Tuesday 2 June 2009

Chant Colloquium 1

Warning, ramblings follow. Go here for a cogent account of the afternoon.

Having met Fr Ray's Maestra di Capella at a Tube station, it was off down a leafy road to The London Oratory School. Signs helpfully pointed us around the building to our destination and an afternoon listening to Prof Laszlo Dobszay.

His formidable biography includes the fact that Zoltan Kodaly invited him to be part of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Folkmusic Research Group and this has obviously provided another stream of music from which to draw, as well as another approach to music making and one, of course, of great importance in Hungary. Kodaly is one of the towering figures in music education as well as being one of Hungary's most famous composers. ( Bartok, wax cylinders, music that keeps changing time sig and is in a crazy mode came to mind...)

I did make a few notes and before my brain turns to mush after five hours invigilation with only a set of first form exam papers to relieve the boredom, here are some thoughts.

Firstly, he spoke about Kodaly's guiding principles of music education and particularly about the importance of presenting the very best quality of music to children. This implies of course that it is possible to make comparisons between music, that there are in fact absolute standards in composition and that children can appreciate what is chosen as best. None of these things pertain to the English National Curriculum. One of the effects of relativism in music education is that it opposes the intensity of study and practice necessary to attain excellence on one instrument in one style. I once had an argument (heated discussion...) with the Local Music Inspector saying that as stringed instruments were not taught in the primary schools, no-one who did not have private lessons would ever be admitted to a music conservatoire as a first study violinist from the borough because unless you are about grade V distinction at 11, you will never be good enough. He said we were not just concerned with those people and I said that we were definitely not concerned with them. As an illustration, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain is overwhelmingly comprised of teenagers who are educated in the independent sector. One leads my String Orchestra at work. It wasn't always like this.

None of this matters if music doesn't matter and is merely a quaint leisure activity. Prof Dodszay went on to speak of music's power as a moral and spiritual force, hence the need to distinguish good and bad music.

When considering the practicalities of liturgical music there are, I suppose, two main things to ponder, who is going to do it and and what are they going to do.

They started with 7/8 year old children who over the past 40 years of his work have themselves become parents and thus an entire musical tradition has been nurtured with people across the country who, because of their shared repertoire, can easily sing together. Another interesting point about these children is that the scholas arose from Religious Instruction Classes and so there is always a synthesis with the teaching and practice of the Faith.

The what took the greater part of the afternoon. Prof Dobszay recognised the problem of the invisible Propers in the OF of the Mass. His solutions included prefacing a vernacular hymn in a folk style (but NB Hungarian Folk Music in a homogeneous culture, where the melodies are often modal etc and the style deeply part of the people's identity, ie nothing to do with what we mean...) with the Introit in the vernacular. Thinking about this in the English context people pointed out that the repertoire we have would not allow that. ( Can you imagine a quasi gregorian melody segueing into I, the Lord of sea and sky?) Mention of folk music usually elicits a response of mirth in England. One thinks of Sean O'Riada in Ireland and the work from the end of his life, so may be broadening out the discussion to other areas of Europe is useful when considering non-chant-based sacred music. The Reformation was arguably not great for music in England. If the best that excellent recent BBC Series on Purcell, Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn could do is to put forward the case that the latter three in some way owe their place in music history to the fact of spending time in England, then we have a problem.

Later on in the afternoon, the problem of the translation that we should be using came up. Rather than waiting for one to be provided, Prof Dobszay has gone ahead and produced some musical proposals. He is a scholar and has used pre-existing translations. Other people wondered about approved texts. He pointed out how some people have used 'interesting' words in modern hymns and thought that this was not therefore such a problem. However, from the perspective of people publishing editions that then become obsolete... Also people want to do the right thing. They want to get the correct texts and set them to music and then use them for a very long time. Prof Dobszay kept saying that he was showing liturgies that had been left untouched for 20 or more years. The only innovation was perfecting the quality. I'm happy to stick with Latin. English is not a great language to sing in. It is so wordy and just has Protestant connotations as far as I am concerned. Too many consonants.

More on what tomorrow. Can't possibly reproduce even a fraction of what he said. He spoke for 3 hours or so.

PS Many thanks to the organisers, it was a very interesting afternoon indeed.
And many thanks to Prof Dobszay who brought an enormous amount of material to set before us illustrated with audio, video and scores, all of which he had instantly to hand. Most impressive and without any affectation whatever, just an intense need to get all of his talks delivered.

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