Mahrt on Chant … Or Is It?

Friend and frequent guest Jimmy Mac sent me this link from California Catholic Daily on chant scholar William Mahrt. (First quote not his.)

“Sometimes we were treated like a lunatic fringe. A lot thought we were not very ‘with it’ — as far as being part of the modern church — and hoped we would eventually dry up and blow away.” So Susan Alstatt told the Dec. 23 San Francisco Chronicle. Alstatt is a 40-year member of a choir with a repertoire little touched by most modern church choirs. That repertoire is Gregorian Chant.

I think a lot of early music folks would say that. Classical and conservatory music circles were certainly pushing the most modern, up-to-date expressions of art from Mozart pretty much through the mid-twentieth. My own memories of concerts and friends at the Eastman School in the 70’s and early 80’s: early music was just starting to revive as a serious discipline.

Twenty or thirty years later, countless outstanding early music groups: Sequentia, SAVAE, the Hilliard Ensemble, the Tallis Scholars, Concerto Palatino, Trio Mediaeval, Anonymous 4, among others have put early music–including chant–back into serious consideration.

You get a perfectly interesting feature on chant, then the anonymous journalist comes up with off-the-wall quotes like this:

Beginning in the late 1960s, the chant was muscled out of Catholic churches by bands playing popular music-style songs, which, Mahrt said, he “wouldn’t cross the street” to hear.

Well … I wouldn’t cross the street to hear most parish choirs attempt plainsong or polyphony. Outside of the extraordinary places that devoted resources to the arts, music in Catholic parishes before the council wasn’t all that good. My recollection of the 70’s was that parish folk groups were marginalized. Rarely were trained musicians hired to direct them.

A bit of revising history:

Stanford Magazine noted that, though Pope Gregory I is credited with collecting and organizing what has been called the Gregorian chants in honor of him, scholars have “uncovered correspondences between Western plainsong and medieval chants transcribed in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The only obvious link is Jerusalem in the 4th century, when Emperor Constantine the Great was transforming it into a flourishing Christian city and pilgrimage center. That date and place would also link Christian chant to Hebrew chanting, since both rely on the Psalms for text.”

That would be interesting, given that the Temple had been razed three centuries prior and that Christian-Jewish relations were not always sparkling.

I respect the work and leadership of music scholars like Mahrt. But you have to wonder about the promotion of a particular musical style that includes unproven links that seem to be for self-benefit plus unnecessary slams at other musicians. (The St Louis Jesuits weren’t really a national phenomenon until at least 1974, which makes the subheading quote, “Stanford University professor promotes Gregorian Chant – wouldn’t ‘cross the street’ for the St. Louis Jesuits” rather curious.) Mahrt doesn’t actually say that. At least not anywhere in the article.

As a lover of early music, I don’t need to disavow jazz, set aside the Three B’s, or stop enjoying good pop music. My musicianship isn’t dependent on a repertoire by subtraction. As a church musician, I know my colleagues and I compete less against our varied tastes than our parishes’ priorities in schools, sports, and fundraisers. A chant musician who doesn’t realize that is more likely to get blind-sided when someone decides the parking lot needs repaving and having a push-button console for recorded music is more economical.

Reliving the 60’s with tilted memories isn’t any way to motivate oneself and cultivate followers. I suspect Bill Mahrt, with his learning and varied tastes in early music, would tell you that as well … if they could ever actually nail down a real quote from the man.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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3 Responses to Mahrt on Chant … Or Is It?

  1. Liam says:

    Just an extension of the comments about the developments in “early music”: at least in Europe, the non-ecclessiastical roots are in the end of the 19th century, in places like La Schola Cantorum in Paris, then popularizers like Wanda Landowska in the interwar years, and then in the revival of what we might call historically informed performance groups like the Deller Consort in the 1940s, Gustav Leonhardt in the next decade; by the 1960s, there are plenty of historical movies with scores relying on renaissance consort and dance music, et cet. My very first LPs circa 1970 were chant and medieval and renaissance consort music, and they were recorded years before that – and sold well.

    So movements like the Caecilian and Liturgical Movements were trying to do with music in the 20th century before Vatican II were actually in parallel to developments in more popularly aware sides of secular music.

  2. clairity says:

    My sister and brother-in-law have sung in Dr. Mahrt’s choir for over twenty years. Dr. Mahrt is a very gracious man, and the choir is quite a diverse group, not all Catholics, who love the chant and are very devoted to their practices and services. Whenever we’re home for a visit, we try to make it for there for Mass or Vespers for special feasts. It is always a memorable experience. They encountered opposition in different forms over the years as well as appreciation and a faithful following. –Sharon

  3. Jeff Pinyan says:

    Dr. Mahrt was on EWTN Live a month ago. Genuine quotes and papers by him can be found at the Church Music Association of America (CMAA,

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