Kerry R. McCarthy

title.none: McKinnon, The Advent Project (Kerry R. McCarthy)

identifier.other: baj9928.0109.005 01.09.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Kerry R. McCarthy, Stanford University, krm@Stanford.EDU

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: McKinnon, James. The Advent Project: The Later-Seventh-Century Creation of the Mass Proper. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Pp. ix, 455. $50.00. ISBN: 0-520-22198-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.09.05

McKinnon, James. The Advent Project: The Later-Seventh-Century Creation of the Mass Proper. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Pp. ix, 455. $50.00. ISBN: 0-520-22198-2.

Reviewed by:

Kerry R. McCarthy
Stanford University

James McKinnon completed The Advent Project only months before his untimely death in February 1999. This astonishing work reconsiders the origins of the Mass Proper, the year-round cycle of texts and music assigned in the Roman Rite to each day's celebration of the Eucharist. McKinnon argues that the Proper did not evolve piece by piece over centuries, as is generally thought, but was the product of a brief, intense creative effort among the musicians of the late-seventh-century Roman schola cantorum. He calls his work in The Advent Project "a sort of musical archeology" (5), the musicological equivalent of what Klauser, Deshusses, and other scholars have done in their attempts to reconstruct the liturgical texts of seventh-century Rome. No contemporary manuscripts survive in either case; the herculean task at hand is to examine the later sources and piece together the origins of the cycle. This technique is yet more difficult to apply to chant, which involves melodies as well as texts. McKinnon limits his study--if "limits" is an appropriate word here--to the repertoire of about six hundred chants for the Mass, and addresses the music of the Office only in passing. As he demonstrates in the course of the book, the creation of the Office cycle was at any rate a different and less intensive project than the composition of the Mass Proper; his apt metaphor for the latter is that of "constructing a house while living in it". (1)

The genesis of the Roman Mass Proper, according to McKinnon, was largely concentrated within a short span of time (indeed, a single generation) and a small group of musicians (the papal schola in Rome). He evokes the atmosphere of artistic excitement among these seventh-century composers: "driven by the prodigious creative and spiritual urge to fashion something of extraordinary scope and beauty" (64); "a high-spirited community of talented liturgical musicians" (320); "clerics of lively poetic imagination". (349) He even draws a parallel between the creative milieu of the Roman schola and "the chapelle or cappella of a prosperous Renaissance court". (64) This last analogy is quite foreign to the Burckhardtian notion of chant origins that seems to have worked its way into popular consciousness. The usual idea was spotted not long ago (dubious distinction?) in a sample sentence for the GRE: "When listening to a medieval Gregorian chant, the listener does not encounter the composer's individual personality; the chant merely embodies both the musical and religious rules of the period." In view of such received wisdom, it is both surprising and refreshing to hear McKinnon discuss the "creators" of individual chants, or even the "re-fa Advent Master" (219-20, 331, 354), the composer to whom he attributes a cycle of ten strikingly original communion melodies. His emphasis on creative activity in the service of a flourishing institution runs as a theme through the entire book, and prepares the reader well for some of its bolder conjectures.

McKinnon introduces The Advent Project by tracing the evolution of its thesis. His engagement with the topic began in his 1966 dissertation on The Church Fathers and Musical Instruments, and continued through his work on Music in Early Christian Literature, with the inevitable questions it raised about the development of liturgical song. The more direct precedent was a 1989 graduate seminar at Chapel Hill on the annual cycle of communion chants, a repertoire that, as he and his students came to discover, "displays the most obvious evidence of compositional planning". (6) That seminar in turn inspired his 1992 article on "The Eighth-Century Frankish-Roman Communion Cycle" (Journal of the American Musicological Society 45, 179-227), which advances, on a small scale, the method he later applies to the entire Mass Proper. The idea of an "Advent project" also appears here for the first time. This phrase was in fact coined by Richard Crocker ("Communion Cycle," 196, n. 24) in reference to the Advent-Christmas- Epiphany sub-cycle of chant, an initially narrow designation that expanded to fit McKinnon's thesis as it grew over the next decade to encompass the entire Mass Proper. The JAMS article is worth reading, or re-reading, alongside the introduction to The Advent Project. It ends by declaring that the communion cycle is "a repository of internal evidence, an invitation to develop a new methodology, which, extended to other chant genres of the Mass and Office, promises at the very least to offer glimpses into the hitherto hidden development of seventh- and eighth-century Roman chant" ("Communion Cycle," 222). Many articles end with similar promises, but McKinnon follows through on his. While developing the argument of The Advent Project, he admits some reservations about extending his method from a single genre, in which it yielded such satisfying results, to a much larger and more problematic repertoire. This extension turns out to be an almost unqualified success, as he notes at the end of his chapter on the communion: "after surveying the entire Mass Proper, I see no reason to temper my original enthusiasm". (354)

