Friday, May 28, 2010


The New Liturgical Movement provides an interesting link (introduced by Jeffrey Tucker) to a brief talk by Jeff Ostrowski, 'What is dignified music?'. Ostrowski has written well elsewhere on style in Church music and has done a great service with his article 'The composer's Modus Operandi of Gregorian modal accompaniment'    (see here). The latter is a very good place to start if your find yourself having to accompany chant for the first time. The former gives an insight into what even the best and gentlest of musicians have to do on a 'day to day' basis to maintain the peace and keep good will.

The question of style in ecclesiastical music is something that has vexed commentators for a long time. In modern times we get the beginnings of an attempt to codify what is good style at the beginning of the 20th century however the question was far from new. Most first year music students could recount the tale (probably a legend rather than a myth) of the origins of Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli. So it goes the style of the polyphony had become too complicated, the meaning of the words were being obscured by 'too many notes'. Not the first, nor the last, time that accusation has been levelled against a work of genius. It would seem that a reforming party wanted the restore to general use the simple lines of the chant as it was received at the time. Palestrina saved the day by proving that polyphony could enshrine the sacred text and make it clear at the same time. Whilst this might have been the spin put on the controversy there's little real evidence in the score itself.

Ostrowski's talk, illustrated with musical examples, probably emphasises the extremes of the problem however he does, almost by accident, illustrate how something quite trite can be clad in a harmonic clothing that seems more appropriate to the liturgy rather than some burlesque. It wouldn't be the first time that something secular made an entry into the choir loft clad in respectable modality. And here is the point of reflection for me.  We seem to sense intuitively what is appropriate yet to put this into words is very difficult. Should there be a set of guidelines to musical style that can be applied across the board or are we living in a Church that is so universal that to make a general rule would be meaningless in some cultures?

My suspicion is that the starting point is the call to take inspiration from the sacred musical gestures we have inherited within our culture. In the Occident this certainly must mean a serious examination of modal composition and because of this the repertoire of Gregorian Chant must be a starting point. At the same time we would be foolish to ignore the fact that others have already looked back in this way and added to the sacred treasury in many different ways.

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