Plainchant The Interpreter
Fr. Robertson's Book Makes Food For Thought
By DOM BERNARD McELLIGOTr "Interpretation is the highest branch of the singer's art." So runs the first sentence of Plunket Greene's fine book
Interpretation in Song. "Interpretation," he goes on, " is essentially individual." In what sense, then, can the concert singer's principles of interpretation be valid for plainsong?
It is only within comparatively recent years that the traditional and authentic form of the plainsong melodies has been given to the world by the brilliant and patient scholarship of the monks of Solesmes. It will no doubt take some time before the value to humanity of this great achievement is clearly recognised.
For plainsong is not, as much other music is, sovereign in its own right. Its purpose is to serve the ends of the Catholic Liturgy. That is its life; for that it was made. To appreciate its beauty and perfection as music a practical acquaintmice with the Catholic Liturgy and some measure of the liturgical spirit are necessary.
This fact makes it, among other things, ageless. It is a human language, but perpetually devoted to a living supernatural end, and therefore independent of time. It is, as Father Alec Robertson, L.R.A.M., Chaplain of Westminster Cathedral, says in his recent book The Interpretation' of Plainchant (Oxford University Press, 5/-)
so peculiarly the fruit of the religious spirit " that it is " as little antique or in thrall to convention as is the New Testament," What guide have we to its interpreta
tion? Father Robertson vigorously disposes of the view that any such guide is to be found in a purely aesthetic attitude: " Aesthetic appreciation of the part we are called upon to play could only hurt us, only strike a false note, were there no true faith behind our actions, no controlling discipline, no sense of the holy; if it were art for man's and not for God's sake."
In the light of this should be understood the plea that Father Robertson makes for a fuller appreciation of the dramatic eiement in the chant. Drama there often is in the words, and in the music that clothes, embodies and illustrates them.
Plainsong, which is the singing voice of the Liturgy. rejects the theatrical; but it is not, and we need not be, afraid of the dramatic. Many of the stories related by Our Lord in the Gospels are dramatic with their vivid contrasts and compact swift action.
The chant is full of dramatic (in this sense) presentation of scriptural texts, as in the Communion Quinque prudentes' virgines from the Mass Dilexisti, the Responsory Tenebrae tackle stint and the sequence Vietimae Paschall.
Father Robertson quotes these and very many other plainsong pieces in full, in the
Gregorian notation. His notes on the pieces chosen as examples will be a stimulus to choirmasters and members of choirs who have had little opportunity of discovering for themselves the beauty of the chant as music-for-words, its pictorial and dramatic appropriateness to its text, the balanced form and design of its pieces considered as musical compositions.
It Must Not Bore
Father Robertson insists that his notes and suggestions are to be taken only as inducements to the choirmaster and general reader to think for themselves.
His object is to set their imaginations in motion, to make it at any rate impossible for them to think of plainsong as a dreary succession of notes, a grey monochrome devoid of human feeling and musical expressiveness. Rather, he says, it is vocal music of the highest order, taking its inspiration from the words of the Liturgy, sensitive to the changing thoughts and feelings of the praying Church in her cycle of feasts, fasts and seasons. This needs saying, and will help many readers to a new interest and delight in the chant.
Not all the author's suggestions are, I think, equally happy.
His "echo " effect, singing the repetition of a phrase very softly, as an echo of the first, seems to rue foreign to the spirit of the plainsong. When we repeat something, in speech or even in prayer, do we not do so mainly for emphasis? An immediate repetition would demand rather a slight reinforcement of tone than a sudden echo. We might demur to other things, such as holding on an isolated high note now and again (p. 37) or splitting up an antiphon into solo voices of Christ, Narrator and
Blind Mare Division of voices (for instance, cantors against the rest) is allowed for in the chant. But if we were to divide up into various solo voices antiphons like this one about Christ and the blind man, Stans antent Jesus, we should lose, I think, something of very great importance—the sense of the corporate Church at prayer. And in practice it might open a door to the old excesses of the soloist.
Rhythm in Interpretation
It would seem imposeible to judge questions of interpretation without constant reference to rhythm. Adherence to a definite theory of rhythm (or abandonment of it!) is involved as soon as one begins to discuss how a piece of music should go. A clear notion of rhythm is in truth the basis of all interpretation.
Singers like Gcrvase Ewes and John McCormack, to mention two wellbeloved names, have made this abundantly evident in their own practice.
Beliefs must sometimes be stated, and (with apologies for what Mr. Coward would call the present indicative) to my mind the Solesmes theory of rhythm is completely convincing, justified to the hilt not only by logic but by the perfection of its results in practice. The rhythmic principles of Dont Moequereau provide (I hold) the true mental framework for the interpretation of plainsong. Inside them there is room for every shade of liturgical feeling to be conveyed by the highest artistic skill, as is shown by the Solesmes gramophone records.
Here and there in the present book the author deprecates too much rhythmic analysis, and uses expressions (for instance, that the first note of a group receives a slight stress) which imply that his theoretic adhesion to the rhythmic teaching of the Nombre musical gregorian stops short of completeness. But he accepts Dom Mocquereau's definition of rhythm (p. 16) and the Solesmes rhythmic signs (p. 21), vigorously rejects the " accentualist " theory which bases plainsong rhythm on the accents of the words, upholds the lightness of the Latin accent, quotes with approval scholars like Dom Gregory Murray, and in many pages of musical and liturgical discernment (and be it added of lively and charming English) reveals a considerable affinity with the principles and the actual singing of Solesmes.
The 73 pieces of plainsong mostly quoted in full form a beautiful little anthology, which to those who know only the Missa de Angelis will be a revelation of the riches to be found in the chant Among the contents are chapters on "Typical lines of study," "The Gregorian composer at work " and "Form," which many will find the most interesting and stimulating part of the work.
More to Come
Father Robertson calls the present volume (beautifully and inexpensively pro-, duced, but with several misprints, by the Oxford University Press) "a preliminary study "; and, with the general musician and the lay choir singer not versed in plainsong particularly in mind, has deliberately avoided a long discussion of rhythm as "having received ample treatment elsewhere."
Without it, however, there is a danger that uncharted imaginations, working on the principles of interpretation propounded by Plunket Greene for the concert singer, may impose purely personal reactions on the liturgical chant, which of its nature expresses a corporate and not an individual form of sung prayer. We hope, then, that in the larger book which we are glad to sec he hopes one day to write, fundamental questions of rhythm will receive a more detailed and extended study as the " onlic begetter " of a sound tradition of interpretation.