Friday, July 13, 2012

Dr. Mary Berry: Champion of Chant

During the Sacred Music Colloquium in Salt Lake City, many of the directors and presenters mentioned one person, who had almost single-handedly kept Gregorian chant alive in the 1970s and 80s, when church music was at its lowest ebb in many years. To her and others, the Church Music Association of America owes keeping the heritage of nearly two millennia of sacred music strong and vibrant.

Her name was Mary Berry and she died in 2007 at the age of 91. Her name is misleading, though, because she was a religious, a canoness of St. Augustine. However, when she was offered a fellowship in Newnham College at Cambridge University, her superior, during a time when religious life was in turmoil,  insisted Dr. Berry be exclaustrated (i.e., put outside the community) and told her she was not allowed to use her religious name, Sister Thomas More.  Nevertheless, she lived the consecrated life until she died.

One of the directors at the colloquium was privileged to study with Dr. Berry and told several stories about her, including one where she had to flee the Nazis with a group of nuns who had taken her in. The kindness of a convent in Spain kept her and her fellow travelers from starvation and death and, we can surmise, strengthened their faith and trust in the Lord.

She studied in her early years under Nadia Boulanger, a famed French musician, conductor and composer who was also a guide to such composers as  George Gershwin.  Boulanger, who became a mentor for many conductors and composers, died in 1979.
Dr. Mary Berry and Schola Gregoriana meeting with Pope John Paul II
In 1975 Dr. Berry founded the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge, which studied and performed the music closest to her heart, Gregorian chant. She traveled widely to promote the teaching and singing of chant and gave talks and courses around the world. In the early 1980s, Dr. Berry came to the West Coast and held a three-day workshop at Marylhurst, the college of the Holy Name Sisters in Oregon City.

When she opened the workshop, she told participants that chant, in addition to glorifying God better than any other music, brought peace to the human spirit. She remarked that many times she had advised parents with fretful infants to play chant for them; it never failed to calm them and often put them to sleep.

In that workshop, she taught a group of about 20 people to sing two Masses, one polyphonic and one chant, which they used in liturgies at the end of the session.  Early in her career, she had put together two books to encourage the use of chant in the liturgy, Plainchant for Everyone and Cantors: a collection of Gregorian chants.  She was tireless in her insistence that the Church meant chant to be the standard for all worship and that everyone could learn to sing it.

In 2000, she was awarded the Papal Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice. Her research in and recording of sacred music has had an impact on the liturgy around the world. Her legacy lives on in many British and American musicians and clergy to whom she was a guide and inspiration. 

By Stephanie Swee

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