HAD THE OPPORTUNITY to attend a week-long workshop with Marcel Pérès hosted by the Cantores Sancti Ludovici last week at the Oratory of Ss. Gregory & Augustine in St. Louis. According to whom you ask, Pérès is regarded either a genius or a madman. Although his approach is considerably different from mine, I went with an open and respectful mind. We had approximately twenty hours of instruction time with him over the course of the week plus the services and meals together. Friday we sang not only Mass but the entire Divine Office except Compline for the feast of St. Louis, King of France, including first and second Vespers and a two-and-a-half-mile procession. Louis IX died in 1270 and was canonized in 1297. We sang first Vespers from copies of a 1682 manuscript, but the chants were presumably composed several centuries earlier. Regardless, they are certainly from a much later period than the first-millennial sources I specialize in.
Pérès’s approach is for all the singers to sing “from the manuscript”—ideally, a single large choirbook—without extra editorial markings, which is almost the opposite of how I typically approach score preparation. We spent a great deal of time working on fauxbourdon (harmonized chant with the melody in the tenor) for first Vespers. The fauxbourdon alternated between full choir and quartet, but I wonder if a more historically accurate result might not have been achieved by alternating fauxbourdon and unison cantus planus, use of serpent (the wind instrument, not the reptile!) or a modern instrument as its substitute, or, for the hymn and Magnificat, organ versets. We used our customary Italianate Church Latin pronunciation instead of trying to reproduce the seventeenth-century French Latin pronunciation, so at least that element of historical “period performance” was compromised in favor of current liturgical use.
Luca Ricossa, who has been something of an online mentor to me, wrote seventeen years ago that Pérès was the only one incorporating ornaments into the performance of Gregorian chant. In 2023, Pérès along with his students and collaborators might still outnumber all of the other singers doing so apart from native Corsicans. Many find such ornamentation, especially when involving quarter tones, to sound “eastern,” “Arabic,” or “Muslim.” I myself have used the terms “exotic” and “foreign-sounding” to describe such things applied to otherwise Solesmes-style chant, but it is much more convincing—and less distracting—at the very deliberate tempo Pérès takes, which is approximately twice as slow as what Jan van Biezen recommends for the Mass Propers (84 to 100 beats per minute for the long; he recommends 120 to 144 for the Office antiphons), and at least four times as slow as what one would expect for psalm recitation at any of the traditional Latin rite seminaries. (I have been to services where the psalmody must have exceeded 300 syllables per minute and can’t say whether that was really and truly the community’s notion of “free speech rhythm” or a perfunctory, mechanical means of discharging a canonical obligation as efficiently as possible.)
Pérès uses a pitch based on the late eighteenth-century tuning fork from Versailles, A=390 Hz, which is about a whole step lower than modern concert pitch. I was pretty much a baritone for the week! On the basis of evidence from as early as the tenth century (possibly the ninth) and as late as the twentieth, I think the slow tempo and low pitch are both correct for the period in question. I would characterize the sound as heavy and visceral in contrast to the soaring and ethereal aesthetic of the Solesmes style of chant. I also want to note the lack of “rounded” phrasing typical for the Solesmes method and most classical music, with a somewhat rough and raw sound—without vibrato, of course—not unlike Sacred Harp singing, many renditions of Byzantine chant, or an enthusiastic Dutch Reformed congregation singing metrical psalms with robust organ accompaniment.
To my surprise, there were no vocal warm-ups as a group, hardly any comments on tone production or blend, and no use of solfege, letter names, numbers, or neutral syllables to learn notes. I reflected throughout the week, without reaching any conclusions worth sharing, on the difference between “arbitrary” and “intuitive” in terms of musical interpretation, and on whether an ensemble can actually “intuit” anything as a group or merely imitate the strongest voices among them. My favorite quote from Pérès (which must be heard mentally with a French accent) was, “This Johann Sebastian Bach was a strange man. He was writing in the style of the fifteenth century in the eighteenth, even though he was a Protestant, with counterpoint and canon by augmentation. No one else was writing that way.” He went on to explain that Bach’s ornamentation of the melody (cantus firmus) in the organ chorale preludes was essentially the same thing we were doing with the chant.
There is no one-size-fits-all chant interpretation to encompass everything from the ninth century through the twentieth. Remarkably, we even heard a frank admission from Peter Kwasniewski that much of the Solesmes method was fabricated. There can be no doubt that the monks of Solesmes added rhythmic indications where they didn’t exist (late medieval chant), removed them where they did (Renaissance cantus fractus), and ignored many of them from the best and most reliable sources (ninth- and tenth-century adiastematic neumes), which they claimed to follow. Echoing what Pérès’s student Bruno de Labriolle said in a recent interview, to expect the chant to be sung exactly the same way every time in every church throughout the world is treating Gregorian chant like McDonald’s, and it’s hardly an artistic approach to sacred music.
Getting just a bit more technical for a moment, I and others have been somewhat perplexed by the short notes at the mediant cadences of the introit psalm tones in modes I, II, V, VII, and VIII according to the adiastematic neumes (which I mentioned in passing here). The 1682 manuscript we used was written for Les Invalides in Paris. Pérès discussed the acoustics there and at other great churches, where the reverberation time can exceed ten seconds. When one sings a couple of short notes followed immediately by a rest, what sounds ridiculously abrupt in a typical American parish church may have a marvelous result in a more favorable acoustic, where one hears at least two distinct echoes during the pause. That insight alone might have been worth the cost of the workshop!
Pérès said something to the effect that we ought to think of possessive pronouns (suum, noster, ejus, meis, etc.) as forming a single unit along with the nouns they modify. Not only should we not breathe between the noun and possessive pronoun, but there should be no lengthening of the final syllable of the first word of the pair. Elsewhere, word finals in Latin are important because they indicate the grammatical conjugation or declension, which expresses the word’s case, gender, and number. Although I probably came across these very points in some Solesmes method sourcebook since learning Latin more than a quarter-century ago, the reminder was helpful. Finally, not having sung under another director with any regularity since early 2020, and not having prepared any of the music ahead of time, I was reminded that, as long as one has an unobstructed view, it is really not difficult to watch the director at all times! I will have to be uncompromising with my choirs on this point from now on—which reminds me . . . I wore my “mean choir director” T-shirt under my cassock Friday night (thanks Eugene and choir!) and it was a hit, even with Marcel Pérès himself!
Here are links for a non-professional recording from first Vespers, courtesy of Angela Rocchio, with pauses and pre-intonations removed and converted to mp3 format:
Angela Rocchio has published a report at the International Chant Academy website. Expect a post about the St. Louis patronal feast from one of the contributors at New Liturgical Movement in the coming days.
Photo by Matthew Galicia (yours truly, exhausted, front row with gray cap)