Driving up to the Abbey of Solesmes in France, it would be easy to think you had been transported into a French fairy tale–a small village, flowers blooming, a trickling stream and a stone abbey that instantly communicated a still beauty that can only be described as otherworldly.
This picturesque abbey is home to an order of Benedictine monks who are best known for their preservation of Gregorian chant, a form of plain chant developed in the 3rd or 4th century, but solidified in the 11th century. Many parishes today may use chant at Mass, particularly during the Propers, such as the Kyrie or the Sanctus. Other popular chants include the Salve Regina (Hail, Holy Queen), which may be chanted at the end of Mass or after reciting a Rosary.
Sitting in a pew in the Abbey Church for Mass or the Liturgy of the Hours, one quickly realizes that the community’s reputation as the very heart of Gregorian Chant is not unfounded.
Listening to the monks, one can easily understand why they say that “Gregorian chant is at the heart of the liturgy, the public prayer of the whole people of God.” Throughout Church history, Gregorian chant has been given pride of place in the Mass, with even the Second Vatican Council proclaiming “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman Liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 116).
Due to the Protestant Reformation and the emergence of polyphony, Gregorian chant fell into decline during the Renaissance. Attempts to revive it were made in the 17th century according to the rules of modern music, but this interpretation of the music lacked depth. It was not until a priest by the name of Dom Gueranger established the community at Solesmes in the 19th century that the world once again was exposed to the musical texts as they were meant to be sung. Dom Gueranger made it his mission to research and restore this timeless music so that liturgical books could be published and used around the world to guide worship.
The monks at the Abbey of Solesmes emphasize that their primary vocation is not to preserve this musical form, though they certainly do that work. After all, they say, chant is not just a historical part of the Church’s past, but a living expression of praise to God.