Lessons in Liturgical Music from France

When I was a student at Christendom College, one of the things that drove my chant maestro, the indomitable Fr Robert Skeris, crazy, was when I would absent myself from the schola on a Sunday morning to indulge in liturgical tourism. Now that I am a student once again, without any parochial responsibilities or musical ones, I can engage in this little vice to my heart’s content. Whether my heart is content with what I have seen and heard is another matter, but that’s for another posting! Right now, I am enjoying the city of Montpellier, where I am busy perfecting my French and enjoying a little bit of Languedoc for the summer.

I have already made the round of the city’s most important churches, and I have found a similar situation in all of them, with two notable exceptions. Congenial clergy preside over basically rubrically correct liturgies of standard Ordinary Form fare; lots of singing of orations and active participation of the part of the people. But how few people there are! I tried to help out a superb cantress at a daily Vesper service at the Cathedral; she and I, in my poor French, sang the psalms as a couple of other dedicated layfolk tried to sing with us. I have found the few and the proud, mostly older, but very sincere, to be a refreshing change from the unadulterated secularism of my European schoolmates. But I also have found it interesting to see how the clergy often give cues to everyone what to sing, when to sing, and how to sing, from the people in the pews to the organist in the loft. That’s when there is not a young woman in the sanctuary with a guitar being prodded by Monsieur l’Abbe on when to do what. I have come away from these Masses wondering why everyone needs to always be told what to do all the time. Maybe they do, but I am thinking perhaps not.
There are two lovely exceptions to what seems to be the rule. The Dominican church has a late-night Mass that is filled with students and young adults. The Dominican Fathers concelebrate and a young priest directs a student chorale in the music of Andre Gouzes of the Abbey of Sylvanes. The music is certainly very prayerful, very much in what I have come to describe in my non-musical way as “Russian polyphony with a Taize feel to it in French.” Still the desire to direct everything and tell the organist up in the loft what to do, but at least a church filled with the young who do actually sing, in parts, the simple parts of the Mass and the “chorales” with verse and refrain that stand in for the Propers.
The other exception has been St Matthieu, a church given over to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite under the care of the Institute of Christ the King. The Institute’s noted penchant for Baroque vestments and Solesmes chant continues here. But absent is the stuffiness and military precision which characterise some some of the EF places. A mixed schola ably executes the Propers, and the people sing the responses and the Missa de Angelis well. It has been interesting to hear religious scouting songs sung in French during the Mass, the enthusiasm for which is only broken by the sound of so many children doing what children do best at Mass: join their voices with the chorus of praise going on around them, albeit not necessarily to a tune found in nature.
I do not intend on making my contributions to this blog a travelogue of interesting experiences, as if I were some kind of modern Euro-American version of Egeria describing late-antique Jerusalem. But sometimes sharing what others are doing for the sacred around the world is a good thing. We can learn a lot about what to do (attract young people to Mass by music done well) and also what not to do (direct the choir from the altar, maybe?). Either way, the Mass is celebrated, God shines His graces upon us, and the mystery of Redemption continues to break in on our lives in the most surprising of ways – all around this world.

6 Replies to “Lessons in Liturgical Music from France”

  1. Sounds like you ran into some of Fr. Andres Gouzes' music, Father. Apt description: orthodox homophony meets French. The English versions are just as viable.

  2. Excellent post. Thanks for your insights & with the liturgy as you travel.
    It's certainly given me a few ideas!

  3. What a fascinating post, Father Christopher! I would love to have been there for the Institute's Mass. A priest friend of mine once told me that André Gouze's music is sometimes referred to as "Gouzantine"! 🙂 About 12 years ago I heard a Vespers at a Domincan church in Marseilles that featured music which I believe was by Gouze. It definitely had that Byzantine-like sound.

  4. I'm actually quite mad for the music of Pere Andre Gouzes and the Fraternites de Jerusalem (who are in Vezelay among other places) use his music as well as their own which is similar in style. My only complaint with the English version of Gouzes' Mass and Vespers was the use of a very English choir that gave a highly polished performance and probably convinced many that the music was out of reach.

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