The Day Pope Gregory Met Sidney Bechet and the Walls Came Tumbling Down

by Bill Benzon

I must confess, my title is more of a figurative come-on than an accurate indication. I’m not really going to talk about the sixth century pope, Saint Gregory the Great, but rather about the liturgical music that has taken his name, Gregoring chant, aka plainsong. I am, however, going to talk about Sidney Bechet, or rather, I’m going to let Ernst Amsermet talk about him, but mostly as an exemplary practitioner of the music that colloided with the European plainsong legacy early in the 20th century. We’re living in the dust and debris kicked up by that trainwreck [1].

It’s called primitivism: the reexamination and assimilation of the primitive within modern cultural forms. This phenomenon is not confined to music, but is a general aspect of European culture through the 19th and 20th centuries. In the cognitive sphere it gives us the discipline of anthropology. In the expressive sphere it yields primitivism, which parallels the emergence of museums of primitive art. This assimilation employs a metaphor of conquest: just as “inferior” cultures were conquered (and thus needed to be preserved from eradication) by the “superior” European civilization, so emotion was conquered by its superior, reason.

[Portrait of Sidney Bechet, New York, N.Y.(?), ca. Nov. 1946] (LOC)

Sidney Bechet, Nov. 1946, Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress

Europe Makes Itself Through Painsong

The musical version of this story starts with plainsong, the liturgical music of the medieval Christian church. During the medieval period most plainsong was used within religious communities as a daily aspect of their religious life, rather than being performed with a congregation on Sundays. While this body of music has its roots in pre-Christian music of the Jewish service, it is generally known as Gregorian chant, after Pope Gregory I, who played a major role in organizing and codifying the chants late in the 6th Century CE. These chants are generally regarded as the fountainhead of Western classical music, all of whose forms all have some link to their Gregorian lineage, though many other musics are eventually put to classical use. For this reason we can think of the classical music as developing under a Gregorian Contract.

Plainsong is pure melody, sung in unison, utterly without pulse and meter. It is horizontal melody without upheaval; it is, in effect, spirit without body. That is the core conception that over the course of centuries becomes stretched and modified, both by extending its own devices (e.g. the development of parallel vocal lines and then polyphony) and by assimilating other types of music, including various dance styles, whether the courtly minuet of the Baroque and Classical periods or the mazurkas beloved by Chopin.

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