Champion of the Chant
BESS TWISTONDAVIES meets Mary Berry, the scholarly musician keeping an ancient liturgical tradition alive GREGORIAN CHANT: the term conjures up visions of black-cowled monks singing divine office. The monks of Silos, Solesmes, Ampleforth and Downside have successfully revived public awareness of Gregorian chant, but this recent outpouring of the Benedictine rite shows only one side of the coin.
Gregorian chant was constrained to the cloister only in the aftermath of Vatican II. Before then it was the official music of the Western Church, and central to the liturgy. Now the days when Gregorian chant was part of Sunday Mass are a dim memory for most people.
Most of us are vaguely familiar with some part of the sung liturgy, such as the Kyrie Eleison or the Agnus Dei, but the extraordinary depth of the sung Mass, with its two liturgical cycles whereby the ordinary liturgy was varied with specific songs for the feastdays of different saints, is largely unknown to a postVatican II generation.
But the work of Dr Mary Berry, the noted Gregorian chant scholar, has safeguarded this rich heritage. Twenty-one years ago she founded the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge, a mixed choir dedicated to "the study, teaching and promotion of Gregorian chant".
Since 1975, Dr Berry and her cantors have taught Gregorian chant to thousands of men and women all over the world. The Schola, which is now a registered charity, has 300 associate members spread over several continents.
Dr Berry started the Schola when she realised that not only was Gregorian chant fading from secular consciousness, but that it was relatively unknown even in musical circles: "It all started when a friend of mine read the first issue of the Early Music Review. She said to me `they have not mentioned the oldest music of all Gregorian chant. We have got to do something about this.' So we planned a performance for Palm Sunday, 1975, and booked 30 rooms in Selwyn College, Cambridge."
But finding a church to hold the Mass in was no easy task: "When the numbers went up to 90 we realised that we could no longer hold the Mass in Selwyn College chapel, so we thought of holding it in the Anglican church in Cambridge Great St Mary's but the Rector of St Botolph's waved the Act of Uniformity in front of the Bishop of Ely and said: 'You can't have a Catholic Mass in an Anglican Church'.
"Things have changed so much since then. Five bishops got involved, and the story hit the national headlines. The Bishop of East Anglia was trying to calm things down and he suggested we apply to Kings College chapel. They said no, and St John's College (traditionally a rival to Kings) suggested we try them. Eventually the Mass was held there."
Since then the Schola has gone from strength to strength, performing in international music festivals and spreading the joys of chanting over several continents.
Twice a year, Dr Berry and the Schola host weekends of Gregorian chant, where the uninitiated and the experienced join together to hear, study and sing a variety of chants from different centuries. Anyone is welcome from the absolute beginner to the old hand.
"First of all we expose the liturgy, so people can hear it, then we study it and finally we sing it."
"The weekends are extremely hard work," warns Chris Storr, an associate member of the Schola Gregoriana. "They are very well planned so that people of all levels of experience can take part and beginners can join in straight away. I think that everyone returns tired but fulfilled." But is it really possible to learn to sing Gregorian chant over just one weekend? "You can learn it in a day," he says.
This January, the Schola releases a sung Annunciation Mass in the style common in the late 1950s.
"I wanted to preserve a copy of the chant as it was just before Vatican II," says Dr Berry, who feels that the loss of Gregorian chant is a source of lasting damage to the Church. "Other songs are ephemeral they have their place, but they should not replace the liturgy. We need to get back to our roots but in the right way. A lot of people didn't get it first time round."
Dr Berry says the problem was not Vatican II, itself "a great movement", but rather "the way it was interpreted". She feels that Gregorian chant represents a mystical strain of spirituality, underplayed by the Church since Vatican II. "Gregorian chant is very meditational, it gets you into a frame of mind of peace and serenity. There is nothing like it in the modern liturgy; we are all turned on to ourselves, rather than outwards towards Christ and now we are looking at the effects on the Church.
