In the spring of 1974, I was making plans for a backpacking tour of France – my head filled with names such as Icelandic Airlines, Eurail pass, and Kelty outfitters. A few days before departure, an acquaintance suggested that I ought to try to hear some Gregorian chant while I was there. A strange suggestion, I thought.
At the time, I didn't know the first thing about Gregorian chant – nor, at the blithely self-assured age of 23, did I have any interest in Christian liturgy, Catholicism, or any other religious goings-on.
In the year preceding this, I had made friends with a dozen or so young French men and women in Louisiana. They were in the first class of CODOFIL teachers (Council for the Development of French in Louisiana) – an exuberant crowd of French youth, along with some Canadians and Belgians, who arrived here in 1972 and then were scattered more or less willy-nilly about the state. They were assigned to grade schools, middle schools, and high schools to teach French to blasé, softly dozing American students.
With my friends' addresses in hand, I flew to Paris, then took a train to Vendée in the west of France, where one of my hosts lived. I had a vague idea of heading north toward Brittany, briefly east into Belgium, Holland, and Germany, then back into France, all the while stopping at friends' houses along the way – in the best tradition of youthful freeloading.
Now it was June 1974. President Richard Nixon had a couple months left in office. Newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst was still with her captors. The Vietnam War dragged on.
For some reason, before I left Vendée, I asked where one would go to hear Gregorian chant, and my friend's father said that a place in the Loire Valley was just the ticket. It was a Benedictine monastery called the Abbey of Solesmes – a hundred or so miles away, near the town of Le Mans, of racing fame.
The Benedictine Order is one of the oldest religious orders of monks, he told me – brothers and priests who live in enclosed communities. He went on with some history about St. Benedict, the sixth century, the Rule of St. Benedict – lessons wasted on me.
Nevertheless, two or three days later I arrived at Sablé-sur-Sarthe, which, as far as I could tell, was the closest train depot to Solesmes.
This was in the days before Internet travel: pre-MapQuest, pre-Travelocity, preglobal-positioning systems, pre-cellphones. You located a spot on a map, got there one way or another, and began asking questions.
Yes, the abbey was two miles away. No, there were no buses or trains. Is there a town nearby called Solesmes? Well, yes, but it's mostly just the abbey and a hotel for Catholic tour buses making the rounds of French religious sites.
Okey-doke. Not having anything better in mind, I started walking. I was on a pleasant, gentle country road, like something out of a Truffaut movie, with lines of swaying trees, an easy breeze, a narrow little river I walked beside, and no hills to speak of. My rucksack was intentionally light.
Eventually I arrived at the edge of a small village – it was about 5 or 5:30 in the afternoon and I could hear bells ringing somewhere ahead.
In my high-school French, I asked a face in a window where the abbey was, and I was pointed farther ahead, up the single main road. The face shouted after me, "Hurry up, you can make vespers, if you run."
It appeared that I was in a typical, small rural French village – at the center of which was a walled collection of stone buildings. One of the buildings was clearly a church. Soon I found a main entrance, a sort of gatehouse with some signs and tourist information.
Inside, I spoke to my first monk – nondescript, amiable, middle-aged. Yes, of course, just throw your backpack under this table and hurry, hurry, you can go out that way, there, yes, toward that door.
Pushing open the massive door to the church was like entering a movie set. Inside, I found seats in the dim light and waited, not knowing anything. There were no other visitors.
The sound began quietly – literally from far away. From somewhere on my left, the sound grew in volume as it approached, then a door opened and the monks arrived, walking in pairs in a long, slow line, singing as they walked.
They wore black robes – no special dress or vestments – this was a simple vespers service. They filed their way past me and settled into their own places up front – in two halves, facing each other. The singing was in Latin – unaccompanied.
The old cliché was true: I had never heard anything like it in my life. Maybe clichés are about all one has at such unearthly, beautiful, inexpressible moments.
I carefully watched the faces of the men as they trooped past at the end of the service. They could have been a collection of Rotarians at any mid-size city in America – young, old, ordinary, grizzled, unremarkable.
It was not until a year later that I read up on the abbey. Without knowing it, I had visited one of the world centers of Gregorian study – renowned to musicians, historians, believers, unbelievers, any and all. Not only was I hearing this sublimely beautiful music for the first time, I was hearing it sung by its premier practitioners.
The distinctive sound of the Solesmes monks is the result of hundreds of years of daily practice, and goes hand in hand with their study of manuscripts, musicology, and liturgy.
It was as if I had stumbled into Oxford University, not aware that it had a reputation for scholarship and study. Or as if I had wandered into a performance of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra without a clue about what I was hearing.
Oh, days of backpacking! Of ignorance and youth! I was an innocent abroad.