Thursday, January 24, 2008

Is chant for snobs, elites, courts, and other exploiters?

Browsing the archives of Pastoral Music, I came across a very peculiar piece of writing from Feb-March 1977 called "Pocahontas Never Sang Gregorian Chant," by Eileen Elizabeth Freeman, then a guitar instructor studying at Notre Dame.

She argues that "calling chant the traditional music of American Catholicism is a form of religious myth." Further, "at no time during the formative centuries of plainchant did it ever become a vehicle for congregational song. Gregorian chant was the almost exclusive prerogative of monastic choirs and cathedral choirs….Throughout the Middle Ages, this dual traditional persisted, with Gregorian chant being the music of the 'official' Church, the literati (at least in the a metaphorical sense!), and vernacular hymns sustaining the faith musically for the average person." She further says that the same is true of polyphony: music of the elites.

Well, let's address this, starting with the claim that Pocahontas never sang chant, I'm not sure that has anything to do with it. Napoleon probably didn't either. Pocahontas wasn't a Christian at all until she married John Rolfe and was christened Lady Rebecca. I'm supposing they were Anglican, and it seems reasonable to assume that Gregorian Chant wasn't commonly sung in the Anglican Church in the United States. When they visited England in 1616, however, it was the Elizabethan era, and the music of Thomas Tallis was still heard in the cathedral. So we might amend the claim to say that while Pocahontas never sang chant, she might have listened to a live performance of "Spem in Alium."

The core of this article's point needs addressing, since it is still the case that people associate chant with high-brow education, snobbery, and elitism. These days, the demographics and financial analytics do not support the view. In today's American Catholic, the money and power is almost wholly with the praise-music crowd. They are the ones with the big corporations and well-heeled marketing apparatus. Their composers are well paid, their music is expensive and protected by a government privilege (copyright), and they have all the connections with people in high places of power and influence. Talk about a plutocracy.

The chant movement, in contrast, is made up of regular people in parishes, most of whom aren't paid a dime, have no elite educations, and have no high-level connections with anyone. Moreover, our music is free and enjoys no government-enforced monopoly privileges.

So if we are really digging this Marxian-style of class analytics, the position of the exploiters and the exploited has radically shifted in our time! We might also point out that chant is the music of illiterate and shockingly poor monks who lived under a socialistic form of property ownership. Its unison feature reflected the sociological commitment to perfect equality. Maybe if the ideological left would think about it this way, they might warm up to the genre.

And yet I see no point in engaging in this ridiculous battle over who is privileged and who is not. The fact remains that chant is widely regarded as snobbish, and no amount of demographic analysis of who is doing it will change that impression. In the same way, however, I suppose we could say that the Pieta reflects a high-level, cultured taste, as does the Sistine Chapel and Gothic Cathedrals and all the rest. Certainly these forms of art can be seen as "higher," in some way, than a carved piece of driftwood and a log-cabin worship space.

Piety is possible in lower forms of folk art, but the question is what we want to consider the ideal and whether we are willing to offer the best we have to God. If an artist can carve and paint art that is beautiful and universal, should we put him down and say, oh, you must not do that since it might alienate the proletariat? Are we right to say that the "common people" are just too uncouth and stupid to understand what is beautiful and glorious? This strikes me as a profoundly insulting way to proceed.

Tradition teaches that sacred music has three marks: holiness, beauty of forms, and universality. It is this third mark that the article in question never addresses, perhaps because the author does not believe in musical universals. With fixed ideological lenses, all phenomena must be reduced to the great class struggle. And yet it strikes me that the very existence of chant, which has been pervasive throughout Christian history and it in a strikingly broad geographic, is the strongest evidence for such a thing as universal music.

Whenever you sing chant, it strikes you how incredibly timeless and universal this music is, certainly as compared with Christian pop (so timebound and nationalist) and even as compared with classical symphonic or chamber music. Chant is the very paradigm of sacred music.

As for the existence of class privilege, Gregorian chant offers music for trained specialists, to be sure (not that such training is necessarily linked to class). The propers fall into this category. But there are also the settings of the ordinary chants, which are decidedly easier and fall into the category of music of the people. In addition, there are vast numbers of chant hymns that belong to the people. Finally, there are the chants that belong exclusively to the celebrant, which just so happen to be the easiest of all, since they must be sung by every priest, even those that are very little capacity for singing at all. In other words, the whole of chant actually accounts for the existence of a wide range of skills—and appeals to all classes of people in all times.

As evidence of that, we might point to the fact that in our own time, there is a vast and growing movement of people around the world who have fallen in love once again with chant, and dedicated much of their lives to studying and singing it. I'm not sure you can say this of any art that dates from the Apostolic Age. It is, of course, the same way with the Christian idea itself, the power of which continues to grow even though it is 2000 years old. Chant too entices us with its beauty and power because it is intimately bound up with the whole history of Christian worship. No attempt to crush it, belittle it, marginalize it, or reduce it to a mere sign of some class struggle, will finally succeed.

It is the music of Christianity itself, and has staying power for the same reason that the faith itself does.

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