Cleansing Fire

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The Art of Gregorian Music

April 21st, 2010, Promulgated by Gen

The following portion of an essay was written by Dom Andre Mocquereau, a liturgist of the late 19th century. It is lengthy, but definitely deserves at least a partial read.



The most striking characteristic of plainsong is its simplic?ity, and herein it is truly artistic. Among the Greeks, sim?plicity was the essential condition all art; truth, beauty, goodness cannot be otherwise than simple.

The true artist is he who best?that is, in the simplest way? translates to the world without the ideal conceived in the simplicity of his intellect. The higher, the purer the intellect, the greater the unity and simplicity of its conception of the truth; now, the closest interpretation of an idea which is single and simple is plainly that which in the visible world most nearly approaches singleness and simplicity. Art is not meant to encumber the human mind with a multiplicity which does not belong to it: it should on the contrary tend to so elevate the sensible world that it may reflect in some degree the singleness and simplicity of the invisible. Art should tend not to the degradation, but to the perfection of the individual. If it appeals to the senses by evoking impressions and emotions which are proper to them, it only does so in order to arouse the mind in some way, and to enable it to free itself from and rise above the visible world as by a ladder, cunningly devised in accordance with the laws laid down by God Himself. Whence it follows that plainsong is not simple in the sense that its methods are those of an art in its infancy: it is simple consistently and on principle.

It should not be supposed that this theory binds us to sys?tems long since out of date: the Church in this matter professes the principles held by the Greeks, the most artistic race the world has ever known. In their conception, art could not be otherwise than simple. Whenever I read Taine?s admirable pages on the simplicity of Greek art, I am constantly reminded of the music of the Church. Take for instance, the following passage: “The temple is proportionate to man’s understand?ing?among the Greeks it was of moderate, even small, dimen?sions: there was nothing resembling the huge piles of India, of Babylon, or of Egypt, nor those massive super-imposed palaces, those labyrinthine avenues, courts, and halls, those gigantic statues, of which the very profusion confused and dazzled the mind. All this was unknown. The order and har?mony of the Greek temple can be grasped a hundred yards from the sacred precincts. The lines of its structure are so simple that they may be comprehended at one glance. There is nothing complicated, fantastic, or strained in its construc?tion; it is based upon three or four elementary geometrical designs.

Do you not recognize in this description, Gentlemen, the un?pretentious melodies of the Gregorian chant? They fill but a few lines on paper: a few short minutes suffice for their execu?tion: an antiphon several times repeated and some verses from a psalm, nothing more. They are moreover so simple that the ear can easily grasp them. There is nothing com?plicated, weird or strained, nothing which resembles those great five-act operas, those interminable oratorios, those Wag?nerian tetralogies which take several days to perform, be?wildering and confusing the mind.
The same simplicity is found in Greek literature and sculp?ture. To quote Taine again :?”Study the Greek play: the characters are not deep and complex as in Shakespeare; there are no intrigues, no surprises?the piece turns on some heroic legend, with which the spectators have been familiar from early childhood; the events and their issue are known beforehand. As for the action, it may be described in a few words?nothing is done for effect, everything is simple?and of exquisite feeling.?

These principles, Gentlemen, may all be applied to plainsong. “No loud tones, no touch of bitterness or passion; scarce a smile, and yet one is charmed as by the sight of some wild flower or limpid stream. With our blunted and unnatural taste, accustomed to stronger wine (I am still quoting Taine) we are at first tempted to pronounce the beverage insipid: but after having moistened our lips therewith for some months, we would no longer have any other drink but that pure fresh water; all other music and literature seem like spice, or poison.”
You will no doubt ask how so simple an art, from which the modern means of giving expression are systematically excluded, can faithfully interpret the manifold and deep meaning of the liturgical text. Seemingly this is impossible. But here you are mistaken, Gentlemen. In music, as in all art, the simpler the means, the greater the effect and impression produced. Victor Cousin has a telling saying :?”The less noise the music makes, the more affecting it is!? And so simplicity excludes neither expression nor its subtleties from the chant.

