Restoration of Gregorian Chant: Solesmes and the Vatican Edition

Restoration of Gregorian Chant: Solesmes and the Vatican Edition

by Dom Pierre Combe

Gregorian chant, the Catholic Church's very own music, is proper to the Roman liturgy, but during the course of its long history it has experienced periods of ascendancy and decline. A century ago, Pope Pius X called for a restoration of the sacred melodies, and the result was the Vatican Edition. This book presents for the first time in English the fully documented…  See more details below


Gregorian chant, the Catholic Church's very own music, is proper to the Roman liturgy, but during the course of its long history it has experienced periods of ascendancy and decline. A century ago, Pope Pius X called for a restoration of the sacred melodies, and the result was the Vatican Edition. This book presents for the first time in English the fully documented history of the Gregorian chant restoration. The original French edition was published by the Abbey of Solesmes in 1969.

This book describes in careful, vivid detail the strenuous efforts of personalities like Dom Joseph Pothier, Dom Andre Mocquereau, Fr. Angelo de Santi, and Peter Wagner to carry out the wishes of the pope. The attentive reader will not fail to note that many of the questions so fervidly debated long ago are still current and topical today. Robert A. Skeris's new introduction to this edition illuminates the current discussion with documentation including the Preface to the Vatican Gradual and the "Last Will and Testament" written by Dom Eugene Cardine.

"The Restoration of Gregorian Chant is a multicultural icon . . . a historical exploration laden with intrigues, opinions, Episcopal approvals, memorandums, circulars, Congresses, verbatims, Vatican Commissions, copyrights, and Pontifical documents. Dom Combe's compelling sense of purpose is an incredible window of reason and energy, an oeuvre that clearly resonates the immortal Gregorian Chant."—Peter J. Basch, American Organist

"An engrossing story—replete with documentation but hardly without controversy and intrigue—of how the modern chant books came to be produced. It is essential to understanding the versions of chant we singtoday."—William Mahrt, Stanford University

Read More

Product Details

Catholic Univ.of America Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Restoration of Gregorian Chant

Solesmes and the Vatican Edition
By Dom Pierre Combe

The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 2003 The Catholic University of America Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-1548-8

Chapter One


I. New Documents

More than a hundred years have passed since a young monk methodically began studying the elements of Gregorian chant and copying old manuscripts, by order of Dom Guéranger. In his book entitled L'École Grégorienne de Solesmes, Msgr. Rousseau established 1856 as the year when the very first work on Gregorian chant research was undertaken at the Abbey. This is indeed the date confirmed by the few, but valuable, authoritative testimonies that have hitherto been assembled. It will be instructive to focus on these early stages of the Gregorian restoration at Solesmes in order to ascertain the main stages of its development and to establish a few dates with certainty. The discovery of very important letters from Father Gontier, of Le Mans, Dom Guéranger's friend, and other letters from Dom Jausions and Dom Pothier, allow us to add some detailed information about this subject, and place the role of Dom Guéranger, Abbot of Solesmes, in a clearer light.

2. Dom Guéranger's Principles

Comparing the manuscripts

It has become common practice to credit Dom Guéranger with the Gregorian restoration, and nothing could be more appropriate, as we shall see. Did not, in fact, the restoration of the liturgy presume a parallel restoration of liturgical chant? In the first volume of his Institutions Liturgiques, Guéranger defined the liturgy as the "full array of symbols, of chants, and of actions through which the Church expresses her faith in God." He considered that nothing would have been accomplished toward the restoration of the liturgy until the chant was "restored to its ancient traditions." In this first volume, i.e. as early as 1840, as a first step, he posed the principle of a genuine return to the purity of the Gregorian melodies. He wrote: "Clearly we can be quite sure sometimes that—in a particular composition—we have discovered the pure Gregorian phrase when manuscripts from several remotely separated Churches agree on the same reading." In this regard, he also noted that the Fathers of Citeaux, by their own admission, "had reconstructed the Antiphonal of Metz more according to theoretical assumptions than through an examination of manuscripts from various churches" (p. 306). Apologies would be due for quoting Dom Guéranger's oft-cited remark were it not so significant. Besides, insufficient attention has been given to that fact that Dom Guéranger wrote at a time when the study of Gregorian chant was still in its early stages. Until then, only Fetis, a well-known musicologist, had called attention to the notation in campo aperto, or staffless neumes, in various articles published after 1808, but he did not offer any explanation of their meaning, nor did he see any evidence of a tradition in them. Moreover, this passage from Dom Guéranger has been the basis for all the research on Gregorian chant done at Solesmes for a hundred years.

