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Newsletter 106


Extract from Newsletter 106, published May 1999

In the Silence of the Word – A Carthusian Plainchant Meditation by the monks of Parkminster. Compact disc DLTCD0001 Darton, Longman & Todd, £14.95

St Hugh’s Charterhouse at Parkminster in Sussex is the only Carthusian house in the British Isles. Built to accommodate the populations of French charterhouses expelled by the French government at the end of the last century, it is one of the largest monastic houses in the world. It is also, as this recording demonstrates, a great centre of the spiritual life, and has always been recognised as such since its foundation. Robert Hugh Benson, for example, had a profound respect and admiration for the Carthusians of Parkminster. Although visiting the monastery is not permitted, save for those men who wish to try their vocation there, a small degree of opening up to the world has of late occurred: the occasional photograph in newspapers, a few books revealing something of the life of the community. These confirm Benson’s impressions about the place and its inhabitants, and this recording will transmit to the wider church and to the world at large something of the depth of their life of prayer and of their silence. As one of the monks (Carthusians are always anonymous) says in the accompanying booklet, ‘Our simple, austere plainchant with its tranquil gravity only seems to be another way of formulating silence.’ The chants themselves differ, often greatly, in their musical text from those of the Roman rite. They have their own character, are always unaccompanied (the use of the organ or of any other musical instrument has no place among the Carthusians) and are executed in a very distinctive way. One of the first things the listener will notice is that the doxology of psalms and of hymns is sung sotto voce and at half the speed of the preceding verses. The effect is remarkable: reflective of a deep thoughtfulness and calm. But do not think that there is anything effete about the singing of the monks. It has a strength and a beauty that have nothing to do with the conventional aesthetics of church music.

This recording consists of antiphons, psalms, responsories, hymns, canticles and readings that make up the night office, followed by a Mass proper. Other than the readings, most of what we hear is in Latin, though at Lauds the psalm and the canticle are in English, for no readily apparent reason. The readings, with a variety of accents heard, English, Australian, French and Irish, are a reminder that this is very much a cosmopolitan community.

An excellent booklet provides all the texts with translations where necessary. As an aid to prayer and meditation this recording must rank very highly and should find many ready purchasers. The quality of the recording is excellent, the resonant acoustics of the church used to the best effect. Highly recommended.

Christopher Francis