Four questions for David Eben

Wherein consists the study of Gregorian Chant conducting?

First and foremost it lies in study of Gregorian Chant as such. Professor Vigne used to say, exaggerating a bit, that if we have a clear idea of the final sound we want to hear, we can conduct even with our legs and “et ca passé” – it will work. Though, there are various peculiarities in the technique of conducting. As there in no regular rhythmical unit in the chant, it is not possible to relay on the triple-time nor tetra-time scheme and it is a must to find another mutual feature, which would enable communication between the conductor and the audience. For-example a basic idea of the time and its flux based on a natural declamation of the Latin language can represent such “common denominator”. Another vital feature is awareness of the “rhythmical buttresses” of the melody towards which the musical course proceeds. Often these are the word accents. And thus also the conductor´s gesture should express this concept and appropriately set the ensemble into melodic motion.

One more time on your studies in France. What were your contacts with Oliviere Massiaen like?

This is something I really like remembering and I think it an honour that I was allowed as one of the last to co-operate with him. I was charged with the Chant masses in the Trinity-Church in Paris, where we were singing with the Gregorian ensemble of the conservatory. And it was Olivier Massiaen that, despite his reputation and considerable age, kept going on Sundays with thorough humility to this church in order to play the organs and improvise upon chant melodies sung during a mass. His improvisations with essential “birds singing” in four-foot registers were really charming and up to the present day do I regret I was not recording then. Unfortunately, some halfyear later Messiaen ´s health conditions worsened and it was not granted him to return to the organs any more. There is no doubt I shall always remember our short meetings after every mass. His modesty and commitment to his mission impressed me and are embedded in my memory.

Can you compare interpretation styles of the Schola and other ensembles of Gregorian chant? Is there a characteristic style of the Schola?

The interpretational approach of Gregorian chant may vary. One can even say that each ensemble specializing in this music interprets chant in its specific way. I realised it best at the International festival of Gregorian ensembles in Belgian Watou, where about two dozens of ensembles out of 15 countries including Korea and Japan meet every three years. National specificities would become evident there, too: Asian Scholas always sing with some Buddha-like serenity, the Italians are more expressive, of-course, the Germans often punctual in intonation and interplay. What´s more, differences in interpretational approach turn up, e.g. the measure the ensemble distinguishes between important and key notes. Anyway, I feel that at certain moment some interpretational consensus is reached, for example in the emphasis of the text as the platform of rhythmical articulation of the melody. What concerns our interpretation style, it is definitely influenced by the ensemble Choeur grégorian de Paris which is determined by my studies in Paris and by our recent co-operation with French colleagues. Nonetheless, I am not entitled to speak about our interpretation as this is a task for an erudite listener or a critic. But I can try to put across what we are trying to achieve. I think that first and foremost it is the compactness of phrases and the fluent flux of the melody. It is always an adventure when one tries to endow the music and the text with naturalness and simplicity and to make every single detail fit the sum of melodic unit. The fact that the flux of the chant is not determined by some regular rhythmical unit makes the interpretation process a very soft-hand alchemy of proportions.

Chant is nowadays profiting from a kind of modishness wave. What does the chant according to your opinion attract its listeners with?

I think that a life with the up-to-date very complicated world overloaded with technologies simply necessitates existence of some counter-balance – and chant has a lot to offer in this way. Let us have just the brightness of homophonic melody as an example. Michelangelo is alleged to have said that the statute should be just the corpus that would remain a fall of the statue down the slope. And chant is actually something similar to music “having slipped down the slope”: free melody which appears there in its whole monumentality. Though, Gregorian Chant did not came into being only with a view to providing for musical - aesthetical enjoyment but since it very beginnings it has been conceived as an intermediate of spiritual growth. And perhaps that is why the chant can create space for settlements of thoughts, mediation and prayer even nowadays.

Lucie Chvatilova, Miroslav Srnka
The Harmonie Magazine 7/1998