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Gregorian Chant had been fully developed during the Roman Empire from various monophonic liturgical singing traditions by the fourth century and was codified from regional stylistic variants around the turn of the seventh century under Pope Gregory for whom it was named. It flourished in monastic communities into the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries but fell out of use as polyphonic singing was assimilated into church liturgy. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Gregorian Chant had fallen into neglect and disrepair, rarely and poorly performed for many generations.

Dom Prosper Guéranger (b. April 5, 1805; d. Jan. 30, 1875), the abbot of the Abbey of Solesmes in Sarthe, France revived Benedictine monastic life in France after the Revolution. Among his projects was the revitalization of Gregorian Chant, and he made Solesmes a center for its meticulous research and restoration. By gathering ancient, sometimes fragmentary, manuscripts and deciphering the antique musical notation system, the monks at Solesmes painstakingly removed layers of embellishments and harmonic materials that had been added over the centuries to return the chant to a pristine form, resulting in the publications of the twelve-volume Paeleographie Musicale, an indispensable research resource for the study of Gregorian Chant. The Paeleographie was published and revised in stages from the end of the nineteenth century into the 1970s, originating to a significant degree with the work of Dom Andre Mocquereau (b. June 6, 1849; d. January 18, 1930).

Mocquereau, the son of a doctor, had been a cellist as a young man, interested in Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Berlioz. His sister had become a nun and an organist when he entered the Abbey of Solesmes at the age of 26 and became ordained as a priest four years later in 1879. By 1890 he began assisting Dom Joseph Pothier’s projects in restoring Gregorian Chant and was appointed choirmaster in 1889. Over the next decade, as the Abbey considered the financial risks in carrying the project to its highest aims in the complete publication of its work, several high-ranking Benedictine monks living in Rome advocated for the introduction of the Solesmes material to replace the “corrupted” sixteenth-century edition that stood as official Gregorian Chant in the church and to replace the liturgical music being used at the time, largely adaptations of popular operatic melodies, with a purified and originalist music.

Among the advocates was an immensely popular composer of oratorios, Don Lorenzo Perosi (b. Dec. 21, 1872; d. Oct. 12, 1956) who had visited Solesmes in 1894 and studied under Mocquereau and Pothier. In 1898, Perosi was given a post as the Perpetual Director of the Sistine Chapel Choir. Perosi happened to be close friends with a music-loving Venetian Cardinal who ascended to the Papacy on August 3, 1903 as Pius X (b. Guiseppi Melchoirre Sarto, June 2, 1835; d. Aug. 20, 1914). Both men, Perosi and Pius X, were illiberal reformers and purists, and influenced by Perosi, Pius X issued a Moto Prioprio (a spontaneous decree) on the subject of music called the “Tra le sollecitudini” on November 22, 1903, only six weeks after his ascendency, stating that:

“….[Sacred Music] must be holy, and must, therefore, exclude all profanity not only in itself but in the matter in which it is presented by those to execute it. It must be true art, for otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds. But it must, at the same time, be universal in the sense that while every nation is permitted to add into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them.
These qualities are to be found, in the highest degree, in Gregorian Chant, which is consequently the Chant proper of the Roman Church, the only chant she has inherited from the ancient fathers, which she has jealously guarded for centuries in her liturgical codices, which she directly proposed to the faithful as her own, which prescribes exclusively for some parts of the liturgy, and which the most recent studies have so happily restored to their integrity and purity.”

The decree goes on to give a tip of the hat to polyphonic music of the followers of Pierluigi da Palestrina but gives Gregorian Chant an exclusive role in various parts of the mass and the Office. And so, with a stroke of the pen, the entire Roman Catholic world was ordered to get on board with a hitherto mostly-forgotten thousand-year-old form of composition and singing, of which the primary source could only be, without having named them, the materials produced by the monks of the Solesmes Abbey. Oversight of the sweeping project was given to Cardinal Respighi, Vicar-General of Rome. As a result, a 1,900-page volume of Gregorian chants edited by Moncquereau called the Liber Usualis and the subsequent Vatican Edition were widely reprinted and circulated during the first three decades of the 20th century.

Early recordings of Gregorian Chant were made in the late ‘20s and early ’30s by choirs, largely comprised of Benedictine monks, from many parts of Western Europe: Rome; Trier, Germany; Venray, Holland; Ampleforth, England; Paris; etc. It was in late 1929 that the choir of the Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart’s Pope Pius X Music School under the direction of pedagogue Justine Bayard Ward (b. Aug. 7, 1879; d. Nov. 27, 1975) recorded the still-novel Gregorian Chant form, using the Liber Usualis as its guide, in the United States for the first time, releasing a two-12” disc set on Victor records early that year (tracks 23-26 on this collection). A review of those recordings appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at the time: “To say that this is an important step is to say little. It is literally a godsend to the small church, the village church, where tradition, precept and procedure are unknown. They strive valiantly to sing plainchant, the priest knows a little (not much), the choirmaster strives to do it (but the flesh is weak), and they go as far as they can with well-intentioned, poorly equipped vocalists. […] Gregorian scholars are few in the hinterlands of Pittsburgh (and scarce within the city walls for that matter) and here is an opportunity to learn a noble medium correctly.”

Catholics in the Americas, Australia, and elsewhere would not hear Gregorian Chant in its ideal form until the recordings made in mid-1930 at the source fountain of its renaissance, the Abbey of Solesmes, by engineers of the British His Master’s Voice label. At the time of the recordings, Don Mocquereau had just died a few months earlier, passing directorship of the choir to his primary disciple and collaborator since 1911, Joseph Gajard (b. June 25, 1885; d. April 25, 1972) (and only about six years after the introduction of the microphone into sound recording technology). The recordings were first released as two sets of six 12” discs in various parts of the world from the end of 1930 through 1931, offering the faithful of distant lands the opportunity to hear Gregorian chant as it was intended by its effective originators. (Note that this collection, unfortunately, lacks the final two sides of the complete recordings; we have compensated to some extent by including all four sides of the Ordinary of the Mass recorded by the Pius X School of the College of the Sacred Heart just before the Solesmes recordings.)

The monks of Solesmes recorded prolifically under Gajard’s direction for decades, and those recordings formed a significant part of the basis of the interest and understanding of the general public of Gregorian chant. The 1930 recordings were reissued several times during the 1940s and '50s with mixed sound quality although, likely due to the technical limitations of the original recordings, there has not been an attempt to restore or represent them in more than fifty years. In 1962, the Second Vatican Council’s reformations called for the preservation of Gregorian chant but encouraged congregational singing and opened musical practice to other performance styles, leaving the height of the chant’s resurrection to a brief window from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. Despite being resurrected faddishly as commercial sound recordings, it remains now an area of study for monastic communities and dedicated scholars, all deeply under the influence of the scholar-monks of Solesmes.


released June 26, 2023

Transfers, restorations, and notes by Ian Nagoski

Tracks 1-22 recorded ca. mid-1930 at St. Pierre de Solesmes, Sarthe, France
Tracks 23-24 recorded May 9, 1929 at Pius X School, New York City, USA with Father V.C. Donovan (vocalist), Achille P. Bragers (organ), and chorus of 30 women.


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