ODAY is the century’s mind for Dom Joseph Pothier. He entered into eternity on the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1923. How appropriate is this juxtaposition of the man and the feast. On this solemnity we honor the singular way in which our Lady was saved: a theological truth that transcends all times. But for me, this feast always brings to mind the flavor of the circumstances of the establishment of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and its subsequent importance for the religious lives of Catholics in the nineteenth century and beyond. Establishing the dogma involved an extraordinary exercise of papal authority, with the rare invocation of papal infallibility. But for the doctrine to really hit home, to become a household name, it took the awakening four years later (in the midst of a secular and post-revolutionary century) of a simple and heartfelt piety and devotion, particularly French, in the person of St. Bernadette.
Both of these themes, papal authority and heartfelt French piety, are apparent in the life and illustrious career of Dom Pothier. It goes without saying, especially to longtime readers here, that he bears a great deal of the responsibility for the promulgation of the Vatican edition, using the melodies and the performance style he built up at Solesmes. There is another, very beautiful, side to him as well, as a composer of simple, and rather French sounding, religious monophonic songs, often based on various medieval meloidies. My children’s schola is singing his wonderful Tota pulchra es for the feast, which is pretty easy to find. Salve Mater misericordiae is another favorite. Our lives are richer for having these tunes and these texts.
I admire him, then, for his skill as a musicologist and an arranger, but I wonder if any of you share my feeling of special closeness with the reformers of plainchant who were centered at Solesmes in the nineteenth century. For one thing, they are both performers and scholars, and their stand as one of the great early exemplars of the historically informed performance movement. They were able to use primary sources to restore many beautiful features of the Gregorian melodies that had been abandoned (often in the name of reform!) in the previous centuries. But my feeling of closeness goes even beyond than my admiration for this painstaking work of paleography and editing. When everything went crazy in 2020, I was “locked down” like everyone else with my family. When it came to musical and intellectual work, I spent an almost unbelievable amount of time reading everything I could by Gontier, Pothier, Mocquereau, Gajard, and Cardine in preparation for my dissertation. Perhaps not everyone is like this, but for me, spending so much time isolated and in the company of books leads me to feel like I know the authors on very intimate terms. It’s a bookish illusion, usually, but perhaps within the reality of the communion of saints, it has a true existence in the spiritual realm.
All of these writers point the way to a noble cause. They lived out, in a heroic way, the call we all have for the liturgy to transform and ennoble our lives. What do I mean by heroic? I was recently discussing Solesmes with a colleague who had just spent a month there. He said, in a tone of astonishment, that the monks really see themselves as being on the front line of saving the liturgy for the whole universal Church, that this is a high calling that they treat with utmost seriousness. He also told me that they spend an amazing amount of time rehearsing the chant, on top of singing in the offices that are the daily rhythm of monastic life. I believe this has been true for some 190 years at this point. I dare say that the mission of Solesmes has been to save the liturgy (monastic and even more broadly within the entire Roman Rite) through the faithful and beautiful performance of chant. Isn’t that the mission to which we all aspire? Isn’t that a chief subject of this blog? I do a lot of different things in my professional life, but when I read Pothier, I feel like a close acquaintance is giving me a real glimpse at a truth that is in my reach, if only I would devote all my intellectual and spiritual life to following that lead.
Let us pray today for the great hero of the struggle for the liturgy, Dom Pothier. We are grateful for his great work and witness, which really needs no introduction to anyone who had read Jeff Ostrowski’s writing over the last decade and more. I warmly recommend Pothier’s Les mélodies grégoriennes, readily available in French, to anyone who wants to understand what went into that struggle as regards the performance of chant. What Pothier and, later, his student Dom Mocquereau, were able to accomplish as editors is nothing short of staggering.
Pothier and Mocquereau • I should briefly address the controversy between these two monks of Solesmes, since it has been a frequent topic on this blog. I sincerely hope that a century’s distance from the disputes over the rhythmic signs can give us some perspective, while cooling the controversy. At this distance, two facts are apparent: the rhythmic signs are here to stay (regularly accepted as a matter of Church practice) and they are also not universally followed any more. In this sense, I believe the Pothier-Mocquereau dispute over the signs has lost all its urgency and importance. I have so much more to say on the subject of why we should lay aside the debate over the signs, but I will have to save that for another time. I have mentioned it in the past.
More importantly for today’s occasion, it is my carefully considered opinion that Mocquereau’s and Cardine’s researches and publications are not a betrayal of Pothier’s great research and accomplishments but rather a continuation of the same, in the spirit of the Solesmes tradition. Not everyone shares my opinion; Jeff has been quite vocal in condemning Mocquereau and Cardine in various ways.
I have often written on this blog that I disagree with Jeff about what the status of the Vatican Edition is with regards to an “official rhythm.” I have also suggested that Pothier’s own performance style, expressed in his published writings, is not all that out of keeping with where Mocquereau took the Solesmes style. Jeff has been quite critical of Mocquereau and has also presented a way of performing the Vatican Edition that smooths out many of the complications and accentual nuances that I associate with Pothier. I hope it doesn’t bother any of our readers to see different opinions in print. I learned so much about Pothier and about the rhythmic disputes in chant when I started reading Jeff’s articles a decade ago. I am grateful that Jeff lets me air my own differing views here on the blog that he has built up. It seems good to me that we can disagree on these matters while teaching together and writing with very much the same purpose; nothing I write is meant to be a criticism of any particular way of singing inspired by Pothier.
In that spirit, l would like to conclude with a beautiful quotation from Dom Pothier, with which he ends his 1880 treatise:
Let us put our souls in unison with our voices, according to the word of St. Benedict in his rule, mens nostra concordet voci nostra. Let us pray and sing with humility, love and reverence, in compunction of heart and fear of the Lord, in fervor of spirit and ardor of holy desires. May we be lifted by song and as if already transported to heaven, we contemplate the divine mysteries in sweetness and purity of feeling, in holy animation and joyful gravity of devotion, in the sweetness of melody and the intoxication of jubilation; so that in the midst of the concert of voices, in the transports of an ineffable joy, we bless God our Creator, so that one day being risen among the Saints we may praise him with them—him who called us—and triumph in the eternal joy where he lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
Our Lady, conceived without sin, pray for your servant Dom Pothier, that he may attain that eternal joy of which he wrote. And pray for us that we may continue to strive for this way of singing, in this life and in the world to come!