Lenten listening: two new Benedictine albums of Marian chant
Lent is an ideal time to get back in touch with the Church’s patrimony of Gregorian chant (particularly for those of us who aren’t blessed to hear it regularly at Mass). The penitential season motivated me to get caught up on a couple of recent albums—both, interestingly enough, collections of Marian chants recorded by Benedictine monks.
The first is Benedicta: Marian Chant from Norcia, released in 2015. It was a video related to this album that first made me aware of the Monks of Norcia and ultimately inspired me to visit them last year, an unforgettable experience which occurred just before their monastery (built on St. Benedict’s birthplace) was destroyed by earthquakes. For whatever reason, though, I never got around to ordering the album itself until recently.
Benedicta, released by De Montfort Music, is a collection of thirty-two Marian chants, most of them from the 10th-12th centuries. The chants are taken mostly from the Divine Office and arranged in a kind of chronological order, starting with the Immaculate Conception and ending with the Coronation. Since there are many albums of Marian chants out there, for this project the monks made a point of selecting lesser-known pieces, justifying the album as an addition to just about anyone’s sacred music collection. The singing of this overwhelmingly young community is beautiful, and resonates richly in their monastery church where it was recorded. It’s also worth noting that the monks contributed an original piece of their own, an antiphon to her whom they call Regina monachorum, the Queen of Monks.
It’s no comment on the quality of the album, of course, or on the value of chant albums in general, but while listening I was struck by the difference between sitting and listening to chant on a CD and experiencing it in its original liturgical context (especially because I had done so with these very monks!). Plainchant, after all, was not made to be listened to like concert music, or even for general prayer and meditation. Each piece was written to play a particular role in the Divine Office or the Mass, at a particular place in the liturgical cycle.
A more recent album by the Monastic Choir of the Abbey Notre Dame de Fontgombault, Gregorian Chant: The Assumption, attempts to give a sense of this liturgical experience of chant by presenting the chants for just one day. The album includes the chants for the Mass of the Assumption and most of Vespers for that day, accompanied by organ. Though released this year, most of it was actually recorded in 1973, with a few more pieces recorded in the 1990s.
One interesting feature of The Assumption, which I found quite conducive to the sense of virtual immersion in the liturgy, is that rather than recording in the conventional way which would perhaps be considered better from a purely musical or acoustical standpoint, they recorded in such a way as (the liner notes explain) “to reproduce what the faithful or the visitor hears in the first pews of the nave.” And that really is how it sounds, making for a unique experience among chant recordings.
Very few people, even people who consider themselves music lovers, really sit down and listen to music these days. Even for me, a musician, sitting and doing nothing but listening to something as austere as chant for an hour can challenge the attention span. There’s nothing wrong with putting these albums on in the house while you go about doing other things! Indeed, much good would come of it. But remember, every once in a while when that album is playing, to take five or ten minutes to stop what you’re doing, empty your mind and immerse yourself in the music and the prayer. Maybe you’ll find yourself listening longer than that. Maybe you’ll fall asleep. But there are worse things that can happen.
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