In the early nineteenth century the Catholic Church realized it had a problem. Perhaps, it must be admitted, more than one. But the problem that preoccupied it at that moment had to do with the Divine Office. This consisted of eight times in the daily life of a Catholic community when chants were sung. Plainchant. Gregorian chant. Simple songs sung by humble monks.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the Catholic Church had lost the Divine Office.
The different services throughout a religious day were still performed. What were called Gregorian chants were sung here and there, in the odd monastery, but even Rome admitted the chants had strayed so far from the originals that they were considered corrupt, even barbaric. At least, in comparison to the elegant and graceful chants of centuries earlier.
But one man had a solution.
In 1833 a young monk, Dom Prosper, revived the Abbey of St. Pierre in Solesmes, France, and made it his mission to also bring back to life the original Gregorian chants.
But this produced another problem. It turned out, after much investigation by the abbot, that no one knew what the original chants sounded like. There was no written record of the earliest chants. They were so old, more than a millenium, that they predated written music. They were learned by heart, passed down orally, after years of study, from one monk to another. The chants were simple, but there was power in that very simplicity. The first chants were soothing, contemplative, magnetic.
They had such a profound effect on those who sang and heard them that the ancient chants became known as “the beautiful mystery.” The monks believed they were singing the word of God, in the calm, reassuring, hypnotic voice of God.
What Dom Prosper did know was that sometime in the ninth century, a thousand years before the abbot lived, a brother monk had also contemplated the mystery of the chants. According to Church lore, this anonymous monk was visited by an inspired idea. He would make a written record of the chants. So that they’d be preserved. Too many of his numbskull novices made too many mistakes when trying to learn the plainchants. If the words and music really were Divine, as he believed with all his heart, then they needed to be safer than stored in such faulty human heads.
Dom Prosper, in his own stone cell in his own abbey, could see that monk sitting in a room exactly like his. As the abbot imagined it, the monk pulled a piece of lambskin, vellum, toward him then dipped his sharpened quill in ink. He wrote the words, the text, in Latin, of course. The psalms. And once that was done he went back to the beginning. To the first word.
His quill hovered over it.
How to write music? How could he possibly communicate something that sublime? He tried writing out instructions, but that was far too cumbersome. Words alone could never describe how this music transcended the normal human state, and lifted man to the Divine.
The monk was stumped. For days and weeks he went about his monastic life. Joining the others in prayer and work. And prayer. Chanting the Office. Teaching the young and easily distracted novices.
And then one day he noticed that they focused on his right hand, as he guided their voices. Up, down. Faster, slower. Quietly, quietly. They’d memorized the words, but depended upon his hand signals for the music itself.
That night, after Vespers, this nameless monk sat by precious candle-light, staring at the psalms written so carefully on the vellum. Then he dipped his quill in ink and drew the very first musical note.
It was a wave above a word. A single, short, squiggly line. Then another. And another. He drew his hand. Stylized. Guiding some unseen monk to raise his voice. Higher. Then holding. Then higher again. Hanging there for just a moment, then swooping and sweeping downward in a giddy musical descent.
He hummed as he wrote. His simple hand signals on the page fluttered, so that the words came alive and lifted off. Became airborne. Joyous. He heard the voices of monks not yet born joining him. Singing exactly the same chants that freed him and lifted his heart to Heaven.
In trying to capture the beautiful mystery, this monk had invented written music. Not yet notes, what he’d written became known as neumes.
Over the centuries this plain chant evolved into complex chant. Instruments were added, harmonies were added, which led to chords and staffs and finally musical notes. Do-re-mi. Modern music was born. The Beatles, Mozart, rap. Disco, Annie Get Your Gun, Lady Gaga. All sprang from the same ancient seed. A monk, drawing his hand. Humming and conducting and straining for the Divine.
Gregorian chant was the father of western music. But it was eventually killed by its ungrateful children. Buried. Lost and forgotten.
Until the early 1800s when Dom Prosper, sickened by what he saw as the vulgarity of the Church and the loss of simplicity and purity, decided it was time to resurrect the original Gregorian chants. To find the voice of God.