Historical scholarship and liturgical anamnesis

On an “ages old” MusicaSacra Forum post which recently had a little new activity, there is a discussion – one that is repeated and continued over and over wherever Catholic musicians congregate: What role should historical “accuracy” and other scholarly musicological work have on current performance practice? How important is it to get performance details ‘right’? Does it even matter whether we can know how chant sounded at some specific point in the past?

I am not a musicologist, so I’m can’t really comment on issues such as what is or isn’t known or what should and shouldn’t be considered accurate historical performance practice.

What concerns me, though, is a particular way of thinking about historical performance practice which I think is wrong in itself and which is related to a very wrong way of thinking about liturgy and its historical development.

The “wrong way” (in my opinion) is expressed by forum user ‘pulchritudo_musicae’ (who is, apparently, Amy Danielle Waddle, the author of the original Sacred Music article that sparked the discussion). I don’t really believe that she thinks exactly what her statements seems to say, so I want to focus just on the statement as a manifestation of a certain way of thinking, whether or not ADW holds that mindset or not. She wrote:

it is our duty and responsibility to try to determine the most accurate way to sing, the most accurate style, the most accurate notation [ . . . ] the task before us as scholars and as musicians to determine what chant should be

I think this notion that there is some accurate or correct ideal performance practice is wrong-headed, and that it is a manifestation of a modernist way of thinking which has, in other areas of the Church’s life, been destructive.

Moderns have a tendency to fetishize historical accuracy, cloaking a reactionary retreat into the past in the guise of intellectual progress.

This began in the Renaissance with the attempt to restore some perfect past version of Latin (that of Cicero). That project killed Latin as a conversational language among international academics, and halted the ongoing development and creation of new, and yet authentic, Latin liturgical texts.

At the same, the revival of Classical thinking and the adherence to Classical authorities in early-modern academia caused a substantial loss of Medieval philosophical and scientific development. While contemporary secular culture considers this period one of enlightened progress, the fact is that these Classicists wanted nothing more than to ‘turn back the clock,’ abandoning over a millennium of real and steady progress.

(And when Protestants, the spiritual children of the Renaissance, had the opportunity to write history, they swept all this under a rug of anti-Catholic propaganda, coining terms like “The Dark Ages” for a period of almost unparalleled freedom, stability, and intellectual progress. But, I digress…)

In the 20th century liturgical movements we can see first the liberal resourcement that wanted to strip away eighteen centuries of development in favor of some imagined “Early Christian Community Meal” (in exact parallel to the early-modern idolization of Classical philosophy). Then, later, a generation of naive traditionalists seemed to imagine that everything was wonderful before the Council and that history ended sometime in the Baroque era – rejecting false progress in favor of false nostalgia.

But history doesn’t work like that. And working performers – singers, directors, actors, dancers – know especially that the performing cannot be properly understood this way.

Any particular performance of a chant – or, really, any piece of music – is a unique event on its own AND ALSO is part of the tradition of that piece’s history. The first performance is not a ‘Platonic’ standard, with subsequent performances being merely re-enactments or instantiations of that single ideal.

When this notion of a past ideal and present re-enactment becomes normative in an artform, the results are usually disastrous and (Peter Brook would say) deadly. Opera, for example, suffers from this in many places. Ballet as well, and – to a lesser proportion but a greater quantity – Shakespearean theatre.

And this way of thinking, which is deadening to the performing and practical arts, is equally dangerous (perhaps, moreso) in liturgy.

The sacrifice of Calvary and the self-giving nourishment of the Last Supper are not simply remembered or re-enacted in the Mass, with the historical events standing behind us as Platonic ideals or as dramatic inspiration. Rather, the sacrifice is made entirely present and new in each Mass throughout history – even as it is the same sacrifice, offered once for all.

Because we cannot allow this deadening spirit to inform our understanding of liturgy, it is important that we guard against it in performance culture generally and especially with regards to the music which is so integrally a part of our liturgical heritage.

And I want to make clear that I am in no means suggesting an anti-intellectual approach to chant and liturgy, or that I would encourage an abandonment of the historical and musicological study of these things. Rather, I simply believe that we must keep these things in their proper perspective.

Historical scholarship is important. It is good to know what people have done in the past. It is worthwhile to preserve and work within the tradition, and worthwhile to revive traditions which have fallen out of practice. We should never approach music in a haphazard, “do whatever I like” approach, but humble ourselves and recognize our place within a tradition that has gone before us for a thousand years and will most likely survive us for another thousand.

