AREFULLY STUDYING old books, one can learn a lot. Sometimes, knowledge can be gained “directly.” For example, a while back I shared an article published in 1937 by Dom Gregory Hügle, O.S.B., perhaps the most prominent expert on Liturgy and Gregorian chant in America (at that time). The article explicitly says that selections from the Proprium Missæ and Ordinarium Missæ can be sung during Low Mass, which is something I did not know.
On the other hand, one can also learn “indirectly,” by carefully noticing small details. For example, the following excerpt comes from the St. Gregory Hymnal and Catholic Choir Book, published in 1941 (Nihil Obstat, 7 July 1920):
* * St. Gregory Hymnal • Printed 11 September 1941 (copyright 1920 by Nicola Montani)
Notice the following interesting sentence:
During a High Mass, the Choir will begin the Graduale etc. while the Priest recites the Epistle.
Because I used the word interesting, my grad school professors would mark my papers with red ink, saying, “Let your readers decide if it’s interesting.” However, anyone who’s studied the liturgy will understand why that instruction is remarkable. Verbum sapienti satis est. Consider, too, the following example, again from the St. Gregory Hymnal (it should be “Christe,” by the way):
The Choir does not sing the “Laus tibi Christi” after the Gospel or the “Deo Gratias” after the “Epistle,” these responses are for the Acolytes only
That would seem to indicate that some choirs were actually singing those responses! I could give examples all day long, but let’s consider just one more, excerpted from some 1931 regulations I recently posted here:
At High Mass the Celebrant is not allowed to proceed with the Offertory while the Credo is being sung. Likewise he should not proceed with the Consecration until the singing of the Sanctus is completed.
Wow! That would seem to indicate that some priests were starting the Offertory before the Credo had been completed. How crazy is that?!! Later on, I’d like to write more about those regulations, because there’s more to consider. For instance, songs are judged as “secular” according to how they were first performed, instead of their inherent musical qualities.
THE DANGER, OF COURSE, as I’ve mentioned before, is jumping to conclusions based on this or that document. Many historians, sadly, are guilty of this, and it happens constantly in the field of Gregorian scholarship, where inordinate emphasis is often given to a handful of manuscripts. On the one hand, mistakes by these sloppy scholars are understandable. They ask, “What are we supposed to do if we only have 2-3 manuscripts from a given period? Documentation in ancient times was not so plentiful as it is since the invention of the printing press.” However, responsible scholars realize and acknowledge that manuscripts which have survived through the centuries are only clues, and don’t necessarily represent universal practice. Furthermore, responsible scholars take into consideration the fact that how we write and what we record in the year 2013 might not be identical to what took place 500 or 900 or 1300 years ago. As a matter of fact, the whole concept of “making records” and “writing things down” back then (especially before the time of Charlemagne) had very little to do with our current notions. In the Middle Ages, many people didn’t even know (or care) the current year, because they lived according to liturgical season. But this is another discussion for another time …
When reading quotes like those above, the proper attitude is to simply say, “Based on such-and-such, it seems that certain priests in certain churches allowed certain practices.” The mere fact that something is condemned in print does not de facto mean it was a universal practice. [Isn’t it remarkable that such a sentence even needs to be articulated? And yet, so many people don’t grasp this fundamental truth.]
I’m reminded of a dissertation I once read. A particular student had carefully gone through some written records of “visitations” during the Middle Ages. (Visitations were yearly visits by the bishop, wherein members of a religious community, for example, got to privately report on their conditions to the bishop — in essence, a private “complaining session.” By the way, one of the major complaints had to do with people bringing loud dogs into church services). Some deal with musical performance practice at certain religious houses, and, sadly, the author treated them as if they described universal practice! One entry said something to the effect of, “The pause after the psalmody asterisk is so long that one could say the first half of the Lord’s Prayer.” Why do I bring this up? Because a certain professional group I know adheres to this “historically informed” advice for their Gregorian chant recordings … and it drives me nuts. From my humble perspective, it seems reasonable to take these “visitation records” with a grain of salt, because people often exaggerate when they complain. However, unscrupulous musicologists have a hard time doing this, because (it’s true!) so few descriptions of performance practice have come down to us.