Trekking for Tournemire: An Aussie Heads to Florida’s Gregorian Chant Convention

Last February, Australia’s R. J. STOVE went in search of America. He found a Marine boot-camp for organists, and a church music congress which felt like a Star Trek convention.

When former National Interest editor Owen Harries looked back upon his early-1980s stint as Australian ambassador to UNESCO – in particular upon how he and his colleagues needed to endure Senegalese kleptocrat Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow befouling the Parisian (!) air with logorrheic anti-Western harangues – he reflected: “It seems unreal now; but then, so it did at the time.” In one sentence Professor Harries thereby encapsulates what every Australian visitor to America must feel.

The Stateside experience in 2012, even at its briefest and gentlest, is marked by a hallucinatory character. This character is in retrospect intensified. I have just returned from three weeks in the U.S.A., and already I am finding that much of what happened there would seem like The Onion if I had not diarized it.

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Did I actually behold, on the T.V. in a Californian hotel while I tried to keep down my breakfast, a Newt Gingrich attack-ad followed by a commercial for fecal softener (“It doesn’t make you go, it just makes it easier to go”)? Yes, I did:  an E-mail to Sydney friends confirms as much.

Does there genuinely exist a large manufacturing company in Vermont which devotes itself entirely to producing human-sized teddy-bears? Yes, there is!

Did I really descant (without having even the excuse of booze intake) upon the shenanigans of Peter Slipper – newly appointed speaker of Australia’s federal parliament – to a presumably fatigued Boston tax-lawyer during a two-hour shuttle-bus trip from Fort Lauderdale to South Miami? Yes, that behavior also I recall with alarm, like a drunkard trying to account for the streaks which crisscross last night’s tuxedo.

Did an Englishman really inform me in absolute seriousness that “hymns are bound to be inferior to plainchant, because they’re just one author’s interpretation of theology, whereas plainchant is the work of the Holy Spirit”? Yes, that too happened, and I appear to have transcribed his dictum word for word.

Did yet another Englishman proclaim that the invention of regular musical rhythms “was what killed Western liturgical civilization”? Mais oui.

Did CNN’s subtitles describe one commentator upon Egypt’s recent sports-generated bloodbath as “a blogger who has written extensionovely [sic] about soccer”? They did indeed: my cell-phone’s note-pad does not lie.

In such contexts, the tyranny of a linear narrative – let alone that of a consistent past tense – must be rejected as firmly by me as by any gobbledygook-addicted French post-structuralist. What follows is merely a series of snapshots, which, if beheld in quick sequence, might give the effect of action: much as the 19th century’s zoetrope conveyed the illusion of a running horse.

SAN FRANCISCO: When last visiting America during 2008, I had no texting facility. This time, text messages pass to and from my sister, who lives in rural New South Wales: yes, I’m on American soil; yes, my phone can receive Australian texts. (Crossing state lines will later render the latter condition inoperative.) The first intimations of San Francisco having suffered in four years an ethnic sea-change comes when the nearest A.T.M.’s instructions demand that I read Spanish. English instructions must be specifically requested. Subsequently my bus will take me through block after block of suburbia where Spanish so dominates that not a single English word is perceptible on advertising signs. The bus’s intercom system will also tell me that the locals pronounce Goethe Street as “Go-eeth”: a mangling familiar to any reader conversant with Period Piece, that splendid 1952 memoir of Victorian England by Darwin’s granddaughter Gwen Raverat.

What we have here, I soon detect, is a failure to communicate. My middle-class, Kevin-Rudd-like Australian accent might as well be Laotian, in the ears of numerous Hispanic customer service staffers. When they understand it, they inform me, until otherwise reassured, that I am English. Mostly – and above all on the phone – I must talk in fake-American to convey the simplest concept (such as “one small meat pizza”). For heaven’s sake, I find myself reflecting, gazillions of Americans besieged the nearest multiplex to see Daniel Radcliffe in the Harry Potter movies. Radcliffe appears on Diane Sawyer’s show without needing subtitles. Do I sound all that different from him? Apparently I do.