At the same time, we shouldn’t let the virtues of historical and musicological scholarship become idols, and we should guard our theoretical frameworks, lest we let our academic pursuits become a deadening force on the liturgy and an impediment to the recognition of God’s all-present and life-giving grace in the sacraments.

15 Replies to “Historical scholarship and liturgical anamnesis”

  1. The advent of copyright laws also has functioned to distro the organic nature of sacred music practice.

  2. Yes, very much so.

    Copyright law (which uses the power of government policy) and academic fundamentalism (which uses the power of intellectual pride) are both manifestations of the same impulse to control and perfect.

    This impulse to control and perfect can be found in the Primal Sin in the garden, and its currently overwhelming presence in our culture is a product of modernism's greatest diabolical achievement: the perversion of rationality by means of its glorification.

  3. Gotta disagree. Adam Lignum. Jesus offers us a goal of perfection; we are imperfect, but why not try? Let's control and perfect ourselves, as well as we can. In music as in life. You seem to be saying that if 'our' performance of chant is lousy, that's fine, it's ok, we are all good anyway; I'd say, 'we' did not succeed, let's try again, we can do better.

  4. This is basically what I heard Adam say: Don't quibble in the quire about how to sing a salicus. If your schola director tells you to do it one way, even though you "know" that in 10th century Gall it was sung another way, just "shut up and sing".

  5. "In both the making and contemplation of art, we are drawn outside and beyond ourselves into a mode of disinterested yet pleasurable participation, one in which reality is arrested and transformed in artistic representation. But the reality that “goes into” art in representation, arrested and transformed, also “comes out,” as it were, in contemplation and can issue in a new perception of reality, transformed with insight. Thus, for Gadamer, art—most especially literary art—serves uniquely as a vital carrier of tradition even as it effects the ongoing modification or enrichment of tradition: “What we encounter in the experience of the beautiful and in understanding the meaning of tradition has effectively something about it of the truth of play.”

    From this essay on T S Eliot: http://www.intercollegiatereview.com/index.php/20

  6. I posted my quick reply above before reading the others, assuming that Adam's wisdom was roundly applauded. Now I have to write a bit more. Adam, I agree whole-heartedly, and this comes from a performing artist with decades of concerts and recordings, music degrees from all the fancy conservatories and universities, competition prizes, university teaching experience, etc. In the organ world especially, that means lots of attention to scholarly issues and historical performance. I have taken Adam's approach my entire life — which means that one MUST infuse spirit into every single expression of music. This does not mean that one does not take great care with the choice of timbre, of articulation, of phrasing and of rhythm. It means that the REASON why one does these things is to see whether the spirit might best be able to shine in these compositions when such details as these are close to those imagined or intentioned by the composer. Like scientists — accept a premise, and then play with the premise to see what happens. that It is ALWAYS about the spirit, the Holy Spirit. You accept a discipline, a paradigm, so that there is freedom and flow for the spirit. This is what art is about, and what it always will be. When I work with a particular organ before a concert, I try different approaches and see what works best — what the instrument seems to want to say. I never force an instrument with overlaid conceptions and 'rules', but rather work within the traditional concepts of organ playing in order to reach as much beauty and art as possible. The reason I work with traditional, classical organ playing is one of humility, and of service to the music — because it has worked for many over so many hundreds of years. And the reason I depart from traditional, classical norms is one of humility, and of service to the Holy Spirit — because sometimes that Spirit wants to say something in a different way. You have to be awake and aware. [By the way, all art is sacred to me. There is no secular.]

  7. Adam spot on. I particularly like your last paragraph.Adam spot on. I particularly like your last paragraph.

    While I appreciate the desire to understand the history of chant, being a lover of history and tradition, I think if we treat chant as a museum piece, then that is where it will stay in a museum and it will wither and die. Music is meant to enhance and accompany the liturgical action. It should NOT be looked at as solely a performance piece, but rather a means to augment the total experience of the congregation by its beauty and its harmony with the liturgy.

    Where incense affects the sense of smell and the fine vestments, the actions of the priest affects the faithful visual to point the congregation towards heavens, so does music affect the sense of hearing additionally drawing the faithful in to fuller experience of the Holy Sacrifice of the mass. This is the primary purpose of the chant and music, not performance. It is more important to have a system and notation (Which we do in the Solesmes Method) instead of indulging in false archeologism which leads down the Modernist Rabbit hole.

