Chant: Music for the Soul
Q & A with Father Jerome F. Weber, early music expert and Fanfare critic:
What is the Cistercian order? It was founded at Citeaux (the adjective Cistercian comes from the Latin form of this name) in Burgundy in 1098 to make monastic life more like the original Benedictine ideal, more simple and austere than Benedictine monasteries were observing at that time, more than 500 years after the Rule of St. Benedict was first observed. Their habit would be plain, their food simple, their liturgical prayer shorter in order to be balanced by manual labor, and even their churches would be undecorated. Their life would be purely contemplative, not distracted by serving parishes or schools. The three founders were St. Robert, St. Alberic and St. Stephen Harding, who were the first three abbots of Citeaux. The most famous Cistercian monk of the Middle Ages was St. Bernard, who in 1115 became abbot of Clairvaux in Burgundy, the third Cistercian monastery.
What is Cistercian chant? As part of the simplification of their liturgy, the Cistercians reformed the Gregorian chant by 1190. This was the earliest of many subsequent efforts to restore chant to an earlier form. Norbertines and Dominicans adopted chant editions similar to these. The melodies were sometimes altered, the more elaborate melismas were shortened, and in the process the final note was sometimes changed. Since the final note identifies the mode of a chant, this seemed to have the effect of altering the modal assignment of a chant. There is more to modality than this simple fact.
The Cistercian monks of Hauterive in Switzerland, joined by the ensemble Les Ambrosiniens, sing chants of the feast of the Holy Founders (January 26). Before the revision of the liturgical calendar in 1970, each had his own feast day, though the chants of an abbot were the same.
Heiligenkreuz is said to be the oldest continually inhabited Cistercian monastery in the order? (I can't verify that.) It was founded in 1133 and the romanesque church dates from 1187. It is situated in the Vienna Woods. Universal, the parent company of Decca, sought to make a new recording of chant. On the last day of the search, the monks of Heiligenkreuz put a recording of their chant on Youtube and sent a link to the company. The recording was set up in short order and made a week after Easter. The first three chants on the record belong to the funeral Mass. The responsory “Libera me” is exceptionally moving.
Requiem. The complete Mass for the Dead has been recorded very frequently as far back as 1933. The Cistercian version of these chants has never been recorded. Apart from the revised melodies, there are two differences. The “Dies irae” is not included because it was composed later than 1190. There is an elevation chant sung after the Sanctus at the consecration of the Mass, and this “Pie Jesu Domine” was tacked onto the end of the “Dies irae,” although it does not match the verse form.
What are the Trappist monks? Within 200 years Cistercian monasteries had become much like other Benedictine monasteries. In the 17th century some Cistercians again desired to return to a more simple and austere life. Monks at La Grande Trappe (hence the name Trappists) in Normandy formed the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, binding themselves to abstinence from meat and complete silence. (This latter practice has been relaxed in recent years.) The first permanent Trappist monastery in the U.S. was established at Gethsemani, KY in 1848. Its most famous monk was Thomas Merton (1915-68), who entered in 1941 and published his best-selling autobiography “The Seven Story Mountain” in 1948. The first chant LP recorded in America was made there in 1950 with liner notes by Merton. They made three more LPs for Columbia, including “A Child is Born” in 1956.
Maurice Robreau, a former Trappist novice, founded a record company, Studio SM, in France in 1946. He made some of his earliest recordings on shellac at Citeaux, including “Salve Regina,” and one of the discs won the Grand Prix du Disque in 1949. (We will hear “Salve Regina” in a later but similar recording made at La Trappe.) He went on to make over 20 LPs of Gregorian and Cistercian chant and other sacred music. Since 2001 many of the original recordings have been remastered on CD.
Compline. Cistercian Compline has never been recorded, although monastic (Benedictine) Compline has, twice at Solesmes under Gajard and Claire. This version moves the hymn to the beginning, a change stemming from Vatican II.
Pentecost. The disc concludes with three chants of Pentecost, the feast of the Holy Spirit. The hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus” is one of the most familiar of all chant hymns because it is sung on any occasion that requires the invocation of the Holy Spirit, such as the ordination of a priest.