Gregorian chant recordings from 1904 – interesting but… YIKES!

Over at Rorate I found links to fascinating recordings on Youtube from 1904. 

First is the famous Benedictine pioneer of modern Gregorian chant, Dom André Mocquereau. He conducts students of the French Seminary in Rome in the chant Alleluia Pascha nostrum.

I find the chant deeply … disturbing, but then I am firmly in the camp of Dom Cardine.

In my conversation about this recording with Jeffrey Tucker at Chant Cafe, the comment came up:

“Chant had to be destroyed to be saved.”

Only too true.


Whew! We have come a loooooong way since then.

Don’t sing chant that way.  Again, I am in the more fluid Cardine camp. I also don’t go for the choppy proportional approach.

The other recording, of Dom Joseph Pothier with a schola of Benedictines from Sant’Anselmo in Rome is marginally better.  Pothier was a promoter of a style that stuck to the sense of the prayer though with a strong adherence to equality of length of notes.  But under Pothier they have the same tendency to chop up the figures and … what’s with that dreadful glide?


Mocquereau and Pothier butted heads over the values of, the duration, of notes.

Anyway, chant probably had to be destroyed to be saved.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Mary Jane says:

    Ugh. Those were painful to listen to!

  2. Darren says:

    Wow… the Mocquereau one sounded like a warped record. The Pothier was truly only marginally better…

    I like my CD from the Mystic Monks in Wyoming, and the others I have from the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Fontgombault. Etc…

  3. Mark01 says:

    Father, can you recommend a good chant album on iTunes?

  4. jbas says:

    Last year, the Catholic News Service Facebook Page posted the question, “would you rather sing at Mass or hear Gregorian chant?” I wonder if this sort of thing is their only idea of Gregorian chant.

  5. wmeyer says:

    The glide puts me in mind of some of our more recent hymns from Protestant authors: the notes change simply because they think the notes should change, not from any sense of a melody; much like the sing-song we might hear from kids in Kindergarten.

  6. maskaggs says:

    I’d still take it over tambourines :D

  7. Supertradmum says:

    I do not want to put a fox in among the chickens, but there could be two reasons why these not-so-musical renditions of the chant are like that. First, in the old days, even in the early 20th century, monks were not educated to the standard they are now. Many were from peasant background and may even had to learn how to read. [There were monks at Sant’Anselmo (students) and seminarians.] Secondly, in France, remember that the Revolution interrupted the monastic tradition in most places and the monasteries had to start over again with a revival. We post-WWII generations take so much for granted.

    In England, I think Mary Berry was largely responsible for improving chant among both Catholics and Anglicans. One can still here regional differences, however. And, thanks Father, for the information on the two experts sparring over the two ways of singing. Very interesting.

  8. fvhale says:

    I like the Alleluia Pascha Nostrum. Only for Easter, of course.

    Is it the chant itself, which sort of pushes the melismatic envelope, or just the old, scratchy recording and primitive sound quality of the 1904 recording that are objectionable? [The interpretation, obviously.]

    Here is a performance by the ensemble Graindelavoix in Utrecht last August, with interesting soloist followed by interesting polyphony:

    Here are some Romanian sisters last April:

    And here is the Sistine Chapel Boys Choir singing a variant at Easter Mass 2010 at St. Peter’s, in the expected place in the liturgy before the reading of the Gospel:

    I like the chant, but the old recording not so much.

  9. Mary Jane says:

    “would you rather sing at Mass or hear Gregorian chant?” Those aren’t (shouldn’t be) mutually exclusive. =P

  10. ppb says:

    Well, the age and quality of these recordings are certainly part of what makes them unpalatable. I am not particularly partisan about the nuances of chant interpretation, but yes, these sound pretty pedestrian.

  11. APX says:

    I’ll take it over listening to chant being sung full of vibrato and sforzandos and forte-pianos. I’m no expert on Gregorian Chant, but I’m pretty sure it’s not supposed to sound like that.

  12. Mary Jane says:

    I disagree that the age & quality of the recordings are the problem (or even part of the problem) – those can both be overlooked, especially when you keep in mind that recording and sound equipment has come a long way since 1904.