  8. When it comes to chant and historical performance, there is a paradox: to perform a piece of chant according to our best knowledge of how it was performed when it was first composed or at least written down is something that was never done in history. Rather, we have a consistent style of chant performance regardless of what historical period it comes from. The reason is that the most authentic way of performing chant is for it to serve its function liturgically, for the various styles of chant, recitative, processional chants (neumatic), meditational chants (melismatic), to function liturgically, etc., These can best be perceived un-self-consciously when the basic style is consistent, something we presume has always been the way chant was performed. To perform a chant that was composed in the thirteenth century very differently from one in the basic repertory, or to sing a chant from an Italian region with a different pronununciation might only be a distraction from their function. This does not mean that we should not study historical performance; what we learn there can be an important component of how we perform the chant.

    To give an example: we had a visiting choir singing a Mass of Josquin Des Prez; they used a historical (French) pronunciation of the Latin. This was quite noticeable, in fact, members of the congregation commented on it, rather than anything else about the music or the liturgy. It was something of a distraction. If you were conversing in English with a person whose mother tongue was French, you would not attempt to speak with a French accent. Yet, I learned something from the experience. The French pronunciation of Latin gave a certain transparency to the sonorities of the music that came from the characteristics of the French vowells. Now when I perform Josquin I ask the singers to place their vowells a little higher and seek to produce a somewhat brighter sound. This aids in the clarity of the music, without being anything you notice in the performane.

    Likewise in the performance of chant, a sense of the rhythm that the St. Gall neumes suggest may help us to sing according to whatever method we regularly use in singing chant. When my choir seems to be singing in a wooden fashion, I sometimes close the music in square notation and write the piece on the blackboard in St. Gall notation. The flowing character of the neumes and their intrinsic connection with the rhythm of the text appears very differently; when we turn back to the square notation, that flowing sense is retained.

  9. Adam Wood writes:

    "Copyright law (which uses the power of government policy) and academic fundamentalism (which uses the power of intellectual pride) are both manifestations of the same impulse to control and perfect. "

    Copyright law is nothing of the kind, as those who are not besotted with the cult of amateurism are perfectly capable of perceiving.

    It is copyright law and that alone which in 2014 – absent a system of ecclesial, regal, or aristocratic patronage, a system which might well have its virtues but which in 2014 is unrevivable – prevents creators from starving and from having their work plagiarized.

    Mr. Wood might, for all I know to the contrary, have received a Marian apparition absolving him from the duties laid out to master and worker alike in Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno. The rest of us are not so fortunate, and must therefore abide by such old-fashioned concepts as "Thou shalt not steal."

  10. I said academic work is good. Making a cult and fetish out of academic work is bad.

    Then I compared that to copyright law.

    Clearly I didn't mean the obvious thing I might have meant regarding how in both cases a beneficial virtue has been perverted into a culture-destroying behemoth but rather I must have meant that these two things have nothing meaningful in common and that everybody should make illegal copies and burn down the houses of anyone who tries to make a living by creating intellectual property.

  11. I'm surprised to hear Petrarch's term "dark ages" described as a protestant coinage. Nowadays Lutheran seminarians are more likely to speak of "the springtime of the liturgy".

  12. Not to beat a dead horse (althought after two years, I guess I am…). But my hasty comment on that forum is so disappointingly not what I really think! My published thesis, the work of over a year of research and a grant from my secular state university, in Sacred Music was in fact concluded thus:
    "There is no single answer to how to perform Gregorian chant: it has a rich and diverse tradition and always has had. Scholas such as the Cor Immaculatae Schola Cantorum and the Schola of the Pittsburgh Oratory may choose to practice the Solesmes method because of aesthetic choice or availability of its editions, but all those who practice chant should be made aware of the range of performance styles being explored today.

    Final decisions regarding rhythm, melody, stress, vocal technique, and pronunciation lie with the individual schola director. Advocates and followers of Solesmes must not ignore the "blessing in disguise" of the post-Vatican II re-exploration of chant. Solesmes does present a practical and applicable rhythmic method for chant that is aesthetically pleasing today. When one steps back to look at chant throughout the ups and downs of its history, one finds that it never died. Chant is still a living form of music, growing and changing with great diversity just as it did over a thousand years ago. The practice of Gregorian chant gives musicians the freedom to choose a style or mixture of performance styles most appealing to their taste from the numerous methods that have been developed. The riches of the Gregorian tradition continue into the new millennium."

    Read more: http://www.readperiodicals.com/201010/2291656681….

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