What then is this expression, whence does it spring, and what is its nature? Let me make yet another quotation, for I like to adduce the theories of modern authorities in sup?port of the aesthetics of the chant: behind their shelter, I shall not be exposed to any charge of having invented them to suit my case. M. Charles Blanc, in his “Grammar of the Graphic Arts,” says that “Between the beautiful and its ex?pression there is a wide interval, and moreover, an apparent contradiction. The interval is that which separates Christian?ity from the old world: the contradiction consists in the fact that pure beauty (the writer is speaking of plastic beauty) can hardly be reconciled with facial changes, reflecting the count?less impressions of life. Physical beauty must give place to moral beauty in proportion as the expression is more pro?nounced. This is the reason why pagan sculpture is so limited in expression.? I am well aware, Gentlemen, that in sculp?ture, more than in any other art, the greatest care must be taken not to pass certain appointed bounds, if the stateliness which is its chief characteristic is to be preserved. I am also aware that in other arts, such as painting or music, it is legitimate to indulge more freely in the representation of the soul’s manifold emotions. All this I grant, Gentlemen: never?theless, it must be acknowledged that these distinctions are very fine indeed, and that in every art, the higher laws of aesthetics are the same. The laws of musical expression are analogous to those of plastic expression: there too it may be asserted that pure musical beauty accords ill with the tonal, metrical or rhythmic changes of a melody reflecting the manifold old impressions of the soul in the grip of its passions. There too we may say that the more intense is the expression, the more the beauty of the music as music gives way to moral beauty. How then are we to reconcile beauty, by its very na?ture serene and immutable, with the restlessness and versa?tility which are the essential characteristics of expression? The problem is by no means easy of solution.

Ancient art, with deeper insight, loved beauty so much that it shunned expression: our more sensual modern art endeavors to obtain expression at the expense of beauty. But the Church in her song has found, it would seem, the secret of wedding the highest beauty without any change to a style of expression which is both serene and touching. This result is attained without conscious effort. For as a sound body is the instru?ment of a sound mind, so the chant, informed by the inspired word of God, interprets its expression. This expression is en?hanced both by the smoothness of
the modulations, and by the suppleness of the rhythm. And as the melody is simple and spiritual, so likewise is the expression: it belongs, like the melody, to another age. It is not, as in modern music, the result of surprise, of discord, of irregularity or disorder; it does not linger over details, nor endeavor to chisel every word, to cut into the marble of the melody every shade of emotion. It springs rather from the general order, the perfect balance and enduring harmony of every part, and from the irresistible charm born of such perfection. Measured and discreet, ample liberty of interpretation is left to the mind by such expression. Always true, it bears the signal stamp of the beauty of fitness: it becomes the sanctuary, it becomes those who resort thither that they may rise to the spiritual plane. “No defilement shall touch it,” no dimness, nor stain but a limpid virginal purity: like the ancient Doric mode, it breathes modesty and chastity.

It is, moreover, infinite in its variety. “Attingit ubique propter munditiam suam.” What, for example, could be more artless and expressive than the Ambrosian Gloria which was sung to you? It turns upon two or three notes, and a short jubilus. A modern composer would consider it monotonous and insipid, but to me its simplicity is charming, and its frank and wholesome tonality refreshing. That joyous neum has a rustic ring about it that reminds one of the hillsides of Bethlehem and fills me with the joy and peace of Christmastide. It is indeed a song worthy of the angels, those pure spirits, and of the poor shepherd folk.
The same characteristics are found in the little carol “In Israhel orietur princeps, firmanentum pacis.” It contains but six short words, yet these suffice to make a melodic composition of exquisite delicacy and expression. In the Introit Reminis?cere, you heard the plaintive accents of sorrowful entreaty, and in the Laetare, those of a joy so sweet and calm as to be almost jubilant. As for the communion Videns Dominus, it has no equal. No melody could express more vividly the Saviour’s tears and His compassion for Lazarus’ grief-stricken sisters, and the divine power of His bidding to death.

In presence of the masterpieces of Greek art, the most dis?cerning modern artists frankly confess their inability to ap?preciate them at their true value. To use Taine’s words:? “Our modern perceptions cannot soar so high.” And we may in like manner say of the musical compositions of the early Church that they are beyond the reach of our perceptions: we can only partially and gradually comprehend the perfection of their plan; we no longer have their subtlety of feeling and intuition. ?In comparison with them we are like amateurs listening to a musician born and bred: his playing has a deli?cacy of execution, a purity of tone, a fullness of accord, and a certain finish of expression, of which the amateur, with his mediocre talents and lack of training can only now and again grasp the general effect.?

The finishing touch has yet to be added to this brief outline of plainsong; this suavity, or more correctly, unction, the supreme quantity in which all the elements we have been dis?cussing converge. The product of consummate art, it crowns the chant with a glory unknown in all other music, and it is on account of this very unction that the Church has singled it out for her use: It is this quality which makes plainsong the true expression of prayer, and a faithful interpretation of those unspeakable groanings of the Spirit who, in the words of St. Paul, ?prays in us and for us.”   We sometimes wonder at the secret power the chant has over our soul: it is entirely due to unction, which finds its way into men’s souls, converts and soothes them, and inclines them to prayer. It is akin to grace, and is one of its most effectual means of action, for no one can escape its influence. The pure in heart are best able to understand and taste the suavity of this unction. Yet, for all its delectable charm, it never tends to enervate the soul, but like oil, it makes the wrestler supple and strengthens him against the combat; it rests and relaxes, and bathes him in that peace which follows the conquest of his passions.

