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Huysmans on the "De Profundis"

Dernière mise à jour : 11 avr. 2023

"De profundis" - Nova Schola Gregoriana

Extract from:

J. K. Huysmans

En Route


[Translation: W. Fleming]


"A stamping of shoes, then the movement of chairs grinding on the flags interrupted him. The sermon was over. Then a great stillness was broken by a prelude from the organ, which dropped to a low tone, a mere accompaniment to the voices.

A slow and mournful chant arose, the "De Profundis." The blended voices sounded under the arches, intermingling with the somewhat raw sounds of the harmonicas, like the sharp tones of breaking glass.

Resting on the low accompaniment of the organ, aided by basses so hollow that they seemed to have descended into themselves, as it were underground, they sprang out, chanting the verse "De profundis ad te clamavi, Do —" and then stopped in fatigue, letting the last syllables "mine" fall like a heavy tear; then these voices of children, near breaking, took up the second verse of the psalm, "Domine exaudi vocem meam," and the second half of the last word again remained in suspense, but instead of separating, and falling to the ground, there to be crushed out like a drop, it seemed to gather itself together with a supreme effort, and fling to heaven the anguished cry of the disincarnate soul, cast naked, and in tears before God.

And after a pause, the organ, aided by two double-basses, bellowed out, carrying all the voices in its torrent — baritones, tenors, basses, not now serving only as sheaths to the sharp blades of the urchin voices, but openly with full throated sound — yet the dash of the little soprani pierced them through all at once like a crystal arrow.

Then a fresh pause, and in the silence of the church, the verses mourned out anew, thrown up by the organ, as by aspring board. As he listened with attention endeavouring to resolve the sounds, closing his eyes, Durtal saw them at first almost horizontal, then rising little by little, then raising themselves upright, then quivering in tears, before their final breaking.

Suddenly at the end of the psalm, when the response of the antiphon came —"Et lux perpetua luceat eis" — the children's voices broke into a sad, silken cry, a sharp sob, trembling on the word "eis," which remained suspended in the void.

These children's voices stretched to breaking, these clear sharp voices threw into the darkness of the chantsome whiteness of the dawn, joining their pure, soft sounds to the resonant tones of the basses, piercing as with a jet of living silver the sombre cataract of the deeper singers; they sharpened the wailing, strengthened and embittered the burning salt of tears, but they insinuated also a sort of protecting caress, balsamic freshness, lustral help; they lighted in the darkness those brief gleams which tinkle in the Angelus at dawn of day; they called up, anticipating the prophecies of the text, the compassionate image of the

Virgin, passing, in the pale light of their tones, into the darkness of that sequence.

The "De Profundis" had ceased; after a silence, the choir intoned a motet of the eighteenth century, but Durtal was only moderately interested in human music in churches. What seemed to him superior to the most vaunted works of theatrical or worldly music, was the old plain chant, that even and naked melody, at once ethereal and of the tomb, the solemn cry of sadness and lofty shout of joy, those grandiose hymns of human faith, which seem to well up in the cathedrals, like irresistible geysers, at the very foot of the Romanesque columns.

What music, however ample, sorrowful or tender, is worth the "De Profundis" chanted in unison, the solemnity of the "Magnificat," the splendid warmth of the "Lauda Sion," the enthusiasm of the "Salve Regina," the sorrow of the "Miserere," and the "Stabat Mater," the majestic omnipotence of the "Te Deum" ?

Artists of genius have set themselves to translate the sacred texts: Vittoria, Josquin de Près, Palestrina, Orlando Lasso, Handel, Bach, Haydn, have written wonderful pages; often indeed they have been uplifted by the mystic effluence, the very emanation of the Middle Ages, for ever lost; and yet their works have retained a certain pomp, and in spite of all are pretentious, as opposed to the humble magnificence, the sober splendour of the Gregorian chant — with them the whole thing came to an end, for composers no longer believed.

Yet in modern times some religious pieces may be cited of Lesueur, Wagner, Berlioz, and Cæsar Franck, and in these again we are conscious of the artist underlying his work, the artist determined to show his skill, thinking to exalt his own glory, and therefore leaving God out. We feel ourselves in the presence of superior men, but men with their weaknesses, their inseparable vanity, and even the vice of their senses. In the liturgical chant, created almost always anonymously in the depth of the cloisters, was an extraterrestrial well, without taint of sin or trace of art. It was an uprising of souls already freed from the slavery of the flesh, an explosion of elevated tenderness and pure joy, it was also the idiom of the Church, a musical gospel appealing like the Gospel itself at once to the most refined and the most humble.

