The Beautiful Mystery
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This book is dedicated to those who kneel down, and those who stand up.
The Beautiful Mystery started as a fascination with music, and a very personal and baffling relationship with it. I love music. Various pieces have inspired each of the books, and I’m convinced music has had a near magical effect on my creative process. When I sit on planes, or go for walks, or drive and listen to music I can see scenes from the book I’m about to write, or am writing. I can feel the characters. Hear them. Sense them. It’s thrilling. Gamache and Clara and Beauvoir come even more alive when I’m listening to certain music. It’s transformative. Spiritual, even. I can feel the divine in the music.
I’m far from alone in this, I know.
In preparing for this book I read widely, including a book by McGill University professor Daniel J. Levitin called This Is Your Brain on Music, about the neuroscience of music—its effects on our brains.
I wanted to explore this beautiful mystery. How just a few notes can take us to a different time and place. Can conjure a person, an event, a feeling. Can inspire great courage, and reduce us to tears. And in the case of this book, I wanted to explore the power of ancient chants. Gregorian chants. On those who sing them, and those who hear them.
I had a great deal of help in writing The Beautiful Mystery. From family and friends. From books and videos and real-life experiences, including a remarkable and very peaceful stay at a monastery.
I’d like to thank Lise Desrosiers, my amazing assistant, who makes it possible for me to concentrate on writing, while she does all the rest. Thank you to my editors, Hope Dellon, of Minotaur Books in New York City, and Dan Mallory, of Little, Brown in London, for all their help with The Beautiful Mystery. Thank you, Teresa Chris and Patty Moosbrugger, my agents. To Doug and Susan, my first readers. To Marjorie, for always being so willing and happy to help.
And thank you to my husband, Michael. If there’s one mystery even more baffling and powerful than music in my life, it’s love. It’s one mystery I’ll never solve, and never want to. I just enjoy where loving Michael takes me.
And thank you, for reading my books and giving me a life beyond imagining.
In the early nineteenth century the Catholic Church realized it had a problem. Perhaps, it must be admitted, more than one. But the problem that preoccupied it at that moment had to do with the Divine Office. This consisted of eight times in the daily life of a Catholic community when chants were sung. Plainchant. Gregorian chant. Simple songs sung by humble monks.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the Catholic Church had lost the Divine Office.
The different services throughout a religious day were still performed. What were called Gregorian chants were sung here and there, in the odd monastery, but even Rome admitted the chants had strayed so far from the originals that they were considered corrupt, even barbaric. At least, in comparison to the elegant and graceful chants of centuries earlier.
But one man had a solution.
In 1833 a young monk, Dom Prosper, revived the Abbey of St. Pierre in Solesmes, France, and made it his mission to also bring back to life the original Gregorian chants.
But this produced another problem. It turned out, after much investigation by the abbot, that no one knew what the original chants sounded like. There was no written record of the earliest chants. They were so old, more than a millenium, that they predated written music. They were learned by heart, passed down orally, after years of study, from one monk to another. The chants were simple, but there was power in that very simplicity. The first chants were soothing, contemplative, magnetic.
They had such a profound effect on those who sang and heard them that the ancient chants became known as “the beautiful mystery.” The monks believed they were singing the word of God, in the calm, reassuring, hypnotic voice of God.
What Dom Prosper did know was that sometime in the ninth century, a thousand years before the abbot lived, a brother monk had also contemplated the mystery of the chants. According to Church lore, this anonymous monk was visited by an inspired idea. He would make a written record of the chants. So that they’d be preserved. Too many of his numbskull novices made too many mistakes when trying to learn the plainchants. If the words and music really were Divine, as he believed with all his heart, then they needed to be safer than stored in such faulty human heads.
Dom Prosper, in his own stone cell in his own abbey, could see that monk sitting in a room exactly like his. As the abbot imagined it, the monk pulled a piece of lambskin, vellum, toward him then dipped his sharpened quill in ink. He wrote the words, the text, in Latin, of course. The psalms. And once that was done he went back to the beginning. To the first word.
