Friday, December 22, 2006

Best Books of 2006: Music #1

First an introduction to this second annual post.

Why do I read so much? When do I have the time? Well, I don't really have the time that I would like, but reading is so much at the heart of what it means to be a monk. Most of my reading is of Scripture and the Fathers. I won't rank those books. Why do I bother with secular stuff? The answer is several-fold. In the first place, I am a priest and therefore a homilist. The orator, according to Cicero, must know something about just about everything. He must be able to draw upon comparisons from all walks of life to gain the good will of his listeners and to give cogent examples (examples convince more than arguments, according to C). Monks, and after them the scholastics, have always made some use of secular sources in the service of the gospel.

Reading also helps one to stay sharp in the mind in general. Trying to follow an argument or a plot assists the rational part of the soul and elevates the person.

This year's list is a bit more technical in nature than last year's. This is, in part, because I am doing some research for a possible article and a possible book. You may speculate on what these writings will be about.
As was the case last year, these are merely books I happened to read last year for the first time and are more or less recent. I would feel a bit presumptuous ranking Patristic authors, for example. Finally, I link you to the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, rather than Amazon or another big-name seller. I could get a kick-back from Amazon, but the Co-op is my favorite bookstore and perhaps should be yours as well (check out the current selection on one corner of The Front Table!). Perhaps I will someday make the "Books by members" page, if my dream editor arrives.

Let's begin, in no particular order, with a great mix of chant scholarship and detective story. It is The Advent Project by James McKinnon. If you have the patience to learn a bit about the history of liturgical books in the West and read big charts with lots of Latin words, this book is a lot of fun. It happens to be the final work by Prof. McKinnon, who died shortly after completing the manuscript and I don't believe ever saw it published. It is quite clearly the summation of a distinguished, even brilliant career.

While the scholarship is quite impressive, it reads like a detective story because, in lieu of solid evidence, McKinnon (like all chant scholars) must invent plausible sequences of events to fill in gaps in our knowledge. Bearing in mind that writers from the seventh century didn't think to record information that 20th century scholars find useful, and even occasionally made stuff up, this makes for a bracing jaunt of the imagination. Caution: for the same reasons, one must be prepared to white-knuckle it at times through some blurry prose:

"There might have been silence in some [churces] or, more likely, an enthusiastic response from the faithful to the repeated greetings of 'peace' from the could very well have been customary...for the monks....festive musical activity might be expected within [the] spacious confines [of the major Roman churches]....And perhaps the example of the monastic choirs.... We have no way of knowing how close any of these speculations approach what actually happened, but two covering generalizations are plausible enough [some payoff: plausible!?]: 1) the singing of a psalm was probably...[etc--my italics]."

--and that is all from one paragraph of many with the same proliferation of mights, coulds, and perhaps's.

However, this didn't detract at all from my overall enjoyment. McKinnon's contention is that a small group of Roman monks wrote most of the Mass propers in a relatively brief burst of creativity in the latter seventh-century. Not only did they begin with the Advent Introits, but in the process they more or less invented Advent as the beginning of the Church year. As they moved later in the year and into the more complex chants such as the Graduals, they ran out of steam and borrowed from stock melodies or antiphons from the Divine Office. Having been working on the editing of our liturgical books for nearly nine years now, I can't tell you how accurately their possible predicament matches my own experience! Our Advent and Christmas books look great! We still don't have decent books for many important feast days.
I think his argument is persuasive, and his conclusion fits well with the experience of many monks I know who sing chant regularly. But I won't try to argue it: I will let McKinnon's examples and imagination earn your good will.

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