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Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Benedictine Monks of The Abbey of St. Maurice and St. Maur, "Salve Regina: Gregorian Chant"

The Benedictine Monks of The Abbey of St. Maurice and St. Maur
"Salve Regina: Gregorian Chant"
Philips (1958)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

This is the super-sexy post that all of you Tom Moon fans have been waiting for: "Salve Regina: Gregorian Chant," a collection of live recordings made of the Benedictine Monks from the Abbeys of St. Maurice and St. Maur, all from Luxembourg. Listening to Gregorian chant might seem like a mortal sin against your hipness (I'll be here all week), but stick with me. There are some valuable lessons to be learned from the Church.

Chant hasn't disappeared altogether from 21st Century culture; it just never caught on as much in the United States. The Irish Catholics who brought the religion to the fledgling nation were more hellbent on survival, rather than establishing the monastic life of the old world.

Moon's entry on the album seemed more likely to turn away new listeners versus luring them in. He focuses quite a bit on the atonal nature of chant, a description that sounds insulting when taken the wrong way, so let's clarify. Yes, the vocal style of these monks is atonal. This doesn't mean it's boring in the least. A fundamental feature of liturgical chant is that avoids flair at all costs. It's like the opposite of the "Star-Spangled Banner" before the Super Bowl. These vocalists never aimed for spectacle, but rather to demonstrate devotion. This is a drastic difference from the Baroque bombast such as Bach's "Mass in B Minor." Philips was lucky to get the chance to record this session from a group that otherwise shuns any spotlights.

The recording itself sheds light on the mystique of chant. There isn't any awesome power in the monks' vocal abilities. They can sing in tune and hold a melody down, but without any raw power and, as mentioned before, no melodramatic curlicues. "Salve Regina" proves that the hypnotic lure behind the style is most often provided by the venue. There are few structures that feature acoustics as those in centuries-old European churches. The high ceilings and stone masonry both amplify voices and lend an ethereal echo to the chanting, making it seem as if the monks have at least gotten partway into a world separating us from the divine.

Maybe my pro-Gregorian arguments above have fallen on deaf ears with you kids and your rock 'n' roll. If this is the case, I present this thought that I had as I considered "Salve Regina:" Catholic monks are the first solid evidence of call-and-response vocals! Anyone who's been to a Catholic Mass is familiar with the "responsorial psalm," a song where a verse is sung by a vocalist, and the congregation responds with the chorus. This concept is derived from Gregorian chant, and is evident during every track on this album. Even more relevant to the rest of this blog, any time you're listening to Operation Ivy or Rancid or a thousand other punk bands that use call-and-response style choruses, they're deriving it from church music! (Punk rocker's head explodes).

This is another case where you should at least give my sample track a listen. No, I'm not honestly expecting you to enjoy monastic chant without significant submersion into sacred music, but regardless of your religious background or musical taste, hopefully this album generates respect for the lasting influence of old world music and how much a few monks can do with so little.

NOTE ON CLASSIFICATION: No, "Gospel" isn't an accurate description, but Moon lists it as "Classical" in his book and I feel that's even farther off. There won't be all that many Gospel entries anyhow, so they'll take what they can get.

INTERESTING FACT: Gregorian chant is named after Pope Gregory the Great. A common myth is that he wrote many of the original chants, but this is untrue. Rather, he ordered the simplification and consolidating of the Catholic Church's song catalogue. At the time, there were many chants that shared similar lyrics, so this meant making single, official versions of many songs. After this, an official collection was released for use in churches across Europe.

Salve Regina, Antiphona (tonus monasticus) In Honorem Beatae Mariae Virginis by Clevaux Benedictine Monks of the Abbey of St. Maurice & St. Maur on Grooveshark

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