Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Messiaen on Gregorian Chant

O. Messiaen writes on Liturgical Music:

...Only plainsong possesses all at once the purity, the joy, the lightness necessary for the soul’s flight toward Truth. Unfortunately – with the exception of some monks in the monasteries, some great theoreticians like Dom Mocquereau, and some professional musicians who still know how to read it—plainsong is not well known. It is not well known mainly because it is not sung well. And the first mistake committed by our immediate ancestors was its harmonization. Plainsong was written in an epoch where the obstruction of conventional chords, of complexes of sounds, and even of simple instrumental support were unknown. It must then be sung without any accompaniment. It must also be sung by all voices: men’s, women’s, children’s. Finally, it must be sung with an appreciation and respect of the neumes. Music history texts speak much of the modes of plainsong: the Dorian mode, Phrygian mode, Lydian, Mixolydian—and it is certain that each of these modes has a particular poetry and color. But this is only a matter of form. The marvelous thing about plainsong is its neumes.

The neumes are melodic formulae, analogous to the auxiliaries, appoggiaturas, passing-tones described in harmony treatises—but are much more complex.

They are also found in the songs of birds: the Garden Warbler, the Black-Cap, the Song-Thrush, the Field Lark, the Robin, all sing neumes. And the admirable quality of the neume is the rhythmic suppleness which it engenders. This rhythmic suppleness which comes to us from the Anaklasis of Ionic verse (Greek meter), from the Candrakalâ and its addition of dots (deci-tâlas of ancient India), and that Chopin had tried to rediscover in his rubato, is here expressed in several fashions: by the mingling of binary and ternary, by groups of unequal duration, by the strong and doubled values of the Pressus, by the soft and doubled values of the Oriscus, by the joyous carillon of the Distropha and Tristropha, by the extraordinary slowing which precedes the Quilisma. All of this brings about extremely delicate variations of rhythm and tempo. The invisible advances with light steps, which do not touch the grass, and do not bend the flowers, like those of the resurrected by Fra Angelico….

Let us add that this delicacy of plainsong may only be manifest in quickness and joy. If plainsong is sung with appropriate liveliness and rapidity, it will be so loved that it will no longer by passed by.

A final difficulty is that of Latin. Plainsong is built upon magnificent Latin texts: it is impossible to separate them! I do not think that this should worry those who maintain the language of their native county. One may very well recite the “Eucharistic Prayer” in French (or any other vernacular language) without depriving oneself of some magnificent pieces of plainsong which last no longer than a minute or two, or even half a minute. When will we once again have the joy of hearing the Tristopha of the marvelous Offertory of Epiphany, “Reges Tharsis”, the Salicus and Torculus of the Alleluia for Easter, “Pascha Nostrum”, and the extraordinary sequence for the Festival of the Holy Sacrament, “Lauda Sion”?

The reference to birds is a reminder that the pipe organ is representative of 'all creatures of Earth' in song to God, not a 'whorehouse' instrument as envisioned by (who else?) Rembert Weakland, OSB.

HT: MusicaSacra

No comments: