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.

Plainsong is also the source of Western musical notation. The earliest notation appears in manuscripts from the ninth century and makes no use of the staff that became typical of later notation. The symbols representing the notes are called neumes and appear to be derived from hand gestures used to indicate the direction of melodic flow. Neumes indicate only relative pitch, rather than the absolute pitch of contemporary notation, and note durations are not clearly represented. We must regard this notation as a mnemonic aid, signs to help one remember melodies one has heard and sung. Without that prior experience, the neumes are deeply ambiguous. It would take several centuries for neumes to evolve into modern notation.

A Gathering of the Tribes

Medieval Europe was a congerie of tribes, cities, and states of various cultures. But they were all, in some measure, under the sway of the Roman Catholic church, and thus of its ritual, including plainsong. Europe was dotted with communities of chanting religious, and congregations would hear chanting at church services. Plainsong thus has geopolitical implications. While Europe’s various cultures each had their own local musics, they all had plainsong as a common musical practice.

European tribes first began to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world as Christians. As such they deemed themselves superior to all infidels—such as the Arabs, who showed their inferiority by studying mathematics and by drinking coffee rather than alcohol. It wasn’t until the 17th century, after the Western Church had been split by the Reformation, that the secular concept of Europe replaced the sacred concept of Christendom as a touchstone of identity.

Thus, just as humankind had used music to bootstrap itself into existence somewhere in Africa [2], so Europe began to unify through the sacred musicking of the chanting religious. As that body of music begins to differentiate and develop, it moves into secular contexts and mingles with vernacular musics. From this process, over a course of centuries, emerges the high art known as classical music—at least within the Western nations. Some of that music was written to sacred ends—for instance, the cantatas and masses of Johann Sebastian Bach. Some was written for the opera in its various forms. And some was written for aristocratic patrons, a state of affairs that continued well into the 19th century.

During the 19th century this formal, learned artistic tradition embraced the idea of the “noble savage,” a descendant of the earlier notion of the Wild Man living in a state of natural purity untainted by civilization. We can see this idea at work in the famous remarks that the conductor Ernst Ansermet made when we first heard Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra on tour in Europe in 1919:

The blues occurs when the Negro is sad, when he is far from home, his mammy, or his sweetheart. Then, he thinks of a motif or a preferred rhythm, and takes his trombone, or his violin, or his banjo, or his clarinet, or his drum, or else he sings, or simply dances. And on the chosen motif, he plumbs the depths of his imagination. This makes his sadness pass away,—it is the Blues.

Ansermet goes on to single out one musician for special praise:

There is in the Southern Syncopated Orchestra an extraordinary clarinet virtuoso who is, so it seems, the first of his race to have composed perfectly formed blues on the clarinet. I’ve heard two of them which he had elaborated at great length … they gave the idea of a style, and their form was gripping, harsh, with a brusque and pitiless ending like that of Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto. I wish to set down the name of this artist of genius; as for myself, I shall never forget it—it is Sidney Bechet. When one has tried so often to rediscover in the past one of those figures to whom we owe the advance of our art … what a moving thing it is to meet this very black, fat boy with white teeth and narrow forehead … but who can say nothing of his art, save that he follows his “own way,” and when one thinks that his “own way” is perhaps the highway the whole world will swing along tomorrow.

Taken together, these passages reveal an astounding blend of admiration and condescension. Ansermet recognizes the power of the music he heard and the extraordinary skill of one musician, whom he compared to one of the canonical figures of his own tradition. Yet it is quite clear that Ansermet considers himself superior to both the music and the musician.

Such was the attitude of the cultivated European at the end of the 19th century. Europe’s colonies and ex-colonies spanned the globe; its museums displayed artifacts from an extraordinary range of cultures. Its scholars were writing ethnographic studies of primitives the world over while Freud was theorizing about the primitive impulses in the minds of proper Viennese gentlefolk. The triumph of reason over emotion was seen as the hallmark of the civilized.

Throughout most of the 19th century romanticism thrived in music, and with it the notion of the romantic genius—an idea clearly conflated with that of the noble savage in Ansermet’s account of Bechet. Romanticism, in turn, produced nationalistic music, in which composers sought out and incorporated folk tunes and dances into their works. With composers such as Borodin, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov, the Russian school was one of the most prominent among the nationalists. Igor Stravinsky was Rimsky-Korsakov’s most famous student and his early ballets, Firebird, Petruska, and Le sacre du printemps, were in the nationalist tradition, making extensive use of folk songs and dances. Of these, Le sacre, with a scene in which an adolescent girl dances herself to death in a pagan celebration of spring, represents the strongest break from previous tradition. The insistent rhythms shattered the Gregorian aesthetic contract in which music was inscribed in a world were the mind and heart were divorced from the body.

That contract had been eroding from some time. For example, the rolling rhythms of Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Op. 111, seem to presage boogie-woogie piano figures, Chopin’s dance-inflected polyrhythms threaten the conventions of Western meter, and the waltz was raising temperatures in ballrooms across Europe. Yet these and other works only challenged the Gregorian contract. Stravinsky shattered it.

The 1913 premier of Le sacre was a scandal, one of the most notorious in the history of Western music. The scandal was relatively short-lived, and Stravinsky’s place in 20th century Western classical music was readily secured. But the place of that body of music in Western concert halls has never been secure. Classical concerts would continue to be dominated by works that adhered to the Gregorian contract. Those who sought music outside the bounds of that contract looked to a different musical tradition, the one Ansermet observed in the playing of Sidney Bechet.

As Ansermet foresaw, that is indeed the highway—though railway would be a better metaphor—along which the world was to swing. Across the Atlantic, in North America, new music was brewing, not romantic, even in the sense of Nietzsche’s Dionysian tragedians. Rather, Africa and Europe had been coupling and that coupling bore fruit in various musics: spirituals, the blues, ragtime, jazz and now hip-hop.


[1] The rest of this article is slightly revised from my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (Basic 2001), pp. 245-249.

[2] That music was important in the emergence of humankind is an old idea. You can find my version of it in Beethoven’s Anvil, pp. 169-194, and in “Synch, Song, and Society”, Human Nature Review, Vol., 5, 2005, pp. 66-86,