Deo gratias, San Francisco’s Caffé Puccini still thrives in Columbus Avenue, and it is as hard as it ever was to eat there without longing to cram your stomach until you explode. Curiously, if San Franciscans in my presence know about Australia at all, they usually know about – and have witnessed on prime-time television – the Australia Day protests by which Aboriginal Tent Embassy hoodlums threatened Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. Briefly and cravenly, I am tempted to assure locals that I was myself the bodyguard whom they saw rescuing the Prime Minister (minus her right shoe) from the howling mob. Then the terrifying thought occurs that if I fantasized thus, I would be widely believed. I content myself with disseminating from the hotel’s computer the absolutely authentic YouTube clip wherein certain heavies exult over the right shoe’s annexation, and its planned sale on eBay to the owner of a suitably indigenous right foot. After a few seconds the voice of a – perhaps diabetic – indigenous female can be heard insisting “I haven’t got a right foot.”

An Asian lad, Japanese to all appearances, asks me (me!) if I can give him correct directions to the City Lights bookstore. Miraculously I can, and do. I can only trust that he is not expecting to meet Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in the store’s vestibule.

Talking of the Beat Generation, Kenneth Rexroth now has a downtown street named after him. There is even, and I promise I am not making this up, a nearby Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard. Including on résumés a residence at that address would doubtless work marvels for aspiring merchant-bankers’ credibility. But let no-one conclude that peace-and-lerve sentiments go unchallenged. “If at first you don’t succeed,” it says in giant letters on one wall, “call an airstrike.”

FORT LAUDERDALE:  U.S. foreign policy over recent years looks positively rational compared with my own heedless supposition that I could profitably save myself a night’s hotel costs by catching the San Francisco / Fort Lauderdale red-eye. On the red-eye, as on most long-haul plane trips, sleep eluded me; and I arrived at Fort Lauderdale feeling like what would be a train-wreck if Fort Lauderdale had operational trains. Despite this, the airport’s general level of customer service politeness marked a great improvement on San Francisco’s.

The brain-sapping humidity outside (in what purported to be winter) reminded me that I was now in the real South. So did other signs. Pythons – pronounced by Floridians with a real “o” in the second syllable, rather than with the indeterminate “e” sound familiar from English and Australian speech – dominated the news reports. I was told that many of them were erstwhile domestic pets left behind to lurk in the Everglades, the charms of which forest soon palled even on them.

My reason for being in Fort Lauderdale at all was to give a lecture at a conference, organized by the Church Music Association of America, devoted to Gregorian chant and to the chant-saturated composing of French organist Charles Tournemire (1870-1939). Seldom remembered now even by other church musicians, Tournemire studied with César Franck. That circumstance suited me well, because a book of mine about Franck had lately been published. Many of the conference’s other speakers – in some cases they were scheduled to give not only speeches but also recitals – were fellow hotel guests. When it did not seem too rude, I would ask them: what exactly brought you here? The answer given over and over, by participants (and by non-participants who simply wanted to attend the symposium), was the same: they discovered, through some means, Tournemire’s organ output – a discovery which itself took some doing – and it hit them with a coup de foudre.

This imparted to matters an awkwardness quite transcending the fact that the sole foreigners present were a Polish professor, two London clergy (only one of whom would give a talk), and me. My own guilty secret was that over the years I have studied very little of Tournemire’s organ music, and that – worse still – what little I have studied, I have not particularly liked. It has always struck me as much inferior to the best products of that wonderful Franco-Belgian organistic pantheon which extended from the mid-19th century to the late 20th: Franck himself, Messiaen, Charles-Marie “Toccata” Widor, Alexandre Guilmant, Léon Boëllmann, Joseph Jongen, Théodore Dubois, Eugène Gigout, Louis Vierne, Jean Langlais, Flor Peeters, and (the matchless, to my mind) Marcel Dupré. But no purpose would be served if I disclosed my inconsequential doubts regarding Tournemire’s ultimate creative greatness. As well suggest, at a Star Trek convention, that Spock’s ears could in certain lights lack pulchritude.

Beginning the symposium was an organ recital in South Miami’s Church of the Epiphany (hence the two-hour shuttle-bus ride) by Eastman School of Music graduate Jonathan Ryan. This North-Carolina-born artist would seem to have won every organ prize now on offer – his curriculum vitae occupies a page of single-spaced program annotations – and continues to look too young for the purchase of alcohol. When holding the microphone he sounded highly erudite; also charming and unpretentious. So do others. But Blimey O’Riley, can that fellow play the organ or what?

