Gregorian chant, from formal beauty to liturgical profundity

Ancien livre Codex, avec partition de chant grégorien (Cathédrale d’Astorga, Espagne).

Louis-Marie Vigne (1953-2022) was one of the greatest connoisseurs of Gregorian chant in France. He instructed generations of musicians at the National Conservatory of Music and Dance in Paris. Facing illness for two years, the founder of the Chœur grégorien de Paris died on July 20th.

You had a father absorbed in spiritual research and a mother immersed in Chinese studies…

My father and my mother familiarized us with what a tradition could be. Their perspective was to be interested in permanent things, in what remains.

In this atmosphere open to vast horizons, you received a classical Catholic education.

Yes, a “beautiful” education. Around the age of 7 or 8, I was asked: What would you like to do later? ” I answered : ” Missionary in China. It must be said that I had been brought up by a Chinese nurse. I was left with the acceptance that there are several logics. I have often been told that I bring an element that is not entirely logical to the discussions. But is life?

What did this vocation mean?

It meant bringing something universal to a people who were poles apart. Building a bridge with the other, that’s what attracted me and still attracts me.

At 18, you discover Gregorian…

I went to spend a few days at the abbey of Solesmes, in Sarthe, to revise for exams. During a vespers service, I heard a Hail husband Stella. And there, I said to myself: I found what I was looking for.

What were you looking for?

This free form, this momentum, this generosity, this human aspect… I was looking for musical material, something human. We work a lot with musical instruments, but there it was only the voice: the man expressed himself frankly.

Is it a key moment?

Yes, a moment when you feel that life is going to launch around a reality. We started singing and praying with my brother and some friends in a small chapel in Vexin. I was 18 and they were 15. And then, when I was 20, I met the choir master of Solesmes Abbey.

What was the point of teaching Gregorian at the Conservatoire national de Paris as you did afterwards?

Almost all Western music is measured since the XIIIe century: it is part of a regular rhythmic support. We do not realize, but it is a burden to bear. It didn’t have to be like that at all. Music also has the right to breathe! Hence, in the XXe century, research to break up this measurement of time. The Gregorian is both a traditional and contemporary response to this desire to live music without limits, without gravity.

The notion of the relation of time to eternity occupies you, doesn’t it?

Yes, that worries me a lot! Changing our awareness of time is one of music’s finest vocations. But in the melisma (prolonged vocalization of one syllable, editor’s note), it becomes tangible. These are moments of eternity that fit into time, because eternity is present. And this experience is made in speech. Speech makes us so free that at a certain moment, we experience time dilation. We leave the materialization of verbalization. Speech begins to sing without words, speech becomes speechless.

You often insist on the fact that the Gregorian repertoire is essentially made up of biblical verses.

And precisely, the experience of which I speak to you is demanded by the very movement of this inspired word. It is not a word that should be put on file! We have to internalize it. And this internalization goes through integration into the body. So we have this shift: the word, from proclamation, becomes interiorization. She becomes speechless. It is really this experience that seems to me to be required. The word overflows, becomes… ourselves. It’s a bit paradoxical to say that. This word enters us, penetrates us and, in a certain way, through song, we also give it back to the one who offers it to us. Singing is both internalization and offering of this same word to the one from whom we received it.

This experience, you have shared it up to the French Yoga Federation…

Yes, I have been invited to speak to future yoga teachers. In the Gregorian, they find a presence of attention. The Gregorian is a bodily technique like yoga is in its own way. We don’t just sing with our vocal cords, we sing with our whole body, with all our breathing, with our whole being. It is a bodily tradition of the West. It is often out of ignorance of their tradition that people go looking for one elsewhere, and in a way rightly so, because it is needed. Why not give them the one from their garden?

Could the Gregorian be a way of evangelization?

I am struck by how many people who are not attached to the Church find joy in chanting the Gregorian and are drawn to its beauty. They discover the spiritual dimension through practice. We must be able to welcome them and then make them understand that it is also a functional song and that it is in the liturgy that it is most valued. This chant responds appropriately to what the liturgy requires. It is a liturgical act in itself.

“Pray”, the monthly magazine for the spiritual life
Read the full interview in the November issue of Pray, a magazine that offers monthly reports, testimonies of faith, formation in prayer thanks to columnists such as Martin Steffens, Anselm Grün, Patrice Gourrier. It does not forget the cultural dimension with the presentation of films, works of art, books… The only complete magazine for the spiritual life, it is accompanied by a monthly booklet which offers the Gospel of the day commented on by the greatest saints. and all the Sunday readings.
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