Saturday, October 10, 2009

Treasure, Lost and Discovered

The note came a few weeks ago from a person who collects old Catholic music books. It concerned a small book by Robert Joseph, with the title The Technique of Gregorian Chironomy, published in 1955. It refers to the method of conducting chant specific to the Roman liturgy. It is tied to a musicological discovery dating from the turn of the 20th century at the Solesmes monastery.

The idea is that chant can be broken down into a series of notes grouped by two and three pulses, and then further expanded into phrases of melodies that are always moving with forward energy or moving back toward settling down again. The proper way to conduct chant, in this view, is with a series of hand motions that reflect this musical phrase, and that method is called chironomy.

This book is an instructional guide to learning to conduct in this fashion. The market was chant conductors in parishes, and the author's motivation in writing it was to improve the sound in chant in the United States.

It was published by the Gregorian Institute of America. Never heard of it? Actually, yes, you probably have. The company today is known as GIA, and you have to look long and hard to discover what those letters stand for today, for as anyone who knows this company's focus today, chant is not exactly at the top of the list of its institutional priorities. I'm on the email list to receive their newest offerings. If it is a Catholic company today, one would be hard pressed to find the evidence by getting on this list, and this is surely by design.

Under the copyright law, the book would have come up for renewal by the company in 1983, and then would have remained under protection, sealed away from digital media and copying for another 95 years, unless it had gone out of print and the rights had reverted to the author. But the company completely failed to renew it. It probably wasn't considered an asset to the company. If anyone in 1983 had even remembered it at all, it was probably regarded as a dusty old relic of an age long gone and never to return.

But the company's failure is the Church's gain. Under the law, the failure to renew means that the book entered into the public domain and can never be copyright protect again. So this forgotten book could now be scanned and distributed to the entire world through digital media, forwarded and forwarded again until infinity. It can also be printed by anyone and distributed at extremely low cost.

This of course is precisely what we did when the book was unearthed. It came back from hi-resolution scanning within 24 hours and then appeared in forum and blogs, hosted on server after server. And a world without a manual of conducting chironomy suddenly had a manual on conducting chrionomy, and the work of this author took flight once again, and all his wisdom imparting to the world a half century ago has thus been immortalized, never to disappear from this earth again so long as time lasts.

Is it a good book? Chant conductor Scott Turkington was completely in awe when he saw it, amazed and fascinated that he had never heard of it and excited to use this book in all of his teaching in the future. It is the book that he always wanted to read or always wanted to write. He describes it as nothing short of fantastic.

I can only dimly imagine the world in which this book was written. My whole impression from the journals and reports of the time is that Gregorian chant had already seen its high water mark, perhaps sometime in the late 1930s, which is when you last read of the happy optimism of a generation of Church musicians. They believed back then that chant – not just hymns, and not just the ordinary chants, but all the propers for every Mass, and by adults and children alike – would someday be sung in every cathedral and every parish in which the Roman Rite served as the basis of liturgy.

Then World War II came with its attendant demographic upheavals. Men left their parishes for war. They were drafted out of civilian life and sent off to foreign lands to kill and be killed. Women bore a disproportionate weight in sustaining home life. Goods were rationed. Services were rationed. Prices controls managed everything. It was a time of extreme regimentation and there were more important issues around then cultivating scholas in parishes. The financial crunch was extreme. Survival and not growth was the watchword.

Perhaps few understood this at the time but the progress made in the world of Catholic music over the previous 50 years had ground to a halt during the war, and even been set back dramatically to a previous period. After the war, we can observe a massive change in the kind of books being printed that concerned Catholic music. They were shorter, more tutorial oriented, less scholarly, and the authors could assume less knowledge than they once did. But the stalwarts still worked throughout the 1950s to patch things up, and this book on chironomy is one example among many. It was an attempt to teach and restart the progress.

Meanwhile, we can read issues of Sacred Music from the time and find that writer's frustration was devolving into panic and fear about the unnamed something terrible on the horizon. Only a decade later and the folk Mass would begin to sweep the country. Ten years after that and the scholas had vanished. The good musicians were shown the door and the pop musicians with no knowledge of the Catholic musical tradition would have the power in parish life.

The Second Vatican Council described Catholic music as a "treasure of inestimable value," one "greater" than all the other arts, and urged and even demanded that this book preserved, cultivated, and fostered. That was 1963. The irony is extremely bitter: these eloquent words and phrases of the Council turned out to be the sound of a death knell for Gregorian chant, but for a handful of parishes that worked to keep it alive. And so it was until very recently, when the fortunes of sacred music began to change in a major way.

When we speak of "treasures," we think of the works of Palestrina, Byrd, and Victoria, and the holy music of chant itself with roots in the first millennium, the Patristic age, and even the earliest Church in Apostolic times. But these are not the only treasures. There is an entire infrastructure of support that goes along with this music, mostly in the form of knowledge passed on through teaching, including teaching materials such as the book described above.

So the treasures themselves are as recent at half a century ago. And this book represents only the tiniest fraction of what is there, waiting to be rediscovered by a new generation. We live in times in which all of this is being opened to us, to a new generation, as if we have discovered a lost tomb full of wonderful things. And we are again being encourage to find, explore, rediscover, reapply, and make all things new again. It is an exciting time and we've only just begun this journey through the past to find the essential building blocks to a bright future.

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