‘Don’t sing like a donkey’

Hendrik Vanden Abeele has used his experience as a musician to study various interpretations of the Gregorian chant. This musical style has been interpreted and performed in many different ways throughout its long history, which has caused some serious consternation and debate in the past. His defence is scheduled for 15 December.

Using artistic practice as a research tool

Hendrik Vanden Abeele with a 15th-century manuscript of gregorian song.

Hendrik Vanden Abeele with a 15th-century manuscript of gregorian song.

What has the Gregorian chant sounded like throughout the ages? That question is difficult to answer, as the many surviving medieval manuscripts describing the chant contain hardly any instructions for its practitioners. A reprimand such as ‘Don’t sing like a donkey’ seems fairly straightforward, but doesn’t help us a lot. No singer, regardless of his musical genre, wants his singing to be described as a donkey’s braying. The exact execution of the chant was already controversial in the fifteenth century, when scholars from the University of Paris debated it. Vanden Abeele: ‘The rise of humanism stimulated a tendency to put more emphasis on the longer syllables of Latin.’ As a purely theoretical approach proved unsatisfactory, Vanden Abeele also used his practical knowledge and experience as a research tool. His results have been documented in his thesis, but can also be regularly heard in concert halls.


Sweet-voiced or raw?

Vanden Abeele is part of an ensemble of musicians called Psallentes, which specialises in (late) Medieval music, including the Gregorian chant . He is particularly interested in the polyphonic context of this chant during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. ‘The polyphonic approach common in the Netherlands was popular throughout Europe at the time, and many Dutch musicians travelled to the south,’ says Vandenabeele. ‘They found eager audiences at, for example, the court of Charles V, where their sweet-voiced chanting caught the imagination of an audience used to the raw vocal style of southern singers.’

Taking a musicological approach

The Gregorian chant had already been recorded in manuscripts for hundreds of years before it reached the late Middle Ages. As a performing artist, Vanden Abeele was faced with the new sources of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and hesitated about the correct approach. ‘My first reflex was a musicological approach,’ Vanden Abeele states. This directly touches the central issue of his dissertation, as his research initially had two objectives: to find out what manuscripts from the late Middle Ages do to a modern-day singer of the Gregorian chant, and to define what a scholar of artistry – or a scholarly artist – actually is.

Le Bricoleur (de knutselaar),a still from the documentary film “Liquescens” about Hendrik Vanden Abeele's research. The image of a researcher as a handyman who creates a complete image from all the pieces of information, appeals to Vanden Abeele.

Le Bricoleur (de knutselaar),a still from the documentary film “Liquescens” about Hendrik Vanden Abeele's research. The image of a researcher as a handyman who creates a complete image from all the pieces of information, appeals to Vanden Abeele.

From a practical perspective

The type of academic research Vanden Abeele is referring to, started fifteen years ago right here in Leiden. To illustrate it, Vanden Abeele refers to what the twentieth-century pianist Arthur Schnabel did with Beethoven’s sonatas. Schnabel studied the sources, knew the music by heart and played it extensively for recordings and editions. He poured all of his practical knowledge into his research, along with all the necessary fingering, pedal movements, metrical beats and even the original preparatory exercises for particularly difficult parts. Schnabel was thus studying Beethoven’s music from a practical perspective, and not just from a theoretical viewpoint. That is exactly how the arts should be studied, Vanden Abeele argues.

PhD defence

Hendrik Vanden Abeele
What late medieval chant manuscripts do to a present-day performer of plainchant
15 December 2014

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(15 December 2014)

Last Modified: 16-12-2014