Champion of chant: Musicologist makes an ancient tradition a local institution
William Mahrt directs the St. Ann Choir, which he says has had a “fruitful interaction” with Stanford’s doctoral students of musicology, who find it “a very wonderful laboratory for the study of the music of history.”
For nearly two millennia, the sound has been a regular pulse beneath the skin of Western civilization. It reverberated through Dante's mind as he scratched out the cantos of the Purgatorio. It was the inaudible vein of thought running beneath the chords of Mozart's Requiem. Crusaders trudged to the East with these melodies in their heart, but they were too late—Jerusalem had echoed with it centuries earlier. It was ubiquitous, universal—that is, until about 40 years ago.
The tide may be turning, and, if so, it will be William Mahrt's moment in the sun.
The origins of Gregorian chant are enigmatic. It appears to have its roots in fourth-century Jerusalem. The link with Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) is the byproduct of early spin, based on what is probably an erroneous assumption that he composed and collected early chant.
The otherworldly effect of the music is hard to describe, but Mahrt, an associate professor of music at Stanford, recently gave it a try: "It is what we call monophonic—that is to say, it's a melody that's unaccompanied," he said. "A free rhythm has an ability to evoke eternal things, more than passages tied down to regular time. It's a sprung rhythm that has a freedom to it—like Hopkins' poetry."
Mahrt has conducted Gregorian chant for more than 40 years without a break. He is the director of Stanford's Early Music Singers and of the St. Ann Choir, a Gregorian schola at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Palo Alto. He instructs singers in the mysteries of "the chant," as well as the glorious polyphonic music that came after it. In fact, it's possible that there is more chant sung in Palo Alto than anywhere else in the country, with the possible exception of monastic communities. Mahrt has inspired and guided generations of scholars and singers.
One of his star students, Kerry McCarthy, now an assistant professor of music at Duke University, is the author of Liturgy and Contemplation in Byrd's Gradualia and one of the world's leading scholars on William Byrd, the preeminent English composer of the Renaissance.
"One of the best decisions I've made in my life was to come to Stanford and work with Bill," McCarthy said. "The things I learned from him here I could not have learned anywhere else. Not just in the classroom, but in performance. Especially in performance."
Acclaimed music writer and jazz scholar Ted Gioia recalls going to hear the St. Ann Choir, composed of students and members of the community at large, when he was studying for an MBA at Stanford. Often he found only a few fellow listeners in the pews.
"The thing I most miss about Palo Alto is going to those Gregorian Masses," he said. "It's so energizing. That was the best-kept secret in Palo Alto. Bill was the person who really opened my ears to that. He had a profound influence on my conception of music—through the force of his example."
Mahrt's work has indeed been quiet. Furthermore, he has encountered resistance from a church that has not always valued its own heritage.
"There's a huge resistance from the clerical establishment to doing any of this," said Stanford alumna Susan Altstatt, who has been a member of the St. Ann Choir since 1967. "Bill has lived a charmed life in this regard. Bill has managed to do what he's doing by talking to bishops and priests and knowing what he's talking about. He's a hero, as far as I'm concerned."
Mahrt explained the resistance: "Gregorian chant went out of style when the language was changed"—that is, when the universal Latin was changed to the vernacular English. "In the absence of any good solution about what to replace the chant with, I would say commercial interests stepped in and hawked a progressively cheaper and cheaper music, and the commercial interests still prevail today."
For example, one of the leading publishers of "missalettes," the flimsy and disposable paperbacks that include "new" church music, distributes 4.3 million of the quarterly copies a year and owns 10,000 music copyrights. That's a lot of commercial interests.
The result was summarized by one disgruntled reviewer on Amazon.com: "The Roman Catholic Church, seeking to be more 'relevant' to its flock in the antispiritual climate of the second half of the 20th century, abandoned its ancient Latin liturgy and dignified music in favor of poorly worded vernacular texts and worse music. This music usually tends toward banal couplets set to insipid tunes strummed on ill-tuned guitars and whined into a microphone to the banging of a tambourine."
Mahrt said there is a reason for the ill-tuned guitars and whining: "The standard of performance in recorded pop music is very high. A little combo in a church can't possibly keep that standard. There isn't the same standard for chant. Its whole criteria are different. Singers can master it in a different way."
Unlike other kinds of music, McCarthy said, "You don't have to have to have wonderful technique and learn to breathe from your diaphragm and so forth and have 20 years of voice lessons. It's on a very human scale. It's really self-regenerating. You can sing especially psalms for hours without getting tired, and there aren't many kinds of music you can say that about."
