Calling All Choristers
By PHYLLIS EASTWOOD, Parish Organist LAINCHANT — that silver ladder of song that we climb,
some of us, so unwillingly in our choir practices and sing in church because we must—is the heritage of all Catholics and it seems strange that this ancient art made use of in the days of the blessed Apostles is treated by no small few with such scant reverence.
All through the ages this music has suffered similar lapses of understanding. But today, surely with the romance of Church music to be purchased for sixpence in any porch rack or acquired in detailed bulk at the public library for nothing and read in leisured comfort at home, we have no excuse, particularly we choristers, for not striving at a better appreciation of plainchant, brought to its present perfection by the constant and arduous labours of an inspired brotherhood of musicians.
HISTORY' tells us that St. Gregory the Great, born of noble parents in Rome, spent much of his life beautifying the existing melodies, rearranging and adding also his own sweet versions, thereby enhancing the Liturgy to such good purpose that plainchant quickly became the accepted music of the Church.
It is a pleasant thought that before his death in 604 he experienced the joy of knowing that his melodies in their durable simplicity were calling their message of Christendom throughout the world.
To our island came St. Augustine. fired with his master's divine art and stuffed with musical knowledge, both traditional and newly devised. At his instigation, Canterbury sent forth her sons to teach the harmonious chant, called plainsong now, to the monasteries and all places where sacred melody was rendered for the better glory of God.
St. Wilfred journeyed northward with two cantors from the great cathedral, leaving in his wake echoes of Roman counterpoint lisped by children at bedtime in every hamlet through which he passed, as, to the tune set by elder brother or sister, they warbled the Agnus Dei.
TTHIS is the music that has eventually come down to us through many bitter vicissitudes and of which we should be so proud.
Thus taught by the Church. it spread its haunting tunes far and wide. Through the centuries composers of all denominations built their music on its solid foundations, as did the humblest peasant crying his wares in the streets of London.
A striking figure among these was one Tom Britton, the "Small Coal Man," who hied from Higham Ferrars in Northamptonshire and who, after serving his seven years' apprenticeship, was paid a goodly sum of money by his master. as a bribe possibly, to go back home.
The money all gone. the lure of London drew Tom back again and, dressed in a blue smock and carrying a sack on his shoulder. he cried "Small Coal" up and down the town by use of the diapason or octave interval :
Tom and Handel
WHETHER because of his melodious intonation or his business acumen or a little of both, Tom prospered.
Queen Anne was on th; throne of England by the time his love of music aroused the interest of Handel and others, and his house, a converted stable, became the meeting place where concerts were held. Famous and distinguished people attended. Ladies and gentlemen of the Court faction in the extravagantly picturesque dress of the day, clambered precariously on their high lacquered heels up the rickety ladder to the low, dark room immediately above the compartment that held the store of coal to be vended during the day.
There they would listen to Handel at the harpsichord, Tom Britton playing his viol de gamba and some halfdozen other noted musicians at their
instruments making orchestral music a joy and novelty to hear. Somehow Britton managed to cram a small organ into his loft, and had he not met so untimely an end through a foolish prank, this good man would no doubt have added considerably to the airs he gleaned from Catholic plainsong and so may have done much to revive the chants of holy Rome, at this time suffering bad neglect as had been the case since the Reformation and was to continue to do so until the early 19th century.
TO vie with Tom on his daily daily round, was the plaintive tune we know so well:
Won't you buy my Mitcham lavender?
Sixteen blue branches for a penny.
Many others — "Milk below!" "Mackerel alive, 0!" "Buy sweetbriar, Rosemary and sweetbriar-O!" "Sweet juniper!" "Primrose, crocus, who'll buy? Urowing, growing! All the glory going!"
11, a ra Kaki 1uht,-0 III
If A, bas-ote
And so on, all in full-throated song culled from the familiar Gre
gorian airs chanted in cathedra!, convent, castle and cottage,
M. Gueranger THE story of plainchant brings us at last to the 1800s, when Prosper Louis Pascal Gueranger was born.
His father was a schoolmaster and the house where his childhood was spent, in the town of Sable on the River Sarthe in France, having been the home some 20 years earlier of the Benedictine monks driven forth by the French Revolution as they had been from the greater monastery at Solesmes.
M. Gueranger, a much-loved man, gathered round him priests and religious who had suffered under the Terror. and from his earliest days Prosper imbibed an atmosphere of faith holy and heroic and treasured thoughts of the priesthood.
At the age of 17 he began to study in a seminary where he indulged what amounted to a passion for ecclesiastical research, reading with patient care through bundles of manuscripts, delving into any and every ironhound chest, to produce triumphant some precious document of ancient ritual on which to feast his mind.
The knowledge thus acquired by enthusiastic study carried him swiftly along to ordination.
Simple beauty AT the age of 22, through repeated recitals of the Divine Office, he had become enamoured of certain rhythms and tunes that seemed to him to stand out above all the rest. These belonged to the antiphons of ancient Roman Liturgy. They filled him .with a sense of simple beauty and peace, appealing as no other innovations in liturgical form could do.
He was deeply conscious of the security of Roman authority that lay behind the exquisite verse compilation and soon determined that the trucst way to offer homage to God was by setting traditional chant to the poetry of the then rarely used Roman Missal.
With nothing in the way of capital beyond a clear brain and steady faith, he set out for the ruined Priory of Solesmes, so often the haunt of his youth. and entered, there to devote himself to an even deeper study of the subject. At Solesmes, having established anew the Order of St. Benedict, Dom Gueranger set his monks to work to complete the restoration of Gregorian chant in its purity of counterpoint. That they did this to their abbot's entire satisfaction we may be quite sure, for although Dom Gueranger was not himself a musician in the strict sense of the word,
Continued in next column
Continued from previous column we have no reason to doubt that the present-day choirmaster of Solesmes who expressed sentiments that the least of us might share when in eloquent speech he declared of these sacramental tunes:
"They are born of supernatural contemplation, bursting forth from the heart of saints in full communion with God."
The chant lives
Iis fascinating to note that, like 1 all things taught by the Church in the rich era of her foundation and in spite of all that jealousy and greed have since contributed by way of persecution of the Faith, this chant lives to guide us today in the sweet songs of Solesmes. It transcends, if we will but give ear and heart to it, all the crude, hideously monotonous sounds of manufactured culture; and surely. by dint of past association alone, it is worth more serious meditation than that given as a general rule. This meditation would be a big step forward to the betterment of our sacred music and produce the effect of encouraging those people met together in the body of the church to share in the Mass; to share also the music and sing aloud without embarrassment as so desired by Pope Pius XI, stated clearly in his Apostolic Constitution Divini Coitus. But to make the people sing. a choir must carry them along with them. To do this. they must not only train and accustom their own voices that they may lead others in the tunes devised by the greatest musicians of our time, the monks of Solesmes.
They must also train and accustom their hearts as well.