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Marcel Pérès and Saint Louis IX: Royal French chants for a Royal French saint


Image: Marcel Pérès and the Cantores Sancti Ludovici singing for Mass in February 2023


August 25th is internationally observed as the Feast of Saint Louis IX, the French king who died on this date in the year 1270. The day is of deep significance to Catholics who live in Saint Louis, Missouri, where their city's namesake is celebrated as a solemnity. A few years ago, a small group of Catholic devotees decided to inaugurate a yearly festival in honor of the legendary saint. The festival culminates in a two mile walking procession up to the statue of Saint Louis on Art Hill.


Image: statue of King Louis IX on Art Hill, Saint Louis, Missouri, USA ~ Credit- Fredlyfish4/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)


This year’s festival was particularly noteworthy, with well known personalities in attendance: Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Gregory DiPippo, and Early Music legend Marcel Pérès. Students of the International Chant Academy know Pérès from his solemn tone Salve Regina, which was recorded by his group, Ensemble Organum. Ensemble Organum specializes in the singing of pre- and para-Gregorian chant, and has recorded nearly fifty albums since its inception in 1982.



This year’s Saint Louis celebration began the previous evening, with First Vespers for the Feast of Saint Louis. Pérès led conference participants (both men and women) in singing proper antiphons according to the rhythmic modes of Notre Dame, traditional French fauxbourdon (psalmody in three to four voice parts), and a healthy sprinkling of vocal ornaments. The following day’s festivities began bright and early. At 5:00 am, he led the Cantores Sancti Ludovici and conference participants in singing the Divine Office in Latin: Matins and Lauds, followed by Prime, Terce and solemn high Mass.


Image: preparing the church for Matins, taken by James Griffin


During the two mile afternoon procession, the coronation chants for Louis IX, King of France were triumphantly sung from facsimiles of the original manuscripts — in 102 degree Fahrenheit heat!!!


Image: Pérès and the schola at conclusion of procession to the statue on the Feast of Saint Louis, 8.25.23


This is the second time Pérès has visited Saint Louis, Missouri. In February this year, at the invitation of the Cantores Sancti Ludovici, the Frenchman gave his very first conference in the USA. Armed with nothing but a stack of photocopies of chant manuscripts and several tuning forks of various calibrations, the musicologist immersed participants in pieces of the past largely forgotten or unknown: Dominican chant, Old Roman chant, and the so-called “decadent” chants of the 13th - 16th centuries.


Sometimes called “Pérès - ian” chant (due to Pérès’ monumental contributions to the field in both scholarship and performance), such styles of singing chant are remarkably distinct from the popular “Solesmes Method” (now sometimes called the “Old Solesmes Method”). Pérèsian chant is marked by improvisation, rhythmic nuances, harmonies, lively vocal ornaments, quarter tones, and a raw, masculine sound.


Due to the great influence of Solesmes on Gregorian chant around the globe, it is worth taking a moment to unpack this critical distinction between the approaches of Solesmes and Pérès.


Creating a Catholic aesthetic in a post-war world

"Solesmes" chant is named after the Benedictine monastery in France where the method originated. The musical work of Solesmes is to restore Gregorian chant to its original melodies and a simpler style of singing, free from the corruptions of phrasing, melody, and rhythm which are said to have led to its decline (see the abbey website). Pérès describes the Solesmes approach as two bookends of a much larger study: 1) the modern Solesmes Method, which was developed in the 1920’s, and 2) Semiology, or the study of the very first musical notation (staffless neumes, inscribed prior to the invention of square notes).


The great influence of the Solesmes approach in today’s liturgical world is better understood when surveying the political factors around the time it was conceived. The period after the French Revolution was a time of intense disruption. Institutions reminiscent of the overthrown French monarchy were vehemently repressed, and a unified sense of Catholic identity all but disappeared. The music of the 18th century, and its chants, were regarded as expressions of the old social state.


In order to establish a Catholic aesthetic in a post-war world, Dom Guéranger (1805-1875) undertook the creation of something very new from something very old. He founded a community of Benedictines at the abandoned priory at Solesmes, with the intention of restoring the Benedictine way of life and the French liturgy. Among the many tasks of the abbey was the tremendous work of examining and comparing countless ancient chant manuscripts. Dom Mocquereau (1849-1930) continued the work of Solesmes in crafting the new Solesmes Method of singing and conducting chant (a method influenced by the bowing technique used while playing his cello).


In short, Gregorian chant was completely rebuilt to suit the average singer:

  • Ornaments were removed

  • Latin syllables were made all equal in length

  • One new style of chant was taught, the Solesmes Method

  • A universal volume of chant, the Liber Usualis, was printed and disseminated

This new aesthetic was later exaggerated with the elevation of pitch as well (as much as a fifth higher!).

The paradigm of one unified style of chant took such a hold that to this day, the Solesmes Method is still championed in many circles as the purest, most authentic expression of chant.


A Forgotten Patrimony

The work of Solesmes did not come from a desire to preserve a patrimony. Between the two bookends of Semiology and the Solesmes Method, there exists nearly a millennium of chant which has undergone what Pérès calls an “idolatry of amnesia”. Localized singing traditions went practically extinct with the passing of the elders who otherwise would have taught them to the next generation. Pérès devotes himself to the preservation of this forgotten music and its way of life.


To understand chant, Pérès says, one must enter into the ancient mind. The use of memory was highly developed. The medieval intellect was not hampered by today's constant distractions of electronics, nor dependent upon instant communications and reminders. Rather, it was deeply rooted in the present moment: this space, this time of day, this season, this sound, this experience. Texts were first memorized by cantors, and then sung according to improvised melodies. Once musical notation was invented, books still represented just one aspect of the deeper reality. Neumes (notated musical phrases), for instance, could include optional melismas according to fixed, memorized formulae. The use of ornaments was dictated by the text, the mode, and even the acoustic.


Pérès respects chant as a living tradition. There is a “cantus obscurior” (rhythm within the word), about to give birth. To move past the conflicts in the chant world, he says we must go back to the original meaning of the word “sing”. To sing in the ancient world was to remember; a singer was a keeper of the memory. When we discover more ancient forms of chant, we find common ground with the peoples of the past, and with other rites.


Perhaps his approach is best summed up by participants from his last conference when they say, "Pérès teaches us how to be more human.”


Above: Pérès demonstrates improvised organum to conference participants while they sing the chant melody from notation

 

The mission of the International Chant Academy is to keep the beauty and meaningfulness of Gregorian Chant and Early Sacred Music alive and relevant. We foster understanding of these art forms, and teach the musical and vocal skills necessary to excellent performance.


 

Image L to R: ICA co-founder Michael Rocchio, Marcel Pérès, and ICA co-founder Angela Rocchio, taken during February 2023 Saint Louis conference





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