On May 25, 2006, while the Pope was in Poland, ZENIT published an interview with Father Jacques-Marie Guilmard of l'Abbaye de St. Pierre, Solesmes, in its French language news. The interview was not translated into English. This past week, I received permission from ZENIT to translate it myself and to post the entire interview here in English. ZENIT still holds all copyright interests in the interview, although the translation is my own and not ZENIT's. The original French language article is here. Here is the translation:
Concerning the Origins of Gregorian Chant: Christian Europe’s Carolingian Roots
ROME, Tuesday, May 25, 2006 (ZENIT) Father Jacques-Marie Guilmard, a monk from Solesmes, just published in Rome, in the Benedictine journal Ecclesia Orans, a study of the exact origin of Gregorian chant.
Zenit: Father Jacques-Marie Guilmard, does Gregorian chant go back to Pope/Saint Gregory?
Father Jacques-Marie Guilmard: People only lend to the rich. Gregorian chant is credited with that ancestry because of the immense influence that great pope (590-604) had in the Latin Church. Actually, chant originated in Gaul in the eighth and ninth centuries. It was the fruit of the reforms of Pippin the Short, Charlemagne (768-814), and Louis the Pious. We know that the repertoire of the Mass did not yet exist around 750, and that it did exist around 800 (the date of the first manuscript with chant pieces according to Gregorian order. We know it is not Roman (because it has characteristics foreign to Rome) and that it fits perfectly into the liturgical revolution of the Carolingian era.
Zenit: What revolution do you mean?
Father Jacques-Marie Guilmard: The Carolingian Era not only knew liturgical reform, like what followed the Vatican II Council, it also knew the replacement of Gallican liturgies with an entirely new liturgy. Pope Steven II came to Gaul in 753 to obtain Pippin's military assistance against Lombard warrior incursions. But the pope could not move without his court, nor without the liturgy of the Church of which he was Pontiff. Thus, he brought with him his cantors and everything that a solemn liturgy required. Of course, he presided over great ceremonies (including those consecrating Peppin and his sons). Roman pomp abounded, and Pippin wanted his kingdom’s churches to adopt the Pope's customs at the expense of local customs. That is what happened almost everywhere in Europe during the next decades.
Zenit: How was it possible to implement Papal customs outside of Rome?
Father Jacques-Marie Guilmard: It was not easy. Take the calendar, for example. It was not very natural to celebrate Roman saints outside of Rome. People did it anyway and, until the Vatican II Council, it was done not only in France but also all over the world. Other elements were easier to accommodate, such as the order of the readings of the Mass, or chant. However, it was in the latter field that the Gauls took the greatest liberties in comparison to their model, which was known as "Old Roman Chant". The composers of this country kept the chant pieces’ Roman settings, but they modified the melodies according to their taste. The result is what we call "Gregorian chant".
Zenit: Do we have to speak of a new chant?
Father Jacques-Marie Guilmard: From a global point of view, the answer is "no", since the settings, the texts, the manner of singing, etc. are Roman. From a musical point of view, the answer is "yes". The manuscripts that offer primitive Roman chant show that it was much poorer than Gregorian chant. The Gallican composers were brilliant, and such a creation in so little time is amazing. There was actually an urgency about it, since it was necessary to provide chants for Mass celebrations. However, a complete repertoire was composed in a few years. The Old Roman Chant (which is from before the seventh century) and Gregorian chant are the oldest known musical ensembles in the whole world. There is nothing like it in the Asian or African repertoire, nothing in Byzantine music.
Zenit: How long has it been known how this revolution transpired?
Father Jacques-Marie Guilmard: Historians are scarcely interested in music, and liturgists often lack musical gifts, which makes them overlook chant. That is why the context and chronology of Gregorian chant’s creation has only been known with certainty for about fifty years. There is indeed still hesitation among people who are interested in Gregorian chant. In fact, among Anglo-Saxon musicologists, not very familiar with the liturgy, and not understanding the range of the arguments suitable for the liturgy, prefer demonstrations usually used for ordinary historical phenomena. In the same way, the faithful, moved by a sentimental piety, prefer to imagine that Gregorian chant descended directly from chants of the Synagogue, or that it is derived from melodies from Spain or from Eastern Christians. That thinking succeeds by brushing aside problems related to the creation of Gregorian chant.
Zenit: But if the history is already known, what do you bring that is new?
