Thursday, May 08, 2008

A Hero of the Century

The day that Mary Berry died was the day that I got to know her through her disciplines around the world. They came from all corners of the earth to blogs, forums, comment boxes, and sent articles and praise in every which way. It became clear that everyone who loves Catholic liturgy and Catholic art is deeply in her debt.

She was a nun and a don of Cambridge University, born of an academic family on the Feast of the Holy Apostles in 1917 and died on the Feast of the Ascension in 2008. She was a musicologist whose contributions exhibited a wonderful scientific curiosity, but, based on the outpouring after her death, it is clear that there was much more to this woman than science. Working nearly alone, she sustained the interest in Gregorian chant after the postconciliar meltdown. Actually, she did more than sustain it. She inspired many people to the point that they took up her cause in academia and in parishes all over the English-speaking world.

As example here, I had a nice conversation with Jeffrey Morse, who is the director of music at St. Stephen the First Martyr Parish in Sacramento, California. Here is a parish that is wholly and exclusively committed the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite. There are some 800 families that attend, and Morse works with many choirs to provide Gregorian propers at the Masses, as well as sacred polyphony. He directs a children's choir that learns how to read and sing chant—a choir filled with the future directors and singers in our own parishes. His is a fully funded professional position. Here we see the highest of the Catholic musical arts flourish in their fullest form – secure, beautiful, and building for the future.

And why? Because of Mary Berry. When Morse was 17, he called Monsignor Richard Schuler at St. Agnes in Minnesota and asked where he could go to study Gregorian chant. Nowhere in the United States, he replied. You must go to Cambridge to study with Mary Berry. So he did. And there he learned to master the art. She shared her knowledge and her gifts. And today all these live in this parish. So it is in Australia and all over the United Kingdom. There are Mary Berry students and followers who caught that fiery love for chant from her. So too in Austria, Germany, Italy, and France. Her followers seem to be everywhere and they all credit her.

Can one person make a difference? My goodness, yes. And consider the times. Think of the intellectuals, musicians, priests, and liturgists who had obtain mastery over their craft in the late 1950s, working diligently and productively to improve the Church and its worship. Think of the institutions they were building and the great things they were achieving for the glory of God. Now imagine these same people ten to fifteen years later in the turbulent times following the Second Vatican Council, and put yourself in their place. If you have ever spoken to one of these people, you have to marvel at what they saw, which was essentially this: their whole world was swept away, seemingly over night, buffeted and finally wrecked by the crazy confusions and disastrous fashions of the day, which led to an abandonment of all that was revered as holy and true in the past.

We think we have it hard now. Imagine having lived through it all. Would you despair or have hope that truth will eventually prevail? Would you fight or relent? How would your decision work out in practice: with patience and prayer or anger and protest? And how lonely might you have been? Would you find yourself an outcast among your peers and possibly then decide to change directions along with everyone else? Or would you have been steadfast and continue to build in every way you could? These are extremely difficult questions and I'm only happy to not face them with the severity that this generation faced them. But Mary Berry faced them with great courage and hope. It's almost as if all the experiences of her life led her to do this.

Following her initial schooling at Cambridge, she went to study music in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, who was perhaps the most influential music pedagogue and conductor of the 20th century, having taught Copland, Piston, and Virgil Thomson. Berry converted to Catholicism in 1938. When war broke out, she was a nurse with the Red Cross and joined the Canonesses Regular of St. Augustine of the Congregation of Notre-Dame in Belgium. She and the sisters fled to Paris and then to Portugal. After the war she was sent to Rome to teach music and also to help manage a typhoid epidemic. It was in this period that she studied more deeply at the Gregorian Institute in Paris.

After returning to England, she completed her PhD in music in 1968, with a dissertation on the relationship between chant and polyphony in the middle ages. And it was at this point that her entire world changed. The interest in chant that she had loved came to an end. And with only a few others such as an aging Justine Ward and Theodore Marier in the United States she set out to keep the art alive for another generation. She saw that there was continuing interest in chant as pure music and assisted in placing its performance in music festivals and continued to write and teach about its use in liturgy. She founded the professional Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge, an ensemble that still sets the highest standards of performance.

In 2000 she was awarded the Papal Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice for her work. A few months ago, a colleague wrote and suggested that she be interviewed at the age of 90 and that this interview be printed in Sacred Music. It struck me as a splendid idea. But it came too late. This child of the day of the Holy Apostles was called home on the day of the Ascension. And observe what she has left behind! There are hundreds of Gregorian scholars in the United States. Around the world, they number in the thousands. She must have suspected that the postconciliar hiatus would be short, a small parenthesis in the 2000-year history of this art, and I'm only guessing that before she died she had already begun to suspect that the hiatus had ended.

One of her discoveries concerns the song we all know so well as Veni, Veni Emmanuel. Like so many others, I had always assumed that even though it sounded old, it was really a modern song, as in 19th century. She, however, discovered a 15th century edition in a French Processionale. So it turns out that Veni has a much long heritage than we knew. And this raises a very serious question about the applicability of the scientific method when it comes to dating the music of the faith. It is an obvious fallacy to date it from the earliest known physical copy. Music is not like painting; it can be and was passed on orally.

And the longer you know the chant, the more you come to understand how it is that someone like Mary Berry could so fully dedicate her life to it. Each chant of the Graduale Romanum is a masterpiece. Even the shortest communion chant achieves a miraculous integration between words and music, and quite often the singer is just struck with awe, the way we are at a Mahler symphony or a glorious cathedral. It is art that was created in this world but it is not of this world. In fact, I'm had some suspicion that though many chants are dated from the middle ages, we might find out differently in Heaven and it will be revealed to us that the essential core of what is today Gregorian chant can trace its roots to Jerusalem and even back to the earliest Church. If that is true, we might not ever discover the proof in this world. It will be revealed to us in eternity, to which the music and liturgy that Dr. Berry loved with such passion points unceasingly.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: