Wednesday 29 July 2009

Solesmes some thoughts 1

First of all thanks to TCD (The Choir Director from Brighton) for the photos that I have pinched from facebook.

I have explained before that we had three classes per day, punctuated by Mass and the Offices, so we had plenty of opportunity to hear the chant in practice. Someone asked me yesterday (at Fr Tim's Jubilee,) if we joined in with their singing and we did a bit with the Ordinary at Mass, but nothing else. It would have been to intrude into their community. They make an extraordinarily unified sound and so without being part of their community (and how could I be?) I don't see how you could just pipe up with the Propers.

What I didn't mention was that TCD and I had e mailed to ask if we could attend the course and received a 'yes' and that was that. Everything was very simple, you just showed up. All the monks we had dealings with were charm itself.

Solesmes is a very beautiful village, covered with carefully tended gardens, a monastery and two convents. TCD has already described how quiet it is. We did indeed see only one car when we went out to explore the first evening. Thus our lives for 5 days telescoped into listening to monks chanting psalms and listening to Dom Saulnier expounding on chant, with two trips to the supermarket for food and some eccentric cooking experiences.

I've written before that the history of western music is often described as, 'vague squiggles and then the stave, phew, now we know the pitches, all is clear.' That is not the perspective that we received. Infact it's not one that performing musicians subscribe to. I went to a pre-concert talk at the wigmore Hall in April where two experts in period performance were in conversation with the Professor of Music from Bristol and he looked slightly taken aback when they related how they have studied the score yes, but have also explored what is possible on the instruments of that time and gulp, made a musical decision to play things in a certain way. A piece of music is not its score. One of my lecturers at university said that as you cannot put into notation everything about the music, you have to select what is most important and focus on notating that. Dom Saulnier however also made the point that as we were primarily dealing with an oral tradition, what is notated is maybe for other reasons. Modern musical notation is so bound up with pitch being communicated vertically and the passage of time horizantally that it is hard not to think like that. Much of the pre-stave notation seems to attempt to communicate the ebb and flow of the music.

Since in Catholicism tradition is very important, you wouldn't expect that just reading a book was going to communicate the message. (That would be evangelical Protestantism.) This was the magic of studying in such a place with such a Monk. Most English language histories of music are of course written by non-Catholics and in some cases are anti-Catholic. It's a funny old country, one that smashed its religious culture in the 16thC, but loves the music - how many ex-Oxbridge Choral Scholar choirs do we have specialising in renaissance polyphony and before? Similarly we love Italian art, but white washed our churches and smashed our windows. Consequently, we laugh at monasteries and characterise monks as the likes of Friar Tuck. The historical baggage means that the writers do not believe their sources or relentlessly apply bad motives for the actions of others.

The only thing to do then, flee the country and head for a monastery. Who better to learn about chant from than someone singing it daily? Since so much is missing from the historical record what remains can only usefully and successfully be interpreted by one seeking to live the life, because only such a person stands a chance of filling in the gaps and providing the reasons accurately.


Patricius said...

"A piece of music is not its score"- a thought at once liberating but, to me at any rate, rather scary!
Thanks very much for sharing something of your experience here. It is much appreciated.

leutgeb said...

This is just the start... I have pages of stuff.

It's true for all music. You have to know the style etc by listening and the particular tone quality etc by listening. Everything really. It's all in the ears!

Ches said...

It's all in the ears? I thought I could hear a humming in my ears! But, seriously, it sounds like a real culture shift for modern musicians. I'm happy just to hit the right pitches, but from what you're saying, that's getting things in the wrong order. I always found the principles of artis and tesis a bit abstruse. Looks like I'll have to go back to the drawing board.

leutgeb said...

I just mean that reading notation and playing or singing it is not just reading pitch+rhythm, that notes have to be considered in relation to a musical phrase and phrases to each other and that none of us are musicians in isolation. we have to listen to each other when we are making music together and we have to listen to other people doing music.

The most important points in less ons for me have been when the teacher says, 'Not like that, like THIS!' and plays the passage and then I copy them.

Hitting the right pitches is very important of course, but performances of a piece of music can be very different and we still recognise it as being the same piece.

I didn't ask Dom Saulnier about the effect of the acoustics of a building on how one should sing, but certainly in the Crypt of the Parish Church at Lourdes there was plenty of time to breath between phrases and no need to sing loudly.

He was very pragmatic about the chant and the edition is very much for large Communities hence the episema is somewaht lacking as what is a nuance with a few singers becomes something distorting the text with 50. Just as with chamber music you can be very much more subtle than when playing a tutti in Bruckener, say.

leutgeb said...

PS Sorry about the ringing in the ears. Mine were buzzing on Sun- somthing to do with the Beatles Tribute Band my brother had at his wedding reception!