Saturday, 1 August 2009

Les voix du plain-chant

I first started singing plainchant regularly around 15 years ago when I joined the Latin Mass choir at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, Cadogan Street. We sang (and sing) from a Graduals based on the Graduale Romanum issued by the monks of Solesmes Abbey. The chant is highly marked up and the choir had its own way of singing the chant, this changed over time whilst I was there as one of the senior members of the choir sang in a schola directed by Mary Berry and some of this filtered down to us.

Because the Roman Catholic Church has always used chant, I had assumed that the way of singing chant was consistent over the ages. The first real inkling that I had that this was not so was when I read Thomas E. Muir's Roman Catholic Church Music in England, 1791 - 1914: A Handmaid of the Liturgy, which I reviewed for MusicWeb International (my review is here). The book's main preoccupation is the musical repertoire of English Roman Catholic Churches in the 18th and 19th centuries, based on surviving collections of music in a number of major Roman Catholic parishes. But Muir also has to touch on the subject of plainchant.

It was illuminating to realise that one of the themes of the 19th century was the Roman Catholic Church's attempts to centralise both authority and, as a corollary, also the plainchant sung and the way it was sung. The culmination of this was the final adoption of the Solesmes editions of plainchant by the Vatican, from which comes my own experience. But prior to the late 19th century the availability of printed/published matter to churches was many and various. There were many local variants and the church as a whole was highly dependent on the Medicean Graudals which were produced in the 17th century. It is important to realise that much of the chant in these graduals is simpler than that currently sung.

The Solesmes Monks in the 19th century were part of a back-to-basics campaign whereby they researched original medieval manuscripts and produced their chant edition based on these. The music of Palestrina and later, when it refers to plainchant, refers to the slightly simpler Medicean type chant. The other point to bear in mind was that this was generally sung rather slower.

Have you never listened to a performance of a piece of polyphony, which is based on chant, and been disturbed by the fact that when the chant is quoted in the polyphony it is performed in long notes at a noticeably slower speed than the way the chant would be sung on its own. This is sometimes because the composer was thinking of a way of performing chant at a slower, more measured and regular tempo than is used today. Based on the Solesmes medieval re-creation, we nowadays sing chant in a swift, mellifluous way based on the way it was imagined that it was sung.

It is a nice idea to try mixing the slower measured chant with polyphony in concert, but I have never dared to do so. I just don't think that modern audiences would take to it. As it is I am sometimes aware that my own appetite for chant is far greater than many people in the audience.

This awareness of the way that chant singing has changed over the centuries was re-inforced recently when I read Les voix du plain-chant by Marcel Pérèsand Jacques Cheyronnaud (Marcel Pérèsis the founder of that wonderful ensemble, Organum). In this book Pérèsgives a succinct history of plainchant up to the late-middle ages and then Cheyronnaud takes over with a more anthropological view of the succeeding centuries. This made me realise first of all that the 19th century Solesmesisation of the Catholic church music making was not something restricted to England.

A corollary of this Solesmesisation was that chant became a communal thing, the idea was that rather than having a few specialised chanters who were part of the liturgy, the whole choir did it.

I am currently reading another book in the same series, La chant de la memoire by Marcel Pérèsand Xavier Lacavalerie. This is a history of the Ensemble Organum, published in 2002 to celebrate the ensemble's 20th anniversary. But more than this, it is an explanation of how Pérès came to experiment with ways of singing early chant and how his various influences (Byzantine Chant, Corsican traditional polyphony, Sufi chant) were methods of trying to find living traditions whose elements could relate to the early chants. These are chants which have survived rather badly and whose notation relied on a heavy admixture of oral tradition.

Modern notation of chant means that someone who know the notation can come to a new piece and make a decent stab at singing it. Early chant is not like this, the notation is little more than a reminder and you have to find ways of getting behind the chant. Generally, performances of early chant in Western Europe rely on a projection of current vocal methods backwards, to create a smooth mellifluous sound.

Pérèson the other hand is concerned to explore the differentness of medieval music. In his 1997 Gramophone review of Pérèsrecording of Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame, Fabrice Fitch (FF) a perceptive and highly relevant point:-

'Pérès's reading makes a point that is so often conveniently ignored: we have no idea what Machaut's singers actually sounded like, or how they produced the sound in their throats. Peter Phillips once made that point, envisaging the possibility that we might find the 'authentic' sound unbearable. As I have got used (slowly) to Organum's sound, I have been reminded how far Machaut's world is from our own. This recording questions a fundamental and untestable assumption about medieval polyphony.'

Reading these books has made me want to go back to Ensemble Organum's discs. I have a couple of them, both of early Roman Chant, but am now keen to hear others especially the Machaut disc which seems to have so divided critics.

We try to understand the past by projecting our own preoccupations and attitudes backwards. But I am beginning to learn that plainchant meant many different things depending on the period it was sung.

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