"The Western Church has soft-pedalled mysticism latterly. It has concentrated on being a Church of action rather than being closer to God."
Dr Berry is convinced that the mystical qualities of plainchant leads its hearers to act as true Christians: "In the 1950s, a lot was done for the chant in France. It was a time of great enthusiasm and energy. In the Church of St Francois Xavier in Paris, the priest encouraged the whole congregation to sing Gregorian chant, and it was reflected in the good works of the parish. The two do go together in the long term."
The Gregorian chant sung in churches is not the same as that sung in monasteries. The Dominicans, the Cistercians and the Benedictines all have their own separate chant rites. The Benedictines use the Roman rite, which is the main form of Gregorian chant. The Dominican rite is a 13th-century version of the Roman rite, which resembles the Sarum rite the English version of the Roman rite.
"It is a 13th-century time capsule a local dialect of the Roman rite. It is more flowery," explains Dr Berry. The Sarum rite was once sung in most of England it even spread as far as Portugal and Rome. Such was its beauty that the Bishop of Salisbury was made Master of Papal ceremonies in Rome. It sparked great enthusiasm among the Oxford Movement in the 19th century, but once the English Catholic hierarchy was restored in 1850, it chose to revive the Roman rite rather than the Sarum version.
differ over why and when Gregorian chant was christened as such, but Dr Berry favours the theory of the German musicologist, Bruno Stablein, who believes that Gregorian chant dates from the reforms of existing chants carried out by three abbots in seventh-century Rome.
"This fits in with what was happening in England at the time. Benet Biscop brought the Archcantor of Rome back to England and all the heads of the Benedictine monasteries were summoned to meet him. The Venerable Bede records it quite vividly, despite being a small boy at the time," she says.
The early transmission of Gregorian chant was oral. Cantors spent 10 years learning their art. But this changed, explains Dr Berry, under the Carolingian empire: "The Carolingians wanted all the chants to be identical, probably for political reasons, so they needed a system of notation."
Research into the notation of early Gregorian chant has brought new insight: "The early notation has a great emphasis on how the music should be sung certain marks indicate hckv specific musical phrases should be expressed. Lazarus is bound when he comes out of his tomb and the music at this point is very laboured. The notation enables the singer to picture in their mind the event they are singing about. These marks are very important as they tell us how people at that time interpreted the faith.
"Much early chant is about the realisation falling into place that Jesus is the Messiah. Every page brings you deeper into Christianity. All the tenets of the faith are there: Incarnation, Resurrection, Redemption.The extraordinary thing about the chant is that it contains the essence of Christian belief. That is why it is so important not just to preserve the chant but to foster it."
Dr Berry is deeply attached to Solesmes, the French Benedictine monastery which has led the field in researching early Gregorian chant: " I first became interested while I was studying music at Girton as an organ scholar. At that time the research of Solesmes was at the fore. I spent Holy Week in Solesmes with my parents and since then have never looked back."
The monks of Solesmes Abbey in north-west France started to restore the original chant melodies after Benedictine monasticism was revived after the Revolution. Their extensive research showed that Gregorian chant was tampered with by 16thcentury grammarians who altered medieval word settings and cut out notes: "Up to the 16th century the tradition was basically the same. At the Council of Trent, various people were trying to bring the chant in line with the ideas of contemporary Grammarians. Gregorian chant went against their ideas of rhythm, so they shortened them and changed the position of the accents on the words. Between the 17th and the 19th centuries, the chant was distorted and slowed down. Dom Gueranger, the first Abbot of Solesmes, sent his monks out to all the libraries of Europe to make new copies of the chant, according to tradition. They took every single word in chronological order and put them one above another to find the purest version. That was how they restored early melodies. As a result the chant is sung much faster now than it was in the 19th century."
Solesmes received official recognition from the Vatican in 1903, wim it gained he right to prouce the offiial Church litury.
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