MUSIC YOU PROBABLY HAVE NEVER HEARD – A look at Beneventan Chant

– Aurelio Porfiri

Beneventan chant: is it something that really exists? Yes, Beneventan chant is a monodic (one single line) repertoire mostly spread in southern Italy and we may define it as a cousin of Gregorian chant.

James Vincent Maiello, reviewing a book by Luisa Nardini on Beneventan chant, affirmed: “After acknowledging the dominant role Benedictine abbeys played in the medieval south Italian Church and its archival practices, Nardini offers a compact literature review that is at the vanguard of a scholarly tradition dating back to the seventeenth century. Her critical assessment of this scholarship provides a model for using such sources effectively. An overview of modern scholarship on Beneventan chant and liturgy follows, a useful introduction that confirms the present study as a necessary and welcome addition to the field. Next, Nardini surveys the historical and liturgical contexts in which Beneventan chant developed before and coexisted after the arrival of the ‘Gregorian’ repertory. She profiles the rich pre-Gregorian repertory of southern Italy, addressing Lombard, Byzantine, and Roman influences, and shows how Beneventan liturgical manuscripts continue to bear witness to the nature and processes of its development. These same manuscripts reveal also that Beneventan musicians refused to abandon their chant completely as the Carolingians standardised music and liturgy across Europe and that they supplemented the ‘Gregorian’ repertory with new chants that blended both traditions. Nardini shows how these various traditions interacted, providing a contextual framework for understanding the neo-Gregorian chant detailed in the rest of the book”  (Maiello, J. V. (2017). Interlacing Traditions: Neo Gregorian Mass Propers in Beneventan Manuscripts).

Nowadays this repertoire is no longer in use unfortunately but is keep alive by a community of musicologists and some performances in concerts. We think of the studies of Giacomo Baroffio, Michel Huglo, Terence Bailey and others. It is a pity that we are not able to appreciate in the liturgy the richness of our splendid Catholic music tradition. Of course is it good that there are always new compositions in the liturgy but these compositions should always look at the past and be worthy, for what is possible, of our great music history. It is no more like this, today we always assist to a lowering of the standards that should be observed in the liturgy and in its music.

But let us return to Beneventan chant. When mentioning about the experts in this specific repertoire, I did not mention the foremost expert in Beneventan chant, a now retired Harvard professor: Thomas Forrest Kelly. This scholar is certainly the point of reference for all those studying Beneventan chant, a repertoire to whom he has devoted several studies and books.

Let us just mention The Beneventan Chant (1989 Cambridge University Press). This is the way the publisher introduced this book: “From the High Middle Ages the dominance of Gregorian chant has obscured the fact that musical practice in early medieval Europe was far richer than has hitherto been recognized. Despite its historical importance, the ‘Gregorian’ is not the most consistent and probably not the oldest form of Christian chant. The recovery and study of regional musical dialects having a common ancestry in the Christian church and Western musical tradition are reshaping our view of the early history of Christian liturgical music. Thomas Kelly’s major study of Beneventan chant reinstates one of the oldest surviving bodies of Western music: the Latin church music of southern Italy as it existed before the spread of Gregorian chant. Dating from the seventh and eighth centuries it was largely forgotten after the Carolingian desire for political and liturgical uniformity imposed “Gregorian” chant throughout the realm. But a few later scribes, starting apparently in the tenth century, preserved a part of this regional heritage in writing. This book reassembles and describes the surviving repertory.”

So, this is a landmark in the studies of monodic repertoires outside Gregorian chant. The book present this repertoire first in its historical context, talking about the relationship with Gregorian chant and then present the sources where we can find some examples of Beneventan chant. Of course the author cannot avoid to mention also the liturgical context of Benevento and the peculiar style, making also a comparison in the last chapter with Gregorian, Old Roman, Ambrosian and Byzantine chants. You may think that this is far from your reach but it is not and you will discover many new things, reading this book, about the precious artistic treasures of the Catholic Church.

Professor Thomas Forrest Kelly is a music historian and musician and have just retired as Professor of Music at Harvard.

How did you become interested in Beneventan chant?

Dom Jean Claire of the monastery of St.-Pierre de Solesmes suggested the subject to me, and gave me a file of materials that the monks had assembled. He indicated that they would not have time to work on it, but that the subject itself was interesting. He was right!

What are the main characteristics of Beneventan chant?

Beneventan chant has a uniform style, fairly ornate, moving mostly stepwise. Almost all pieces end on La or Sol, but there is no indication of any modal difference between the two groups.

What are the main differences with Gregorian chant?

For persons not acquainted with Latin liturgical chant they may sound similar (like Old Roman and Ambrosian chant); they are both monophonic Latin chants. The Beneventan chant uses many more non-biblical texts, and has an Ingressa rather than an Introit, a small number of melodies for the Alleluia, and very few graduals.

Where was Beneventan chant most diffused and in what timespan?

It was in use in Latin southern Italy and Dalmatia in such places as Benevento, Montecassino, Naples, Bari, Salerno, from at least the 8th century until it was suppressed, in the course of the 11th and 12th centuries, in favor of the now-universal Roman chant. 

Is this repertoire still in use today?

No; except for occasional performing groups who present it in recordings or concerts. At Benevento, the choir of the Cathedral sometimes performs Beneventan melodies.

 

What are, according to your opinion, the most important monodic repertoires, outside Beneventan and Gregorian chant?

 “Old-Roman,” Ambrosian chants in Latin, Byzantine chant in Greek. (And one wishes we knew more about Armenian, Coptic, Georgian, Jerusalem chant…).

You have studies on the ways chant was transmitted. At the beginning it was transmitted orally and then fixed in neumes. What have we gained from musical notation? But most of all, what we have lost?

Musical notation in its earliest form (neumes) reminds the singer of a song already fixed in memory. Later notations, on a staff, allow the singer to sing “at sight” an unknown melody. This is a great advantage, of course, but with fixed-pitch notation many details of performance, nuance, and ornamentation had to be omitted, and the act of writing froze in a single version music that might have varied with each performance.

You have devoted a book on musical notation. What has urged you to start that project?

I thought that musical notation was the earliest recording technology, and that readers might be interested in the brilliant discoveries and developments produced by our predecessors that allows us to hear and sing the music of the distant past 

How you judge the current situation of music in Catholic liturgy in your country?

It seems to me appropriate to offer up the best we can produce in words, pictures, and song. If what I hear in many Catholic churches today is the best there is, it is a sad thing.

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