Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Chant and Doing Things the 'Right Way'

Last week I attended “Windows on Chant” at Kansas University. The Division of Organ and Church Music at KU http://www2.ku.edu/~organ/ hosts an annual thematic conference in the fall. This year’s gathering centered around the theory, history, and practice of Chant.

Drs. Michael Bauer and James Higdon put together a splendid program (as solid as the department over which they preside!) Two ‘heavy-hitter’ presenters took us through our time together. Fr. Anthony Ruff OSB lectured on the history of Chant, its revival and semiology and Susan Ferré addressed the practical component from a keyboard (organ) perspective.

It would have been difficult to find a more qualified American scholar of Chant than Fr. Ruff. He brings a bounty of experience and scholarship to the table— ranging from his life as a Benedictine to his Doctoral studies in the heart of the German semiological school at Graz. By all accounts his book Sacred Music and Liturgical Reform is a sober, formidable, and long-awaited balanced breath of fresh air (for the Catholic world).

The conference was well attended and Fr. Ruff pointed out that these days most Chant seminars are. Chalk it up to orthodoxy/conservativism/whatever you want to call it— it is unmistakably a trend. Among tradition-oriented crowds the motivation is particularly clear— this is getting back to our roots. And make no mistake that’s important. Vatican II was indeed quite clear about preserving the corpus of Sacred Music. However, nothing happens without a little irony.

As Fr. Ruff gave his talk on the history of Chant revival at Solesmes the funny business became clear. Call it a tale of two monks: after years of sparring with the Germans and bucking unfounded Papal endorsements of the Cecilians the French school of Chant interpretation took the lead (ca. 1903). But all was not well. The Solesmes monks all wanted to do the right/authentic thing…but they disagreed about what precisely that was. Infighting ensued.

Joseph Pothier suggested that rhythm should be driven by the text (oratorical). André Mocquereau supported a smooth equal rhythm. Mocquereau won that battle (as any person who sings Solesmes Chant knows). As it turns out, according to the current scholarly consensus (built upon a convergence of the best available sources), the wrong guy won. There were other disputes to be sure but this ironic incident represents a microcosm of historical performance practice debates and even historical research at large.

The principle? The first fruits of retrospective scholarship tend to miss the mark— and moreover, they often stick.

The axiomatic goal of historical research is to bring forth knowledge which can elevate and refine our present practices (most certainly for those which claim a historical flavor!) But what happens when misunderstandings, hasty conclusions or even flagrant disregard for sources leave us more Greek than the Greeks or “more Medieval than the Medievals?” (to borrow a line from Fr. Ruff). In other words, is there value to our imitation of historical styles if they are not, in fact, historical? The short answer (which I suspected and Fr. Ruff confirmed) is yes…but only through what I daresay is a modern concept of art criticism: judge it on its own terms— the “ars gratis artia.” This is nothing new in most circles but it may be tough medicine in some Catholic subgroups which see this pluralism as nothing more than applied moral relativism.

Fr. Ruff put it this way, “I grew up with the Solesmes Chant. The smooth, equalist flow has its own beauty and appeal [albeit a-historical]. I can appreciate that.” In fact, he went on to add that some of the most rigorous historically informed German renditions of chant are indeed a bit laborious! So where does this leave us? I don’t think there is a clear answer. We will always experience tension between historic authenticity and art for its own sake. Is St. Patrick’s in New York good Gothic architecture? No, it’s a wonderful neo-Gothic church. Do nineteenth-century tales of chivalry give us useful insights into medieval culture? No, they’re good Romantic literature.

We can’t ever recreate the past and even if we could it would never affect us the same way. Mozart will not sound the same to ears which have heard Bruckner and the Beatles. The power of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony escapes us thanks to a million TV commercials and an overused hymn. Nikolaus Harnoncourt put this well, “a deceptive cadence that one already knows no longer deceives, [it] no longer is a deceptive cadence.”

Therefore, Chanters beware! If you think that sixth of the hexachord in Ave Maria is a veritable transport to a 10th century monastery, think again. Hartker, Notker, and John of St. Gall just might hear you with perplexed and furrowed brows.

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