Scholars help us understand what chant is. That’s been true for a long time. As musical tastes changed starting in the Renaissance, the old chant melodies were “corrected” by well-meaning composers who thought they sounded odd. Fortunately, the monks of the French abbey of Solesmes in the late 19th century undertook a massive research project to restore the medieval versions of Gregorian chants as well as possible.
Since then, musicians interested in “authentic” early-music practice (or, as it’s called these days, HIP – historically informed performance) have contemplated the rhythm, diction, pitch, vocal arrangement, and sources of chant. The last aspect seems to be of particular interest currently, especially when it comes to the Catholicism of Eastern Europe.
In Latvia, for example, Riga Cathedral has stood since the 1880s, but the tradition of singing chant in that region is far older. The CD Domus Mea (LMIC/SKANI 046) by Schola Cantorum Riga presents the music of two historical services. The first is the complete 13-section Missa in dedicatione ecclesiae (Mass for the dedication of the church). The men’s unison singing is powerful if sometimes their entrances aren’t exact. They sing under the direction of Guntars Prānis, who explains in the notes that some of these chants are the earliest known Latvian-composed music. The echo in the cathedral, however, is so intense that it causes muddiness and unintended dissonance.
The men are joined at times by a Riga-based girls’ choir called TIARA. Not that girls would ever have sung at a monks’ service, but they stand in for the boy choir that most monasteries would have had. Also, for variety, one track is sung as organum, a simple arrangement of a chant melody in which perfect fifths and fourths are sung against it, note by note in the same rhythm.
The album also contains five chants for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. An interesting twist is the use of hurdy-gurdy, a common instrument in the Middle Ages that featured a wheel-shaped bow, turned with a hand crank, playing both a drone pitch and a melody.
Another scholarly experiment in Eastern European chant can be found from a Polish group Flores Rosarum. Musica in Monasteriis Femineis in Polonia Minore, Vol. 1 (Dux 1242) explores the music of Polish nuns. Perhaps most surprising is that a few chants are in Polish, although most are in Latin. Two harpsichord improvisations identify the period they’re trying to emulate as the 16th century. Before then, the majority of churches did not house keyboard instruments.
Flores Rosarum, led by Susi Ferfoglia, sing with soaring voices. On more complicated melody lines their sound can be slightly pinched, but the intonation is solid, especially impressive given the large range of some of these chants, which they unearthed in convent archives in the southern Polish region of Małopolska.
But scholarship can be dangerous. An obsession with authenticity can make you forget that chant is more than words and music. It is prayer. Emphasis on is.
Some recent efforts turn the focus back to chant’s worshipful purpose. The highest profile example is Assumption: Monastic Choir of the Abbey of Notre Dame of Fontgombault (Valley Entertainment; no listed catalog number). It’s clear from the dozens of blogs and church newsletters that have published reviews that the CD was sent free to every member of the clergy the marketing team could locate.
These reviewers write from the heart, all noting how prayerful the chant makes them feel. Fair enough, but now we hit what may be a moral issue: If a recording of religious music makes you feel more religious, does the musical quality matter? For this listener, the answer is yes. Not even a direct line to the Almighty can make up for the breathy, unsupported tone of the monks in this recording. Nor does it help that their phrasing and extreme use of dynamics are more suited to Fauré than to a medieval tradition. Same goes for the ubiquitous organ.
But fear not. If you seek living authenticity in the chant tradition, stop by Barrouxchant.com. The Monks of the Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux stream their holy offices, the seven times per day they worship apart from Mass. The monks sing out with pleasing forthrightness and accurate pitches. The tempos are faster than one finds in scholarly recordings, and the busier passages of text sound like exactly what they are: a bunch of hermits who all happen to be praying in the same room. That is, after all, the principle on which monasteries were founded.
The bad news is, this is a very low-tech site and ridiculously buggy. During the first week of April, they could not stream at all. Happily, they archive their services, so here’s the one from March 31, 2017. Be patient. The monks aren’t there to entertain you, but to sing their Creator’s praises.
It would be remiss not to take this opportunity to say adieu to one of chant’s strangest modern legacies.
In 1994 the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, Spain, surprised the world with a smash-hit recording called Chant (Angel Records D 102957). Since then, the music industry has tried to make a buck off the chant phenom.
German group Gregorian: Masters of Chant was the brainchild of Frank Peterson, who had the astonishing idea of using the singing style of Gregorian chant to perform covers of pop songs. The men dressed in hooded robes. On stage, they moved in stately processional patterns. Deep voices sang in somber unison, their melodies broken into short phrases, as monks would sing. So, you end up with pious-sounding renditions of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” and David Bowie’s “Heroes,” to name a few.
Gregorian disbanded at the end of 2016 after 17 years. For the curious, there are a few recordings, most recently Masters of Chant X: The Final Chapter (earMUSIC 0210742EMU). In these familiar songs, the melody is washed over with synthesized sounds and beats. Occasionally Amelia Brightman (younger sister of classical crossover star Sarah) joins in to spice things up. How distracting that would be for real monks!
Every phrase of every song sounds the same, so the lyrics lose their meaning. They might as well be singing in Latin.
[If their shimmery robes didn't clue you in to the fact that something was askew with these "monks", the disorienting presence of a bright red Stratocaster surely will. There have been days when I've asked myself, "What could possible be more irritating than the twee sanctimony of U2?" The answer: U2 performed by bogus clerics. Oooghhh. ---Ed.]