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Report: Abbey in France a stalwart for Gregorian chant

April 12, 2007

From International Herald Tribune:

One of the tasks of Roger Server as mayor of this quaint village in western France is to console misguided tourists who want to hear the monks in its 11th-century monastery singing in Gregorian chant. “People come and ask, ‘Can you visit the concerts?’ ”

Tourists are restricted to the back of the church, he said, shaking his white hair in mock exasperation. “I tell them: ‘You can assist at the offices. You can admire the sculptures in the church.’ But the monks say, ‘We’re not here to receive tourists; we’re contemplatives.’ ”

The monks, 55 of them, inhabit the monastery that hovers over the village like some great granite mother hen over her chicks. But in recent times the monks have gained a measure of fame for their dedication to Gregorian chant, the simple vocal music whose cadences, in Latin, for centuries adorned the Roman Catholic liturgy.

Now, a constant stream of visitors comes to Solesmes to sit in the monastery church and listen while the monks sing the psalms and prayers, seven times a day, of the sacred liturgy.

“They want their calm,” Server, 65, a retired schoolteacher, said of the monks. “And after all, the monastery was there before us.”

The monks’ dedication to Gregorian chant dates to the 19th century, when the monastery was refounded as the Benedictine abbey of St. Pierre de Solesmes, after having been closed after the French Revolution.

When it began life again, in 1833, the monks resolved to restore Gregorian chant to its proper place in the church, after centuries of neglect. With time the papacy came to recognize Solesmes’s role as the guardian and propagator of the chanting.

“Monasteries have always been places where you conserved a patrimony in the church,” said Dom Yves Marie Lelièvre, who left a career as a professional violinist to become a monk and the monastery’s choirmaster.

That mission was hurt in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council, which opened up the liturgy to contemporary musical forms and a greater use of instruments. “The council was an opening, an evolution,” said Lelièvre, 42, taking time between Holy Week services to receive a visitor. “But after the council, parishes dropped Gregorian chant,” he said, and deserted the Latin texts of the liturgy for the vernacular.

But with the church’s sanction, the monks of Solesmes, the oldest now 95, the youngest 22, remained faithful to their mission, spending their days researching ancient Gregorian manuscripts, publishing updated texts and retaining Latin as the language of their chanting…

Full report here.

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