Friday, April 09, 2010

The Book that Explains it All

Gregorian Chant, by David Hiley (Cambridge and NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009). 978-0-521-87020-7 hardback; 978-0-521-69035-5 paperback. $20 or so.

In the sector of the blogosphere that discusses Gregorian chant (and isn't it wonderful that such a thing exists at all?) there is a constant stream of claims and counterclaims that constantly surprise the reader. Last month or so, a person with some seeming authority piped up to say that Solesmes pretty much invented (not merely restored) what we called Gregorian chant, a claim that stunned me. But looking at his reference cited as proof, I found that it knew the book well, recommended it often, and couldn't imagine how this pundit came to this conclusion based on his source text.

That's just a sample. Hang around long enough and you bump into those great rhythm controversies, with some people claiming that all notes must be of more-or-less equal length whereas others claim that all falling notes on a single vowel should be treated as speedy ornaments while predictable pulses should be completely eschewed in music the way we eschew them in speech. Most people who comment on these matters affect access to high authority – whether historical, musicological, liturgical, or ecclesiastical.

There are the matters of who precisely are to be appointed to sing the chants. Soloists only? The people? Only trained scholas of a few? Should it be men or women or mixed? And, hey, maybe chant isn't even for the parishes in the first place and belong only in a monastic environment. Let the parishes sing their stupid songs, some say, and let the chant belong only to the holiest of holies.

And in deciding all these issues, what standard are we really using here? If we use history only, we can easily fall into archeologism: an attempting a perfect recreation of some ideal age (about which we know very little), so perhaps to experience chant properly we should all tolerate painful tooth decay and shouldn't live past the age of 30. Or maybe the authority is only existing Church law, in which case we enter the well-known thicket of legislation in which national and Roman dictate seem to diverge.

Then there is the matter of the true origins of the chant we call Gregorian. What precisely did Gregory I do in order to have his name attached to chants composed as late at 1000 years after his death? The claims and counterclaims can get very strange. I've heard the bromide more than once that chant is imperial music, forced on a world of unwilling singers by Charlemagne's sword, eventually coming to crush more rustic indigenous varieties in Spain and Rome itself!

I'll mention one other variety of such claims. Praise music advocates love to dazzle audiences with tossed off erudition about how the Kyrie and Agnus Dei are not really framed-up musical pieces but rather litanies with popular improvisation, and therefore we should not complain when the crooner at the ambo takes a 16-bar ride between invocations of "Lord Have Mercy."

I could continue this narrative for thousands of words but let me just jump now to precisely why I've raised all of this. I have a book to recommend. I would like to shout it from the housetops, in fact. It's the book I never thought I would see, a book that gets better and better each page, a book of astounding erudition but also written in an accessible style, a book for every single musician or Catholic who has ever been interested in this huge topic called Gregorian chant. The book is Gregorian Chant published by Cambridge Introductions to Music (Cambridge, 2009) and the author who has made his name in history by writing it is David Hiley. I would to propose a month's long moratorium on all speculative ramblings on this topic while everyone forgets what he or she thinks he or she knows, patiently absorbing the scholarship, careful judgments, evidence, and balanced tone of this happy treatise.

Hiley is the world master of this topic. His previous book on plainsong more generally has been sitting on my shelf, intimidating me for many years with its weight and complexity. I've read it and been scared by its voluminous and detailed contents several dozens times. Hilely has always struck me as some kind of living plainsong master-of-the-universe whose knowledge would never quite transmit to my amateur brain.

So, I can only say thank you, maxima thank you, to the author and the publisher here for managing an introductory text for musicians and anyone, including (and emphatically not excluding) people who are only interested in chant for religious reasons. The book is organized well. The author has a very light touch and you hear a delightful voice in the prose. It is filled with funny asides, yes, even outright humor. His judgments on all matters of controversy turn out to be non-dogmatic in almost every case. He has a bias but sure as he builds it, he admits it and tries to make the contrary case. Mostly he gives enough tantalizing evidence in all directions to put a stop to these flame wars on the blogosphere and thoroughly educate a new generation that is taking chant studies out of academia into real-time parish life.

Just to take one case: does chant originate in Jewish ritual? Perhaps, he says. The trouble is that there is little evidence. That doesn't mean that it didn't happen this way, and he says it is outright silly to think that Jewish ritual did not have some influence. But he is also very clear: it can't really be demonstrated. Apparently ritual song was not really part of Jewish temple worship until the 8th century and prior to that, while it had a large role in the culture, it was not part of the solemn ritual. So the result of his analytics here: ambiguity. To me, that is satisfying.

Is the same with the origins of chant. Every authority one reads on this subject claims to have the whole story down perfect. Not Professor Hiley. He accumulates all existing knowledge to make a decisive claim for the 9th century. Going back in time, matters become more speculative and sparse. And yet there are enough scraps to be highly suggestive the oral tradition of singing chant goes back centuries earlier.

And what about the old pious tradition that in fact chant dates to Apostolic times? Well, here he makes an intriguing allowance. If the oral tradition could be handed from generation to generation, across one or two centuries, why not four, six, or either centuries? Keep in mind, that this thought comes not from a speculative, agenda-driven pundit but a scholar of sound mind and immense reputation, one who wins the reader's confidence with every page.

I won't tell you how he judges all the controversies I've mentioned above but I will say that he gives us plain-language access to a fantastic panoply of evidence in all directions. He tells delightful stories of the giants in history, like my favor Gudio d'Arezzo whose method for writing chant democratized it and reduced training of choir boys from ten to two years. He quotes from the earliest liturgical books on how chants were used. He explains the distinct differences between the offertory, communion, gradual and tract, and the introits, even managing to do this in a few paragraphs each. Do you see what gold we have here?

As for humor, I had to laugh at this passage that will strike everyone who has performed music in Mass as shockingly hilarious. He is quoting from the Ordo Romanus I of the year 700. The Pope is arriving for a Mass and we have detailed instructions on how the music is to be handled. "the subdeacon returns to the pontiff, offers him the napkin, bowing himself as low as his knees, and saying, 'My lord's servants… so-and-so of the choir will sing.' And then no change may be made in either the reader or the singer: but if this should be done, the ruler of the choir...shall be excommunicated by the pontiff."

I know of many choir masters who would be in deep trouble under these conditions.

I don't want to leave the impression that Hiley proves only ambiguities and raises questions where that is mostly a mythical certainty. I would say that this dominant upshot of this book: to underscore what we do not know and provide a huge litany of suggestions for further research. But this much he is absolutely clear on. Gregorian chant is a living miracle. It is great. It is musically ingenious and timeless (that is a word he uses and defends!). It is the largest (and it is immense!) body of music that is still in use that has the longest possible pedigree, and in this sense it is singular.

Another point that is indisputable and so firmly established in this great book: Gregorian chant is the music of the Roman Rite. Without it, the Roman Rite is not true to itself. And chant without the ritual is robbed of its proper context. I would dare anyone to spend the weekend with this book and resist the inevitability of this conclusion. This is why chant cannot be swept under the rug and why all attempts to displace it with some other alien form of music (alien to the rite, that is) will not succeed in the long run.

Writing in April 2010, I would say that if you are going to get one book on the musical aspects of Gregorian chant, let it be this one. There are other books more pious, other books more ecclesiastically focused, but I don't think any book compares in the range and clarity of discussion of the music that built Western civilization.

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