OM LUCIEN DAVID was a famous disciple of Abbot Joseph Pothier who in 1933 explained Pothier’s approach to Gregorian rhythm in “Le rhythme verbal et musical dans le chant romain.” I’m thrilled to announce that an anonymous person on the CMAA forum has posted a 1947 biography of Dom Pothier written by Dom David:
An Admirer of Dom Pothier and CCW has kindly translated some excerpts into English to give you a taste.
(The story about Pope Pius X toward the end is essential reading.)
“Here is a man who, in his modesty, is the author of the happiest and most lasting revolution that has occurred in the Church.”
– Dom Guépin, abbot of Silos
“We shall still have done nothing if the chant, which is the soul of the Catholic Church, is not also restored to its ancient traditions.”
– Dom Guéranger, Institutions liturgiques
With its liturgy sadly reshaped by the Gallicans and its regrettable Nivers edition of the chant, the chant, without phrasing or continuity, was no more than a succession of notes where nothing pointed to rhythm and continuity; and the practice of their heavy execution was emphasized even more by their accompaniment on double basses and serpents. Serpents in the plural for the cathedral, one on each side, as the famous liturgist Urbain Robinet had decreed in 1729. A wonderful invention, this serpent, no doubt recalling the bronze savior of Moses to canons struggling with the note!
On December 7, 1835, during the first vespers of the Immaculate Conception, in the little Lorraine village of Bouzemont, little Joseph-Marie Pothier came into the world, and was christened the next day; for in these old Christian families, the mother could not wait to be able to kiss a little Christian.
His father was the village schoolmaster, and at the same time head cantor of the parish and something of a sacristan, not to mention his occupations as secretary of the mayor’s office, maker of communion wafers and part-time farmer.
For at the school the study and practice of sacred chant were put on the same level—at least—as mathematics or spelling; and each morning—I underscore—the boys went to sing not at Mass, but rather at the liturgical Mass of the good pastor Vautrin.
The cantor and teacher was not always available, but the boys, including, of course, Joseph and Alphonse, went to stand bravely before the great folio volume of Toul, and sang: and this earned them, besides, the extravagant perquisite of six sous. But the grocer, they say, was well stocked with candy and marbles.
Priestly and religious vocations blossomed easily in such good soil; and our teacher had the grace and happiness to see his two sons chosen by God.
Among his achievements we see emphasized, besides others, his talent in prose and verse as a Latinist: which would not prove useless to him for the understanding of Gregorian rhythm and the enrichment of the extra-liturgical poetic repertoire.
He had hardly made profession when the role of zelator, i.e., assistant novice master, was entrusted to him, which he held for two years, before being named sub-prior. So he had to give chant lessons to the novices as well as to his confrères: lessons which were greatly valued.
The field of paleographic investigation widened daily; and then the business of a typographic printing, with the financial embarrassment in which the monastery then found itself, was daunting. Meanwhile it had to sing, and in authentic Gregorian chant.
“As a practical trial, some processional chants—followed by many others—were printed lithographically by Dom Pothier himself, with the assistance of his brother Dom Alphonse (between 1867 and 1870). The maestro made everything by hand, and made up for the imperfection of his equipment by patience and the ingenious procedures he invented; he also acted as an illustrator and decorated his work with vignettes, illuminated capitals, tailpieces, even full-page illustrations representing the mysteries of the Annunciation and Christmas. All this was imitated from the Hours of Simon Vostre and other printers of the earliest ages. What a joy for us when these modest booklets were handed out to us! We were far from imagining that one day the melodies that we were chanting, at first with so much difficulty, would little by little make their way round the whole of Christendom.”
– Dom Guépin
Behold then our pilgrim away on a campaign of exploration, but without the stringent tension of those blinkered scholars who are ignorant or distrustful of anything that transcends their own special field.
“There, in a double stand of trees, a whole choir of little birds rejoiced, and their songs mingled with the murmurs of the waters. Since I travel for the chant, I was indeed permitted, in my capacity as a strolling musician, as M. Cartier calls me, to pay attention to all this music of nature, so near a relative to Gregorian music.”
– Dom Pothier (writing to his brother)
“I used as well as I could the too-little time I could spend at the National Library. I was in a hurry to return here for the offices and children’s catechism. For I found the pastor quite ill and the parish abandoned. Charity seemed to make it my duty to come to their aid, above all for the children who are waiting for someone to give them their First Communion.”
– Dom Pothier
The paleographic work could often take place at Solesmes itself. For the growing reputation of Dom Pothier, united with that of Solesmes, prompted the public libraries, not merely of France, but of Switzerland and Germany, to lend him their documents. It is to this residential work that we owe the copies, by the hand of Dom Pothier, of entire or nearly entire manuscripts, in which the neums, over the texts, are illustrated with a care and precision without lapses.
At Wiesbaden […] he collated, at the request of his confrère Cardinal Pitra, and for his personal satisfaction, the manuscripts of St. Hildegard, the great seer, poetess and musician of the twelfth century. Her musical works, in a flamboyant style and so expressive, he copied entirely. Later he published different pieces from them, with commentaries, in the Revue du Chant grégorien, and did not fail to note that in the play of the Virtues the devil shows himself unable to sing Gregorian chant. When he intervenes he is only able to make noise: fit strepitus.
