URING the 1950s, Monsignor Francis P. Schmitt was editor of the CAECILIA MAGAZINE. He liked to refer to Dr. Peter Josef Wagner as “The sage of Fribourg.” Following the style of journals in those days, Monsignor Schmitt made tons of oblique references—as well as factual errors—so it’s not always easy to verify (or to “control,” as Father Father Fortescue would say) his various assertions. Something Schmitt often complained about was how the monastery of Solesmes denied entry to Dr. Peter Wagner, who had wished to enter their PALEO. The implication was that anyone who was not “on their team” was denied entry as punishment. [Some say that’s still the case, but I can neither confirm nor deny the veracity of that accusation.] To give one example, in his 1977 book (Church Music Transgressed), Monsignor Schmitt says: “The sage of Fribourg had not been allowed to peruse the manuscripts there until years after his studies had been finished, when Dom Gajard welcomed him.”
In a famous article published in 1907, the “sage of Fribourg” had this to say:
It is a fine thing to have in one’s work-room many valuable photographic reproductions of chant manuscripts, and I envy those who are in this fortunate situation. The Fathers of Solesmes possess, we are told, about four-hundred such photographs of manuscripts. For part of these treasures, they are indebted to the favor of the Holy See, whose letter of recommendation opened to them libraries which they would otherwise never have entered. So much the more could we expect that they would selflessly place their archival material at the disposal of the Holy Father. The Catholic world would have considered this as a quite ordinary gesture lending powerful support to the Papal project. Such is not the case. A promise was made, to be sure, by a highly placed person to one in a still higher position, but later the promise was not kept. Rather, weapons were forged against Papal intervention. Since such a procedure passes sentence on itself, I shall go no further into it.
The answer is provided by Dom Pierre Combe:
Dom Mocquereau had long wanted to create at Solesmes a vast collection of Gregorian chant manuscripts, through photography. However, these manuscripts had to be sought out in the public or capitular libraries, whose conservators were often hardly supportive of—if not outright hostile to—the reproduction of their treasures. Dom Mocquereau was already familiar with the primary collections in France, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands, where he had traveled looking for manuscripts, and he was very eager to study the libraries of England, Austro-Hungary, and Spain. The editing of the Vatican Edition, for which he was responsible, was an opportunity for him to fulfill his dream of visiting these countries.
During his stay in Rome, Dom Mocquereau had insisted that he be given every possible assistance in this matter, and he finally obtained a letter from the Cardinal Secretary of State, dated 8 August 1904, to the conservators of the libraries, recommending the delegates of the Abbot of Solesmes who were assigned to photograph the manuscripts.
Armed with the recommendation from Cardinal Merry del Val and, soon, from the Minister of Public Instruction of the Kingdom of Italy, two monks set off on 17 August 1904, and did not return to Appuldurcombe until December 14. They were Dom Paul Blanchon-Lasserve and Dom Amand Menager, who explored the major libraries of Italy. A new photographic technique (the use of an erecting prism) enabled them to acquire a few hundred definitive proofs in just a few hours. The photographs were taken directly on paper, without the intermediary of a plate or film. Once exposed, the sensitive paper was packaged on site to protect it from light (in the dark room Dom Blanchon mentions in his letter of June 21), and immediately sent to Appuldurcombe. There, the photographs were simply developed and fixed. At that point, they had a negative reproduction of the manuscripts, which could be used immediately to transcribe the melodies onto the comparative tables.
* This article includes excerpts from: HISTOIRE DE LA RESTAURATION DU CHANT GRÉGORIEN D’APRES DES DOCUMENTS INEDITES: SOLESMES ET L’EDITION VATICANE published in 1969 by Dom Pierre Combe of Solesmes Abbey. The Catholic University Press published an English edition in 2003, translated by Dr. Theodore Marier and finished by a former student of his (since Dr. Marier had died before the work could be completed). Someone very close to Dr. Marier told me that he found the work of translation tedious, and would exclaim: “Well, I guess I’d better go subtract a few years off Purgatory by translating Combe!” The 2003 version is called: “The Restoration of Gregorian Chant: Solesmes and the Vatican Edition.” Broadly speaking, the 1969 book by Dom Combe is a collection of journal articles. Many of the Italian sections in the 2003 version were translated by Monsignor Robert Skeris.