11.04.05, Hiley, Gregorian Chant

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John Haines

The Medieval Review 11.04.05

Hiley, David. Gregorian Chant. Cambridge Introductions to Music. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xx, 249. ISBN: 978-0-521-87020-7.
ISBN: 978-0-521-69035-5.

Reviewed by:
John Haines
University of Toronto

Cambridge University Press is to be commended for assigning the second instalment in its Introductions to Music series to Gregorian chant, and for commissioning an undisputed master of communication on this complex subject. In this book, David Hiley manages to pare down his landmark 661-page Western Plainchant: A Handbook to a mere 250 pages, while covering all of the main topics found there. Gregorian Chant's achievement lies in its author's ability to present to the lay reader, in lucid prose, the main topics covered in his earlier reference book. Comparisons will inevitably be made to Richard Crocker's An Introduction to Gregorian Chant (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), which Hiley mentions in his introduction with characteristic humility (xix). Hiley's new opus easily replaces Crocker's as the definitive English introduction to Gregorian chant. Denser and less discursive than Crocker's book, Hiley's Gregorian Chant is also more elegantly laid out, its text broken up with a cornucopia of tables, plates, maps, musical examples (with commentary and English translations of the Latin), text excurses, and six handy appendices: a map, chronological table, a table of chant types by mode, a list of manuscript sources used in musical examples, a glossary and a bibliography (219-240). The reader should not be deceived: this slender, unassuming volume represents the substantial labour of a leading chant scholar whose love for his subject permeates the book and engages the reader.

On practically every page, Hiley's attention to his lay reader shines through. One especially senses this in his frequent clarification of liturgical jargon, as for example when he writes of "the singing of chants special (the usual word is 'proper') to the saint in question" (16). Characteristically, Hiley here introduces a concept with swift clarity, preparing the unsuspecting reader for its appearance a few pages later (23), again in quotation marks, but this time not in parentheses, thus indirectly signalling to the reader that a longer definition might be found in the glossary, as indeed it is (230). Such felicitously concise descriptions abound. One more example will suffice; at the mention of the Church Fathers, Hiley explains the expression "patristic writings," giving the Latin root of the first word (34). The extent of the author's endearing sensitivity may be seen in his worrying at one point of "stretching the reader's patience to the limit" (54).

The book is divided into five chapters. The first, and by far the longest chapter covers introductory matters, including the structure of the liturgical year and the main forms of chant. In the first part of the chapter, Hiley warns the reader that the liturgy discussed here, and in fact throughout most of the book, is that of "the central Middle Ages" (22). As clarified a little later, the said "central Middle Ages" consists of some five hundred years, from around 900 to 1400. On the topic of comparative anthropologies of chant, Hiley refers to only one book, unfortunately fifty years out of date (6 and 237). This is perhaps due to the paucity of good studies on the topic, notwithstanding Peter Jeffery and Kay Shelemay's well-known work (briefly discussed on pp. 102-103). From the start, Hiley stresses that chant, unlike modern music, is not expressive music (3, 5-6, 42, 67 and 69), at one point stating that "individual words will not be matched by a unique melodic gesture" (5). Such a categorical statement seems questionable. Aside from the fact that a Romantic Lied or sixteenth-century madrigal (the examples Hiley chooses as antitheses) do not necessarily always express "in a modern, personal way the feelings of man" (6)--one thinks of Romantic Lieder used in film music, for example--idiomatic expressiveness can sometimes be found in chant, as Hiley lets slip later in the book: the longest melisma in the gradual "Benedicite Dominum" giving importance to the word "nomen" ("his holy Name," 58-59), or a high C in the introit "Gaudete in Domino" clearly intended, as Hiley writes, to highlight the important word "Nichil" (63).

