by Peter Funk
The Benedictine monks of Norcia have enjoyed a surprising amount of commercial success with their recent debut CD, Benedicta. It pleases me personally to see a collection of chant receiving widespread attention. The exposure is well-deserved. The young community is blessed with a number of lovely voices, and their intonation and ensemble singing is nearly flawless. The opening sequence, “Ave Maria…virgo serena,” is a perfect selection for luring the listener in. Their interpretation is musical, flowing, energetic. The brothers do an impressive job of staggering their breathing so as to produce a stream of unbroken sound for long passages. At various points, we are reminded, in a good way, that the monks are not professional singers by the presence of short capitula, the brief readings for the Divine Office that here are chanted by diverse brothers. The varying qualities of their voices lend a feeling of authenticity to the experience, without in any way diminishing the overall quality.
A small digression might be helpful here to make possible a closer look at the significance of this recording. First of all, the act of listening to chant recordings differs from listening to other styles of music. A symphony is normally composed with a rapt audience in mind. Hearing the same symphony in a concert hall or through a stereo is an analogous experience. In both cases, the listener attends to and appreciates the aesthetic and narrative qualities of the musical composition and its execution. Chant was not composed with the distance between performer and listener in mind, nor with the idea that a listener would simply attend to the musical execution. Chant is meant to be experienced within the liturgy. This makes listening to chant in a recording a very different experience from hearing it, or even participating in it, in the liturgical milieu that provides the chant its fullest meaning.
Acknowledging this helps in assessing some important decisions made by the Norcia monks. The selection of chants based on a particular liturgical theme is not at all unprecedented. However, such a procedure can distance the chants from their particular, proper liturgical setting and thus from the particular theological meaning. In the liner notes, Father Prior Cassian Folsom, O.S.B. states that they carefully chose “pieces that are less common, in order to offer our listeners something special, something unique.” So the CD is aimed primarily at “listeners” rather than “pray-ers,” though the CD is also billed as an “experience of prayer.” My difficulty with this billing is that the theological meanings conveyed by the Divine Office and Mass depend very much on the context in which the chants are presented by the Church’s tradition, and the arrangement of these chants tends to obscure this context.
The monks wisely play to their strengths in the choice of repertoire. In these days of the internet, I suppose that (again from the liner notes) “many recordings of Marian chants” are available. But I suspect that relatively few people have had the opportunity to track them down. So the absence, on this CD, of any of the chants from the Mass feels like a glaring omission to me even if it was a conscious choice to avoid repeating someone else’s work. The chants that are chosen are, for the most part, easier than Mass propers. The monks probably made a good artistic choice in avoiding the trickier Introits and Offertories and focusing on simpler forms like antiphons and strophic hymns. As a result, Benedicta offers, in abundance, the soothing aesthetic experience that the popular chant audience associates with the form.
For someone like myself, who spends hours each day performing Gregorian chant at the liturgy, the lack of context is a bit of a problem. An example: I was pleased to hear the antiphon “Rubum quem viderat” performed here. Traditionally, this was the third antiphon for the Octave of Christmas (the booklet lists it as a 12th century antiphon, though I believe that it appears in manuscripts dated to the 11th century, and is almost certainly much older), and survives in the contemporary Antiphonale Monasticum in Lauds for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. This happens to be one of a set of five particularly interesting antiphons, unusually dense in allegorical imagery. Why not sing all five antiphons, to offer just a bit more context for the particular theology of Our Lady’s role in the mystery of the Incarnation?
The inattention to context accords with another, perhaps pedantic, comment I would offer. The monks have chosen to interpret the chant musically according to the (late nineteenth-century) Solesmes method. I have no problem with this choice as such; each community must decide for itself what best suits the level of expertise of its members and the medium that seems best for its own prayer. This method, based on a fairly strict equal rhythmic value for single notes, often contributes to an assured, warm vocal production and an admirable ensemble sound.
That said, at this point in time, there is something anachronistic and somewhat arbitrary about using the Solesmes method, especially for a highly publicized release such as Benedicta. It freezes chant interpretation in a time when chant recovery was still in its earliest stages. This has the effect of rendering canonical some of the more questionable editorial practices of the monks who undertook the otherwise admirable task of compiling and publishing chants that had largely fallen out of the repertoire from the Renaissance until the nineteenth century. Scholarship has come a long way since then.
In fact, more recent scholarship (dating back to the 1950’s), which is based on earlier manuscripts and a much more sophisticated understanding of the earliest notation of chant, is precisely in the service of a greater integration of text and music. The Solesmes method achieves a relaxed unified sound at the expense of attentiveness to word accents and Latin syntax. It also risks being a bit dull. More current methods make interpretation somewhat riskier and more complex—at least at first. I judge the intellectual and spiritual rewards, however, to be greater. The newer approaches demonstrate how the musical setting is already an interpretation of the text itself, and thus help to integrate the emotional, aesthetic, and conceptual aspects of chant.
Evaluated on its own terms, Benedicta is a marvelous success. I suspect that this is the angle most reviewers will take. If I’ve opted to listen to the CD against the larger backdrop of the liturgy, theology and modern scholarship it is because I’ve come to see this context as essential to the deepest meaning of the “inestimable treasure” of chant. A marketing success such as the monks of Norcia have had definitely broadens the reach of this beautiful and musical manner of prayer. For that, I am grateful that the brothers took such loving care to produce a worthy recording. From another standpoint, the monk and musician in me considers it an opportunity missed.
Benedicta, from the Benedictines of Norcia, is available for purchase here.
Coming soon to Pray Tell: Fr. Peter will review the chant CD “Mary and Her Son” of the Gregorian Chant Schola of Saint John’s Abbey and University.
Fr. Peter Funk, OSB, is the conventual prior of the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Chicago. Before ordination he obtained degrees in music and Scripture from the University of Chicago and St. John’s Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota. He has composed four settings of the Mass and other liturgical music, and has been a presenter on Gregorian Chant for the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. In 2012, he and fellow Chicagoan Kevin Allen together founded Schola Laudis, a 20-voice choir dedicated to the performance of Renaissance masterworks in their proper liturgical setting.