Feast of St. Benedict at Solesmes

Author: Sacred Music

SACRED MUSIC Volume 117, Number 2, Summer 1990

The Feast of Saint Benedict at Solesmes

On Wednesday, July 11, I interrupted a more secular tour of the chateaux of the Loire valley in order to enter the medieval spirituality of the Abbey of St. Pierre of Solesmes to celebrate the feast of St. Benedict. The day was sunny and warm without being hot and we drove the 90 kilometers from Tours in about one and one-half hours. We arrived just as Mass was beginning in the austere chapel. The full parking lots announced the equally full church so we hurried through the medieval courtyard and were ushered by a Benedictine monk to places at the back of the long nave.

For those of you who have not been to Solesmes, perhaps a short description will set the scene. The cloistered Benedictine monastery began as a priory in 1010. The arcades of the nave of the chapel date from this period and the vaults and transepts from the 15th and 16th centuries. The overall impression is of transitional gothic; the nave is excessively long and very high. Although the choir was built in the 19th century and restored in 1974 it harmonizes with the earlier medieval construction.

Because we were at the back of the nave and because the monks were in their traditional places in choir stalls near the sanctuary, we could not see them well, but we could participate fully by listening to the well- modulated and seemingly effortless tones of the chant. We could follow the chants with the books provided and with the pamphlet in French and Latin which contained the proper of the Mass for the feast of St. Benedict. This included a special sequence for the feast, "Laeta Dies" (Happy the day of the great master, conferring the gift of a new light: it is the day we celebrate). At the end of Mass we were impressed by the large number of priests, monks and lay brothers who processed out of the choir.

We stayed in the chapel for several minutes after Mass in order to study the architecture and appreciate the monumental sculptural groupings in the chapels of the transepts. However, we were soon drawn outside by the singing of a mixed choir standing in the courtyard just outside the main entrance of the chapel. The music was full and earnest as it resonated off the surrounding buildings. Drawn to the sound we discovered that we were hearing the youth choir from the cathedral of Vilnius in Lithuania which was on tour throughout France and had sung the day before in Paris. They sang from memory in Lithuanian as well as in Latin and each of their hymns was answered with a selection sung by the Petits Chanteurs a la Croix de Bois from Besancon, clad in their traditional white robes with wooden crosses around their necks. I learned that this latter choir was spending three weeks at Solesmes to study chant as it does every summer. Finally, in conclusion the director of the Lithuanian choir intoned the chant "Salve Regina" and we all joined in, members of the two choirs and those of us standing in the courtyard. The manifestation of the universality of the Church and of the devotion to Our Lady brought tears to many eyes. The choir members exchanged souvenirs, the women singers from Vilnius putting their colorful silk scarves around the necks of some of the Little Singers.

We left Solesmes by way of the Sarthe river in order to enjoy the impressive view of the monumentality of the monastery mirrored in the tranquil water. Although the work of Solesmes has been interrupted several times by the events of history (the monks had to leave Solesmes in 1791, 1880 and 1901), the contribution of the monks of this cloistered community to Gregorian chant continues with renewed vigor as they carry on the glorious legacy of Dom Pothier, Dom Mocquereau, and Dom Gajard and the semiological study of chant introduced by Dom Eugene Cardine. Solesmes continues to produce the chant books necessary for the post-Vatican II liturgy, a rich flowering of the history, tradition and doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church.