According to Mahrt, the St. Ann Choir has created a "fruitful interaction" with Stanford's doctoral students of musicology, who find it "a very wonderful laboratory for the study of the music of history." Members of the choir, which performs the year-round cycle of chant, are perhaps the staunchest advocates of the music anywhere: "This is one of the major cultural landmarks of Western society," Altstatt said. "Its preservation is very important. It has to be sung—it has to come through the human voice. You have to be taught, in a living tradition. You can't get it through a book. You get hooked on it, you internalize it and need to do it. It's a splendid thing."
In recent years, a younger audience, seeking music with a little more history and meaning than its usual fare, has become hooked in a different way: A generation has snapped up Gregorian chant and made recordings into crossover hits. In the last decade, the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos' Canto Gregoriano would become one of the world's biggest-selling classical compact discs, with worldwide sales topping 6 million.
But the commotion and hoopla miss the point, Mahrt said. "Chant does arise out of silence, and it goes back to silence," he said. "In our own culture, we sometimes don't have any silence. I think among students, for instance. They go into the dorms and the walls are thumping 24 hours a day. There is never a chance to be alone, in silence, within your own residence. But the fact is, I think, myself, the best location for the contact with God is in silence.
"When silence occurs, then you can look interiorly and find an order and a purpose that the noise of the media running day and night obscures. So, likewise, the chant, which is pure, a single melody, is not complicated, arises out of silence and goes back into it, as a way of returning to that interiority."
Mahrt grew up in a small farming community in eastern Washington—a place where "church music" meant sentimental hymns sung by a "little choir of ladies who sang to a harmonium." His University of Washington master's thesis as a pianist was the work of Robert Schumann. Mahrt discovered the chant at the University of Washington. Dominican friars, who were Catholic chaplains at the university, desperate to augment their choir, told him, "You have to sing chant for Holy Week."
"It's the hardest chant of the year in some ways. So we did it," he recalled. "And I said this is what I've been missing. This is what I've been waiting for. I joined the Cathedral Choir and sang chant there for the next two-and-a-half years."
He headed to Stanford to study Mozart and also joined the St. Ann Choir, which had been launched by one of the university's mathematics professors in 1963. A year later, the professor departed for another university and handed the reins to Mahrt. The year was a landmark in chant in another way: That was the year the Catholic Church began using local languages in the liturgy, and the chant was all but abandoned.
"Our choir was started one year before the language changed—if we had tried to start one year later, we might not have been able to do it," Mahrt said. "I saw this music becoming less and less popular with people who were entranced with folk music."
The leap from Mozart to the chant was not as radical as might be supposed; Mahrt points out that "certainly Mozart grew up knowing chant—a very 18th-century chant."
"Most composers through the 19th century—in Austria, France, Italy—simply had chant in their background, and in their daily experience of church. It's something the history books don't tell you," Mahrt said.
Mahrt carried on for the next 40 years largely alone. He said he knew his decision to dedicate his life to chant's preservation would meet conflict, struggles and disappointments. "It's worth it. Somebody's got to keep it. It has to be kept alive in various places throughout the world. So we've got to do it."
His persistence may be paying off. Pope Benedict XVI, himself a musician, has taken an interest in restoring musical traditions, as well as encouraging the Latin Mass. The 1,700-year-old Gregorian chant might be an idea whose time has come again. In fact, it might be an idea rather hard to kill.
"One wonderful thing about chant is it's almost viral," said McCarthy, who has started her own chant group at Duke. "People who learn it tend to go somewhere else—academics, especially, tend to be migratory birds. When we move to the new place, we start a chant group ourselves. I calculate that in about 60 years, we'll have taken over the world."
Mahrt's group has spawned spinoffs across the United States, besides the one at Duke. Alstatt's daughter Alison, who is doing doctoral work in medieval music at the University of Erlangen in Germany, joined the St. Ann Choir when she was 11 and has started a group in Berkeley, where she had been a student at the University of California. There are now groups in Los Angeles, Cleveland and Arkansas.
Mahrt has even found a substitute to direct the choir—finally allowing him to take a more active role in promoting chant nationally and internationally, given the recent renewal of interest. Does he feel free at last, after four decades of being tethered to the annual cycle of chant? Mahrt looks up in wonderment at the question: "It's a fulfillment, not an oppression. I miss it when I go away. It is a routine, but the music and liturgy are all part of the rhythm of life."
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