The Schola Bellarmina: our artistic choices

The liturgical year in gregorian chant. Artistic choices, interpretation style, projects and more…


Your Schola has so far recorded twenty-two compact discs containing the Liturgical Year. Could you first tell us who is the Schola Bellarmina?
B.L. The Schola Bellarmina has its own story. We started in 1998 in Brussels with five singers who had specialized in Gregorian chant for many years. With them, we recorded the whole Temporal, that is the Sundays and Feasts of the liturgical cycle; altogether, we produced 14 disks in three years.
Then I left Brussels for France, where I carried on my work with sacred music. In 2007, I set up the Sacra Musica association. From then on, we continued recording with professional singers who helped us publish volume 8 of the Kyriale and the Sanctoral volumes, which brings us nowadays to a total of 11 volumes and 24 discs.

Then, it is a long-term work you initiated ...
B.L. Indeed it is. We started in 1998, but, due to other comitments, we had to work off and on. Meanwhile, our discs met with some success, and this encouraged me to carry on with the task.

What is it that drove you to such an undertaking?
B.L. In the beginning, our idea was to help choirs sing Gregorian chant. The problem is fairly universal: there are many obstacles to find enough practice time, hence the often insufficient quality of the musical interpretation. The second aim was to produce a full repertoire of Gregorian chant, which had never been done. This allows those who love the beauty of Gregorian chant and the liturgy of the Church to listen to whichever part of the repertoire they like, when they like.

Just recently, Gregorian chant was in vogue, it was fashionable. Several monasteries have recorded discs, to such a degree that there are many different discs available for listeners today. What is it that distinguishes your collection?

B.L. It is true, there are many different recordings available today. Nonetheless, these recordings are for the most part of selected pieces, or of certain Masses of the principal feasts of the Liturgical Year. You will easily find a dozen different interpretations for the Mass of Easter, but not a single version of the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, or of Saint Peter and Saint Paul (29 June). Our monumental work fills this great gap, and this is precisely its strength, exhaustiveness.

What style of interpretation have you adopted? Do you follow a certain school?
B.L. None at all. The “schools of interpretation” follow the fashions. They come, and then they go. Gregorian chant will outlive all of them. Gregorian chant is in a certain way as eternal as the Church, because it is as universal as the Church. Certainly we have taken as a foundation the rhythm and the neums of Solesmes, because today they form the common basis of the notation and the interpretation of Gregorian Chant. It is true that we appreciate the interpretation of Dom Gajard. But we are not a choir of monks; the ambiance and the spirit of our work are different. Having a more educative purpose, we have put our efforts on a very small choir of four singers, which gives us an undeniable precision. A choir of monks has a particular charm; our charisma is precision. If a choir of monks advance with the majesty but also the lack of handiness of a steamliner, we advance as a small frigate, furtive but nonetheless efficient.

Wouldn’t it have been useful to study the manuscripts and to discover the proper interpretation of Gregorian chant, as it was sung at the time of its composition? Would you not have then a faithful interpretation beyond reproach?
B.L. We leave this task to university researchers, who are very active in this field. It is obvious that we do not sing as the cantors of Saint Gregory the Great did , nor like those of the High Middle Ages. Each epoch has its proper style, and each culture within one same epoch has its own style. The genius of Gregorian Chant stems from its universality. Listen to three different singers: one with a Germanic origin, another from an Anglo-Saxon country and the third from a Latin country, and you will quickly realize that there is no unique style nor method. Nonetheless, they all sing Gregorian! The melodies are committed to paper, but the men come from very different cultures. Let us stay away from the disputes of specialists over the manuscripts of Laon or of Saint Gall. We have opted to give a unity to our work by adopting a liturgical style that encourages prayer, and this way we think we are at least close to the spirit of Gregorian chant.

Don’t you run the risk of becoming pragmatic?
B.L. I don’t think Gregorian chant was created by specialists sitting around a table. In the Church, one began to sing (by  first adopting some of the melodies of the synagogue, since most of the early Christians were converted Jews) and only then were the chants progressively noted on paper. The process was indeed very pragmatic, because  praying was what mattered, not tickling someone’s ears.

What are your projects ?
B.L. The year 2011 will see the publication of volume 12 devoted to Vespers on Sunday with all the hymns of the Vespers of the liturgical year, a real treasure that is not enough known. We will also record the volume 13 (Gregorian motets) in the course of 2011.

Furthermore, we are working on a new edition of the Magnificat songbook, which will be published in 2011, a revised and expanded edition from the 2004 edition, especially in the field of hymns in French.

Finally, a forum dedicated to liturgical music is being developed. It will enable all stakeholders to share their experiences and knowledge. In a time of geographical dispersion, this tool will be useful to more than one.