Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge at Quarr

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014, was a special day in the life of the Benedictine community of Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight. After ten years of, often, laborious work, the Heritage Lottery funded development project was brought to completion with the solemn blessing of the new Visitors Centre by the Right Reverend Philip Egan, Bishop of Portsmouth. A festive meal followed the ceremony but to conclude a day of celebration, Dom Xavier Perrin, Prior of our community had invited the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge to provide a concert of sacred music. The monasteries of Medieval Europe were places where sacred music found an early home and a concert was to express something of the spiritual vitality and creativity which lies at the heart of every monastery and its mission.

In his introduction to the concert, Fr Prior spoke of the monastery as a place of historic continuity, where past, present and future work together in harmony. He went on to argue that the monastery is therefore a place of identity, because it is through memory of the past experiences of the human heart that it is possible to build a truly human culture. And this is built in confidence because God is at the centre of monastic life. “Where God is in the centre, man is not diminished, man flourishes.”

Christopher Hodkinson, the Director of the Schola Gregoriana, came with eight of his cantors to Quarr: Sopranos, Jessica Gillingwater and Alison Summers; Altos, Sally Dunkley and Nicola Beckley;Tenors, Stephen Lawrence and Philip Duffy, and Basses, Charles Pott and Peter Wilton.They entranced us all with a warm and full sound which filled the large building with ease. And they provided a varied and very well ordered programme of music. The simplest of tones, taken from the medieval Lectionary was complimented by the most complex of polyphonic harmonies from Mouton and Tallis. The programme was inspired “by the various identities of Quarr over the centuries:Cistercian and Benedictine;French and English, yet always Roman.” And because the Abbey of Quarr has always been dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God, Our Lady of Quarr, the concert was given a Marian theme.

It was intriguing to hear the well known Marian antiphon, the Salve Regina, sung in the solemn tone of the Cistercian tradition. It was so reminiscent of, and yet so obviously unlike the older Benedictine melody which we still sing on Sundays and Feastdays at Quarr. It was a reminder of how rich and varied the Gregorian tradition of music was; a rampant growth of artistic sensibility sprouting new forms all over Europe throughout the Middle Ages.

The concert concluded with what was in every way a big piece. Thomas Tallis’ Motet “Gaude gloriosa Dei Mater” needs time and requires eight voices, all interweaving in a bewilderingly complex way to construct a great edifice of sound. The voices interact like the different instruments of a symphony orchestra- and I almost forgot they were voices- creating a unified, but varied tissue of melodic lines, a veil of heavenly mysteries. Was this an early work of Tallis, or was it written during the Catholic revival of Mary Tudor’s reign? Whenever it was written, it bore eloquent testimony to the conviction of Fr Prior that “Where Christ is present, God and Humankind create together Peace, Harmony and Beauty.”