Restoration and New Interest

Restoration and New Interest

In the 1830s, the young French monk Dom Prosper Guéranger reopened the vacant monastery of Solesmes in his hometown of Sablé, and charged his monks with the task of restoring chant to its former beauty. This restoration consisted of two primary components: the study of ancient manuscripts and the development of a lighter style of chanting where “words took on their true meaning, and the musical phrases recovered much of their natural suppleness and beauty.” By the 1850s, Solesmes monks were copying chant manuscripts from all over Europe. Carefully comparing manuscripts containing the ancient neumes to manuscripts containing lines and notes, they set about to determine how the chant would have been sung in its original form.

By the 1880s, Solesmes monks were printing chant books based on the old sources. For years, controversy raged between those who advocated “plainchant” and the Solesmes monks who advocated returning the chant to its expressive, ancient form. In 1903 Pope Pius X authorized the monks of Solesmes to prepare editions of chant for the Mass of the entire Roman Catholic Church, and during the next sixty years, the “Solesmes Method” of chant was taught throughout Europe and North America. Even as scholars debated the value of the Solesmes teachings, the recordings of the Solesmes monks became popular, and their books were widely distributed.

In the second half of the twentieth century, a deeper understanding of chant taught by Dom Eugène Cardine, a monk of Solesmes, brought about the publication of chant books containing both line and note music as well as representations of various forms of ancient neumes. These books allowed singers to read the melodies using the lines and notes, and yet grasp the subtle nuances of the chants portrayed by the ancient neumes. Before his death in 1988, Dom Cardine insisted that the restoration work should be ongoing, and that he was leaving it to his successors to continue the search for the truth and beauty contained in the ancient chants.

Excerpted from The Song of Prayer: A Practical Guide to Learning Gregorian Chant

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