Plain-song or Plainchant | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Plain-song or Plainchant

The monophonic song of religious rites, most often Christian, but also Hebrew, Moslem, and Buddhist, prior to the ascendancy of polyphony in the 13th century.
The monophonic song of religious rites, most often Christian, but also Hebrew, Moslem, and Buddhist, prior to the ascendancy of polyphony in the 13th century. Known at that time by several names including "cantus ecclesiasticus", its single (or doubled at the fifth or octave) unmeasured line was redefined by the Roman church as cantus planus", or plain-song, to distinguish it from the multiple lines of the new polyphony and the stabilizing harmonies and metered time divisions that ensued. Plain-song was perpetuated in the Christian church in both its eastern (Armenian, Byzantine, Syrian, etc.) and western (Ambrosian, Gallican, Gregorian, Mozarabic, etc.) varieties.

In ecclesiastical and monastic milieus, as well as among musicologists, a clear distinction is now drawn between Gregorian chant - the ancient "classical" repertory of the early Middle Ages (6th to 8th centuries) - and the plain-song of the late Middle Ages, particularly the period following the Council of Trent. Plain-song is characterized by simplified and modified melodies, a displacement of accents on long values, the elimination of pieces from the repertory (in particular, many of the sequences), and original compositions from the Baroque era (masses, offices, and hymns). This body of music was in use up until the reform of Solesmes and the Vatican edition (early 20th century). It was predominantly this type of plain-song that reached Canada, first through the French Roman Catholic Church and later through the Church of England, but other varieties were introduced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by immigrants from Armenia, Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere. This article will examine only the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions. See also Anglican church music; Missionaries in the 17th century; Roman Catholic church music.

17th and 18th Centuries

The Church in New France. Plainchant was a natural development of the establishment and expansion of the Church in New France. Religious orders and institutions dedicated to evangelizing and teaching spread the main body of the repertory. Notwithstanding the difficulties experienced by the Church after the English conquest (1759-60), particularly in recruiting priests and maintaining religious observance, plain-song was still in use in 1800, when the first printed song collections began to appear. A new period of prosperity for the Church and its institutions in the 19th century led to considerable expansion of these practices.

Source materials. Numerous source documents have been preserved in the archives of institutions, religious orders, and parishes, as well as universities (Laval University, collection of the Séminaire de Québec), colleges (La Pocatière), and archdioceses. Prior to 1800 and the first local editions, European source materials or copies of them were brought to Canada by clergymen and members of religious orders for their own use or that of their institutions. In addition to orders from or purchases made in Europe, these materials were copied locally by enlightened ecclesiastics such as François Borel in Ste-Foy, or the Sulpician priest and organist Jean Girard, who also worked on behalf of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame in Montréal.

There are several types of source materials:

- liturgical books: missals, breviaries, ceremonials, pontificals, sacramentaries, martyrologies;

- descriptions of customs and repertories of religious orders: rules, statutes, customaries, charters of orders (Hospitalières of Montreal, Ursulines of Quebec City), regulations (such as those of the Quebec City Chapter);

- plain-song books (plain-song and sometimes polyphony): graduals, antiphonaries, published either in full-size choir format (Graduale romanum, Antiphonarium romanum), in condensed form (Epitome gradualis, Epitome antiphonarii), or in manuscript form (Graduale romanum copied by François Borel, 1748), psalters, processionals, vesperals, hymnaries, Passions, Holy Weeks;

- teaching methods: works ranging from elementary methods (Nouvelle méthode pour apprendre le plein-chant [sic], Paris ca 1700) to elaborate works such as François de La Feillée's Méthode nouvelle pour apprendre parfaitement les règles du plain-chant et de la psalmodie, Poitiers 1748, successive editions of which were available in New France.

The repertory owes its remarkable heterogeneity as much to the inaccessibility of sources as to the considerable diversity in plain-song practices and European rites at that time: there were different rites in Rome, Paris, Lyons, Rennes, Poitiers, etc. Source materials may be catalogued according to the various schools of that period: repertory faithful to the medieval tradition in books from Lyons (or in response to directives from the Council of Trent), simplified notation for graduals revised or approved by Nivers or Du Mont, ornate 'musical plainchant' in masses by Du Mont (which were used until the 20th century), hymns by Santeuil (music by Du Mont or Lebègue), skilful compositions by La Feillée in the style of Couperin's Leçons de Ténèbres. Fauxbourdons and polyphony were in use in the Chapter of the Quebec City cathedral, where they were accompanied on the organ, or even the cornet (serpent).