    The interpretation of the chant is what is dreadful. Chant shouldn’t sound like that.

    Personally, I like the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo De Silos…they have some great chant CDs out there.

  13. Marcin says:

    “would you rather sing at Mass or hear Gregorian chant?”

  14. Mary Jane says:

    @ Mark01, maybe check this one out? Might give the samples a listen before you buy.

  15. Julia says:

    I’m 68 years old. This is what my parish men’s choir sounded like in the 1950s & early 1960s.
    I have recordings of about 5 Sunday and Holy Day Masses from 1958.
    This is what most parish choirs sounded like when they did the Propers.
    My grade school girls choir was rehearsed by a Sister of Loretto with a music degree every day for an hour and we sounded much more polished when we did Requiem Masses and week-day Masses.
    You aren’t going to get many parish choirs to suit your standards. When my choir does the occasional Latin chant, we are just glad the people sing along.

  16. Ignatius says:

    Give me Ensemble Organum or give me death…!

    This is how I would like Gregorian Chant to sound always.

  17. chantgirl says:

    Too heavy. Our director would throw something if we punched the notes like that. I do agree that the state of chant in regular parishes (in the regular parishes that even have it) is mostly ghastly- too slow, heavy, long pauses. I went to a EF mass in another city for Easter, and the music was so terrible that it was distracting. If people only hear chant done badly, no wonder many don’t appreciate it. We would do well to start training children to sing chant when they are young. As a matter of fact, here is a summer choir camp for children that teaches chant and polyphonic vocal technique.

  18. chantgirl says:

    I do have to have a little mercy on the choristers in these recordings because they are seminarians and not professional vocalists. Thank goodness a perfect singing voice isn’t a priestly requirement!

  19. OrthodoxChick says:

    I know less than zero about chant, so if you all say these recordings are examples of chant poorly executed, I’ll take your word for it. But I’d still rather listen to these seminarians from 106 years ago trying to chant their hearts out instead of rehashed 1970’s folk tunes. There is no conceiveable way to make folk music sound prayerful. Can’t be done. Shouldn’t even be attempted.

    Quaeritur: If singing is praying twice, is chant praying thrice?

  20. Sissy says:

    Well, it did say they were students. Perhaps beginners? Maybe this was day one of class. This sounds like what we used to call “sing-song”.

  21. Mary Jane says:

    @ OrthodoxChick, I think the saying is that “he who sings *well* prays twice”. ;-)

  22. Diane at Te Deum Laudamus says:

    I wonder if that monastery produced whiskey. It could be that the fumes just got to them that day.

  23. OrthodoxChick says:


    You have to sing “well” in order to pray twice? What if the organist-vocalist can’t carry a tune in a dump truck? That must be like praying less than even once. The one at my last parish sounded like a screech owl in heat (no offense to screech owls intended).

  24. Gregory DiPippo says:

    Heaven forfend, Ignatius. Everything Ensemble Organum does sounds exactly the same, and all of it sounds like a muezzin whose tenure has outlasted his voice.

  25. fvhale says:

    There are two other chant recordings from 1904 on YouTube, recorded at St. Peter’s in Rome (why all this 1904 stuff?).



    The Credo sounds so modern!

  26. Mary Jane says:

    @ OrthodoxChick, Fr Z had a post on this awhile back – here is the link:

  27. asperges says:

    The nature of the chant sung properly in transcendental in the sense that the music itself becomes almost unimportant: it is pure prayer. Anyone who has stayed at Fontgombault or somewhere similar knows instinctively whether it is achieving its end. There the chant is lived as part of the liturgy, not ‘performed’ as in some of the ludicrous versions of the chant peddled elsewhere – for academics or musicologists who understand little of why it there at all. It is inseparable from the Mass or office it was created for. If you have no feeling for one, you will not understand the other.

    The recordings are of poor quality by today’s standard although of great interest. Most recordings of the early 20th century do little to flatter the performers whoever they are. The singers on that recording were certainly not mostly French by their accents alone.

    The French with their weak (language) tonic accent have an advantage over, say, German choirs, who invariably sound heavy and jerky in comparison, because they naturally support a more flowing style. Alas, the Vatican has never had a good chant choir: they are all soloists. English (and American) choirs can cope with chant but need with practice to work on the open rhythm which does not come easily.

