Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Mary Berry Obit in Times

Here it is:

Musicologist, nun and don of the University of Cambridge, Mary Berry was hugely influential in reviving Gregorian chant in Britain and abroad. Through the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge she promoted the teaching, study and performance of Gregorian liturgical music within a 2,000-year-old tradition of Christian song and, after the sweeping changes generated by the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, she preserved the chant and kept it alive at a time when the old certainties were falling all around her.

The youngest of three sisters, Mary Berry was born into academia. Her father, Arthur Berry, was Vice-Master and Librarian at Downing College, Cambridge, while her mother, Ethel, was the daughter of a clergyman. All three girls attended the Perse School but, while Bunty and Claudie went on to Oxford, Mary chose Cambridge “because the music was better”.

After school she spent a year at the École Normale de Musique in Paris, studying under Nadia Boulanger, who inspired in her a love of early church music. Arriving at Girton as a Turle scholar in music in 1935, she was awarded the John Stuart of Rannoch scholarship in sacred music in her second year. Although brought up in the Church of England she became drawn towards Catholicism and in 1938 she was received into the Catholic Church by the Bishop of Liège before graduating with a music degree from Cambridge.

Then war broke out. When she was nursing with the Red Cross, her calling took a deeper turn. In March 1940 she joined the novitiate of the Canonesses Regular of St Augustine of the Congregation of Notre-Dame de Jupille in Belgium. This put her right in the line of the invading German Army, and two months later the novitiate was evacuated on the last train to Paris with its few possessions wrapped in scarlet blankets — “hardly the best camouflage”, as she later recalled.

Throughout this summer of danger the young nuns joined the streams of refugees trudging through France until a fellow novice, an ambassador’s daughter, arranged travel papers for Portugal and they found safe harbour in Lumiar, a suburb of Lisbon, opening two schools soon after they arrived. Here Berry lived out the war.

After the war she taught and nursed. She made her final profession in 1945, becoming Mother Thomas More in religion, before being sent to Rome to teach music and English, and take charge of an infirmary during a typhoid epidemic. She performed similar offices back in Jupille and then, while in Dijon, she was sent to Gregorian chant courses at the Institut Grégorien in Paris.

This was a turning point in her life. Returning to Cambridge in 1963 to work for a PhD in musicology under Thurston Dart, she founded centres in England and Ireland for the teaching of chant, wrote for The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and in 1968 was awarded a doctorate for her thesis, “The Performance of Plainsong in the Later Middle Ages and the Sixteenth Century”. By now a fully fledged academic, she was appointed director of studies in music at Girton and, two years later, was awarded a fellowship at Newnham College, Cambridge, while also heading its music faculty.

But, meanwhile, all was not well with the Church she loved. In the surge to modernise, much had been lost: the Latin language, the liturgy, music and the chant. She felt that a tradition and culture was on the brink of destruction and what could she, a convert who had been received into that tradition, do about it?

The catalyst was not long in coming. In 1975 a colleague, Rosemary McCabe, experienced a Eureka moment which was to reconfirm the course of Mary Berry’s life. Lying in her bath one day with a copy of Early Music magazine, McCabe read it from front to back and then, springing from the bath, informed her startled colleague, “There’s nothing in it about the chant. You must do something!”

Berry often told this story of how the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge was founded. Beaming at the assembled singers who gathered at the Schola’s singing weekends, workshops and pilgrimages, she welcomed all comers. From the Schola’s first service on Palm Sunday that year in St John’s College chapel, “our main aim was to tell people about this wonderful, virtually unknown, music”, and she did this by orchestrating medieval services, concerts and liturgical plays. She revelled in dressing up for the ancient liturgies with meticulous attention to detail and occasional wild improvisation.

As her work became known, her teaching of the chant took her all over the world — to France, Estonia, Canada, America and Australia, and places in between. Galvanised by her knowledge and encouragement, numerous local chant groups were formed, including a flourishing all-black choir from Dominica in the Windward Islands.

Devout and erudite, Berry radiated a joyful and sunny blessing, occasionally interspersed with crisp commands if singers flat-footed a wrong note. There were no concessions to ignorance — either of the chant or the liturgy — but her bubbling humour leavened long hours of choir practice. With a fund of interesting and mildly scurrilous anecdotes delivered with a twinkle in her eye, she was fortunate to attract many fine cantors to sing at festivals and record CDs on the Herald label.

The cantors of the Schola, a professional group of singers interested in Gregorian chant and early music, specialise in the reconstruction and performance of liturgy from the 10th century to modern times. Led by Berry, they were the first in the field to record a reconstruction of a complete festal service based on the tropes and organa of the Winchester Troper, and this won the Michael Beazley Medieval Recording of the Year in 1991. Their work was, and continues to be, very significant in bringing early music to a wider audience.

In 2000 she was awarded the Papal Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice for her work with Gregorian chant, and in 2002 she was appointed CBE for her services to plainsong and Gregorian chant.

Mary Berry, CBE, musicologist and nun, was born on June 29, 1917. She died on May 1, 2008, aged 90

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