Nevertheless, some attempts at unification were made, including Mgr de St-Vallier's Rituel du diocèse de Québec (Paris 1703), which included plain-song pieces and regulated the rites and calendar of feast days either customary or particular to New France (St Joseph, St Francis-Xavier, Sainte-Famille). Moreover, Les Règlements du Chapitre du Québec (1684) required canons to follow the ways of Rome" and keep to "the old hymns of the Roman breviary," instructions that do not seem to have been rigorously followed.

La Ste-Famille. The Ste-Famille brotherhood (established in 1664) celebrated its own mass and office. Several authors, among them Adrien Pouliot and Willy Amtmann, have attempted to demonstrate that the music was a collection of borrowed works, except for the sequence (or prose) believed to be, without conclusive evidence, by Charles-Amador Martin, cantor at the Quebec City cathedral. The first printed edition of this office appeared in the Graduel romain of 1800; previous editions were all hand-written fragments (Livre cantoral, Ursulines of Quebec City; Graduale romanum, copied by François Borel, 1748) or inserted in printed books (Antiphonarium romanum, Paris 1668).

The Propers include: introit, alleluia, prose, offertory, and communion. The Messe royale by Du Mont or the Messe bordeloise, in measured and ornate 'plain-chant musical,' provides the pieces for the ordinary. The music for the hymns and antiphons of the office psalms was inserted by hand in several printed song handbooks (Antiphonarium, Paris 1668 and 1670).

The North American Natives. Seventeenth-century witnesses, including the authors of the Jesuit Relations, tell of the interest the natives showed in sacred chants and plain-song near towns and missions (Abenakis in Sillery), sometimes even in brotherhoods (Ste-Famille). These apostolic and musical activities maintained links with France, in particular with the Chapter of Chartres Cathedral.

Some missionaries brought manuscripts to the New World; among them is a 590-page manuscript deposited at the archdiocese of Quebec City that features the Abenaki language, Latin, and French (Christmas carols, hymns), plain-song, secular music (Christmas carols, hymns) or polyphony (fauxbourdons, motets). It contains the best known hymns (Veni Creator, Pange Lingua, Te Deum, Salve Regina, etc.), litanies, lessons from the Tenebrae, psalm tones, and various High Solemn Masses: Messe de la Vierge, Messe des morts, a two-part Messe royale, etc. Yvon Thériaut (L'Apostolat missionnaire en Mauricie, 1951) located a similar manuscript at the Indian reservation of Odanak (St-François-du-Lac, near Sorel).

Several song books, among them a Graduale romanum (Paris 1697) approved by Du Mont and Nivers, once the property of the Séminaire de Québec, show Abenaki words added with a pen (sections of masses for the feast days of the Assumption and the Purification).

Teaching. Clergymen, altar boys, and parish cantors received training in several institutions. Teaching remained rudimentary in small schools and parochial schools (reading, Latin pronunciation and rendering of accents, basic ear training). It was more extensive at institutions such as the Séminaire de Québec, which provided 60 to 90 minutes of plain-song instruction every day, at the Chapter of the Quebec City Cathedral (choir boys), or at the Sulpicians' in Montreal. By tradition, the Ursuline nuns (Quebec City, Trois-Rivières) accorded a special place to music and musical instruction (teaching methods, song books frequently in manuscript form, some of them in plain-song).

Ceremonies. With the exception of low masses and offices that were simply recited, there was singing at High Mass on Sundays and on the main feast days; at Sunday vespers; at salutations, benedictions, and expositions of the Blessed Sacrament; and during processions (Blessed Sacrament, Assumption). Mgr de St-Vallier's Rituel instructed readers to follow the liturgical calendar of Trent and to celebrate with music patronal festivals (such as those pertaining to the country, institutions, and parishes), feast days particular to New France, and devotional masses (St Anne, Notre-Dame). There were countless ceremonies aimed at warding off natural disasters, thanksgiving services including the Te Deum intended to emphasize social and political events, and masses for the King featuring the Domine salvum fac regem. Finally, in those difficult times, the Mass and Office of the Dead were an inevitable part of everyday life.