    For un-performed and genuine Gregorian chant see (Fontgombault). Pure prayer as it should be. No gimmicks.

  28. merrydelval says:

    Can I buy an episema? an ictus? Anyone, anyone? :-)

  29. Supertradmum says:

    Thank you for correcting my thoughts on this, Fr. Z.

  30. AnAmericanMother says:

    Show a little mercy, everyone.
    They probably were instructed by the recording technician to ‘punch’ the notes. The equipment used at the time was mechanical only – no volume control, no preamp, no mikes, and aside from the scratchy flutter that we’re all familiar with, the sound was “muddy” as well. The technician was probably concerned that the individual notes would not be heard.
    (I’m no expert, but my father in law – may he rest in peace – was in the audio business. He collected old phonographs, wax cylinders, and records, and he told me an awful lot of interesting information, most of which – sadly – I’ve forgotten.)
    The “swoop” was a trick used at the time to avoid pinching the high notes (it works, btw, as a true contralto struggling to sing your typical alto line, I use it all the time). Overdone here, possibly because of changing their style for recording purposes, possibly another recording artifact.
    Why 1904? That was the year that Victor began its “Red Seal” high-fidelity recordings, relatively high-fidelity anyhow. Or perhaps the new pope St. Pius X had something to do with it, as he promoted chant in general and Solesmes in particular, and appointed Dom Joseph Pothier to revise the chants.
    I would not think English choirs would have any difficulty with the free rhythm of Gregorian chant, seeing as how they all sing Anglican chant. The pointing is not as precise as Solesmes notation, but it gets you to approximately the same place.

  31. AnAmericanMother says:

    Bingo! RCA Victor Red Seal.
    The chant for the Credo is the same one we use every First Sunday (Credo III).

  32. Sissy says:

    Thanks for the good information, AnAmericanMom. And you’re right about the “swoop”; I was taught to use that, too.

  33. AnAmericanMother says:

    You must have had a good choirmaster! Ours tells us that the ‘swoop’ should be inaudible, but that it’s better to ‘swoop’ than ‘screech’ . . . . :-)

  34. Robert says:

    I agree with AnAmericanMother, the style here probably suffers as a result of the primitive recording technology. In those days, singers had to really “project” in order to be heard on recordings. The most successful recording vocalist of the time, Enrico Caruso, had the perfect voice for the phonograph. The Solesmes style of singing by contrast is pretty much the exact opposite of projecting; the monks are sometimes accused of mumbling or singing to themselves, but in a very resonant acoustic environment the effect can be very beautiful. I would say that neither recordings necessarily capture what a choir directed by Pothier or Mocquereau would really have sounded like, although they are an important documentation of their rhythmic approaches.

  35. Sissy says:

    AAM: “You must have had a good choirmaster!”.

    I did, indeed, but that was back in my Anglican days. Alas.

  36. jdscotus says:

    I’m afraid I can’t pile on. Huysmans, in a series of letters to various people, railed against the state of music in France at the turn of the twentieth century. He was a fan of the work Dom Pothier and Dom Mocquereau were doing. “When I talk about Gregorian chant, I do not at all mean those cartloads of gravel that are emptied on to sanctuary pavements by overflowing choristers, I mean the plainchant of Solesmes, restored by Dom Pothier and Dom Mocquereau, I mean the only true Church music, and not the odious counterfeit commodity that so many choirmasters are satisfied with.” From The Road from Decadence, page 212.

  37. Melody says:

    They hardly sound that terrible. They sound like a group of ordinary people who are prayerfully singing. This is what normal people sound like who don’t know a lot about music. Give me this a hundred times over the congregation singing another chorus of “Welcome to this place.”

  38. medievalist says:

    By analogy…the liturgy had to be destroyed to be saved?

