Sunday, May 18, 2008

Mary Berry's "Plainchant for Everyone"

For those of us who never had the chance to meet Mary Berry, who died only recently after a lifetime of dedication to sacred music, her book Plainchant for Everyone provides an excellent window into her teaching style and personality. We have here the great enthusiasm for her subject and a warm wit at work, alongside a passion for getting the point across. She was also an excellent writer and pedagogue.

While this volume is not something you are likely to run across at Catholic bookstores, and I’m not sure that I even knew about it until recently, it is in fact available from GIA, even if the online record contains not one word of description about what it is. GIA has given no one any good reason to buy this at all! So maybe this blogpost will help.

Published in 1979, it is only 56 pages and that includes a nice bibliography. (How wonderful it would be to see this online! I’ve written already in the hopes of seeing that happen.)

She begins with the thing you really want to know.

What is this thing called ‘Plainsong’? One often also hears it called ‘Plainchant’, or ‘Gregorian Chant’, or simply ‘The Chant’. To put it in a nutshell, the chant is the unique music of Western Christianity and our closet living link with the Church of the first centuries. It has also been said, with truth, to lie ‘at the foundation of all our Western music.’

See what I mean about a fast start? There is nothing fussy or pompous here. The evangelist is speaking. She continues:

The chant grew originally out of the music of the Jewish ritual. Te first Christians were themselves Jews and they brought into their worship the ancient Jewish custom of chanting aloud the books of the Bible. The melodies they used brought out the meaning of the words, made the text audible to a large gathering of people, and added beauty and dignity to the ready. In particular, the chanting of the psalms was to become the first basis for all future Christian workshop. Even today, the melodies used for chanting the psalms – the eight Gregorian Tones (or ‘tunes’) -- have their recognizable counterparts in Jewish practice.

By the way, I’ve heard this view criticized as untrue – and actually the claim that this is not the case survives in the wikipedia entry on chant. But if you follow the footnotes to Apel and beyond what you find is a series of qualifications concerning the use of song in Jewish worship that do not in fact refute the main claim that chant has its ancestry in Jewish practice. In other words, what Berry says here was conventional wisdom in 1979 and later revised but, so far as I can tell, the old conventional wisdom here is actually untouched, and I suspect that she knew this. This is only one example of many in which her simple prose is actually masking vast scholarship and knowledge.

Next she moves to dating the chants we sing:

Most of the great masterpieces of the chant repertoire as we have it today were composed well before the ninth century, the period of richest creative activity being from about the fifth or sixth century to the eight century. Compositions dating from this period are said to belong to the ‘Gold Age’ of the chant, because by this time the chant of the Western Church had developed into a highly elaborate and complete art in its own right.

Now, here again, we have a careful use of words that gives us the “bottom line” of vast amounts of scholarship. Notice that she says “were composed well before….” rather than attempting to pin down a precise date. She learned through her studies that the manuscripts we have can be misleading because the music itself can far predate the actual writing down of the chant. The careful scholar is at work here while speaking to the regular person.

She continues to describe the types of chants, where you can hear chant, whether chant can be in English, and some notes on pronunciation. From here she plunges right into how to read the notes, and this section is particularly strong. I like the way she speaks so plainly to the issue of how to know what pitch to start on: “look at the highest note and the lowest note of your piece and decide whether these two notes can be sung most comfortably by your choir so that the piece is neither too high nor too low.”

Clarity that will save many errors!

She then explains the role of the clef signs, the relationship between half steps and whole steps, the note names, and then the church modes – again, her method here reflects many years of experience in teaching scholas and seeing what kind of language works to impart the message.

Even in the thicket of discussion of modes and notes, the warmth of her voice is also present. See how she discusses Psalms:

Psalmody is at the very heart of the chant, so do try to get lots of practice in singing the psalms. There is one psalm-tone for each mode, and each tone has one simple form and several more elaborate forms. There is generally a choice of final cadences, or endings (sometimes also called ‘differences’), but the books always tell you clearly which one to use.

This passage really made me laugh because it is clear that she knows precisely what can confuse the student:

Don’t be alarmed by such an array of final cadences! It’s really much simpler than it looks.

She provides a great set of rules of psalm singing. For example: “In ordinary psalms the intonation is only used for the first verse, all the remaining verses starting on the reciting note.” “In the New Testament canticles (Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, Benedictus) the intonation is used for every verse, unless (as in the Nunc Dimittis) some of the verses are so short as to make this impossible.”

Did you know this? Well, in today’s environment, it is very difficult to discover such information, and the author here knew this so she was careful to sift through so much information to tell the singer precisely the information that will make the singing right.

I was really excited to see here section on a strategy for introducing chant into a parish. She recommends against starting with a Credo or Gloria “as this will discourage by its length.” Instead she recommends an “easy, straightforward Kyrie, Sanctus, or Agnus Dei,” or a chant hymn such as Tantum ergo. It is also interesting to see how she recommends a “five-minute run-through with the congregation before the service begins; it is quite remarkable what a lot can be learnt.”

Maybe you can already see what a little treasure Mary Berry left for us with this little book. She is imparting here many years of experience and all her acquired knowledge to help parishes in our own time embrace the chant tradition. To that end, the book is supremely practical while filled with vast wisdom. Mostly, it makes me personally happen to feel as if I’m getting to know her teaching personality and her enthusiasm even though I never met her.

Note too the year it was published: 1979, what was clearly the depths in terms of chant practice in liturgy. Her heart must have been broken to see what happened, and yet it doesn't show here. She is optimistic and thrilled that you are interested. From what I hear, this spirit defined her life.

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