Julian Barry looks at the achievements of Dr Mary Berry in encouraging and teaching the singing of Gregorian Chant
It is always a joy to meet a scholar of advanced years who still retains the liveliness of youth combined with a bubbling enthusiasm for their subject. This description fits Mary Berry (1971-2008) perfectly. When she died on 1 May she was ninety years old, but her delight in Gregorian chant and in communicating its beauties to others was undimmed.
For most of her adult life she worked tirelessly to keep this part of the Western Church heritage before the eyes of contemporary Christians, initially in the face of indifference or hostility.
The Second Vatican Council brought lasting blessings to the whole Church, but its impact upon music was not one of them. As part of liturgical reform the Chant was pushed aside and replaced mostly with praise songs and psalm settings of mind-numbing banality which, alas, are still too much with us. Mary Berry devoted her life and scholarship to reminding us of what we were neglecting.
A talent for teaching
At this point I must abandon the formal tone of an obituary to write of Mary (she quickly became Mary to those who worked with her) as I experienced her and her achievements. There was nothing dryly academic about her approach to the Chant. To attend one of the countless day workshops in which she taught people to love the Chant was a lively experience indeed.
It was a remarkable talent which enabled her to take a collection of people who had little or no experience of singing Plainchant and enable them, within a single day, to tackle a straightforward form of Vespers – and to sing from the original notation as well. The Chant, she made clear from the start, was to be enjoyed, as well as being an offering of praise.
I was one who went along expecting boredom and was left thirsting for more. My previously received impression of Plainchant was of leaden, measured, lifeless moaning. Mary disposed of this travesty of the Chant in minutes. The music, she insisted, was to be sung with supple lightness and a free rhythm dictated largely by the words, and she told us how the earliest manuscripts suggest
this approach. The result, when we sang, was electrifying.
That Mary was aborn teacher was obvious from her workshops. I also remember a moving occasion when a group of students who had worked hard with her all day on a recording still wanted literally to sit at her feet over pre-supper drinks to hear more about the music we were singing.
Her teaching skill is seen in the two invaluable booklets she published, Plainchant for Everyone and the delightful Cantors. She formed her own group of singers, the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge, and with them made a number of impressive recordings. Listen to their
she devoted her life and scholarship to reminding us of what we were neglecting
CD, Like the Sun in His Orb, which shows what can be done with the Chant, in this case with music from thirteenth-century Salisbury.
She also assisted in the preparation of An English Kyriale, a beautifully produced collection of chants for the Mass in English. She appreciated the original Latin texts, of course, but she was no stickler for them if singing in English would help to make the Chant more familiar. It is a depressing reflection that Plainchant for Everyone, Cantors, and the English Kyriale appear to be out of print at present.
Mary’s musical pedigree was impressive. She studied in France with the inspiring but fearfully demanding teacher, Nadia Boulanger, and in this country with Thurston Dart, and she brought proper scholarly rigour to her researches. To her must go the credit for tracking down the source for the melody of ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ in a French missal.
She produced a modern edition of the music, and it should be far more widely known for it provides a simple but arresting anthem during Advent.
As suggested above, however, the
pursuit for Mary. She wished it to take its rightful place once again in Christian worship. She had been professed as an Augustinian Canoness, and she remained faithful to her vows even when she sought exclaustration because her community was, in her view, departing from its vocation to teach and to offer good liturgy.
Firm in her adherence to the Roman Catholic Church (she was a convert), she gave a superb example of the ecumenical role of Gregorian chant. Christians of all denominations found themselves brought together by her in a shared discovery of this musical bedrock of our liturgical tradition. In America she did sterling work with an ecumenical community, teaching them to sing the Office to the appropriate Chant.
Continuing her work
The question inevitably arises, who will continue her work? The odds are heavily stacked against using the Chant in a Church of England disturbingly overweighted toward the Evangelical, with its drum kits and choruses. Anglo-Catholics, on the other hand, have been too willing to embrace the worst examples of modern Roman Mass ditties.
Even now, when a plainsong melody is used in worship it is frequently sung in the old, turgid way, and usually with an organ accompaniment, which is a betrayal of what the Chant should be. Yet it need not be so. Small choirs and congregations will find the Chant admirably suited to their needs if someone will take the trouble to teach them. Even singing some of the simple melodies for an Office Hymn can make all the difference to recitations of the Office in the week, as well as restoring to us a sense of the changing Church seasons as the melodies and words change. To sing these melodies is to pray.
Those of us inspired by Mary Berry praise God for her life and work. We will best honour her memory by doing all we can to awaken our fellow Christians to this priceless treasure which we have in the Chant. I