Gregorian chant is a "decadent enchantment"
  • David Goldman and William Mahrt had an exchange recently in First Things about Gregorian chant, classical music, time, sacrality, and the propriety of various forms of music to liturgy.


    Goldman claims that a monograph by Katherine Bergeron entitled Decadent Enchantments: The Revival of Gregorian Chant At Solesmes (1998) proves that Solesmes "misapplied" philological methods in their compilation of chant melodies from the manuscript archive. This misapplication means that Solesmes effectively invented a new form of chant, and that this invention represented a decadent kind of medievalism. This doesn't mean that it's inappropriate for liturgical use, Goldman is careful to say. Along with Benedict XVI, he seems to want to create a space in which 'classical' music can be perceived and admitted as 'sacred' too. He suggests that China might be the next source of great music in this area.

    Lots to discuss here. I remain unpersuaded that 'classical' music can convey sacrality to the degree chant can. Why? Because classical music to me is sonically indistinguishable from the classical music station on the radio.

    What I think Goldman is after is really a sense of sublimity in music -- the jamming together of different melodies and time values is one approach to this. He describes a kind of cantus firmus or counterpoint-by-augmentation technique as one example. There are many others: the gradual building of massed chords, drone effects, etc. All of that puts the discussion uncomfortably (for me) in the realm of technique, as if sacrality were a series of mechanical strings one could pull. Lost in that discussion is the salience of living tradition. The reason chant and polyphony is commonly perceived as "holy" is simply that they have been used that way for centuries. It doesn't matter if the chant is Solesmes-style or Graz-style or Old Roman. It doesn't matter that the polyphony is by Dufay, Lasso, Bach, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, et al. What matters ultimately is the long-standing connection of the music to the musical values of chant and to liturgical action. Whenever 'classical' music departs from those things in Church, it becomes more purely performative and less purely sacral.

    Does that make sense? It would be wonderful for Mr. Goldman to post something here. He has musical training and is a very smart fellow. I would like to see his exchange with Professor Mahrt continued here.
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  • I don't want to sound negative here, but I would like to share my strong opinion about Decadent Enchantments.

    It has absolutely no substance to it whatsoever. It is nothing but flowery prose, repeated over and over and over again.

    I find it very hard to believe Dr. Mahrt would even read such a book. It has no scholarly substance to it at all.

    The only good thing I got out of that book was, I noticed that William Skinner made a serious ERROR when translating the French version of the Pierre Combe book (The Restoration of Gregorian Chant: Solesmes and the Vatican Edition).

    THE DISCREPANCY is on page 319 in the PIERRE COMBE book.

    .....COMPARE THIS WITH BERGERON'S VERSION in her book pg 147 where she added a sentence (in bold below):

    Each one present has a copy of the proofs to be examined. The President has written on his copy the various proposals from absent members so as to be able to tell how many are favorable or unfavorable to such-and-such a reading. The president begins by singing from the proof. When a passage emerges about which one of the members etc.

    William Skinner just LEFT THAT SENTENCE OUT !!! I looked at the original French version, and Skinner simply did not include it. Ooops!

    That's a very important to sentence to me. It is charming to imagine Abbot Pothier singing through the melodies in front of the Pontifical Commission appointed by Pius X.

    more here (PDF document)
  • Thanks, Jeff, I was hoping someone would chime in with a critique of that book. I'm going to suggest to FT's editor that he or she hire someone to write a review of it. Peter Jeffery wrote a hilarious review of it for Early Music in August 1999, and a very thorough by Jann Paslan appears in the Journal of the American Musicological Society (Summer 1999). I could send you both if you're interested.
  • Let me also add that I think Katherine Bergeron is a very nice person.

    I corresponded with her in 2003 about something in her book.
  • I think we have covered this already and Goldman has commented here before. Maybe search the archives and see if you can find it? I seem to recall reading about this before...
  • Oh blimey, I should've looked. You're right, Gavin. Sorry for the repeat.
  • No repeat, you've raised somewhat separate questions. Of course, I myself prefer an eclectic array of music at worship, from early chant to late chant to Roman chant to Sarum chant and everything in between, so I can't really disagree with Goldman's conclusions much. But I hope you find the prior conversation enlightening; I certainly did.
  • I love that book! Sorry Jeffrey. Reading it gave me days of joy!
  • I don't think Solesmes chant is all that different from how chant used to be. It's its own thing, no doubt, but not altogether different. I listen to a lot of Ensemble Organum... if anyone knows what ancient chant sounded like, it's them. People who endlessly compare Solesmes and Old Roman chant or whatever they're comparing it to, and say Solesmes is "corrupt" from medieval times... I think they're splitting hairs--very thin hairs. The medieval times aren't all bad anyway. Like you said: living tradition has to play into this at some point. Just because something is old doesn't mean it's perfect.
  • Like Jeffrey Tucker, I very much liked Bergeron's book, as a matter of fact I read it twice! I am hoping to get her to speak at a Chant conference that is in now in the planning stages here in California for the Summer.
  • I think Jeffrey said it better in another thread, but that which we call "chant" comprises centuries worth of musical compositions in many genres which have enjoyed a variety of venerable performance practices in different locations and eras. If the goal is to sing the chants as they existed before they were written down, we may never achieve that (and if we did, without any recorded evidence with which to compare our performances, we may never know it!). In this sense, chant has been sung "incorrectly" (if you accept the stated goal) in a number of different and beautiful ways. That the Solesmes "restoration" is a more recent fabrication than the medieval customs of singing chant does not make it any less "authentic."

    Looking at the earliest manuscripts, it is hard to justify many of the editorial practices of the Solesmes editions (beyond the addition of rhythmic markings) as being "correct." However, there's something to be said for the number of people who can now, because of these books, can sing the propers of the Requiem from memory in a schola that has never sung together before. Even if the notes and rhythms are different than they once were sung (there can be little disputing this point), you have to admit that this type of performance approaches the conditions of an oral tradition, even if it has its roots in notation and musical literacy.
  • I would be glad to hear of any unique insight, interesting (or historically significant) fact, or otherwise musically substantive fact that Bergeron's book brought to light. I believe the book was a Master's thesis? Correct? Anyone?
  • Incantu, my impression from all that I've read is that Solesmes did a more than decent job. The Graduales represent consensus melody, and I thought it was self-conscious about presenting it as such.

    Who knows what the 8th century reality was. Are we really sure that manuscripts from, say, Graz, notated its own regional dialect of chant with 100% accuracy? Given the assumed fluidity in chanted melody, what does "accuracy" even mean? It seems to me that the Solesmes project was about returning to the reality represented manuscripts rather than just accepting the huge editorial liberties of the, what was it, Ratisbon edition? So we have Solesmes to thank for even affirming the value of looking at those manuscripts in their particularity.

    Throwing around phrases like "Solesmes invented Gregorian chant" gives people the impression that Solesmes' work was capricious, sloppy, or some sort of sentimental anachronistic con job. Nothing is further from the truth, and failing to confront this kind of language makes it easier for opponents of chant in our own day to dismiss it tout court.

    I'm glad to hear Ms. Bergeron is a nice person, but ideas, when they gain currency, have consequences.
  • Jeffrey, it doesn't have to have unique information. It only needs to be presented in an interesting way.
  • a bit off-topic, Obrecht's Missa de Sancto Donatiano seems, to my amateur ear, to display its gregorian roots more than most renaissance polyphony.
  • that Mass is always on topic!