Father Jacques-Marie Guilmard: We have already known for several decades that the Gregorian chant of the Mass was created around 765, in Metz, under the authority of Bishop/Saint Chrodegang. That includes entry chants or introïts (for example, those which were once well known: Low Sunday, Laetare, etc.), chants for the offertory and communion, and all other ornate chants used for the Mass. But Gregorian chant also includes the chant of Vespers, Matins, Compline, etc.: which we call the “Office”. However, until now, people were unaware of the origin of the Office chant, except that it had been created soon after the composition of the melodies of the Mass.
Zenit: How did you go about determining the date of origination and the place where the repertoire of the Office appeared?
Father Jacques-Marie Guilmard: The method was simple, even if accurate demonstration required a lot of work. Gregorian chant came down to us, not thanks to discs, but by transcriptions in manuscripts. Several hundred such artifacts still exist. However, in spite of their diversity of age and place, they almost always have the same melodies and well as other details, without significant modifications. However, if they mention - as should be the case – Roman saints’ feast days and those their own local saints, they always add four saints: Martin, Brice, Maurice and Symphorian, whose cult existed in Tours around the year 800. These saints were never seen anywhere else at that time, in a common cult. We conclude that the Office was developed and spread beginning at Saint-Martin de Tours around 800, undoubtedly under the aegis of the great Alcuin.
Zenit: What role did Alcuin have in the liturgy?
Father Jacques-Marie Guilmard: Alcuin was an Englishman trained in the great intellectual center which was York. Called by Charlemagne to the court of Aachen, he became master to the prince and to many young men who were educated at the Palace School. More than a professor, he was a kind of Minister of Culture, in the secular field as well as the religious. Near the end of his life, Charlemagne named him head of Saint-Martin de Tours, a religious center where the faithful came in pilgrimage from all over the West. Alcuin’s influence – whether direct or indirect and posthumous - was at the origin of a great many devotions that blossomed in the Middle Ages and down to our own era: the feasts of the Holy Trinity and All Saints' Day, Saturdays devoted to Our Lady, and also the feast of Saint Martin, who from then on received a largely standardized liturgical cult. We undoubtedly owe to Alcuin the feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist on August 29 and the old Feast of the Cross on May 3.
Zenit: You were also interested in the origin of the feast of St. Mary Magdalene...
Father Jacques-Marie Guilmard: In the west, devotion to St. Mary Magdalene owes its rise primarily to Pope/Saint Gregory the Great (590-604). That is not to say that she was then the subject of liturgical feasts, as we now have for St. Martin or St. Joan of Arc. The liturgical celebration of St. Mary Magdalene originated around 790 in Flavigny, in the Côte d'Or, when authors of liturgical works confused the married Saints Marius and Martha with the sisters Mary (of Bethany) and Martha mentioned in the Gospel, and that they set on January 19 the foundations of a Mass in honor of the two friends of Jesus. However, in the West, that Mary of Bethany was identified with Mary Magdalene; it was thus quite natural that the first liturgical observance – set on January 19 - was gradually transferred to July 22 (the current date) when collections of saints place only the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. Private devotion to St. Mary Magdalene, which was thus doubled by the liturgical observance, had, as everyone knows, an extraordinary proliferation during in the Middle Ages, as seen in the sanctuaries of Saint-Maximin of Provence and Vézelay.
Zenit: How did the Gregorian Office develop?
Father Jacques-Marie Guilmard: This Office, which was planned for colleges and cathedrals, was adapted very quickly for Benedictine use by the monks of Saint-Denis. In fact, I noticed that the Benedictine manuscripts that include the Gregorian Office, always mention, in addition to the usual saints, not only St. Benedict, the monks' founder, but also St. Denis, whose life was written by Hilduin, abbot of the Monastery of Saint-Denis, just after that community placed itself under the practice of the Rule of St. Benedict (832). The adaptation was thus carried out by that abbot Hilduin at Saint-Denis around 835. Consequently, the Gregorian office existed in two forms, which would serve as the base for the secular liturgy and the Benedictine liturgy, respectively, until the twentieth century. That shows how much these creations from Tours and Saint-Denis marked the Western Church in a hidden but universal and profound way.
Zenit: How can such a discovery interest Christians of today?
Father Jacques-Marie Guilmard: It is necessary to return ceaselessly to the roots of the Church and its liturgy. Gregorian chant was born at the same time as Christian Europe: Romans, Franks, Germans, the English and perhaps the Visigoths were involved in its creation. It is thus wise to refer to the Christian ideal of the eighth and ninth centuries during which the Christian roots of Europe were planted, and when the liturgy had a major place. This way, we can propose to present-day Catholics ceremonies which "supernaturalize" their spiritual life and their religious vision of the world -- we could also say their "politics" – in the sense of a concept of civic life. The future of Europe is necessarily going through a renewal which is finding its direction and its style in ancient Christian times.