The second chapter provides a history of chant from late Antiquity to the ninth century. By integrating history and chant genres, in contrast to his 1993 handbook which treated these aspects separately, Hiley gives the reader a clear sense of how, say, responsories differ from sequences both historically and musically in the development of chant over the long Middle Ages. He opens the chapter with an unfortunately brief discussion of the early Christian period (83-85), where one could have wished for some sample of the significant research of the last few decades on so-called Gnostic liturgies, as represented in The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies (Oxford University Press, 2008). The very first sentence of this chapter also raises a thorny but fundamental question that recurs throughout the book: "Gregorian chant was established as the chant repertory of the Carolingian Empire, the dominant political power in the late eighth and ninth centuries" (83). The main issue appears to be how much of Gregory's chants from the turn of the sixth to the seventh centuries the Carolingians preserved in their codification during the ninth and tenth centuries. Hiley puts forward his belief that many of the chants of Gregory's time were amazingly preserved by memory (90). Arriving almost reluctantly at the Carolingians, he briefly raises the crucial question of the influence on Roman chant of "some sort of" native Gallican chant ("whatever it was," he adds), abruptly putting off discussion of the latter (96-97). He then turns to evidence that mainly favours Gregorian melodies (deemed "wonderful" and "unique" over Old Roman ones on p. 104) having been preserved for centuries thanks to the extraordinary memory of medieval singers (100- 107). Turning to non-Roman chants, Hiley comes to the promised topic of Gallican chant (109-111), concluding somewhat surprisingly that little can be said about it. Like the early Christian liturgy mentioned above, Gallican chant has not been as enthusiastically studied as other areas of chant; as Hiley rightly concludes, "the last word has not yet been said on the matter" (111).

The third chapter continues the commendable approach of chapter two, covering the ninth to the sixteenth century with a by-now characteristic judicious balance of historical context and musical examples. Hiley begins by pointing out that most of the repertoires during this period are in fact not Gregorian (121). In the category of "neo-Gregorian" fall the sequences, tropes and other Latin songs of the post-Carolingian period (123-153); flat-out "un-Gregorian" music of the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries is covered more briefly (153-161). At this point, the reader suspects that the time span of Gregorian chant has further shrunk to a few hundred years, roughly from 900 to 1200.

The fourth chapter investigates technical aspects of chant, its modes and notation. This is an extraordinary pedagogical tour-de-force, as Hiley condenses in some forty pages (162-207) nearly all major topics of medieval music theory--some perhaps superfluous, such as the intervallic proportions of ancient Greek theory (164). Here the reader learns that the earliest legible sources of Gregorian chant date from the eleventh century (183), making the time frame of known Gregorian chant dwindle down yet further to less than two centuries.

If the late Middle Ages are deemed of dubious relevance to Gregorian chant, the bulk of the post-medieval period covered in the final chapter does not appear to relate to it at all. Hiley opens with what he calls "the cataclysm of the sixteenth century," by which he presumably means the Protestant Reformation. In this briefest chapter of all, the author first dispatches the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries in a few pages (208-211). This brevity partly owes to the glaring lack of study on chant of this period, that future monographs such as Xavier Bisaro's Chanter toujours: Plain-chant et religion villageoise dans la France moderne (XVIe-XIXe sicle) (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2010) will hopefully remedy. But it also owes to Hiley's view of the nineteenth century as inaugurating what he calls the "restoration" of chant like "a phoenix rising from the ashes" (208 and 212). In the words of Pope Pius X, whose famous 1903 Motu proprio is cited on p. 214, Gregorian chant is "the proper chant of the Roman Church...which she has inherited from the ancient Fathers, which she has jealously kept for so many centuries in her liturgical books, which she offers to the faithful as her own music."

The reader should be grateful to Hiley for making explicit a bias with a candour not usually found with other writers on the subject. This is intentional; the author relates in his preface that "my view of chant is naturally shaped by my own experience of it, the way I have come to know it...what I should like to believe about it" (xviii). Hiley's view of the history of Gregorian chant is imbued with a personal conviction of its relevance to contemporary Catholic liturgy and faith. He speaks, for example, of the medieval choir-screen in "a ceremonial element quite missing in modern worship" (13) and of Notker's "fine sequences" that "have not been revived in the modern liturgy" (135). The consequence of such a perspective is the assumption that Gregorian chant soars above average music, almost outside of history: as "a gift of the Holy Spirit" (158), Gregorian chant is "timeless" (69) "ritual music" (58), "drawn out of a divine well of music, eternally renewed, ever present" (6), Hiley writes.

The reader might wonder if other views of Gregorian chant are possible, and if she can study or even just appreciate it outside of such a perspective. I believe she can, and so apparently does Hiley, as he states in his preface, "the experience of others is inevitably different" (xviii). Still, the question of perspective is marginal next to the accomplishment reviewed here, penned by a researcher who has worked tirelessly and selflessly in his field over the last three decades. In this introduction to Gregorian chant, Hiley has provided us all with an invaluable pedagogical tool that I, along with many others, will use regularly, both in and out of the classroom, for years to come.

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Author Biography

John Haines

University of Toronto