  39. Michael_Thoma says:

    Real chant (pre-Gregorian!): [ ;-) ]

    I post semi-jokingly of course! But historically, Gregorian music was initially influenced by Syriac chant – currently prayed by Syro-Malankara Catholics, Syriac Catholics, Maronites, Syriac Orthodox, and Malankara Orthodox:

    If you listen to the Latin Mozarabic Rite, you can hear how Syriac chant influenced Islamic chant, and then in turn influence Latin chant in Spain:

  40. In re the second recording: have the propers for the feast of the Assumption changed since 1904, or is that from some other rite? That introit (officium) is used in the Dominican Rite (common of one virgin not a martyr); but the Roman rite introit for the Assumption is Signum magnum apparuit in caelo. What gives?

    P.S. I agree the chant is not well-executed, but I’d take that over “Peace Is Flowing Like a River” any day, or even every day.

  41. Han says:

    Miss Moore, O.P.–

    Pope Pius XII changed the propers for the feast of the Assumption when he dogmatized the doctrine. Prior to 1950, the proper introit for the Assumption in the Roman Rite was “Gaudeamus….”

  42. Ignatius says:

    Oh, Mr Di Pippo! I don’t agree, Mr. Peres’ choirs do have a distinctive and unusual style but “everything the same”? I don’t think so. But you know about this a lot more than I know, so…
    I also like some recordings of the Monks of Silos and some of the Escolanía del Valle de los Caídos. Interestingly enough, what I heard from Montserrat sounds rather similar to the Dom Mocquereau recording…

  43. jflare says:

    I’m afraid I’m a bit perplexed on this one. I listened to part of both recordings twice, the only thing REALLY obnoxious was the static of the recording quality.
    It wasn’t QUITE as smooth and flowing as I’d like and I’m not fond of the extended vowels on the alleluia. Even so, not bad for what they did.
    If anything, they sounded more or less like the recordings I have of the Silos monks from 10 years or so ago, if slightly less well-rehearsed.

    I’m also not following what the complaint about the glide is about. I assume you refer to gliding between two notes, but where? Perhaps the interval leaps?

    If you think these recordings sound bad, well, at least it’s not the music I’ve heard in churches since the mid-90’s.

  44. sejoga says:

    Can I actually confess to somewhat enjoying the unsophisticated nature of these recordings? Naturally I love smooth, musically literate interpretations of chant, but I find this type of folksy, literal interpretations charming. The best I can think of to describe what I like about these recordings is to liken it to a sort of Catholic version of this type of Protestant hymn singing:

    These are not uneducated singers who sound silly because they don’t know anything about music… they have a clear method of interpretation that encompasses *both* clunky provincialism *and* heartfelt expression. I find that approach oddly rewarding. It’s not what I consider ideal, but in some ways it’s preferable to music that becomes so artful it paradoxically lacks conviction.

  45. Singing Mum says:

    In these recordings I hear choirmasters (over)emphasizing different elements. Under M’s direction I hear the choir singing percussively, as if counting was in the forefront of their minds. With P’s group, every word accent is given such stress as to obscure the line.
    Neither recording exhibits what Fr. Z calls fluidity. Cardine came along to emphasize that, and it was certainly about time. Some of his students/ director wishing to adhere to C’s approach, then have gone to excess in fluidity, wandering into erratic phrasing.
    All these directors were reacting to others’ excesses in their own day. M had to find a way to stabilize and standardize rhythm to combat remnant ideas of mensuralism, for example.
    My take away as a director is not to be simplistic about chant, or overemphasize one element to the neglect of others. I say we strive for perfection in tone, pitch, diction, rhthym, ensemble, and fluid/legato line with both a prayerful impetus and resting place.
    We have come a long way in chant. I, for one, am grateful to those who came before me and did their best at reconstruction. But that doesn’t mean I prioritize elements of style in the same way as any particular camp.

  46. Han says:

    Could it be that your (meaning, “you Roman Catholics”) perennial issues about “correct” Gregorian chant arise from an overdeveloped need for uniformity?