His quill hovered over it.
How to write music? How could he possibly communicate something that sublime? He tried writing out instructions, but that was far too cumbersome. Words alone could never describe how this music transcended the normal human state, and lifted man to the Divine.
The monk was stumped. For days and weeks he went about his monastic life. Joining the others in prayer and work. And prayer. Chanting the Office. Teaching the young and easily distracted novices.
And then one day he noticed that they focused on his right hand, as he guided their voices. Up, down. Faster, slower. Quietly, quietly. They’d memorized the words, but depended upon his hand signals for the music itself.
That night, after Vespers, this nameless monk sat by precious candle-light, staring at the psalms written so carefully on the vellum. Then he dipped his quill in ink and drew the very first musical note.
It was a wave above a word. A single, short, squiggly line. Then another. And another. He drew his hand. Stylized. Guiding some unseen monk to raise his voice. Higher. Then holding. Then higher again. Hanging there for just a moment, then swooping and sweeping downward in a giddy musical descent.
He hummed as he wrote. His simple hand signals on the page fluttered, so that the words came alive and lifted off. Became airborne. Joyous. He heard the voices of monks not yet born joining him. Singing exactly the same chants that freed him and lifted his heart to Heaven.
In trying to capture the beautiful mystery, this monk had invented written music. Not yet notes, what he’d written became known as neumes.
Over the centuries this plain chant evolved into complex chant. Instruments were added, harmonies were added, which led to chords and staffs and finally musical notes. Do-re-mi. Modern music was born. The Beatles, Mozart, rap. Disco, Annie Get Your Gun, Lady Gaga. All sprang from the same ancient seed. A monk, drawing his hand. Humming and conducting and straining for the Divine.
Gregorian chant was the father of western music. But it was eventually killed by its ungrateful children. Buried. Lost and forgotten.
Until the early 1800s when Dom Prosper, sickened by what he saw as the vulgarity of the Church and the loss of simplicity and purity, decided it was time to resurrect the original Gregorian chants. To find the voice of God.
His monks fanned out across Europe. They searched monasteries and libraries and collections. With one goal. To find that original ancient manuscript.
The monks came back with many treasures lost in remote libraries and collections. And finally Dom Prosper decided one book of plainsong, written in faded neumes, was the original. The first, and perhaps only, written record of what Gregorian chant would have sounded like. It was on a piece of lambskin almost a thousand years old.
Rome disagreed. The pope had conducted his own search and found another written record. He insisted his piece of tattered vellum recorded how the Divine Office should be sung.
And so, as often happens when men of God disagree, a war erupted. Volleys of plainsong were hurled between the Benedictine monastery of Solesmes and the Vatican. Each insisting theirs was closer to the original and therefore, closer to the Divine. Academics, musicologists, famous composers and humble monks weighed in on the subject. Choosing sides in the escalating battle that soon became more about power and influence and less about simple voices raised to the glory of God.
Who had found the original Gregorian chant? How should the Divine Office be sung? Who possessed the voice of God?
Who was right?
Finally, after years, a quiet consensus arose among the academics. And then was even more quietly suppressed.
Neither was correct. While the monks of Solesmes were almost certainly far closer to the truth than Rome, it appeared even they were not there yet. What they found was historic, priceless—but it was incomplete.
For something was missing.
The chants had words and neumes, indications of when monastic voices should be raised, and when they should be hushed. When a note was higher, and when it was lower.
What they didn’t have was a starting point. Higher, but from where? Louder, but from where? It was like finding a complete treasure map, with an X for exactly where to end up. But not where to begin.
In the beginning …
The Benedictine monks of Solesmes quickly established themselves as the new home of the old chants. The Vatican eventually relented and within a few decades the Divine Office had regained favor. The resurrected Gregorian chants spread to monasteries worldwide. The simple music offered genuine comfort. Plainsong in an increasingly noisy world.