MA Student writes about Plainchant Accompaniment on Organ
by Fintan Farrelly
In partial fulfilment of the requirements for the Research Methods and Digital Skills module in Maynooth University, I undertook work placement in the Russell Library. In mid-February I began working on a digitisation project that ended prematurely due to the Covid-19 governmental restrictions.
As organist in St. Mel’s Cathedral, Longford, I am interested in the use of the organ for plainchant accompaniment. Three books, in the Special Collections and Archives section of the library, of plainchant with organ accompaniment grabbed my interest. These manuscripts are meticulously transcribed by hand and bear the signature of Heinrich Bewerunge, the founding father of music at Maynooth. These editions would have been sent to Bewerunge in his capacity as editor of ‘Lyra Ecclesiastica’ by the editor/publisher of these chant accompaniments, probably in the hope he might endorse it and help sales!
Heinrich Bewerunge (1862-1923)
In this blog I will endeavour to remain neutral and not make judgments on the many theories that abound about whether or not you should accompany Gregorian chant in the liturgy. The debate has raged for centuries among composers, musicologists and audiences and is still relevant today.
Gregorian chant or plainchant is a single line of unaccompanied melody with a flexible rhythm sung in Latin by male voices. It is of the Roman Catholic Church going back to the 9th and 10th centuries. Named after Pope Gregory 1 (590-604), legend credits him with its invention. Plainchant had its own special notation.
A 13th Century Cistercian gradual from the Abbey of San Stephano at Corno, Lodi, Italy
In the sixteenth century the system of major and minor keys or ‘tonality’ came in vogue. This new innovation adversely affected chant tradition, leading to editions by editors who enforced tonality on the melody and on the rhythm of the chant. Many composers and teachers have written treatises on methods of Gregorian chant accompaniment.
Louis Niedermeyer – founder of the École Niedermeyer (1835)
“For plainchant, we say: Saint Gregory, for sacred music: Palestrina; for the organ: J.S. Bach.”
The French Revolution saw the demolishing of churches throughout France. Despite the re-establishment of Roman Catholicism in 1801, the early decades of the nineteenth century saw many churches and organs in disrepair. Church music was slow to recover, and the standard was poor. The Benedictine order began to work on plainchant reformation at the Solesmes monastery in France in the 1830s. During the second half of the nineteenth century the standard of playing improved and new ideas on plainchant manifested themselves in liturgical composition. The rest of the century was a period of great accomplishment with regard to church music.
Motu Proprio 1903 Motu Proprio Pope Pius X
In 1903, Pope Pius X issued an edict detailing regulation for the performance of music in the Roman Catholic Church. The pontiff criticised ‘the theatrical style that was so much in vogue during the last century’ as not being suitable for liturgical worship. Sacred music must be holy, true art, and universal, qualities best found in Gregorian chant.
The editions published during his reign were more firmly rooted in the ancient modal system than the tonal relations that reigned for three centuries. Modern music was also admitted but there was to be a clear distinction between the sacred and the secular. He entrusted the preparation of the Vatican editions of chant to the monks of Solemnes in France, the ‘mecca’ of chant. These are still the official editions of the Roman Catholic Church, unchanged since their publication. Although the church doesn’t prescribe the singing of Gregorian chant, the Second Vatican Council (1967) restated motu proprio’s earlier assertion that chant is the best music for prayer in its Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.
- Laetare puerpera
Charles-Marie Widor (1844 – 1937)
Laetare Puerpura is a Christmas sequence, the first accompaniment in book 2 harmonised by Charles-Marie Widor. Widor brought the Lemmens methods of teaching and technique into the organ class at the Paris Conservatoire where he was Professor of Organ, 1890-1896. He was critical of motu proprio because he believed that modern music had as much place in the liturgy as chant.
Considered forward looking in his approach, in the above example we see a note-for-note harmonisation with the chant on top, and a change of chord on every single note. The chord changes are abrupt instead of fluid, with too few common tones and little sense of progression. It sounds laboured and repetitious. This example of a pre-Solemnes chant accompaniment contributed to a dislike of chant and would be unthinkable nowadays! It’s certainly a far cry from his most famous Toccata from his organ symphony No. 5, a ‘showstopper’ often played at wedding ceremonies.
