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Plainsong ‘no longer endangered’

31 July 2015


Preservation: Mary Berry (bottom left) with Schola Gregoriana after a recording session at Notre-Dame de Paris in 1994

Preservation: Mary Berry (bottom left) with Schola Gregoriana after a recording session at Notre-Dame de Paris in 1994

GREGORIAN chant is enjoying a revival, as new singers have their eyes opened to the beauties of the oldest continuously sung repertoire in Western Europe, the director of a group established 40 years ago has said.

The director of Schola Gregoriana, Christopher Hodkinson, was speaking after the publication of The RSCM Guide to Plainchant. It includes a revision of Plainchant for Everyone by Dr Mary Berry, a nun, musicologist, and Cambridge don, who founded the Schola in 1975. The foreword to the original book described the chant as being to some musicians “somewhat foreign . . . [and] therefore by implication slightly suspect”.

“At that time, there was huge cultural change in the Church, and the old traditions were being discarded rather lightly,” Mr Hodkinson said. “She realised that work was needed to preserve plainchant.”

Today, he has “no concern that it will die, because we’ve seen a revival of interest after the crisis that took place in the ’60s and ’70s”. His concern is “those who would like to sing it often feel quite intimidated, because it is not something which you can easily sing just from a book.”

Part of Schola Gregoriana’s mission is to travel the country holding workshops.

“Very often, participants’ eyes are really opened to a culture that they did not know,” Mr Hodkinson said. “They learn how close we are to the Middle Ages, just how much this music links us to our history.”

They discover “an element of liturgical life that has been largely forgotten. Most people now think of liturgy as being primarily about words. But traditionally it was almost entirely chanted, adding a whole level of spiritual meaning to the proclamation of the text.”

The Guide includes a new anthology of chant, edited by John Rowlands-Pritchard. He believes that Dr Berry’s concerns were well-founded. “By and large the monastic communities adopted the vernacular,” he said. It had taken a “self-conscious determination” to retain a tradition that was once “a natural and in many cases essential part of the celebration of mass”. People outside the Church, including musicologists, had played a crucial part in keeping it alive.

Mr Hodkinson suggests that the chants are “very accessible”, and that people with no musical training can learn to sing many of them, although the most elaborate melodies are demanding even for expert singers. “Plainchant is the oldest repertoire sung continuously in Western Europe,” he said. “It is the bedrock of our whole musical culture, and in every age it has inspired new forms of musical writing, even today. To learn it is to gain access to a vast range of references and meaning that have built up over the ages.”

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