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The Politics of Plainchant in Fin-de-Siècle France by Katharine Ellis (review)
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The austere presentation of Katharine Ellis’s The Politics of Plainchant in Fin-de-Siècle France is deceptive. It is not often that a musicological text reads like a mystery novel, yet the plot of this ‘detective investigation of unforeseen complexity and obsessive grip’ (p. xi) could make for bestselling fiction. How many other French music studies involve an appendix of codenames or deal with a rumoured love affair between a newly elected abbot and a power-hungry nun? The Politics of Plainchant is a pleasant surprise in another respect, too. In no more than 150 pages this ‘extended essay’ (p. xi) deals adroitly with issues as diverse (yet interconnected) as French nationalism and protectionism; international diplomacy; relations between Church and State; labour history; the European publishing industry; plainchantrevival; and gender relations between monks and nuns. The Politics of Plainchant in Fin-de-Siècle France thus constitutes more than ‘a useful step forward’ (p. xi), as Ellis modestly describes it, and its unexpectedly wide range defies recent charges of insularity in French music scholarship (see ‘Paul’ in Carlo Caballero, ‘Vowel Sirens’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 138 (2013), 207 – 21 at 220).

There is a strong sense of fortuity about this monograph. In the preface Ellis explains how the book ‘arose by accident’; her research was ‘catalysed by a single folder in the Archives Historiques de l’Archevêché de Paris’ and later was completely transformed by ‘a single sentence from [Dom] Daniel Saulnier’of Saint-Pierre de Solesmes Abbey (p. xi). The author successfully navigates her way through a maze of three interconnected stories. The first concerns the Benedictine monks of Solesmes and the rise of their restored plainchant edition to global authority (a narrative thread extending from Ellis’s previous research on the early music revival in fin-de-siècle France); the second deals with the French liturgical book trade during an epoch of international crisis for this publishing industry; and the third involves French Catholics’ exploitation of republican fault lines and the parameters of anticlericalism.

The man poised at the centre of this labyrinth is Auguste Pécoul: a former French diplomat and Benedictine novice who engineered a seventeen-year clandestine campaign to endorse the ‘authentic’ plainchant restoration of his close friend and Solesmes’s most senior palaeographer Dom Pothier. (The photograph of the aged Pécoul towards the end of the book is a visual reminder of the sheer length of the debates in which he was embroiled.) By engaging French ambassadors to intercede at the Vatican and exploiting the nationalist instincts of trade unionists within the book industry, Pécoul battled against the dominance of Friedrich Pustet’s Regensburg edition, which was the single plainchant publication at the end of the nineteenth century to have received Vatican approval. What his unwitting intermediaries did not know was that Pécoul intended to substitute one monopoly for another.

Internal rupture within the Solesmes community over Mère Cécile Bruyère, Abbess of the allied Solesmes convent of Sainte-Cécile, only served to complicate matters. When Dom Pothier was all but forced to move from Solesmes to Ligugé Abbey in April 1893 (two years later he relocated again to Saint-Wandrille), institutional rivalry fractured a previously cohesive project of Gregorian chant revival; soon there developed impassable rifts between ‘Old Solesmes’ headed by Pothier and ‘New Solesmes’ directed by his former protégé Dom Mocquereau. In 1901, when the French Loi d’Association declared 500 monastic orders illegal and asserted governmental rights to claim their property, New Solesmes opted to transfer their publishing operations to Belgium. Following these two crises, Pécoul was faced with an even greater challenge: at the same time as he appealed to the anticlerical government’s protectionist instincts, seeking to redirect its antagonism away from Pustet’s German chant edition and towards the ‘Belgian’ books of New Solesmes, he simultaneously pursued their support of Dom Pothier and the activities of Old Solesmes.

Though he stood by Pothier’s side to the bitter end, Auguste Pécoul was as much a source of frustration to the doyen of chant as he was an aid; Pothier relentlessly sought to avoid...


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