The argument opens (chapters 1-4) with the "prehistory" of the Proper, from the hymn sung at the Last Supper to the sparse evidence of church music as the Empire disintegrated in the fifth and sixth centuries. To "set the seventh-century Roman stage" (101), McKinnon then explores (chapters 5-7) how contemporary liturgical cycles may have been assembled; this leads to his central hypothesis of an "Advent Project", a concentrated effort among late-seventh-century Roman musicians to assemble a year-long cycle of both text and music for the Proper of the Mass, beginning with the Advent-Christmas repertoire and working systematically forward. The central section of his book, dense with detail but ultimately rewarding, is an account (chapters 8-13) of the six Proper genres--introit, gradual, alleluia, tract, offertory, and communion--in light of this hypothesis, followed by an overarching reconstruction (chapter 14) of the "Advent Project". Having examined the liturgical evidence, he finishes (Epilogue) with a number of more general, and perhaps more controversial, notes on the repertoire at hand.

The epilogue addresses what he calls "the central question of Gregorian chant", namely the musical style of the original Mass Propers as composed by the seventh-century Roman schola. Two very different stylistic variants have been handed down to us: the Frankish recension, a version of which has survived to the present day as "Gregorian" chant, and the parallel repertoire known as "Old Roman". McKinnon maintains that the original melodies of the Proper were much closer to the Gregorian than to the Old Roman. The characteristic ornamented style and sometimes aimless modality of the latter is not a lectio difficilior that was simplified by successive generations of singers, he argues, but a set of accretions to whatiwas at first a relatively straightforward idiom. When the Carolingians made a self-conscious reform and revision of the chant--which he, quoting Leo Treitler, calls an "effort at 'musicology'" (396)--they were not creating the repertoire anew; instead, they "recognized the existing Roman tonality and brought it into sharper focus [...] in their effort to render the melodies more memorable, more tuneful, more easily taught". (402)

Throughout these final pages, McKinnon draws on his long experience as a performer and hearer of chant, exploring the nature of the Frankish-Gregorian idiom and its apparent affinities with the creative principles behind the Advent Project. He makes no secret of his preference for this finely- chiselled, transparent style over the meanderings of the Old Roman chant, although some readers may disagree with him when he leaves behind historical reconstruction to venture into aesthetic judgment. His textual evidence for the primacy of Gregorian style, a handful of pieces transmitted in similar versions, is compelling if slender. In any case, the weight of detail and argument here, as elsewhere in the book, never obscures his deep engagement with the underlying concepts. There is hardly a moreeeloquent defense of the beauty of Gregorian melody (far from the purple prose sometimes associated with Solesmes) than the close analytical readings in his epilogue. His remark that "I am beginning to venture here into a book-length subject; I can make no pretense at comprehensives..." (384), if it had appeared in an earlier work, would delight the reader with expectations of more to come. In the present context, knowing there will be no more books, it is incredibly poignant.

In The Advent Project, James McKinnon has built a scholarly edifice worthy of its distinguished subject matter. He sums up the seventh-century creation of the Mass Proper as "an enterprise of daunting proportions, accomplished with both profound dedication and consummate artistry". (374) Much the same can be said of this, his final work.