Chant--at AMS Milwaukee!

What is chant?  And, what does it mean to study chant?  The answer, of course, depends on whom you ask.  To some, chant is a seminal repertory of music with core issues revolving around source studies, the development and interpretation of musical notation, the fixity of melody over time and space, the regulation of tonality, and all manner of questions related to performance and performance practice.  To others, of course, chant is more of a cultural practice: a ritual that involves music but is not defined by it.  Such scholars approach chant as deeply entangled in matters of belief, the particularities of liturgy, debates about theology, religious practice, and the anthropology of worship.  Others, still, study chant for its secular properties, as an extension of political and temporal discourse.  Just as objects of art and architecture can be studied for what they reveal about the times in which they were produced or the people by whom they were made, chant, too, can be studied as a projection of identity, power, civic pride, political and social ideology.  And so it is that chant is music and ritual, chant is sacred and secular, chant is politics and liturgy, chant is theology and culture, chant is practice and praxis.  And, of course, there is always the under-appreciated notion of “chant as song!”
At a time when Early Music is so little represented on the program of the American Musicological Society Annual Meeting, how fortunate that this year’s chant session, aptly titled “Chant,” showcased both the richness of the subject and vitality of the field, in spite of being the only session on the program devoted to Medieval Latin plainchant, ahem!  Far from projecting a field past its prime, out of fashion, or nearing retirement, the 2014 AMS “Chant” session exhibited some of the best and brightest thinking on the conference program by some of the best young scholars in the field.  With the legendary Alejandro Planchart at the helm as session chair, expectations ran high.  Listeners were not disappointed by the papers—or by the witty introductions involving not less than Windsor Castle and the Holy Ghost!
The papers on the session ranged the gamut in terms of repertory, region, era and scholarly approach.  The first paper, by Bibiana Gattozzi, focused on notated fragments surviving from the 12th century from the Abruzzo region of Italy.  The paper demonstrated the manifold processes by which local and regional practices exerted their influence on received traditions of music, writing, and liturgy.  Gattozzi not only offered a rare glimpse into a once well-developed but now largely lost Abruzzo tradition, but also raised important methodological questions about how we conceptualize “central” and “marginal” traditions, both in geographical terms and in terms of surviving sources.  Certainly her paper raised many interesting points about the liturgy of the Abruzzo region, its graphical forms in notation, and its relation to Benevento, but I was most struck by two lessons.  First, a broader reminder of the dangers of conceptualizing a history of music with centers and margins on the basis of the sources that survive rather than what may have been central or marginal in Medieval culture (if that can even be determined reliably).  And second, the notion that the incorporation of a received tradition into different times and places almost always involved a level of invention, combination, and as she put it, “domestication.”  Though presented as a historical analysis, Gattozzi’s paper just as easily could have adopted a more anthropological approach, highlighting how local music culture in Abruzzo was fashioned out of entities received, repurposed, and reinvented.
That music and liturgy can involve “more than meets the eye” was also a prominent theme in James Maiello’s paper on the Epiphany liturgy in Pistoia in the 12th century.  Over recent years, Maiello has established himself as an expert on the chant and liturgy of medieval Pistoia and as an important voice in all conversations on Medieval Italy.  On this occasion, Maiello put forward an argument that the Pistoian Epiphany liturgy was constructed in such a way as to intentionally reinforce the temporal and spiritual authority of the local bishop, rather than the Holy Roman emperor.  The paper offered a very close examination of texts and melodies deployed as a form of subtle musical and liturgical subterfuge to ensure the temporal and spiritual independence of the cathedral chapter in the face of the increased sway of both the imperial party and emerging commune.  Maiello’s paper is an important reminder that music can function not only as a reflection of time and fashion (a passive mirror) but, in certain circumstances, as a mechanism of change and power-fashioning at work in broader society.  It is in this sense that the study of a single liturgy can speak outwardly to other fields concerned with the history and historiography of a range of non-musical issues.  In politics as in all things, chant matters!
From Pistoia, the session took a jaunt northwards to be introduced to Berno of Reichenau.  In an exquisitely delivered presentation, Henry Parkes showed how anxieties about the content of Gregorian chant—a famous preoccupation of the Carolingian era—continued long afterward into the 11th century.  In a treatise previously dismissed as non-musical (not so!), Berno comments at length about the wayward state of the chant for the office and proposes his own solutions.  Parkes further demonstrated the importance of the only surviving source of the treatise, which, though partly manifesto, is also musical record in its own right and contains hitherto unrecognized neumed melodies omitted from previous editions.  Tantalizing revelations of the paper involved a juxtaposition of Gregory the Great to the authority of the bible, a veritable dismissal of Gregory’s authorship (“whosoever composed the chant”!), and a whole lot of hand-wringing about the reception of the Gregorian repertory two generations after the famous moment of transmission we know so well.  That Berno’s anxiety about the orthodoxy of the chant is expressed at the same moment when icons of Gregory writing the chants begin to emerge, suggests that the Gregory icons, previously understood as the perpetuation of an authorship myth, may have also functioned as a form of anxiety-reassurance against longstanding worry about correctness and authority.  With so much attention fixed on the previous two centuries, Parkes demonstrated that the Carolingian century held no monopoly on anxiety about the “correctness” of Gregory’s chant, wherever it came from, whoever composed it, and however one conceptualizes its authority.
The session ended with a triumphant return to Benevento and to the eye-wateringly detailed work of Matthew Peattie on south Italian notation of the 11th century.  Peattie’s excellent work on Benevento is, by now, well known, but over the last few years his work on the notation has developed beautifully.  Peattie’s efforts to understand eleventh-century south Italian notation and his construction of a modern “eleventh-century notation” computer font stands as some of the most impressive work in the field.  At the heart of his paper was a thesis that stands to challenge some of the most fundamental assumptions about the development of notation in the Middle Ages: where generations of scholars have understood that the earliest forms of northern chant notation contain the most information about performance “nuance,” Peattie demonstrated that eleventh-century south-Italian notation contains much more information about nuance than has been recognized.  Details of accent, emphasis, and duration are, thus, no longer the exclusive purview of earlier Frankish and Swiss notations.  Peattie’s work has the potential to revolutionize how the field thinks about the development of chant notation (both over time and space), putting new emphasis on both later forms and southern forms, not previously reputed for their nuance.  Of course, when it comes to performance nuance, not all sources agree about where to put the nuance or about what nuance is to be preserved—and it is here that more work needs to be done in comprehensively comparing early northern and late southern redactions of melodies.  The importance of Peattie’s work is hard to overestimate  — both for the study of notations we think we know well and for later notations which we are just getting to know more thoroughly.   Peattie may or may not “shake it off,” but his work will undoubtedly “shake things up!”
On the whole, the chant papers at AMS 2014 were not concerned with the same-old, same-old: de-centered from the axis of Rome and Francia in the 8th and 9th centuries, we see attention being devoted to non-hegemonic repertories, later time periods, different notations, and new figures.  Coupled with the Journal’s recent publication of a hefty essay on Old Hispanic chant by Rebecca Maloy, it seems clear that the study of chant is ever-expanding to new and interesting frontiers.  The center of the field is now very decentralized—and this is, perhaps, as it always should have been.  Now, if we could only work on getting more chant sessions on the conference program!  “It is hard to add without taking away,” as one of my colleague often says.  Given the expansion of musicological interest in the last twenty years (which can only be viewed as a net positive), it seems the conference program is in desperate need of more speaking slots for all subjects.  With so many important chant scholars in far-away places around the world, one chant session hardly makes it worth anyone’s while to travel great distances to the AMS.  Of course, there is always the draw of the Early Music happy hour!