“We Were Trained to Be Democrats”:
The Power of Montserrat
“After I graduated from Vienna’s Conservatory, I moved to Cape Town to conduct the Cape Town Opera Chorus,” explains Daniel Mestre, the conductor of the chamber, choir, and orchestra of the Superior Conservatory of the Liceu in Barcelona and professor and conductor of the Opera Atelier at the ESMUC. “Cape Town became home to me for many reasons, but an important one was the Tafelberg, the flat-topped mountain that overlooks the city. The aerial cable car reminded me of a landmark: it reminded me of Montserrat.”
To say that Catalonia’s Montserrat, or “saw-cut mountain,” is unique is perhaps to belittle it. Its cliffs accentuate a jagged silhouette; its summits, like needles, defy gravity; its whimsical reliefs allow us to spot a gorilla here and an elephant there amid the evergreen oaks (Quercus ilex). The vertical cleavages in the colossal rock adhered by natural cement make this mountain range twelve miles outside Barcelona unusual. At its side, the Llobregat River obligingly meanders around it. The massif is 6.2 miles long and 3.1 miles wide, but despite its size and peculiar composition, the power of Montserrat lies elsewhere.
For over one thousand years, Montserrat and its community have shaped Catalonia. In 875 and 876, the Counts of Barcelona, who had just taken the mountain back from the Saracens, donated the mountain’s four chapels to the Benedictine Abbey of Ripoll, the most important center of prayer in the area at the time.
Under the leadership of Abbot Oliba (1008–1046), the chapel of Holy Mary in Montserrat grew into a small monastery. Because the number of pilgrims drawn to the mountain continued to increase, it became an abbey in 1409. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI annexed Montserrat to the Congregation of St. Benedict of Valladolid.
The influence of the abbey continued to grow steadily; however, the War of the French (1808–1812) and the ecclesiastical confiscations of 1835–1837 brought about its closure. The devotion to Our Lady and her proclamation as Patron Saint of Catalonia soon restored monastic life, but at the beginning of the Civil War (1936), after seeing churches burning at the foot of the mountain, the monks dispersed to protect themselves. Twenty-three were killed.
In the wake of so much turbulence, the community around Montserrat continued to grow and create. Daniel Mestre has fond memories of his musical beginnings in the abbey. Starting in 1983 at age ten, he sang in the escolania (boys’ choir) until he was fourteen.
“Those were perhaps the most formative and decisive years of my life,” he reflects, glowing. “One afternoon, I sang for Leonard Bernstein, and on another I met the 1985 Barça team when they came to offer the National League Cup to the Virgin. The quality of education was excellent. When I left, I always felt prepared. The monks are scholars who love knowledge.”
The first written mention of boys’ choir dates to 1307, so it is possibly the oldest institution of its kind in Europe. After the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, Abbot Escarré and Father Segarra reshaped the school, deeming it was imperative to provide excellent academic training in addition to musical education.
For years, Mestre had seen Montserrat at a distance from his bedroom window in Igualada. Once he passed the entrance exams required to join the choir, his ties to the landscape became social. Boys and monks hiked together every Thursday, because the abbot believed they should be in touch with nature. To him, being part of the organization was an honorable distinction.
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“Every Sunday we got to go home for the day. I took the cable car. I showed the number on my sock, 217, because in this way they knew I was a choirboy. I mean, they knew who I was, but we were boys and thought it was the coolest thing to do,” he chuckles.
The most joyful time for the students is the period called Bisbetó, or the Little Bishop. Falling between Santa Cecilia (November 22) and Saint Nicholas (December 6), these festivities turn life in the abbey upside down. The first-year students each hold a political campaign, vying to play the roles of the Vicar, the Secretary, and—the most coveted—the Little Bishop in the Saint Nicholas play.
“This is a very old tradition, and I’ve been told that even during the forty years of the dictatorship, the monks maintained it,” Mestre says. “We were trained to be democrats.”
Later on in his musical career, when he was offered the extraordinary opportunity of assisting the conductor in the historic production of Fidelio at the Robben Island Prison to mark the tenth anniversary of South African democracy, Mestre understood the magnitude of the honor.
Without a doubt, the abbey is a center of cultural resistance that invites the visitor to transcend political differences. People are united by their devotion to Our Lady of Montserrat, widely known as La Moreneta (“the Dark One”). Many miracles are attributed to her, but the first one remains key to the Catalan imaginary: in 880, a shepherd saw a light in a cave. Upon entering it, he saw Our Lady of Montserrat. He tried taking her to Manresa, but she wouldn’t be moved. She resisted. The three-foot-tall image that now stands behind the altar in the basilica is a twelfth-century Romanesque polychrome carving.
In the fall of 1940, five days after Catalan President Lluís Companys had been executed, German Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler arrived in Montserrat. Denizens of the abbey were already uncomfortable with Francisco Franco’s regime appropriating Catholicism as an instrument to legitimize fascist policy. Franco’s fascism was Catholic, but Catholicism wasn’t fascism. This was the line the monks had to draw to effectively communicate that Montserrat was for all Catalans.
So instead of receiving Himmler himself, Abbot Escarré had Fathers Ripol and Estrada, who spoke German, show him around. It turned out that Himmler thought Montserrat was Richard Wagner’s Montsalvat, and he was looking for the Holy Grail.
With the visitor gone, Abbot Escarré returned to business. Following the rule of hospitality that defines the Benedictine order, he transformed the abbey into an oasis for all spiritual seekers and intellectuals. This task culminated on April 27, 1947, with a pilgrimage to reconcile Catalans who had fought on opposite sides in the Civil War. Father Franquesa and Josep Benet weaved anew what the war had torn apart: a fabric of Catalan cultural associations. Thousands attended. The mass was officiated in Catalan for the first time since before the war. From the Gorro Frigi, one of the spires overlooking the abbey, they waved a Senyera, the Catalan flag.
A few days later, the governor of Catalonia was dismissed. On May 20, 1947, Franco visited Catalonia to assert his control over the territory.
“It may seem that Montserrat is well off the beaten path, but it’s actually quite the opposite,” Mestre says. Montserrat is the heart of Catalonia.
Despite all the happy memories, Mestre recalls one catastrophe at Montserrat.
“In 1986, I lived through the dramatic forest fire. I saw the flames climbing toward the monastery. We were quickly evacuated. It was devastating.”
For eleven days, the winds were so strong that firefighting planes were useless. Working together, audacious monks, army men, volunteers, policemen, scouts, and firemen contained six fire lines. Folks transcended themselves; the abbey endured.
That is Montserrat’s power.
Meritxell Martín-Pardo is a research associate for the 2018 Folklife Festival’s Catalonia program. She studied philosophy at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and earned her PhD in religious studies at the University of Virginia.