Ah ! the true proof of Catholicism was that art which it had founded, an art which has never been surpassed; in painting and sculpture the Early Masters, mystics in poetry and in prose, in music plain chant, in architecture the Romanesque and Gothic styles. And all this held together and blazed in one sheaf, on one and the same altar; all was reconciled in one unique cluster of thoughts: to revere, adore and serve the Dispenser, showing to Him reflected in the soul of His creature, as in a faithful mirror, the still immaculate treasure of His gifts.

Then in those marvellous Middle Ages, wherein Art, foster-child of the Church, encroached on death and advanced to the threshold of Eternity, and to God, the divine concept and the heavenly form were guessed and half-perceived, for the first and perhaps for the last time by man. They answered and echoed each other — art calling to art. The Virgins had faces almond-shaped, elongated like those ogives which the Gothic style contrived in order to distribute an ascetic light, a virginal dawn in the mysterious shrine of its naves. In the pictures of the Early Masters the complexion of holy women becomes transparent as Paschal wax, and their hair is pale as golden grains of frankincense, their childlike bosoms scarcely swell, their brows are rounded like the glass of the pyx, their fingers taper, their bodies shoot upwards like delicate columns.

Their beauty becomes, as it were, liturgical. They seem to live in the fire of stained glass, borrowing from the flaming whirlwind of the rose-windows the circles of their aureoles.

The ardent blue of their eyes, the dying embers of their lips, keeping for their garments the colours they disdain for their flesh, stripping them of their light, changing them, when they transfer them to stuffs, into opaque tones which aid still more by their contrast to declare the seraphic clearness of their look, the grievous paleness of the mouth, to which, according to the Proper of the season, the scent of the lily of the Canticles or the penitential fragrance of myrrh in the Psalms lend their perfume.

Then among artists was a coalition of brains, a welding together of souls. Painters associated themselves in the same ideal of beauty with architects, they united in an indestructible relation cathedrals and saints, only reversing the usual process — they framed the jewel according to the shrine, and modelled the relics for the reliquary.

On their side the sequences chanted by the Church had subtle affinities with the canvases of the Early Painters.Vittoria's responses for Tenebræ are of a like inspiration and an equal loftiness with those of Quentin Matsys' great work, the Entombment of Christ. The "Regina Cœli" of the Flemish musician Lasso has the same good faith, the same simple and strange attraction, as certain statues of a reredos, or religious pictures of the elder Breughel. Lastly, the Miserere of Josquin de Près, choirmaster of Louis XII., has, like the panels of the Early Masters of Burgundy and Flanders, a patient intention, a stiff, threadlike simplicity, but also it exhales like them a truly mystical savour, and its awkwardness of outline is very touching.

The ideal of all these works is the same and attained by different means.

As for plain chant, the agreement of its melody with architecture is also certain; it also bends from time to time like the sombre Romanesque arcades, and rises, shadowy and pensive, like complete vaulting. The "De Profundis," for instance, curves in on itself like those great groins which form the smoky skeleton of the bays; it is like them slow and dark, extends itself only in obscurity and moves only in the shadow of the crypts.

Sometimes, on the other hand, the Gregorian chant seems to borrow from Gothic its flowery tendrils, its scattered pinnacles, its gauzy rolls, its tremulous lace, its trimmings light and thin as the voices of children.

Then it passes from one extreme to another, from the amplitude of sorrow to an infinite joy; at other times again, the plain music, and the Christian music to which it gave birth, lend themselves, like sculpture, to the gaiety of the people, associate themselves with simple gladness, and the sculptured merriment of the ancient porches; they take the popular rhythm of the crowd, as in the Christmas carol "Adeste Fideles" and in the Paschal hymn "O Filii et Filiæ;" they become trivial and familiar like the Gospels, submitting themselves to the humble wishes of the poor, lending them a holiday tune easy to catch, a running melody which carries them into pure regions where these simple souls can cast themselves at the indulgent feet of Christ.

Born of the Church, and bred up by her in the choir-schools of the Middle Ages, plain chant is the aerial and mobile paraphrase of the immovable structure of the cathedrals; it is the immaterial and fluid interpretation of the canvases of the Early Painters; it is a winged translation, but also the strict and unbending stole of those Latin sequences, which the monks built up or hewed out in the cloisters in the far-off olden time.

Now it is changed and disconnected, foolishly overwhelmed by the crash of organs, and is chanted, God knows how ! Most choirs when they intone it, like to imitate the rumbling and gurgling of water-pipes, others the grating of rattles, the creaking of pullies, the grinding of a crane, but, in spite of all, its beauty remains, unextinguished, dulled though it be, by the wild bellowing of the singers."

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