- Media Vita
Alexandre Guilmant (1837 – 1911)
Guilmant was an influential figure in the development of the French organ school in the second half of the nineteenth century. He was the best- known organist in the world at that time, setting up his own organ school in New York. His teaching, like Widor, was grounded in the Lemmens method and he succeeded him at the Paris Conservatoire as Professor of Organ, 1896-1911. The chant, Media Vita, was often sung during Lent as a hymn asking God for support in times of need and sometimes even as a curse! Guilmant’s offering still shows for the most part an outdated note-for-note harmonisation with the melody on top. There are some small improvements. Chords on the main notes are held for longer note values, pointing to a slight shift from Widor’s accompaniment.
- homo quidam
Eugène Gigout (1837 – 1911)
Gigout was a teacher of chant before becoming Professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire from 1911-1925. He was organist at La Trinité in Paris for thirty years. Louis Niedermeyer’s method of organ playing had a strong impact on him. He opened his own organ school with emphasis on improvisation and chant accompaniment. An expert in the new method of chant accompaniment, you can see its emergence in homo quidam for the feast of Corpus Christi. It doesn’t contain the outdated note-for-note harmonisation. It is modal and in a broader style. The plainchant melody is not played on top (or at all), and chords are reserved only for the main notes. This type of accompaniment serves as the basis for chant accompaniment today, allowing the plainsong the freedom it needs.
Should plainchant be accompanied on the organ?
It all depends on what side of the chant versus tonality debate you come down on. Some say it shouldn’t because it wasn’t accompanied originally. The act of accompanying means imposing harmony on the melody, two distinct elements destroying one by the other. Most churches have an organ installed, often on a gallery, and it has become accepted practice to have harmonised accompanied plainchant. It supports the singer and, if played well, the organ accompaniment can provide a solid foundation that encourages singing and keeps the congregation in tune and in time. Even the monks at Solesmes sing to organ accompaniment but their recordings are unaccompanied, no doubt to satisfy the critics! Many organists are skillful improvisers, making up their own accompaniment on the spot which is not written down. The three composers I have discussed whose harmonisations are found in the manuscripts were renowned for their improvisations, conjuring up musical magic on themes presented to them and drawing large crowds to hear them. Unaccompanied chant or chant accompanied on organ? Both are beautiful. Listen to these two short samples and you can decide for yourself.
Example 1 unaccompanied plainchant:
Example 2 unaccompanied plainchant:
For centuries church musicians have grappled with the issue of defining appropriate church music and it continues today. In nineteenth-century France the criticism revolved around the overlapping of sacred and secular allusions with jigs and excerpts from operas often included in the liturgy. There is no doubting the allure plainchant, composed by anonymous monks long before chords and harmonies were known, has today. Why else have composers for at least 500 years felt the need to incorporate these ancient melodies into their organ compositions and other media?
Towards the end of the twentieth century, plainchant came back into vogue as music for meditation. Reluctant monks in secluded monasteries singing chant as part of daily worship ignited a chant ‘mania’ which catapulted them to international recording stardom featuring on Billboard charts, nestled among the likes of Sinéad O’Connor and Aerosmith. As the French composer and organist, Saint Saëns, famously once said:
‘There is good music and there is bad music; for the rest, it is a matter of fashion, of convention, and nothing else.’
I wish to thank the staff of the Russell Library’s Special Collections and Archives: Barbara McCormack, Librarian, Susan Durack, Senior Library Assistant and Audrey Kinch, Library Assistant, for their courtesy and help in allowing me to access these rare manuscripts. I would also like to extend my gratitude to Hugh Murphy, Head of Collections & Content, for uploading this blog on the library’s website, to Professor Lorraine Byrne Bodley and to Stephanie Ford from Maynooth University who facilitated and organised the work placement.
Links to the digitised Gregorian Chant Accompaniments