Saturday, 3 April 2010

A Review of Hiley's "Gregorian Chant"

I mentioned David Hiley’s new textbook on Gregorian chant a couple of weeks ago. I’ve since read it and thought that a brief review might be in order.

David Hiley, “Gregorian Chant”, Cambridge University Press (2009), ISBN 978-0-521-87020-7 (Hardback) 978-0-521-69035-5 (Paperback)

David Hiley’s “Gregorian Chant” is the second title to appear in Cambridge University Press’s textbook series “Cambridge Introductions to Music”. In this series, each book “focuses on a topic fundamental to the study of music at undergraduate and graduate level” and “will also appeal to readers who want to broaden their understanding of the music they enjoy”. As someone who would place himself in the latter class of readers but who found Hiley’s “Western Plainchant” a bit overwhelming, I looked forward with anticipation to this book. I was not disappointed.

There are five chapters in the book. In the first, “Gregorian Chant in the Service of the Church”, we are given a thorough introduction to the liturgy of the Church and to the place of chant within it. Although the reader is assumed to be musically competent, there is little assumption made about knowledge of Christianity or of the liturgy of the Catholic Church. One of the immediately attractive features of the book is that the presentation of such information is accurate, sophisticated and sometimes quite beautiful. For example, we are told that:

In the liturgy mankind gives thanks and praise to God, who is present during the liturgy. Moreover, through the liturgy God acts to bestow His grace on mankind. He is praised because He is above all things, transcendent, distinct from the universe. He is thanked for creating the world and saving mankind through the gift of His son, Jesus Christ.

We also read substantial quotations from Gregory the Great (on the Eucharist) and from the rule of St Benedict (on the Divine Office). The structure of the Office and of the Mass are considered in detail, the liturgical year is described as are other liturgical services such as processions. A very nice feature in this chapter (which is continued as a running theme throughout the book) is the example of Worcester Cathedral. The architecture of the cathedral itself is described as well as the place of the cathedral within its grounds and within the city. This illustration helps situate the actions of the liturgy within the spaces appropriate to it. Later on, musical examples are transcribed from manuscripts from Worcester Cathedral as are good quality reproductions of some of these manuscripts.

In this opening chapter, we are introduced to the basics of the music theory appropriate to the chant, with range and final being associated with mode. The psalm tones make their appearance as do several examples of other elements of the sung liturgy.

The second chapter is historical in flavour, starting out from before Constantine the Great and running through St. Benedict and St Gregory, arriving at the Franks. A section is devoted to consideration of the transmission of the chant in an oral culture and an extended example is devoted to the question of the relationship between Gregorian and Old Roman chants. Two further sections then consider Western chant traditions outside Roman tradition. In the first, Gallican, Ambrosian and Beneventan chant are introduced as is the tragically untranscribable Hispanic tradition. In the second, we hear about the Eastern traditions. Again, this chapter is well supplied with examples and quotations. Some may be amused to read the following description of how liturgical abuse in a papal liturgy was to be dealt with, from the Ordo Romanus I:

And then [after the readers and singers have been nominated] no change may be made in either reader or singer: but if this should be done, the ruler of the choir shall be excommunicated by the pontiff.

The third chapter follows the development of the chant repertoire from the ninth through to the sixteenth century. We hear about historiae, sequences and tropes as well as the development of liturgical dramas such as the Play of Daniel. The development of the new religious orders is discussed together with their needs for new liturgical forms. The chapter closes with “the end of anonymity”, the point where we can start to reliably identify individual composers such as Hildergaard of Bingen.

Chapter four is the most technical of the book, covering the appropriate music theory as well as the various notations used to record the chant. Hiley covers just enough of the classical Greek theory, as transmitted though Boethius, to discuss the connection made in Carolingian times to Gregorian chant. There is an interesting discussion of the role of theory in “normalizing” existing chant melodies to theory and whether theory, having been developed sufficiently to encompass the chant, guided future composition. Extended coverage is given to the role of Guido of Arezzo in the development of notation and transmission of music. The fact that a sufficiently developed notation could enable people to learn new tunes without having heard them before caused wonderment. From the man himself we hear:

The pope was greatly pleased by my arrival, conversing much with me and inquiring of many matters. After repeatedly looking through our antiphoner as if it were some prodigy, and reflecting on the rules prefixed to it, he did not give up or leave the place where he sat until he had satisfied his desire to learn a verse himself without having heard it beforehand, thus quickly finding true in his own case what he could hardly believe of others.

The question of the interpretation of early notation is a complex one. Hiley gives an excellent introduction, focussing on three ninth century and two eleventh century staffless neume notations together with two staff based notations of the thirteenth century and an intermediate notation from Benevento in the twelfth century. The questions of pitch and rhythm are well covered and there are some very attractive photographic reproductions of manuscripts illustrating the different notation examples. The chapter closes with a discussion of the “modern” Solemnes notation, itself based on the thirteenth century Parisian style.

The fifth, very short, chapter discusses performance practice from the sixteenth century to the present, including the recovery of the medieval chant traditions by the monks of Solemnes. What is in this chapter is very well done, but I found this chapter the most frustrating because of the sheer brevity of the treatment; only eleven pages devoted to such an enormous topic. Since the book itself is not long (the main text running to 218 pages), it seems a shame that more space was not devoted to this topic. However, plenty of references are given, so I can already feel my credit card warming up.

Musical examples throughout are given in the same modern stemless notation used in “Western Plainchant”, there are excellent supporting appendices and the book is very well produced.

I’m sure that those who know better than me will argue certain points (whether Old Roman chant preceded or followed Gregorian chant, for example). Misprints are noticeable by their absence and I couldn’t detect any glaring errors (although I’m not sure that the description (p. 26) of the quicunque vult as a scriptural canticle is accurate).

I look forward to hearing what experts think of this book, but this amateur enjoyed it very much.

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