His concert evoked the verdict which Fritz Kreisler, no less, announced to his fellow fiddlers of genius after hearing Jascha Heifetz’s debut: “Gentlemen, the rest of us might as well smash our violins over our knees.” Listening to Jonathan Ryan is indeed like listening to Heifetz: fearsome as well as exhilarating. Mankind surely isn’t meant to achieve that technical perfection. Occasionally, as with pieces by Dietrich Buxtehude and by the late-baroque Frenchman Nicolas de Grigny, Dr. Ryan will rush a passage (because he can), making terpsichorean what should surely be statuesque. Yet where spiritual gravitas is needed, as with Bach’s Saint Anne Prelude and Fugue, he will deliver. That masterpiece, a tour de force even by Bach’s habitual standards, he took with razor-sharp articulation at an audaciously leisured tempo. Therefore, of course, it sounded twice as lively as it would have done beneath a speed-crazed, blurring bungler’s hands and feet.

Another shuttle-bus from South Miami to Fort Lauderdale. Few of us have eaten for six hours. In my case, shade of jet-lag begin to close upon the growing boy.

Next morning. Oh hell. Not a drop of liquor has passed my lips, so either I have eaten my way through a cake of plutonium or else jet-lag has rendered me almost paralytic. Would the receipt of 50 million dollars permit me to bestir myself further from my bedroom than is the bathroom? No, I discern, it would not. Therefore I send a text to the conference organizer, extremely contrite at having missed the morning shuttle-bus and at being compelled to miss the whole day’s lecture-recitals. Never have I succeeded in passing a driving test. Moreover, there is no chance, even if my physical state permitted it, of getting a taxi for the voyage, which would cost (the organizer texts to me) $160.

That afternoon, two miracles. A friend of the organizer’s has offered to drive me all the way to South Miami in time for the evening’s Solemn Pontifical Mass. He refuses to accept money for his good deed. Also, I can finally emerge from my bedroom without at once wanting to be ill.

The Solemn Pontifical Mass is pretty awe-inspiring, as such things should be. Miami’s Archbishop Thomas Wenski includes, in his sermon, a clear chastisement of Obama’s pro-abort policies. (Any Australian prelate equally willing to rebuke a government, of whatever party, would be ejected from office by tomorrow’s sunrise.) A new Mass setting and a new motet for Communion have been commissioned; very effective they both are. Still … need we have been supplied with quite so many similar-sounding Tournemire glosses from the organ?

Then we have the whole Gregorian chant issue. In America, Gregorian chant singing remains, by some marvel, altogether congruent with basic virility. Not so Down Under. Sadly – and there is no nice method of saying this – among nearly all post-Vatican-II Australians (whatever our religion or lack thereof), “male Gregorian chant singer” is as indissolubly linked with “Harvey Milk,” “Truman Capote,” “Ronald Firbank,” and “Judy Garland fan club,” as “Al-Qaida” is with “terrorism”, “Rolls” with “Royce”, and “Bonnie” with “Clyde.” Even without this cross-cultural problem, I increasingly believe that though most other musical genres can be comprehended in adult life, Gregorian chant simply cannot be. If you (like me) missed out during childhood on its strains, you will never suitably value them. Others in the congregation who had spent likewise deprived youths would not have welcomed having to hear unaccompanied Gregorian chant sung before and at this Mass for stretches of 25 solid minutes each. After those marathons, even the most refined of us must have been abashedly thinking that we would exchange the entire Liber Usualis for one stanza of Londonderry Air, or indeed one stanza of Let’s Get Loud.

Having obeyed Catholicism’s commands regarding pre-Communion fasting, I looked and looked and looked in the church, both before the Mass and – insofar as etiquette permitted – during the Mass, for a confession booth with a padre actually occupying it. None was visible. Hmmmmm … 10 priests, yes 10 priests, hovering around the altar, and not one of them could be spared for half an hour to give penitents absolution? Is the Mass supposed to be – as Australia’s own limp-wristed bells-and-smells lay liturgists preach – a classical concert? If so, then may I evade my Sunday churchgoing obligations at home by buying a season ticket for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra? I only asked, being (to paraphrase Winnie the Pooh) a Scottish-Irish Adult-Convert Bear of Very Little Brain.

Starting time: 7PM. Finishing time: 10:30PM. Again, no dinner that evening until just before midnight.

And for me, no sleep either. Any hopes that decent rest could underpin my own lecture vanished with the coming of dawn.

Mine was the second-last speech; I gave it late in the afternoon. It concerned Tournemire’s own (1931) Franck biography. One does one’s best. One’s best, in this case, was not great.

