Thursday, January 24, 2008

What does Pocahontas have to do with Chant?

~from The New Liturgical Movement, there was a piece written for the National Pastoral Musicians in 1977. Jeffrey Tucker writes:
Browsing the archives of Pastoral Music, I came across a very peculiar piece of writing from Feb-March 1977 called "Pocahontas Never Sang Gregorian Chant," by Eileen Elizabeth Freeman, then a guitar instructor studying at Notre Dame.

She argues that "calling chant the traditional music of American Catholicism is a form of religious myth." Further, "at no time during the formative centuries of plainchant did it ever become a vehicle for congregational song. Gregorian chant was the almost exclusive prerogative of monastic choirs and cathedral choirs….Throughout the Middle Ages, this dual traditional persisted, with Gregorian chant being the music of the 'official' Church, the literati (at least in the a metaphorical sense!), and vernacular hymns sustaining the faith musically for the average person." She further says that the same is true of polyphony: music of the elites.

Well, let's address this, starting with the claim that Pocahontas never sang chant, I'm not sure that has anything to do with it. Napoleon probably didn't either. Pocahontas wasn't a Christian at all until she married John Rolfe and was christened Lady Rebecca. I'm supposing they were Anglican, and it seems reasonable to assume that Gregorian Chant wasn't commonly sung in the Anglican Church in the United States. When they visited England in 1616, however, it was the Elizabethan era, and the music of Thomas Tallis was still heard in the cathedral. So we might amend the claim to say that while Pocahontas never sang chant, she might have listened to a live performance of "Spem in Alium."

The core of this article's point needs addressing, since it is still the case that people associate chant with high-brow education, snobbery, and elitism. These days, the demographics and financial analytics do not support the view. In today's American Catholic, the money and power is almost wholly with the praise-music crowd. They are the ones with the big corporations and well-heeled marketing apparatus. Their composers are well paid, their music is expensive and protected by a government privilege (copyright), and they have all the connections with people in high places of power and influence. Talk about a plutocracy.

The chant movement, in contrast, is made up of regular people in parishes, most of whom aren't paid a dime, have no elite educations, and have no high-level connections with anyone. Moreover, our music is free and enjoys no government-enforced monopoly privileges.

So if we are really digging this Marxian-style of class analytics, the position of the exploiters and the exploited has radically shifted in our time! We might also point out that chant is the music of illiterate and shockingly poor monks who lived under a socialistic form of property ownership. Its unison feature reflected the sociological commitment to perfect equality. Maybe if the ideological left would think about it this way, they might warm up to the genre.

And yet I see no point in engaging in this ridiculous battle over who is privileged and who is not. The fact remains that chant is widely regarded as snobbish, and no amount of demographic analysis of who is doing it will change that impression. In the same way, however, I suppose we could say that the Pieta reflects a high-level, cultured taste, as does the Sistine Chapel and Gothic Cathedrals and all the rest. Certainly these forms of art can be seen as "higher," in some way, than a carved piece of driftwood and a log-cabin worship space.
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