The testimony of the staffless neume manuscripts

Soon thereafter, Dom Guéranger returned to the question, with regard to Cistercian chant, in an article in L'Univers dated November 23, 1843. His comments clarify his thinking on the need for a true restoration of the Gregorian melody. In it we read:

... Among the various editions of notated books designated for Roman usage, from the twelfth-century manuscripts to those printed in the nineteenth century, which most clearly reflects the original reading of St. Gregory? This is one of the most important questions in liturgical archaeology, and to answer it satisfactorily, something more is needed than the discovery of the Gradual and the Antiphonal of Clairvaux in a sacristy at Bar-sur-Aube. This is true first because our encounter with these books is just a discovery—no more, no less. The chant readings at the Abbey of Clairvaux were no different from those at Citeaux. Indeed many more books from Citeaux, both manuscripts and published texts, are still extant. Secondly, these books themselves represent the phrasing of Gregorian chant only from the twelfth century on, thus shedding no light on the true content of Gregorian chant as we can study it in manuscripts using notation that predates the method of Guido d'Arezzo, a notation that has not yet been deciphered. I am well aware of what can be said in favor of the reading of Citeaux. Yet therein lies a wealth of unresolved questions, not one of which is even dreamt of by the Gregorian chant dilettanti who clutter the public press with panegyrics for a chant of which they may not have heard even a single phrase.

These few sentences are obviously quite significant. Dom Guéranger was well aware from the start of the problems raised by the Gregorian restoration. Above all, he advocated a return to the earliest manuscripts, which were no longer readable and which some long continued to view as useless. Following Fétis, scholars such as Danjou, Lambillotte, Nisard, and Coussemaker tried their hand at deciphering these ancient manuscripts, with greater or lesser degrees of success, but their secrets were ultimately to be uncovered by two of Dom Guéranger's students.

About 1846, it occurred to Fétis to bring out a chant edition based only on a single manuscript. When consulted about this project, the Abbot of Solesmes reaffirmed the principle of the necessity of comparing the manuscripts of various churches in order to rediscover the earliest reading. Moreover, Dom Guéranger's response is interesting in other respects as well, and we will quote from it at some length. The Abbot of Solesmes shows that he was an informed critic and a good judge of the value of the editions then available. He is harsh especially on the Roman editions, but it is well known that they warranted that kind of criticism.

Dom Guéranger wrote:

I regard the publication of Mr. Fétis' Roman books as both an advantage and a disadvantage.

They are a disadvantage, first, because this edition will do nothing to supersede the other divergent editions, and secondly because Mr. Fétis' readings are always necessarily subjective and lack absolute authenticity, since his reading represents only one of the readings that he found in the manuscripts, which are not always in agreement with each other.

His books are an advantage, because Mr. Fétis has studied Gregorian chant sources more than anyone else in the world and because his work, whatever it may be, necessarily carries great authority. He works in the manner of an editor of classical texts, as one who chooses a reading from among variants. The more texts he has seen, provided that he is a man of discernment, the more weight can be given to his edition, yet the final reading fails to be completely reassuring.

