Pray Tell Blog recently posted my review of Benedicta, a CD collection of Marian chants sung by the monks of Norcia. It’s really two reviews in one. One part of me admires the lovely singing, the warmth of tone, and the ringing intonation of the brothers’ voices. On this level, the recording stands up with the better chant recordings I’ve heard. The other part of me is uneasy, however, about some choices the monks made. Among these choices was their use of the “Solesmes method” of interpretation (which, as I understand, is no longer used even at Solesmes Abbey itself), which I identified as part and parcel of the larger problem of presenting the chants without context. The lone comment on the blog suggests that it shouldn’t matter whether the Solesmes method or some other approach is used. What matters is that the music is beautiful.
Even before reading the comment, I was puzzling over what I take to be the importance of getting past the Solesmes method. Is my position truly defensible? Or is it a personal preference? I believe that my position is rational, and therefore to be preferred to a ‘pre-rational’ assessment.
But defending my position will take some work. Let me give an example of the uphill battle we’re talking about here.
I was at a reception after Vespers recently, speaking with two members of our own Schola Laudis. I mentioned to them that one of the things driving my interest in chant and Renaissance music at the liturgy is that I was seeking a rational way to go forward with the composition of church music. I meant by this that we should have reasons for choosing one type of music over another. When it comes to church music, it seems that we are usually content with saying that we want music that is beautiful. Fair enough. Would it be too pedantic of me to ask why we consider some music to be beautiful and other music to be maudlin, ugly, or overly sentimental? Some people consider “Send in the Clowns” to be a beautiful song (me…not so much, though I get its appeal). I personally find the Prelude to Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde to be quite beautiful, in its way. These are not, and should not (I think) be models for church music. Many people, on the other hand, find Gregorian chant dull, elitist, hard to understand, difficult to sing with any connection to one’s emotions, etc. Yet church documents make very clear that this style is the basis of our sacred music tradition.
Much of what we take to be beautiful depends on our cultural upbringing and, one hesitates to point it out, on our level of achievement in virtues like moderation, chastity, and humility. Lacking such virtues might lead us to prefer ecstatic music to sober music, manipulative music to ordered music, or simply music that we liked as children to music that adults tell us we’re supposed to like when our tastes develop a bit more.
Therefore, simply saying that music ought to be beautiful is not specific enough. Church music needs to be beautiful to certain types of persons. And those of us who are not yet those sorts of persons need to be able to make an act of faith that the beauty of such music will become more apparent as we grow in virtue and knowledge. Furthermore, I think that it is reasonable, based on experience, to hope that exposure to “virtuous” music will actually assist us in growing in virtue (this argument goes back at least to Plato, though it is much contested). We have more likely been exposed to the opposite phenomenon, someone descending into vice accompanied by depressing, libidinous, or cruel music.
What remains, then, is for me to explain why the approach taken by the Norcia monks is delightful on one level, but, in my opinion, does not quite approximate the beautiful in the fullest sense. Furthermore, I should be able to show that their recording falls somewhat (not entirely, mind you) short of what it could have been because of specific choices that they made: the use of the Solesmes method, and the somewhat random manner in which the chants were selected (random with regard to liturgical rationales). These proofs will have to wait for a later post.
Bonus tracks: Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde…music that is not quite chaste, deliberately eliding tonal boundaries in a manner uncomfortably parallel to the elision of marital boundaries in Wagner’s personal life at the time of its composition. He was falling in love with Mathilde Wesendonck, and perhaps carrying on an affair with her. Wagner’s indiscretions resulted in his separation from his wife Minna.
Here’s my example of ‘ecstatic’ music, “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane, a piece not without its own kind of beauty and order, yet clearly not in any way a model for church music.
And surely you didn’t think I’d leave you without “Send in the Clowns…”