    For Gregorian Chant to be worth anything for the Catholic Church, it must be part of the living liturgical tradition of the Church. It seems to me therefore that attempts to discern the “original” method of singing the liturgical texts are relevant only for historical curiosity. Most likely, there was never any uniformity and each particular country, diocese or even parish probably had its own method of interpreting the same square notes (or superscript nuemes). The issue for today is finding a method that is beautiful, organic to the particular community, and true to received texts (including received notation) in a broad sense. To be a partisan of one person’s semiological theory over another appears to me to be no more than an attempt to impose one own particular aesthetic preferences upon other Catholics. Does it really matter if some other parish adheres to “remnant ideas of menseralism,” as the Singing Mum put it, so long as its chant is an interpretation of (as opposed to a substitution for) the received texts? While it makes sense, from an academic standpoint, to put forth arguments for chant being sung in this particular way as opposed to that in some particular place and time, I fail to see how such arguments are relevant for determining how chant ought to be sung here and now (except by way of non-exclusive example).

    One can think of this in Trinitarian terms. The received, written text is akin to the Word. It sets the boundaries for what “counts” (pace the opponents of menseralism) as Gregorian Chant. There is but one Word, and He is “all things to all men” as the Liturgy of St. Basil put it, so the text ought to be uniform. Yet, the Word is not revealed alone, but by the Spirit. The Spirit vivifies the individual and joins him to the Word to the glory of the Father. While there is but one Spirit, this Spirit manifests Himself in each individual through unique and particular gifts. Similarly, differing interpretations of the same chant texts are to be expected–and this is no more a problem than the existence of different charisma in the Church. Requiring uniformity in chant interpretation seems to me to be like subordinating the Spirit to the Word.

  47. jflare says:

    Hi Han,
    Boy, this thought will look like a real mess, I’m afraid!
    Many of the points you raise–and to some extent a counter-argument to Singing Mum’s–have merit, but I think we have some real problems here.

    On one hand, we have the interest in simply expressing God’s glory and majesty in SOME way, which Catholics have been notorious for failing to do for some time. On the other hand, we have the interest in making it sound as though someone might actually WANT to sing it time and again. I regret that a good deal of alleged liturgical music past about 1985..makes me wish I could at least revert to the music I learned from the 70’s.

    So, what to do?

    I will admit that, if I listen fairly closely, I can hear..a little more emphasis on individual square notes in some of this than I think is good. If I may say so, those portions sound..very much alike to what our choir sounded like as we began to learn Chant. If only to make sure we’d remain on the same words and not drag, we wound up with a need to emphasize each note a little more than we might otherwise. And, if you listened, you might find it a little punchy. Thankfully, we ultimately succeeded in moving to a stage in which we could (mostly) offer it a bit, legato, though someone may object to that term, as it’s not precisely from the era that Gregorian Chant mostly originated from.

    As to the idea of simply offering something in approved texts, I’d comment that I’ve heard rather too many pieces that I wish I hadn’t. Oh, they had ample source in the Bible, but this didn’t make them really good MUSIC.

    In other words, I’m stuck between a bit of a rock and a hard place because, on one hand, I want people to sing. On the other hand, I wish for people to sing with gusto and skill, not reluctantly and as though they’d just picked up Handel’s Messiah and had begun plinking it out on a guitar five minutes ago.
    Know what I mean?

    So in a sense, I understand your thought, but I’ve seen–or rather heard–the pendulum swing too far the other direction.

    I would comment though, to make sense of some of the discussion thus far, I think you DO need to be a bit of a music critic. That’s not always a realistic expectation in our churches.

  48. AnAmericanMother says:

    Gotta love that OSH singing! we have been going to rural all-day-singings for years, since before it got fashionable.
    The recording you posted is of what I call the “second wave” of OSH singing — relatively well educated, middle class, largely academic types who took OSH up as a hobby and sing in a far more refined style. Even though my people are actually from rural Alabama & Georgia, I fall into that category myself. :-D
    Even the splendid film on OSH, Awake, my soul, is a bit prettified, although on the CD that goes with it you can hear some old recordings from the 1920s.
    If you want to hear the real, country, flat-out old-fashioned OSH, give this a listen: Present Joys (#318). While this is billed as a 1942 field recording, it’s not (I have the set and they are a LOT rougher and the recording quality is poor – old wire recorder). It’s 1959 w/ Alan Lomax Jr. not Sr.
    You have to take OSH for what it is – heartfelt amateur singing. We could use a lot more of that in the Church, even if it gives us epicene music aficionados cold chills, so long as it’s real Catholic music . . . .