On February 13, 1876, he actually heard from Dom Romary the great news: Desclée of Tournai, founder of Maredsous, was also founding a press to help the Benedictines in their work of liturgical restoration, including music! And he reveled: “Is it so, dear Father? Then let us go there and provide the purest of St. Gregory that we can. Afterwards we will see about the coarse chanters. But tradition and art first. Let us keep for another circumstance the adage, The best is the enemy of the good!” And since the characters for the fourteenth-century notation to be revived did not exist, he busied himself in providing the illustration of notes, neums, clefs, etc., so that the English foundry could produce dies and matrices.
But all these travels of Dom Pothier in France and Belgium were not only voyages of study. They were often also voyages of the Gregorian apostolate. From almost everywhere were requested not only his written advice and clarifications, but lessons and conferences. His sacred fire spread to masters and to disciples with goodwill.
Books! They begged him for them everywhere! And indeed he busied himself with the Gradual, but the preparatory matter was drawn out. He wrote, moreover: “My grave concern is to bring out the preliminary work on the principles, which should serve as an introduction to the Gradual and the Antiphonal, and for which the Gregorian characters are so needed.” This preliminary work would be a masterpiece. It appeared in 1880 from Desclée. It was entitled, Les Mélodies grégoriennes, d’après la tradition [“The Gregorian Melodies according to Tradition”].
In truth, this work of Dom Pothier, despite its wholly peaceful appearances, inevitably directed grave threats against the errors and… the material interests of those editions which were more or less unfaithful to tradition, and above all against the errors and interests of the so-called Medicean Edition of Regensburg, declared typical and authentic by Rome and officially recommended as such. And until its death in 1900, it would be energetically defended […] In the year 1900, when the privilege of Pustet was due to expire, despite the efforts of the interested parties, that privilege would not be renewed by the Holy See. For Dom Pothier this would then be decisive victory and full freedom.
From 1892 until the Roman Congress of 1904 and the Vatican edition, without question Dom Pothier’s most significant work would be his regular collaboration with the Revue du Chant grégorien, launched at Grenoble with his assistance […] Almost to the end he wrote articles for it, extremely varied, enriched with old or new Gregorian pieces, the sum of which constitutes the richest and most exact commentary on his Mélodies grégoriennes.
His robust good sense, the sureness of his judgment about persons and about things, and his kindness were some of the precious qualities among those which could be desired in a superior. He had long been known as the much-regarded counselor of several communities. In 1862 at Solesmes, when he was 35, he was named prior by Dom Couturier. In 1893 the abbey of Ligugé needed a prior. The abbot and whole community approached Dom Delatte at Solesmes to entreat him to grant them Dom Pothier, who could only agree despite his bond with Solesmes and the very dear memories of Dom Guéranger, his “heavenly abbot.” But Ligugé could not rejoice long in its new prior. The new foundation, or rather restoration, of Saint-Wandrille needed a definite superior. And on December 23, 1894, Dom Pothier was at Saint-Wandrille; four years later, on September 29, 1898, he received blessing as an abbot there from Mons. Sourrieu, before the abbots of Solesmes and Ligugé and many of the clergy.
With the year 1900, as I have said already, the too-famous privilege of the Regensburg Edition reached expiration. It was a decisive expiration; and that same year Leo XIII sent the abbot of Solesmes the liberating letter that congratulated the Benedictines on their past efforts in the domain of restoration of Gregorian chant and encouraged them to continue, sollerter et libere [artfully and freely].
With regard to the Vatican Edition, I will only tell you a little unpublished story, which very gracefully represents the good Pope Pius X in his relations, both cordial and by choice somewhat informal, with the good Father Dom Pothier. The Gradual had just been completed. It was a matter of presenting it to the Sovereign Pontiff. The Most Reverend President of the Commission was obviously the appropriate one to do it, and I accompanied him, as habitual intermediary between Dom Pothier, on one side, and, on the other side, the Pope or the Cardinal Secretary of State, the Consultors, the Congregation of Rites and the Vatican Press as well. The Director of the Press, rightly proud of his work, had arranged matters well: the Gradual was bound con amore [with love], in a splendid fashion. Pius X, having admired the beautiful book in all its aspects, with its enamels and gilding, opened it and began leafing through it, admiring in passing the beautiful vignettes of Brother Schmalz [sic]. But he seemed to be looking for something. Finally he stopped… at the Mass of Our Lady of Lourdes […] Pius X knew very well that this feast of Our Lady of Lourdes was French, as were his two interlocutors, and he also knew that the author of the melodies of this Mass was before him. And he began, quite simply, to chant for both of us… the Introit Vidi civitatem, from beginning to end, and without the slightest lapse. After which he smiled at Dom Pothier with a little head movement, as though to say, “Well, there you have it!” Then, looking at me mischievously over his spectacles, he inquired of me, “E bene cosi?” Was it indeed thus it should be sung? You can guess what my answer was, at the same time affirmative and most sincere.
The story about Pius X singing through chants composed by Pothier is—in a certain sense—the completion of a famous story about Pope Pius IX (d. 1878), who was also presented with “revised” melody proofs (Haberl’s Editio Medicæa) and sang through them…but with a very different result. To read the story of Pope Pius IX, click here.