Basically, I prefer his edition a thousand times over those of the Roman books. I did not mention this unfortunate situation in the Institutions, because at the time, I did not have the sources. At the end of the sixteenth century, the Gregorian chants were corrupted at Rome in the process of shortening them. Strangely enough, the Roman chant books used here in France, despite their many alterations and faults, reflect a thousand times better the readings of the ancient manuscripts than do the books used in Rome, in Italy, and throughout practically the whole world. These unreliable Roman editions of the sixteenth century are found everywhere except in France.

There is no need for additional quotations. These suffice to show Dom Guéranger's rationale, from the very first years of his liturgical work. In fact, each time the occasion warranted, the Abbot of Solesmes touched upon the Gregorian question. Not only did he underscore the contemplative and artistic value of the chant in a romantic way, in keeping with the style of his era, but he also traced its development and transformation down through the centuries. Here, for example, is how he assailed the melodies that were associated with the new liturgies of the seventeenth century:

New texts called for a new chant.... That task was addressed and a host of compositions was born, masterpieces of boredom, incompetence, and bad taste.... Father Lebceuf, a learned compiler, was asked to notate the Paris Antiphonal and Gradual. After spending ten years placing notes on lines and lines beneath the notes, he presented to the clergy of Paris a compositional monstrosity, almost all of whose compositions are as tiring to perform as they are to hear. God wanted to make it understood in this way that there are some things that simply should not be imitated, because they should never be changed.

Dom Guéranger reforms the chant at Solesmes.

Everyone knows that the poor editions were deplorable, as was the widespread custom of beating time in order to give the chant some sort of measure that would make it seem more like "music". The Abbot of Solesmes did not hesitate to see "the work of the devil" in this heavily accented, measured chant, which deprived liturgical prayer of all religious character. He judged the return to the authentic interpretation of the Gregorian melodies as important as the return to the original melody. He even said, and rightly so, that it will serve nothing to have good editions of the chant if this bad habit is not corrected, and that he would rather make use of a faulty edition, but interpreted according to the traditional rules. From the outset, moreover, in his monastery where poor editions were nonetheless used, Dom Guéranger managed to give the Gregorian melodies an accent, a rhythm of which the great majority seemed ignorant. He thus transformed every aspect of the liturgical chant thanks to a relaxed and natural pace, which restored its artistic beauty and value as prayer. This style of chant, basically the free rhythm of prose speech, elated Gontier. It was, in fact, a real revolution, for the true rhythm of the liturgical chant was universally misunderstood at the time, and seemed irrevocably lost. Another witness said, "Dom Guéranger brought to the liturgical functions a warmth and enthusiasm that radiated forth in his sung prayer, with perfect diction and a very supple voice." It is well known that he saw to it that his sons brought the greatest care to the preparation of the chant for the Divine Offices.

From the outset, Dom Guéranger's intent was to restore Gregorian chant so that it might become once again the sung prayer of the Church, and in order to do this, to return to the sources, the most ancient chant manuscripts, and by comparing them, to rediscover the authentic melodies, and to rediscover likewise their traditional interpretation. Although this intent was not set forth in the works dealing with Gregorian chant ex professo, it was nonetheless succinctly and accurately expressed, and showed the way for all future work. In addition, this intent was already being tested in the chant sung at the Abbey headed by Dom Guéranger, who was to set in motion the movement to restore the Gregorian melodies. In fact, the daily use of liturgical chant enabled Dom Guéranger to perceive its beauty, to understand its true interpretation and its authentic content.

With such clear concepts as a basis for the true restoration of Gregorian chant, why did Dom Guéranger not apply himself to the task of reforming the chant books? Doubtless, he was waiting to have available to him men who were musically and scientifically competent, since it was a matter of undertaking a work that required both talent and a wide range of knowledge. Dom Fonteinne, Dom Guéranger's precentor, showed considerable musical talent, for he left some beautiful Gregorian compositions that continue to be sung. These have been included in the monastic Antiphonal and even in the Vatican Gradual, such as his Stabat mater. However, doubtless his material concerns—he was cellarer (i.e. steward) of the monastery—did not permit him to apply himself to a task that required a great deal of time. Possibly, too, he was not attracted to this type of study.