At my first effort, from the podium, to lighten the mood: “I guess I know more about plainchant than does the average Ku Klux Klansman, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on even that.” I felt the audience slipping away from me. It did not help me that after lunch, the keynote speaker (Dr. Stephen Schloesser S.J., author of Jazz Age Catholicism) had given the most galvanic music-related lecture which I had heard in twenty-five years. In part I redeemed myself by paying Dr. Schloesser, near my lecture’s end, extempore and fully-justified homage.

Other than that, well, oh dear. This was not merely a Star Trek convention in which I had presumptuously noted Spock’s uniqueness on the earlobe front. This was rapidly resembling some sort of H.P. Lovecraft fan-club meeting in a dream, where I, not content with the error of deficient enthusiasm for earth-eating animals, had incautiously eulogized P.G. Wodehouse. Jet-lag can be blamed for only so much.

Such is the ethereal detachment which a three-day Tournemire conference induces in its speakers, that after it has finished, even Gingrich, Romney, and Santorum seem like reality. During the remainder of my American sojourn (Washington D.C., followed by central Pennsylvania, followed by Rochester), reality bit, and bit with refreshing persistence. Normal people did normal things. Normal Americans extended to me their normal kindnesses, which by any other standard except America’s own would be freakishly philanthropic. One more Rubicon nevertheless needed to be crossed. It had been arranged that, whilst in Rochester, I would visit that same Eastman School of Music where Dr. Ryan had been so able a student.

ROCHESTER: Imagine the sensations which a Neanderthal might experience during a conducted tour of the Louvre – or those which W.H. Auden might have felt during a conducted tour of West Point – and you will appreciate what the antipodean musician and music historian will undergo during a conducted tour of Eastman. The place embodies not only private patronage, but private patronage on steroids. (Kodak’s recent bankruptcy declaration has not harmed Eastman’s prospects, because, I was informed, Eastman is still living off its namesake’s and founder’s 1930s bequest.) It embodies not only musical scholarship, but musical meta-scholarship. Obtain an Eastman degree in performance, composition or musicology, and thereafter it will be harder to lose in life than to win.

Eastman’s archives groan under the weight of literally priceless manuscripts from (my introduction to them suggested) almost every post-1900 composer of whom typical classical-radio listeners have ever heard – Debussy, Aaron Copland, and Kurt Weill, for starters – as well as a good many composers of whom they have not. By whatever administrative alchemy I do not know, I had been granted the right to attend the following day’s organ auditions. To achieve this outcome, no-one had insisted on me signing a single form.

Purely as a vicarious exercise, the auditions were as near to a Marine boot-camp as most Australians will ever come. All those…kids. (Some of them, notwithstanding their abundant experience at umpteen churches around the nation, were still at high school.) As the world-weary French would put it: Si jeunesse savait; si vieillesse pouvait!

This intake of candidates for places was entirely male, a result which surprised both me and the department head, David Higgs: a professor at once brilliant with notes and brilliant with spoken words. Nor was this my only surprise. How can these gentlemen all be so articulate, so well-dressed, and so young? Whence derives their supernal confidence? A confidence which, it must be owned, their gifts amply substantiate? Do all white American tweens and twenty-somethings grow up to the tones of Battle Hymns from Tiger Mothers, even if these mothers have never been closer to the Orient than Kansas? Whom was I fooling when I thought myself worthy to enter this hall even as a guest? How many more rhetorical questions can I insert into this paragraph before my laptop crashes under the resultant pressure?

Should any of that day’s unsuccessful candidates be reading this article, I would tell them: “Look, guys, every single one of you can leave the average Australian church organist – or rather, all too often, Australian amateur pianist moonlighting as a church organist – for dead. Come to sunny Australia, if only for a vacation. The second-worst thing that could happen there is that you might be offered a cathedral job. The absolute worst thing that could happen there is that after you have begun the job, the cathedral’s choirmaster will voice his eagerness to show you the incunabula collection purportedly in his bedroom.

I have had to omit much. Necessarily banished from the foregoing has been the amount of time which any middle-aged Australian visitor to the States, when he should be thinking great neo-Tocquevillian thoughts about civic faith, spends instead on wondering where the nearest restroom is or – at times more urgent still – where he can do his laundry. Likewise banished has been the phenomenon (far more conspicuous in America than in Australia) of the disappearing bookshop. In 2008 it looked as if a Barnes & Noble branch could be found in every third suburb; no longer. Still, in the words with which Hemingway concluded Death in the Afternoon: “there were a few things to be said. There were a few practical things to be said.”


  • R.J. Stove

    R. J. Stove is a Catholic convert and resident of Melbourne. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative who, for several years, also edited the quarterly Organ Australia.

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