Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Robert Louis Stevenson on Gregorian Chant

From our dear friend Jeffrey Morse comes this fascinating commentary:
With Independence Day just passed as well as the Feast on July 1st of California's Blessed Junipero Serra, the founder of the California Mission system, my thoughts have turned to Chant in America and specifically in California, and it's history here.  I was very pleased to come across some letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of TREASURE ISLAND, A CHILD'S GARDEN OF VERSES, DR. JEKYLL & MR HYDE and many other notable books, a Scot, who visited California in late 1879. 
Two letters of his survive that are really quite remarkable. In them he describes visiting Mission Carmel, or really the ruins of it as it was roofless by this time with grass growing in the nave and cows occasionally grazing there.   
In this letter he is seen as one of the early advocates of saving the old mission writing, "In England some great noble or cotton spinner would purchase it, repair it and charge so much entry money  to curious visitors.  In France, still better, the government would take it in hand and make it one of the 'Historical Monuments' of the nation."  His visit to the ruins of the Mission coincided with "San Carlos Day" the feast of St Charles Borromeo, the patron of the Mission.  He writes,
 I heard the old indians singing mass.  That was a new experience, and one well worth hearing.  There was the old man who led and the women who so worthily followed.  It was like a voice out of the past. They sang by tradition, from the teaching of early missionaries long since turned to clay.  And still in the roofless church you may hear the old music.  Padre Casanove, will, I am sure, be the first to pardon and understand me when I say the old Gregorian singing preached a sermon more eloquent than his own.  Peace on earth, good will to men so it seemed to me to say; and to me as a Barbarian, who hears on all sides evil speech and the roughest bywords about the Indian race, to hear Carmel Indians sing their latin words with so good a pronunciation and give out these ancient chants with familiarity and fervor suggested new and pleasant reflections.  (Letter to Crevole Bronson)
Elsewhere he writes more on his experience of hearing Mass sung at the Carmel Mission:
An Indian, stone-blind, and about eighty years of age, conducts the singing; other Indians compose the choir; yet they have the Gregorian music at their 
finger-ends, and pronounce the Latin so correctly that I could follow the meaning as they sang.  The pronunciation was odd and nasal, the singing hurried andcstaccato.  'In saecula saeculo-ho-horum' they went, with a vigorous aspirate to every additional syllable.  I have never seen faces more vividly lit up with joy than the faces of those Indian singers.   It was to them not only the worship of God, nor an act by which they recalled and commemorated better days, but was besides an exercise of culture where all they knew of art and letters was united and expressed.  And it made a man's heart sorry for the good fathers of yore who taught them to dig and to reap, to read and to sing, who had given them European mass-books which thet still preserve and study in their cottages, and who had now passed awayfrom all authority in the land- to be succeeded by greedy land thieves and sacrilegious pistol shots.  So ugly a thing may our Anglo-Saxon Protestantism appear beside the doings of the Society of Jesus."
One should remember that Stevenson was not even a Catholic, and yet he was charmed, indeed one might even say bowled-over by his experience of the "Gregorian singing" so loving preserved nearly a half century after the end of the mission system.  My hope is that all of us who are involved in the teaching, directing and singing of chant might also possess this fervor, this zeal for the Church's song, so that long after we are all clay, the Chant might ring out in our churches again, preaching a sermon, a catechism more eloquent than mere words.