A last word as to the style of execution best suited to plainsong. There can of course be no doubt that an able and artistic interpretation is eminently suited to music so subtle and so delicate, but I hasten to add that mere technique is not enough: it must be coupled with faith, with devotion and with love. There must be no misunderstanding in this matter. Notwithstanding its beauty, plainsong is both simple and easy: it is within the capacity of poor and simple folk. Like the liturgy and the scriptures, and, if such a comparison be ad?missible, like the Blessed Sacrament itself, this musical bread which the Church distributes to her children, may be food for the loftiest intellects as for the most illiterate minds. In the country it is not out of place on the lips of the ploughman, the shepherd, or laborer, who on Sundays leave plough and trowel or anvil, and come together to sing God’s praises. Nor is it out of place in the Cathedral, where the venerable canons supported by the fresh young voices of a well-trained choir sing their office, if not always artistically, at least with the full appreciation of the words of the Psalmist “Psallite sapienter.” Very possibly the chant is neither rendered, understood, nor appreciated in precisely the same manner in a country church as in a cathedral. But it would be unfair and unreasonable to except of village folk an artistic interpretation of which their uncultured minds have no inkling, since, after all, their devotion and taste is satisfied with less. But on the other hand, a suitable interpretation may in justice be expected and required of them: the voices should be restrained, the tone true and sustained, the accents should be observed, so too the pauses, the rhythm, and the feeling of the melody. All that is needed beyond this is that touch of devotion, of feeling, which is by no means rare among the masses. With this slender store of musical knowledge, the village cantor will not, I con?fess, become an artist. He will not render the full beauty, the finer shades of the melody: nevertheless, he will express his own devotion and withal he will carry his audience with him. For the simple folk who listen to him are no better versed than he in the subtle niceties of art: neither he nor they can fully appreciate the chant, but they are satisfied with that which they find in it: it contents their musical instincts and appeals to their ingenuous piety.

Is this then all, Gentlemen? Does such an easy victory fulfill the Church?s intentions: is her aim merely to win the approval of our good peasants? Indeed, such is not the Church’s meaning: she does not rest content with well-meaning mediocrity: she has her colleges, her greater and lesser seminaries, her choirs, her monasteries, and her cathedrals. Of these she demands an intelligent rendering of the chant so dear to her heart, that it may compel the admiration of the most exacting critics, and be at the same time the most perfect expression of her official prayer. Here indeed is art most necessary: here we may despoil the Egyptians of their most precious vessels, and fairly borrow, without any scruple, from profane ar
tists, the methods whereby to restore to the voice its true sweetness and purity. Art teaches us how to use the voice, to sing the neums softly or loudly as the case may be, to pronounce the words, to give delicacy to the accents, to phrase correctly, to bring out the expression and the true mean?ing of the ideas contained in the words. Art conceals natural or acquired defects, and restores to nature its primitive beauty and integrity. In plainsong, the aim of art is to provide the soul with a docile, pliant instrument, capable of interpreting its sentiments without deforming them. To attempt to sing without training or art; “naturally,” as the saying goes, would be as foolish an undertaking as to pretend to attain to sanctity without setting any check upon our impulses. Art is to the right interpretation of the chant what the science of ascetics is to the spiritual life. Its proper function is not to give vent to factitious emotions, as in modem music, but rather to allow genuine feeling complete freedom of expression. It is with intent that I use the word freedom, for freedom is simply the being able to yield without effort to the rules of the beautiful, which become as it were natural.

Art then is necessary, but as I have already said it is not sufficient in itself. To sing the chant, as it should be sung, the soul must be suitably disposed. The chant should vibrate with soul, ordered, calm, disciplined, passionless: a soul that is mistress of itself, intelligent and in possession of the light; upright in the sight of God, and overflowing with charity. To such a soul, Gentlemen, add a beautiful voice, well-trained, and the singing of those hallowed melodies, will be a finished work of beauty, the music of which Plato dreamed, a music which inspires a love of virtue: nay, more, you will have the ideal of Christian prayer as St. Dennis understood it, the realization of the great Benedictine motto :?”Mens nostra concordet voci nostrae.” “Let our mind concord with our voice” in the praise of God.

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