  49. Austin says:

    The Solesmes method probably imposes too much smoothness and 19th Cent western aesthetic on chant. The depersonalised, immaterial concept of what’ spiritual’ music should sound like is very different from the other traditions in which chant was continuously used, such as the Orthodox, Jewish, and even Muslim settings.

    The Gregorian reform may have intended to produce a more even, less melismatic and oriental sound. Hard to know. But perhaps the chant should really sound more like this:

  50. asperges says:

    And perhaps it shouldn’t. There is no evidence to show that the chant was ever sung in such a way: it sounds like something from Mount Athos, not Paris or Rome.

    One cannot simply dismiss all the scholarship done by Solesmes over nearly a century and a half. I have seen some of these ancient manuscripts and in my youth, with my (now late) Father, we used regularly to spend our summers there and spent many happy hours in discussion with Dom Gajard and others. I think they might have stumbled upon these more radical ideas had they been valid or their sources provable. Much of European music as it developed in the middle ages, ecclesiastical or secular also gives some idea of its early influences and origins.

  51. acardnal says:

    Herewith a review and links to the brand new audio CD of beautiful Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony sung my FSSP seminarians at their seminary in Nebraska.

  52. Austin says:

    I do not mean to disparage what Solesmes achieved.

    But it is difficult to get away from the aesthetic milieu that surrounds one, particularly if one has a “high culture” education. My family was completely bought in to Bauhaus architectural modernism, and I vividly remember having a viscerally negative reaction to a particular Victorian Gothic church.

    Hard to imagine people of the 19th cent, entirely trained in Western, academic classical and romantic music, embracing a style that seemed foreign or oriental. And then, having established a style, even harder to see a quite different alternative as valid.

    It is also practically impossible to reconstruct the performance practices of distant centuries. Reconstructions of the ancient past often err more than do continuous traditions — Newman’s point about the Anglican appeal to antiquity comes to mind in this regard.

    Who would look at a foursquare metrical psalm tune score and imagine this performance?:

    Yet this style is probably more representative of early modern parish church singing than is the Anglican cathedral tradition, as the shape note singers of the South bear witness. How does one imagine the chant was delivered on Iona in the 9th century, or Poland in 1400, or Naples in 500? Probably not much like Solesmes. And yet are these traditions less valid?

  53. Han says:


    I think I must have not been too clear in my argument. When I wrote “received texts” this included the notation, not simply the words, so that it is a matter of interpretation of the music rather than new composition.

    I also am not suggesting that you abandon your critical faculties or aesthetic sensibilities for a muddled “whatever” acceptance of anything somebody might try with chant. Rather I think that scholarship regarding earlier chant interpretations will lead to imitation at first, followed by multiple organic developments. There is no need to squash any of these developments or insist on a particular normative historical interpretation, rather, I assume that over time the bad ones will be pushed out by individual communities adopting (without prescription or proscription from above) better usages. Nevertheless, I would expect to see several different interpretations coexisting, not one single universal interpretation (which suggests artificiality and imposition rather than a chant organic to the particular community).

  54. AnAmericanMother says:

    It’s really a trip to hear Southern Gospel-style “lining” in Gaelic at a Free Kirk in Lewis! (my Gaelic teacher was from Lewis and the wife of a Free Presbyterian minister).
    Gaelic, by the way, will not fit in a “four square” metrical pattern – not without some pretty brutal shoehorning.
    More here.
    “The Wee Kirk, the Free Kirk,
    The kirk w’oot the steeple.
    The Auld Kirk, the cauld Kirk,
    The kirk w’oot the people!”
    – my maternal grandparents were Scotch Presbyterians, but they were firmly in the United camp.

  55. Pingback: Interprétation : une réflexion intéressante : Mocquereau vs Pothier ? » Schola Saint Maur

  56. rmerkel says:

    The recordings are fascinating. If the chant in either case is capable of uplifting the congregation/ministers praying of the Mass, then it has served its purpose, and any protestations on obtuse musical issues and the ways the text can be magnified, surely become redundant. Let us not focus so much on chant styles (leave that to the scholars and their journals) but simply getting chant into our parishes.

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