19th and 20th Centuries

During the 19th century, plain-song was a reflection of the European movement toward restoration, of which the principal initiative was spearheaded by the monks at the Abbey of Solesmes (France), represented in particular by Dom Joseph Pothier and Dom André Mocquereau.

Quebec bishops recommended the use of Gregorian chant and denounced the use of theatrical music, opera arias, and mixed choruses as well as any instrument other than the organ. Cantors used a wide variety of song books (see the Graduel romain): ie the first works printed by John Neilson in Quebec after 1800; collections gathered on site at the first Provincial Council of Quebec (1851); books containing restored melodies or original melodies from the older edition known as the Médicéenne, as well as songs from many different sources. In addition, theoretical works began to appear on the subject of authentic plain-song, that is, the type of plain-song that most closely resembled the lost medieval tradition, including Edmond McMahon's Méthode élémentaire de plain-chant romain (Montreal 1880).

There was a growing trend toward providing an accompaniment to plain-song. The most important collections were J.-B. Labelle's Le Répertoire de l'organiste (whose first edition was published in 1851) and Pierre-Minier Lagacé's Les Chants d'Église, harmonisés pour l'orgue suivant les principes de la tonalité grégorienne (Paris 1860). The publication of Lagacé's book incited a disagreement over the matter of plain-song accompaniment between Ernest Gagnon (who sided with Lagacé) and Antoine Dessane, who resigned his position as organist at Notre-Dame because of this dispute. Romain-Octave Pelletier's accompaniments to the Manuel de chants liturgiques by Father Cléophas Borduas (Montreal 1890) and Ernest Gagnon's Accompagnement d'orgue des chants liturgiques (Boucher 1903?, 1912, 1917-8) are other noteworthy examples of plain-song accompaniment.

In his 1903 Motu proprio on sacred music, Tra le sollecitudini, Pope Pius X decreed that Gregorian chant and polyphony of the Palestrina school would from then on be the only music suitable for the Roman Catholic Church, and he ordered that mixed choruses be replaced by children's choirs and that no other instrument but the organ be used. This Motu proprio had considerable influence in French Canada, where it gave rise to a strong tradition of Gregorian chant based on the so-called Vatican edition of 1908, an edition based on the works of the Abbey of Solesmes.

The Schola cantorum, founded in Montreal in 1915, included Gregorian chant in its first curriculum and introduced a diploma course in plain-song accompaniment. It also organized choir competitions for Gregorian singing and published works that it considered faithful to Gregorian principles and to the precepts of the Motu proprio. With the creation of the Faculty of Music at the University of Montreal in 1950, the long-standing affiliation between the university and the Gregorian Institute (Toledo, Ohio) was reconstituted as a direct affiliation between the institute and the faculty. This arrangement remained in effect until 1967, when the university discontinued all affiliations. One place notable for the practice of plain-song, and specifically Gregorian chant, is the Benedictine monastery founded in 1912 at St-Benoît-du-Lac, Que. Recordings of plain-song have been made there, and Dom Georges Mercure, the monastery's foremost authority on the subject (Dom Oscar O'Brien was a later authority), published the book Rythmique grégorienne (St-Benoît-du-Lac 1937). Another centre, Toronto's St Michael's Cathedral Choir School, was established in 1937 by Mgr Ronan, who had studied Gregorian chant at Solesmes and who taught at St Augustine's Seminary, Scarborough, Ont., 1923-56. Among other teachers of plain-song were Louis Bouhier, one of Montreal's leading specialists in Gregorian chant and the author of Quatre-vingts motets en chant grégorien et en musique moderne pour les saluts du St-Sacrement (Montreal 1907); Éthelbert Thibault; and Eugène Lapierre, the author of Traité sommaire d'accompagnement grégorien (Montreal 1949) and Gregorian Chant Accompaniment (Toledo 1949).

