UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, The Netherlands

The Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage implements the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage in The Netherlands. It is tasked with comprising an inventory of intangible cultural heritage. In Honorem Dei is registered in the network National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage in The Netherlands. The choir’s request to be included in the inventory has been accepted, which means that a cultural heritage plan will be drafted to protect this intangible cultural heritage.

Our Cultural Heritage

We sing Gregorian chant using neume musical notation during traditional Latin mass in Schiedam’s basilica, and occasionally at events in other chapels and churches. Our choir sings during the traditional Roman Catholic mass centuries’ old Gregorian chant from the songbook Graduale Romanum. Musical notation is always in neume, an ancient and more primitive notational form. The chant is sung in Unison.

Gregorian chant choir

There are very few male choirs in our society today dedicated to singing Gregorian chant that practice  weekly. The men’s choir In Honorem Dei in Schiedam is such a choir. In academia very little is known about the tradition In Honorem Dei belongs to. The choir currently sings under the direction of conductor Bas van Houte, who was appointed by the church where we sing. Mr Van Houte studied church music at the conservatorium in Rotterdam, and knows more about Gregorian chant than any of the choir members.

Description of Practitioners

The choir has a diverse makeup, with members representing different aspects of society. Over the years, the choir has stayed true to tradition, and has not transformed in to a mixed choir where both men and women sing. It has remained a men’s choir made up of parishioners and non-parishioners. It is not restricted to the faithful. As a rule, faith is not a criterium for membership, and this remains true in practice. Gregorian chant transcends such differences, working to unite people with different backgrounds.

With the permission of the board of trustees, I have been working on improving the website. I’d like to help the choir upgrade its online profile. Via the website, it will be possible to listen to the choir online. The choir recently received an unlimited license so that it can publish in different languages. It is currently being translated by people with different beliefs, but also by people who are not connected to a church.

Christian Heritage

Gregorian chant has been preserved for centuries by different Christian religious communities and cloister orders. A lot of Gregorian chant originates in the 9th and 10th centuries, and is most likely derived from a Carolingian synthesis of Roman and Gallic song styles. Gregorian chants were also added to the liturgy in later centuries. Some music historians believe that elements of Gregorian chant date back to before the Christian era. The Benedictines have made special efforts toward preserving this traditional song. They currently study its form, origins and execution style.

History and development

A lot has been published on the origins of Gregorian chant, but we don’t study this. Our choir just sings, and nothing else. The following is a general explanation of Gregorian chant, to address some of the questions the reader might have:

Gregorian chant as we know it today came in to existence around 550 AD, but the term Gregorian was not associated with it at the time. The name refers to Pope Gregory the 1st (590-604) who promoted the collection and organisation of music that was already old at the time. Under Charlemagne (768-814), Gregorian chant spread further throughout Europe.

Music historians have done extensive research on neume notation, and there are different theories about its origins. There isn’t enough expertise within our choir to elucidate on neume. But it is known to dates back more than 1,000 years. Neume notation was used in Byzantine music. The oldest variants are in Aramaic as notations for reciting holy texts. Gregorian chant has the same essential function, which is to make holy texts audible. Upon hearing the call to prayer on a trip to Jahor in the far east, one of our choir members remarked that it sounded familiar to him. Its character, and some of the melodies were similar to the music our choir sings.

The formation of a civilian men’s choir in 1880 is an insignificant chapter in the long history of neume notation and Gregorian chant. It can still be heard regularly in monasteries, but this too is becoming less frequent, often performed only on special occasions, whereas our choir sings on a weekly basis following a repertoire according to a three-year cycle.

In Honorem Dei was founded during the construction of the new church in 1880. What makes our choir so unusual is that we carried on the tradition of singing in Latin during the the 20th century, when an increasing number of church choirs switched over to a Dutch language liturgy. Since its founding until the present day, we have maintained this tradition. It’s interesting to note that there is no notation for tone or tempo in the primitive neume notational style, which means that Gregorian chant sounds slightly different in France than when it’s performed in Schiedam, or someplace else.