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Abbey of St. Solesmes

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A Benedictine monastery in Department of Sarthe, near Sablé, France. It was founded in 1010 by Geoffrey, seigneur of Sablé, as a priory dependent on the Abbey of St-Pierre de la Couture at Le Mans. During the Hundred Years' War it was twice pillaged and once almost entirely destroyed by fire. Apart from these disasters its history was uneventful for several centuries. Towards the end of the fifteenth century the rebuilding of the church was commenced, Prior Philibert de la Croix changing it from basilica form to that of a Latin cross. His successor, Jean Bougler (1505-1556), completed the restoration of the church, added the tower, and rebuilt the cloisters, sacristy, and library. Under his direction two famous groups of statuary, known as the "Saints of Solesmes", were set up in the church. It is not known for certain who the sculptors were, but the groups were probably the work of several hands. They are placed in the two transeptal chapels and form one of the chief attractions of the place. One represents the entombment of Our Lord and the other various episodes of the Dolours of Our Lady. The groups contain eight and fifteen life-size figures respectively, besides various subsidiary figures, and are adorned with bas-reliefs and other sculptural ornamentation. Some of the faces, notably that of Mary Magdalen, are wonderfully expressive; that of Joseph of Arimathea is supposed to be a portrait of King René (d. 1480). In the sixteenth century these masterpieces were in danger of being destroyed by the Huguenots and other Iconoclasts, but the monks saved them by erecting barricades. Jean Bougler was the last Regular Prior of Solesmes, a succession of commendatory priors being appointed after his death. In 1664 the monastery was absorbed by the Congregation of St. Maur, and in 1722 it was, with the exception of the church, entirely rebuilt on a larger scale. In 1791 it was suppressed and the buildings passed into private hands, so remaining for forty years. In 1831 the property was put up for sale, and Dom Prosper Guéranger, then a young priest of twenty-seven, who had been born in the neighborhood and had long lamented its state of desecration was inspired to acquire it and restore it to God and the Church as a home of monastic life. He set about raising the necessary funds, bought the entire property, and, with five other like-minded zealous priests, took possession in 1833. Three years later, with the full approval of the Bishop of Le Mans , they commenced the Benedictine life . In 1837 Dom Guéranger was professed at Rome and a few months later Pope Gregory XVI raised Solesmes to the rank of an abbey, naming Dom Guéranger first abbot and formally erecting at the same time the new "Congregation of France " with Solesmes as the mother-house and its abbot as superior-general. In course of time daughterhouses have been founded from Solesmes, viz: Ligugé (1853), Silos in Spain (1880), Glanfeuil (1892), and Fontanelle (1893), these four being old monasteries restored; also new foundations at Marseilles (1865), Farnborough in England and Wisque (1895), Paris (1893), and Kergonan (1897). Since its restoration Solesmes has been dissolved by the French Government no less than four times. In 1880, 1882, and 1883 the monks were ejected by force but, receiving hospitality in the neighbourhood, succeeded each time in re-entering their abbey. At the final expulsion in 1903 they were, like all the other religious of France, obliged to leave the country. Between the years 1890 and 1900 an entirely new and imposing monastery had been added to the existing buildings, which had become too small for the growing community. Hardly, however, had the monks got settled in it when they were driven forth. They then established themselves in the Isle of Wight, where, after a few years' sojourn in a rented house at Appuldurcombe, they have now nearly completed the building of a new abbey at Quarr, on what was formerly monastic property.

The community of Solesmes has achieved a worldwide reputation for its erudition and its devotion to monastic and liturgical studies, the foundation for which was laid by Dom Guéranger himself. Amongst those who have thus brought fame to the abbey may be mentioned Dom Pitra, afterwards cardinal and Librarian at the Vatican, Dom Pothier, Dom Cabrol, Dom Férotin, Dom Mocquereau, Dom Besse, Dom Quentin, and Dom Leclercq. But the greatest work, perhaps, done by the monks of Solesmes, and that for which they are best known, has been the restoration of the true Gregorian chant of the Church. Dom Guéranger set himself the task of resuscitating sound liturgical traditions in France at a time when such were at their lowest ebb. He revived the accent and rhythm of plainsong, which had been lost, and in restoring the true text of the chant he laid down the principle, which has since been always strictly adhered to, that when various manuscripts of different periods and places agreed on a version, there existed the most correct text. He entrusted the work to Dom Jansions and Dom Pothier, the latter producing his "Les Mélodies Grégoriennes" in 1880 and the "Liber Gradualis" in 1883. These, as well as many other publications, were all printed at the Solesmes Imprimerie, which for many years was an important appanage of the abbey. Unfortunately the entire plant was confiscated by the French government at the suppression and since then the Solesmes books have been printed by Desclée of Tournai. Dom Pothier followed the Reims-Cambrai edition as far as possible, so as to shelter himself under the authority it still possessed, though the still higher authority of Ratisbon proved an obstacle in his way. Through this desire to be conciliatory, and also the insufficiency of manuscripts, the absence of any competent check, and the want of practical preparatory trial, the earlier Solesmes editions were bound to be defective. But they served their purpose in the return to antiquity and have formed the basis for further research. Dom Pothier's pioneer labours have been followed by those of Dom Mocquereau, whose great work has been the personal training of the Solesmes Schola , which has greatly influenced many others, and the publication of the "Paléographie Musicale". By means of photographic reproductions of scores of manuscripts from all the principal libraries of Europe, a far greater degree of exactness than was possible with mere transcripts which might contain copyists' errors. These reproductions have been brought together and studied at Solesmes and the variants of the different melodies classified according to their school or church of origin, date, etc. Intrinsic qualities also have been carefully considered in deciding on the most correct and universal version, but when these criteria have proved insufficient preference has been given to the Roman version, when there has happened to be one. This method of selection is described in detail, with examples, in the little brochure of Dom Cagin and Dom Mocquereau referred to in the bibliography. The labours of the Solesmes fathers received the highest possible recognition in 1904, when Pope Pius X (Motu Proprio, 25 April, 1904) entrusted particularly to the monks of the French Congregation and to the monastery of Solesmes" the work of preparing an official Vatican edition of the Church's Chant, and appointed a Commission for the purpose with Dom Pothier as its president. The Gradual has already appeared and the Antiphonal is in preparation. (See GUÉRANGER, PROSPER LOUIS PASCAL.)

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