Monday, November 22, 2021

In Honor of St. Cecilia: Memorable Quotes from an Interview with Conductor Marcel Pérès

When I recently read a detailed interview from twenty-five years ago with the world-famous musicologist and conductor of early music Marcel Pérès, I found some passages quite interesting in light of current events in the Church and decided to share them here. In his remarkable discography with the Ensemble Organum, Pérès has opened up many chant repertoires that had never been explored, such as Mozarabic chant, Corsican chant, and Gallican chant, and has produced benchmark recordings of medieval and Renaissance polyphony by such figures as Ockeghem and Machaut. The interview was conducted by Tom Moore and published in Fanfare, 19:5 (May-June 1996), 20–30. The full interview may be found here. Links to other interviews with Marcel Pérès may be found here and here.

You have been focusing almost exclusively on music for the Catholic Church. Did you grow up in a Catholic family?

Yes. When I was a boy I used to sing in the choir of the Cathedral of Nice, in the south of France. It was here that I discovered chant. The Cathedral of Nice was a very traditional place, and even after the last council continued with the Latin Mass on Sunday, and Latin Vespers also. I was lucky to grow up there. Every time that I work on a new repertoire, I always try to think about the liturgy, its place in the liturgy—I think it’s very important for performing this early music.

What did the choir focus on? Did you sing the Gregorian ordinary and propers?

Yes. We sang polyphony also, Palestrina and so on. Even though the Gregorian chant was done in the Solesmes way, it was important, because as you know, most of the Catholic places had broken with the tradition. As I was born in 1956, it was just after the council, so for me it was an opportunity to make a link with tradition. Later I studied the history of chant in more detail, chiefly with Michel Huglo in Paris, where I did my scholarly training, manuscript work, and so on.

Can you tell us about your perceptions of the effect of Vatican II in France?

It was a disaster. It was a disaster because the result was a reform that was not the sort of reform wanted by the texts of the council, because the texts said that Latin remained the language of the church, and national languages were simply authorized, but not the rule. Vatican II also said that Gregorian chant remained the repertoire of the Latin church. But in spite of that, the bishops wanted to really break with any reference to the past, and now you have this situation where you have Roman Catholic priests who are not able to say a Mass in Latin, and even people who grew up in a very religious environment are unable to understand a word of the Latin liturgy.

It’s really a disaster, not only in the field of religion, but also in the area of scholarship. When you study the Middle Ages, whether history or music or something else, you must have references to the medieval liturgy, medieval Latin; but now when you start your graduate studies at twenty-one or twenty-two, you must learn everything, the texts of the liturgy, and there is a drop in the level of studies because of that. Now there is maybe a tiny change in the mentalities for some young priests who realize that there is something missing in their education; maybe something is changing, and in the next ten or twenty years we will have a more reasonable attitude. Presently in France most of the clergy is allergic to Latin—it’s not a reasonable attitude. So everything has to be rebuilt.

In some sense Vatican II was as revolutionary for French culture as the events of 1968. Can the two be linked?

It’s very complex. It’s a constant in the history of France that the people who have the power do not realize that things must change, and so they always wait till the last moment. The French revolution was typical of that—they wanted to hold onto things until they burst. The decolonization of the French empire was the same thing—they wanted to negate the problem. English people have a more fair way to manage these things.

In the early 60s in France, on one side, you have this political power, with DeGaulle, who didn’t want to change anything of what existed, and with the church, it’s true that the Catholics had not seen what was going on in the 50s. ...

Everything started with the first Vatican council in 1870. At this time the Catholic Church wanted to make the rites, the chant uniform. It’s from this time that you have the idea of one edition of chant, the Vatican Edition. The aim was to have the same liturgy and the same chant in all the Catholic churches throughout the world. It was artificial, since every country had its own tradition, even if more or less every one was singing a sort of Gregorian or Latin vocal tradition. This only really came into practice in the ’20s, after the First World War. That created a new aesthetic of Catholic liturgy, Catholic music also, and the way of singing chant that is common now is an aesthetic that comes from this time.

Is this the sort of aesthetic that the chant-based pieces of Duruflé or Poulenc represent?

