of the retrieval of the archaic for radically contemporary counter-cultural purposes. The revival of monasticism was clearly designed in opposition to the positivistic culture that came to dominate French public life in the second half of the nineteenth century, as a re-assertion of the importance of the transcendent at a time when it was being squeezed out of French culture by a scientific-rationalist paradigm. The renaissance of sacred music typified by Solesmes certainly was viewed by many as reactionary, a weapon in the hands of those interested in promoting a return to religious oppression. However, in what might seem a curious reversal, by the turn of the century the Benedictines’ research into the remote past was starting to attract the attention of some of the most progressive artists working in France. As Jesuit scholar Stephen Schloesser puts it in Jazz Age Catholicism, a  bench-marking study of the relationship between religion and art in France in the early twentieth century, an ‘unlikely avant-garde’  took shape; if neo-traditionalists identified themselves with the Catholic revival out of dissatisfaction with the secular modernity, the same was true of an artistic vanguard thirsty for spiritual values rooted in the invisible which they could not find in an intellectual environment dominated by empiricism. For figures such as the writers J-K Huysmans and Paul Claudel, the painter Georges Rouault or the surrealist poet Pierre Reverdy (who became a hermit at Solesmes in 1926), Benedictine spirituality provided material for the critique of their contemporary world via a retrieval of lost tradition. An analogous phenomenon can also be observed in twentieth-century French music, where ancient modality (beginning with Satie and Debussy, who is thought to have visited Solesmes in  1894) became one of the means of liberating musical discourse from the Germanic tradition, an exit strategy from the chromatic dead end in which tonal harmony found itself after Wagner.

Curiously, beginning at roughly the same time as interest in a modern compositional use of Gregorian chant was peaking in France ( in the works of the 1920s and 30s by composers such as Charles Tournemire, Jehan Alain, Maurice Duruflé and the young Olivier Messiaen), a very strikingly similar tendency arose in French theology. Known as ressourcement, this consisted of an effort to revitalize theological thinking by ‘going behind’ the sterile quarrels of the sixteenth century via a  return to Biblical and early Christian sources (strikingly, this method of ‘retrieval’ was not restricted to the Catholic church, but was something of a joint project at the scholarly level with Russian Orthodox émigrés who had ended up in France after the Revolution of 1917: in Orthodox circles the parallel to ressourcement is often termed the ‘neo-Patristic synthesis’ or ‘going forward with the Fathers’). On one hand this meant massive scholarly work in the form of editions of the Church Fathers, while on the other it also meant a vigorous engagement with the contemporary world in the activities of the ‘worker-priest’ movement. Bitterly opposed by conservative elements within the Catholic hierarchy for several decades, leaders of the ressourcement project – also known as the nouvelle théologie – such as Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar subsequently played a huge role in shaping the Second Vatican Council.

What fascinates me about this – both in terms of music and theology – is the idea that retrieving the ‘pre-modern’ has great potential for providing a genuinely contemporary critique of modern culture, not least by showing that ‘it wasn’t always like this’ and that the direction in which culture has moved is historically contingent, not inevitable. Musically, a retrieval of the distant past – whether in of the use of organum and medieval hocketing by Louis Andriessen, or the radical simplicity of Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli idiom, Messiaen’s coupling of plainsong and atonality, or in the new perspectives offered by Historically Informed Performance – demonstrates that the past is full of possibilities left unexplored or unjustly suppressed, capable of generating the ‘shock of the old’, to use a phrase of Charles Rosen. Theologically, a re-examination of the traditions of the first centuries of a still-united Christian Church sheds vital critical light on subsequent divisions and offers precious resources for overcoming them in a truly forward-looking ecumenical spirit, as Vatican II demonstrated.

There are signs today that a renewed interest in monasticism is not foreign to this ecumenical project. A sense that we need to recover both the spiritual disciplines of the early Church and a liturgy in which beauty plays a critical role is one which cuts across denominational boundaries. Indeed, the efforts of Solesmes to revive a transcendentally-oriented liturgy at a historical moment when French culture was being ‘flattened out’ by a scientific, rationalist worldview might be said to have a considerable resonance with our own time. The forms that a latter-day monastic revival are taking are extremely varied, ranging from recently-established communities (such as Iona (1938), Taizé (1940) or the Jerusalem Fraternities (1975)) to more experimental ventures such as the ’24/7 Prayer Boiler Rooms’ of  Pete Greig and Andy Freeman, authors of Punk Monk). It is clear that for an increasing number of contemporary Christians, an avant-garde recuperation of monastic practices serves as an antidote to the overwhelming sense of banality that dominates much of contemporary Western consumer society.

The combination of archaism and futurism is only apparently paradoxical. On one level, the liturgy I experienced at Solesmes last Saturday might very well be seen by some as a pure irrelevance in a world of Twitter, Android mobile phones and IPads. And yet, on a deeper level, it is the sheer otherness of that liturgy, expressed in the sober yet exuberantly weightless flight of the Gregorian lines, which exudes a sense of the Holy which we perhaps need more than ever.

About 5 miles away from Solesmes, the road leading back to the A11 autoroute takes you past what used to be a wayside shrine, now emptied of any religious images; in their place are neon lights and a sign that reads ‘Paradise: Las Vegas’. Need I say more?


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