Vatican II, the second international policy council of leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, which met in 1962, 1963, and 1964, decided to move away from Latin in favour of a greater use of the vernacular accompanied by more modern types of music. As a result, the use of plain-song was reduced or abandoned altogether in many Roman Catholic churches, although during the 1970s there appeared to be a trend toward restoring at least some of the Gregorian chants with Latin words, a practice neither forbidden nor discouraged by Vatican II. Among Quebec musicians who have contributed significantly to the perpetuation of plain-song are Placide Gagnon, Germain Lalande, Conrad Latour, Jules Martel, and Clément Morin, all teachers and choir directors who have trained choirs in the tradition. The writings of Charles-Hugues Lefebvre, particularly the series on "Musique d'église - Instruction de S.S. Pie X sur la musique sacrée," in La Musique in 1919, were an important influence.

The monks of Saint-Benoît-du-Lac and the Benedictine nuns at Sainte-Marie-des-Deux-Montagnes have preserved Gregorian chant in the liturgy. Beginning in the 1990s, several lay choirs also joined this movement. Among these, a few have turned to the type of Gregorian chant presented in the paleographic works of Dom Eugène Cardine of the Abbey of Solesmes (Graduel Triplex 1979). Also of note are the various choirs directed by Dom André Saint-Cyr OSB (Abbey of Saint-Benoît-du-Lac) in Montreal, Laval, and Sherbrooke; the Ritual Choir at the Church of St Mary Magdalene in Toronto (director Robert Castle); or even the Schola Saint-Grégoire in Montreal, founded (1994) and directed by Jean-Pierre Noiseux, one of whose objectives is the interpretation of historical liturgical repertories such as Beneventan chant.

During the 19th century, the English Tractarian movement, also called the Oxford movement, worked for a restoration of Catholic worship and liturgical music within the Church of England. The effects of this movement were felt somewhat later in Canada. Early in the 20th century, Arthur Dorey, choirmaster at Christ Church Cathedral, Ottawa, tried to introduce plain-song into the service. His attempts lost impetus under his successor. In 1921 Healey Willan became precentor of the Church of St Mary Magdalene in Toronto and began to adapt Gregorian chant to the texts of the propers of The English Hymnal. These propers and also antiphons and responsories have continued in regular use in Anglican churches. Dalton Baker, who taught plain-song (1924-32) to his 40-voice boys' choir at St Peter's Church in Toronto, helped to establish the tradition in central Canada. In British Columbia Leonard Wilson led the campaign.

Willan's accompaniments to plain-song hymns may be found in the Presbyterian Book of Praise (1918, 1972), the United Church Hymnary (1930), the Anglican Book of Common Praise (revised 1938), and the joint United and Anglican churches' Hymn Book (1971), the last of which contains harmonizations by Margaret Drynan and Robert Hunter Bell as well. Willan was editor of The Canadian Psalter, Plain-song edition (1963). He based the pointing of the psalms (i.e., the allocation and phrasing of the words of the psalm in relation to the notes of the chant) entirely on the Briggs and Frere psalter (A Manual of Plainsong for Divine Service by Henry Bremridge Briggs and Walter Howard Frere [London 1902], a new edition of the Helmore psalter of 1850). In 1950 Willan co-founded the Gregorian Association of Toronto (later the Gregorian Association of Canada). The association was established to promote a wider use of plain-song, but it declined after Willan's retirement as its musical director in 1963; by 1968 it had become virtually inactive. Canadian medievalists with an extensive knowledge of plain-song include Gaston Allaire, Terence Bailey, Andrew Hughes, and Neil K. Moran.

21st Century

The beginning of the 21st century saw the birth of a number of organizations, among them the Gregorian Institute of Canada/L'Institut grégorien du Canada, founded in 2004. Its mission is to promote the study and interpretation of Gregorian chant from a historical perspective, in particular by the publication of the music of the office according to the Sarum rite (Sarum Use de Salisbury), which was used in England, Scotland, and Ireland - until the middle of the 16th century. This institute is part of an enormous source compilation project (the Cantus database) under the direction of Terence Bailey at the University of Western Ontario.


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