Do you remember when Gregorian chant was all the rage back in the '90s? Its resurgence was fuelled in part by the rise of New Age music and an interest in chant for its soothing properties, as well as the early music revival of the '70s and '80s when scholar/performers increasingly turned their attention to medieval music. A number of fine ensembles were formed, including Anonymous 4 and Gothic Voices, and tried to recreate the authentic performance style of Gregorian chant.
Popular culture was infected with chant fever by The Name of the Rose, the 1986 film starring Sean Connery as a Franciscan monk, with a chant-infused original score by James Horner. Groups like Enigma used Gregorian chant in their trippy dance floor mixes of the early '90s.
The Gregorian chant craze reached its peak in 1994 with the release of Officium, the Hilliard Ensemble's collaboration with saxophonist Jan Garbarek that remains the ECM label's top-selling album of all time.
For a while, Gregorian chant was "in," but since the '90s, we haven't heard as much about it. This week, the Gregorian Institute of Canada is holding its seventh annual colloquium in Montreal, bringing together scholars and amateur chant practitioners from across Ontario and Quebec, and from France. It got us wondering: is Gregorian chant still a "thing"?
Jean-Pierre Noiseux is the director of Montreal's Schola Saint Grégoire, and the organizer of the Gregorian Institute of Canada's colloquium. CBC Music reached him by email to get the goods on Gregorian chant.
Q: Today we think of Gregorian chant as something relegated to the distant past. But is it?
A: Yes and no. Yes, if you consider only that it was created some 1,250 years ago, or that it was sung in the Roman Catholic church until the 1960s, and that its liturgical use has declined considerably since then. But no, if you consider that it is still a valid liturgical chant, and that it is still possible to hear chant today, whether in liturgy, in concert, on CD, on your iPod or the internet.
Q: What kind of people are attracted to Gregorian chant?
A: It would be much easier to identify what kind of people would not be attracted to Gregorian chant. Those who link chant exclusively to a recent historical period of the Catholic church they wish to deny in its entirety are surely among them. But it's clear to me that almost any open-minded person can be attracted, because it is great music that laid the foundation for the Western musical tradition. Probably the same kind of people who would like the music of Hildegard von Bingen, Josquin des Prez, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, William Byrd and J.S. Bach would be attracted to Gregorian chant.
Anonymous 4 leads a chant workshop at Stanford University.
Q: To fully appreciate Gregorian chant, do you need to sing it?
A: Gregorian chant was created for liturgical purposes, and this includes performing as well as listening. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the best place to sing and listen to chant is within the liturgy. Because of that, I tend to find it more difficult to perform chant in concert. That doesn't mean Gregorian chant should not be performed in concert, but it does not naturally fit to this context.
Q. What makes a good Gregorian chant performance, and what makes it different from the performance of other forms of music in the Western music tradition?
A: Like any other major type of music, Gregorian chant requires basic musical skills. It is a common error to think that because it is liturgical music, it does not need to be carefully executed. Over the past 40 years, the study of old types of musical notation has become essential to achieve a good performance of Gregorian chant. But there are also other aspects of chant, often neglected, that are very important. I'm thinking of the sung text, its accentuation as well as its meaning, the liturgical function of chant and the fact that it is a sung prayer. Those are also elements that may improve chant performance.
The group Psallentes sing the first part of the responsory O beata trinitas, reading from the original manuscript.
Q: What do people who are passionate about Gregorian chant argue about?
A: Today, chant scholars often discuss chant transmission in the Middle Ages. What does "oral tradition" really mean, and how did it work? Scholars are particularly concerned about how to understand old chant notation and the rhythmic aspects of chant: is it measured, or is it based on a free rhythm? Those discussions, among others, are enhanced by a spectacular and almost daily increase of accessibility to medieval chant manuscripts through fine digital images published on the internet. Practitioners are also concerned about today's use of Gregorian chant in liturgy, and the unjustified ostracism Gregorian chant has suffered from some of the supporters of the reform of the Roman liturgy that was introduced some 50 years ago.
Q: Is Gregorian chant alive and well in Canada today? Who are its leading practitioners?
A: Although the situation could be improved, Gregorian chant is alive in Canada today. So far, the Gregorian Institute of Canada has listed over 20 active Gregorian chant choirs throughout the country. Most of them are amateur choirs trying to maintain the practice of Gregorian chant in a liturgical context. There are also a few professional groups, many of them also performing other types of medieval music, such as sacred polyphony. And of course a couple of Benedictine monasteries are still singing chant daily. Finally, one must not forget the fine academic work carried out by renowned Canadian chant scholars, such as Andrew Hughes, Terence Bailey, Bryan Gillingham, Debra Lacoste, Kate Helsen and many others.
The Gregorian Institute of Canada's seventh annual colloquium will be held in Montreal from Aug. 16 to 19 at the Centre de créativité du Gesù. Registration is open to all, and two events are open to the public: a concert of French baroque plainchant on Aug. 17, and a celebration of the mass, sung completely in Latin, on Aug. 19.
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on Aug 13, 2012