For anyone, like me, who researches Gregorian chant, the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Pierre is a place of legend. I have been on two summer research trips/pilgrimages to the little town of Solesmes, where the Abbey is located. I stayed in the guesthouse, where the monks regularly welcome visitors, and in the great tradition of Benedictine hospitality, I ate with the monks, was given manual labor to complete in the garden, and attended the Mass and Divine Office. (In his Regula—the Rule, a sort of instruction book for how monks should live—St. Benedict instructed that a visitor is to be welcomed as if he were Jesus himself. The monks take this quite literally, and before a visitor's first meal in the monastery, the abbot or prior greets him and washes his hands, one of the most humbling experiences in my life.) Solesmes is one of the few monasteries anywhere in the world, where the almost complete, traditional series of Gregorian chants is still chanted in Latin. As someone who works on that music in its medieval form, it is about the closest I have ever come to seeing my research actually come to life.
One of the terrible effects of the 1789 Revolution in France was that the glorious tradition of French monastic life was decapitated, along with the members of the royal family. Two hundred years ago this year was born the monk who had the crazy dream to restore monastic life to France. He took the Benedictine habit as Dom Prosper Guéranger (1805–1875), and in 1833 he brought monks back to the little monastery in Solesmes, which is now the mother house of the French Benedictines, overseeing 32 dependent houses on three different continents. An article (Solesmes, la splendeur de l'humilité, April 9) by Hervé de Saint Hilaire for Le Figaro provides an account of the celebrations at Solesmes (my translation and with links added):
The occasion brought together all the abbots and abbesses of the 32 monasteries of the Solesmes Congregation, from Lithuania to the Caribbean. [...] Looking at the superiors of these monasteries, you understand better the word catholic, meaning universal. Here is Fr. Ange-Marie Niouki, the congregation's first African abbot, at Keur Moussa in Senegal, who speaks of the Gregorian liturgy and Latin as something very popular with the faithful: "We have protected a love of beauty and seriousness, so perhaps the colors here are a little more shimmering and the spirit, how shall I put it, more extroverted." Here is Fr. Abbot Jean-Paul Longeat, who watches over Ligugé, a monastery beloved of Bloy, Huysmans, Rouault, and Claudel. Here is the luminous Mother Abbess of Sainte-Marie-des-Deux-Montagnes in Canada, who willingly invites me to make a retreat in her abbey, even and especially during the harsh Québec winter "when it is particularly beautiful." They have all come to give homage to Dom Guéranger, whom they honor for his fervor, thought, actions, and charity, and whose beatification is under consideration.When I went to Solesmes, I took the train from Paris to Le Mans, where you change to go to the small and pretty town called Sablé-sur-Sarthe, where Dom Guéranger was born. From there, you can take a taxi to the village of Solesmes. Both times, however, I walked along the Sarthe River to Solesmes, a distance of about 5 km. The Abbey, built up into an incredible complex of beautiful buildings from what Dom Guéranger knew only as a simple and almost ruined priory, rises up above the Sarthe like a celestial vision. From here, Dom Guéranger established a strict Benedictine rule as the first abbot of Solesmes, writing on theology and helping to formulate the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, and also bringing back the Benedictine tradition of Gregorian chant, which had all but disappeared.
His work and his followers were so well known that the Vatican charged Solesmes with the task of compiling modern editions of Gregorian chant for the worldwide church. The monks began their monumental labor of gathering photographs of chant manuscripts from around Europe, comparing their contents, and distilling this enormous body of melodies from thousands of sources into something that all of us could sing. What the Vatican choir sang at the funeral of Pope John Paul II, the propers of the Requiem Mass with some interesting polyphonic pieces thrown in), were chanted from editions made by the monks of Solesmes. The chant albums that were so popular several years ago, played to my great astonishment even in dance clubs with techno beats behind them, were made in the 1970s by the monastic choir at Silos, a daughter house of Solesmes in Spain. The article ends with some quotes from the choir director at Solesmes, Fr. Yves-Marie Lelièvre, who defends the tradition of beautiful singing at Solesmes.
"Where does it say that beauty is the enemy of the scriptures? It encourages piety. Beauty elevates and shapes the soul." Fr. Yves-Marie is a serene and enthusiastic man, also funny. Are you appreciating this beautiful April day? He smiles and refers you to a song he really likes: Frank Sinatra's April in Paris!He plays viola and piano, was a prize-winning student at conservatory, and now also is responsible for the monastery's laundry. Ora et labora!