Yes. The model for Catholic music was Gregorian chant and Palestrina; composers tried to compose according to plainsong. At the same time the chant was accompanied. It was a mixture of a will to return to antiquity, but also a desire to arrange this antiquity with what was necessary for modern good taste. This aesthetic was triumphant from the ’20s through the second World War. At this point in France there was a breakdown in the Catholic world, because the Catholics had believed in the values of Petain during the war, and they had to think it over. That’s why in the ’60s the reform of Vatican II was an occasion for the collective unconscious to break with this Catholic style linked with the war. They wanted to do something new. This is how you can explain why some priests are so pathologically against Latin, against what was real Catholic tradition—in their minds, it was a real way to break with the past. There you have in a few words a psychoanalysis of French attitudes.

Can you tell us a little about how you perceive the interactions between Eastern and Western chant?

It’s a matter of history, since all this repertoire has a common root, which is the liturgy of Jerusalem. Very quickly the Christian liturgy became Greek. Christianity came to the Latin world in the form of Greek culture. The liturgy in Rome itself was in Greek until the fourth century—it’s only in the fifth century that they started to translate from Greek to Latin. When we are thinking of Roman chant, we must always have in mind that in the early centuries there was not a distinction between Roman and Greek culture; since two centuries before Christ these cultures were completely linked. It’s very significant that when Roman music theoreticians write of music it’s always with Greek terms—the very last great theoretician of music from antiquity, Boethius, is talking of Greek music, and in his mind there is no distinction between Roman music and Greek music. The theory is Greek.

I emphasize that because from time to time I read some article that discusses Greek influence in the Roman liturgy. That’s wrong—it’s not Greek influence. It’s a community. After the fifth or sixth century, Rome and Constantinople start to diverge, but still with many things in common. In fact in Rome until the thirteenth century they used to sing some pieces in Greek. In the seventh and eight centuries in Rome they had fourteen popes of Greek origin, but let us note that most of them were Greeks from Sicily—southern Italy and Sicily in antiquity were Magna Graecia—it was a Greek world, not a Latin world. So when I started to study Old Roman chant, I wanted to put in the perspective of these common roots. There were still in the twelfth century in Roman chant seven alleluia verses in Greek. I thought it would be good to ask Greek singers what they made of that. With my Western education, I wasn’t able to see how this music was working—it was very repetitive, it was very obvious from the notation that there was a lot of ornamentation, for instance, but how to do it. ...?

Something I have found fascinating in your work is the exploration of later chant traditions. Later chant has not been a topic of research for musicology.

You still don’t have a history of chant, because of an ideology that comes from the first Vatican Council. They wanted to promote the idea of a uniform chant repertoire, a uniform way of singing, and so they wanted to negate everything that happened between the eleventh and the nineteenth century—most of the history of chant, they say, is ‘‘decadent.’’ And so all the scholars have focused on the first manuscripts of chant. Now studies of later centuries are beginning, but we have lost one century, because these studies should have begun a century ago.

The common idea that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century chant is decadent is ideological, because the reform of Solesmes wanted to break with the Gallican tradition, with the affirmation of the specificity of French culture, with the idea ‘‘that we can be Catholic without having the same liturgy of Rome.’’ They wanted to destroy that in the nineteenth century, and so they wanted to go back to St. Gregory.

Which goes together with the infallibility of the pope…

Yes, yes. One liturgy, one infallible pope, one chant, one history of liturgy which is Roman and negated all other liturgies.

When we look at the chant of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it’s very good music, as good as Baroque music. If you think about it, why shouldn’t this chant have been refined? And so you have a huge repertoire to be discovered. I’ve tried to show some defects in the ideology, and with the records to show to scholars that they should study this, and in fact you can understand some medieval practices through studying seventeenth- and eighteenth-century sources. They had a continuous tradition—the medieval aesthetic was still living. You find some fauxbourdon in parallel fifths in the eighteenth century—a language completely separate from that of the time.

In eighteenth century, at the Cathedral of Sens, they were still using thirteenth-century manuscripts. Sens is now a little city, but until the seventeenth century the archbishop had the title of Primate of Gaul and Germany. The decadence of Sens began with the growth of Paris, but until 1620 or so the Bishop of Paris was under the authority of Sens. 

Marcel Pérès in 2016

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