The Ensemble

Founded in autumn 2008, the female vocal group Ensemble Scholastica gave its first performance in April 2009. The ensemble specializes in the performance of Gregorian chant and medieval polyphony. Our approach is based on the notation of these repertoires in medieval manuscripts. This careful study of the original sources is not simply in the name of "authenticity", but to expose the true beauty of medieval liturgical traditions. The resulting interpretation is a rendering of the surprising rhythmic variety and ornamentation of medieval chant melody, and a capturing of the fluidity and interplay of the melodic lines of medieval polyphony.

The ensemble is named in part for Scholastica, 6th century mother of female European monasticism and sister to St.Benedict (founder of the Benedictine Order), and in part to reference the influential intellectual movement beginning in the 12th century known as Scholasticism. The Scholastics, such as Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas, sought to create order out of existing knowledge and the many new forms of knowledge coming into Europe during the period. Their counterparts in the musical world, such as Pérotin the Great and his students, sought to create, from past traditions, a more ordered style of composition. Their musical form of choice was the organum (= organized music).

The Music

Gregorian chant is known principally as the music of the Catholic Church, and in particular as that practiced in monasteries. Its origins can be traced back to the 8th & 9th centuries, when the great Carolingian rulers (beginning with Charlemagne's father Pepin) imposed Roman plainchant throughout their territories. Since various plainchant traditions already existed, a hybridization process between the Roman tradition and local chant traditions began, giving birth to what soon became known as Gregorian chant, named after Pope Gregory the Great (6th century) to whom, according to popular legend, the Holy Spirit dictated the first plainchant.

From the 11th century on, Gregorian chant became the basis for continuously developing forms of polyphony. At first improvised additions of new voices to already existing musical lines, polyphony based on Gregorian chant quickly led to all the most important developments in Western musical composition, including the development of musical notation (which, by the end of the Middle Ages, already looked a great deal like modern musical notation). The epicenter of this flourishing of medieval polyphonic composition was the Notre-Dame school of Paris, between 1160 and 1270.

The Interpretation

There are many approaches to interpreting Gregorian chant. After the Middle Ages, monasteries favoured a modest approach, which to this day remains the most common. The British traditions, for instance, developed a style of interpretation using even rhythm (where each note is of equal length).

Since the early 20th century, the monks of Solesmes (the famous French Benedictine Abbey) have worked to revive the singing of chant according to medieval manuscripts. Their painstaking research has led to a better understanding of neumatic notation (the symbols used to notate medieval chant are called neumes) among subsequent generations of musicologists and performers. The last few decades have seen a flourishing of chant revival, with heated discussions on interpretive detail among scholars and singers.

Ensemble Scholastica's interpretation of Gregorian chant is based on the 9th-11th century neumatic notation of the important Benedictine Abbey of St.Gallen (in present-day Switzerland). The result is a refreshingly supple Gregorian melody with free rhythm (in stark contrast to the British traditions mentioned above) and varieties of ornamentation - an interpretation that gives listeners the chance to experience the remarkable joy and complexity of the medieval monastic experience.

The medieval polyphonic repertoire also provides singers with a variety of styles, forms and interpretive possibilities. Ensemble Scholastica has concentrated on the important developments in polyphony and its notation in 12th and 13th century Paris. Parisian composers of this time (most of whom remain anonymous) used the Gregorian chant repertoire as a basis from which to excerpt and adapt melodies and then to add new ones to create multi-voiced music. This is the repertoire that mirrors the emerging scholastic thought of the great minds of the day. Its development drastically altered the course of Western musical history.

One of the most important of these developments was the notation of rhythm. Modern musical notation is a result of these developments, but its very precision is at times antithetical to the medieval notion of musical rhythm, which could better be described as fluctuating between rhythmic dimensions. This is why Ensemble Scholastica consults both original notation and modern editions as well as musicological research and opinion. The goal is to explore the ways in which rhythm and polyphony interacted with text and context in the Middle Ages to create vibrant musical expression.

A female Gregorian chant ensemble?

Yes, women did sing during the Middle Ages! Contrary to the stereotypical beliefs about the period held by most people today, women had all kinds of opportunities to sing, play and compose music, both sacred and profane, during the many European Middle Ages (5th-15th centuries). Aside from a number of known female composers such as Hildegard von Bingen (the great German Abbess, famous in her own day) and Beatriz de Dia (one of a number of trobairitz, or female troubadours), the many female singing traditions included working songs, love songs, and monastic songs. All of these traditions produced hundreds of compositions preserved in manuscripts from all over medieval Europe. Another little known fact today is that until the 12th century, there were more female than male monasteries in Western Europe. For both male and female monastics, musical composition tended to be anonymous. But singing, and therefore musical composition, were hugely important to monastic life - there were 8 offices to be sung every day (and every day of the year had its own specific liturgical requirements), with hymns, sequences, psalms and all kinds of chant, in addition to polyphony on feast days.

A female vocal ensemble dedicated to medieval liturgical chant and polyphony is therefore neither anachronistic nor boring!