3. The Chant Books of the Old Solesmes

It is quite relevant to ask what chant books were in use at Solesmes at that time. Dom David pointed out that in the beginning there were no common books, and that various editions were used. They had to get along the best they could with what was available. But this situation lasted only a short while, because a note from Dom Guéranger indicates clearly that, as early as 1833, he bargained for the purchase of choir books (four Graduals, four Antiphonals, eight Processionals) recently published in Dijon and modeled after the Roman edition of Valfré. These books, published in 1827 and 1828, were far from presenting the liturgical chant in all its purity, but Dom Guéranger regarded them, in good conscience it seemed to him, as the "least offensive." Because Solesmes followed the Roman rite at that time, these books could suffice, very likely with some manuscript supplements for the responsorial and for feasts of the Order which were celebrated according to the monastic rite starting in 1840.

In 1846, however, the problem of books became critical at Solesmes, where at last the complete monastic rite could be adopted. "The scarcity of old breviaries," writes Dom Delatte, "had prevented the adoption of the full monastic rite." Since the Benedictine nuns at the Calvaire in Angers had collected a sufficient number of copies for the Abbey of Solesmes, it was on the feast of Christmas 1846 that the psalter and office, which Paul V had established in 1612 for the religious of St. Benedict, were used once again. Nevertheless, the Dijon books were still kept, doubtless for financial reasons, but also because good editions of monastic chant did not exist, and it seems that Dom Guéranger was already dreaming of making his own edition. This explains why he did not adopt the 1851 Gradual of Rheims and Cambrai. Though this publication marked notable progress over previous editions, it did not entirely satisfy him. Corrected on the basis of a priori and false principles, this edition did not present the traditional grouping of the notes. Instead, it perpetuated the arrangement of the notes as an irregular succession of longs and shorts, all of which rendered the edition even more deficient, from the rhythmic point of view.

Since the Benedictine order followed the Roman missal for the Mass, this Gradual did not pose any great practical problem. It was quite another matter with the Antiphonal, because the structure of the monastic Office differs from that of the Roman Office; the distribution of the Psalter is yet another matter. Nevertheless, the monks were content to correct the Roman Antiphonal of Dijon, and to supplement it with manuscript inserts, as can be seen from the copies in the Abbey's library.

Starting in 1846, the year in which the monastic rite was adopted, Dom Guéranger set to work preparing the Proper for his monastery. Dom Delatte wrote: "On March 23, 1852, he addressed a request to Pope Pius IX to obtain his approval. This was granted in 1856, on the occasion of a voyage to Rome." The Proper cycle, the chant for which was composed by Dom Fonteinne, a few ancient and very beautiful compositions excepted, was first sung on June 2, 1856, the feast of St. Pothin.

Even for this Proper, the monks felt that they had to be satisfied with improvised solutions. At first, manuscript booklets were used. Later, duplicated notebooks were used in which all the supplements needed for chanting the monastic Office were included: Invitatories, Hymns, Responses, Graduals, and Processional Antiphons. It may be said that this Supplementum ad Graduale et Antiphonarium was Solesmes' first publication. The musical text was written in large whole notes (the manuscript notebooks still used diamond-shaped notes) and included some beautiful compositions by Dom Fonteinne.


Excerpted from The Restoration of Gregorian Chant by Dom Pierre Combe Copyright © 2003 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More

Meet the Author

Dom Pierre Combe, O.S.B., (1913-1993) was a monk and archivist at the Abbey of Solesmes. +Theodore Marier, world-renowned scholar and composer, was Justine Bayard Ward Professor and Director of the Center for Ward Studies at the Catholic University of America. William Skinner, a former student of Dr. Marier's, is a professional translator and interpreter.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >