Monday 12 February 2024

"Mad on Plain-song": music and the mission archive


 By Dr Philip Burnett, School of Arts and Creative Technologies, University of York

A few months ago, while working in the Borthwick on the papers of the Society of the Sacred Mission (SSM), I came across a document written in 1904. It contained a series of character sketches of the missionaries working at Modderpoort, a mission station established amongst the Basotho people in the Orange Free State (as it was then known) of South Africa.

The Priory Buildings and Chapel at Modderpoort (date unknown)
Figure 1. The Priory buildings and Chapel at Modderpoort (date unknown) 
[Borthwick Institute, SSM/Photo 7]

The handwriting was difficult to read, but out of the faded and smudged lettering appeared a phrase referring to the missionary William Norton: ‘a bit of poet, a beautiful linguist, and mad on plain-song’ [SSM Archive, SSM/DIR/D/SA/4/1].

As a music historian, I look for sounds that were once heard, research how they were created, and try to understand the different ways people heard them. The mission archive is a particularly rich source for this work, as my find in the papers of the SSM exemplifies.

So, I was intrigued by this sketch of Norton and wanted to know more. It was interesting in its own right, but also because by understanding more about why he was so ‘mad on plain-song’ we can learn more about the ways in which missionaries made sense of the worlds in which they worked; and, indeed, how those worlds made sense of and responded to them. Elsewhere, I’ve examined the backgrounds of nineteenth- and twentieth-century British missionaries and found that while missionaries were often required to have a broad skill set – as they had to turn their hand to anything from carpentry, to masonry, to riding a horse –, wherever they worked in the world they always needed to have music in their toolkit. Music was fundamental to how both missionaries and converts expressed their worldview and beliefs.

An obituary of Norton published in The South African Journal of Science in 1962, tells us that he was born in 1870 in Exeter where he was educated at the Grammar School. He then went to Exeter College, Oxford where he read for an undergraduate degree in “Greats”, also known as Classics. He was a gifted linguist and stayed at Oxford on a postgraduate scholarship to study for a BLitt in Philology. After Oxford, he was ordained and worked as a priest in Cornwall for seven years. He then joined the SSM and went out to South Africa in 1903 to join the community at Modderpoort in the Orange Free State.

The missionaries at Modderpoort lived like a monastic community, which involved coming together for prayer several times a day. In the chapel (see Figure 2), they sang psalms and office hymns to plain-song, also known as plainchant.

Interior of the Priory Church at Modderport
Figure 2. Interior of the Priory Church at Modderport (date unknown)
[Borthwick Institute, SSM/Photo 7] 

Plainsong (as it is often also spelled) is one of the oldest styles of European sacred music and usually consists of a text sung by unaccompanied voices to a single line of melody.  To give an idea of what that sounds like, here is an example of the evening office hymn sung in the chapel at Modderpoort in August 2023:

In the SSM’s Quarterly Papers (see Figure 3), which collated news and reports of missions all over the world, we find mention of Norton and plainsong. In April 1903, it was noted that Norton was ‘very busy with plainsong, teaching the sisters and adapting the tones to Sesuto [sic.]’, while in July of the same year Fr Wrenford, a priest on one of the outstations, recalled how when he visited Modderpoort, ‘Fr Norton soon coaxed me into a small choir practice of plainsong.’ It seems that Norton was keen for all his fellow clergy and mission workers to be competent in plainsong, and this suggests, further, that plainsong was used not just at Modderpoort, but also in outstation churches.

The front cover of the SSM Quarterly Paper from July 1903
Figure 3. Cover of SSM Quarterly Paper (July 1903)
[Borthwick Institute, SSM/DIR/S/QP/1] 

Norton’s reputation, it seems, went beyond Modderpoort and Bloemfontein. Robert Carroll, a young priest who went to work at Inhambane in Lebombo diocese (part of present-day Mozambique) corresponded with Norton about how to use plainsong in mission work and adapting to different languages. Carroll wrote that Norton had asked him to, ‘use my influence with the Bishop [of Lebombo] for the introduction of plainsong liturgical music.’ [SSM/PP/4/8 iii (6) [1909]]

At Modderpoort, Norton was involved in other aspects of the music making. His linguistic skills meant he was kept busy with translation, and he worked with the committee that produced Sesotho hymnbooks. When it came to adapting hymns, he had some forthright opinions, as his correspondence reveals. In 1904, Norton drew up a geographical report of the Modderpoort area [SSM/DIR/D/SA/6/3]. On one side is a typed report of the area and some suggestions for where new mission outposts could be established. On the other side is a handwritten letter in which Norton outlines his thoughts on how English hymns could be successfully adapted into Sesotho. “I wanted to chuck the old hymns & tunes, & start afresh, but knew it was too revolutionary,” writes Norton. The versions of hymns then in use had been written in English metres, unsuited to the shape and rhythm of the Sesotho language.

Norton’s career as a missionary came to an end in 1917 when he got married. For the SSM, which insisted that its members remained celibate, this was a taboo, and so Norton had to leave the order, whereupon he pursued a career as a parish priest and an academic, eventually becoming a professor of African languages at the University of Cape Town. While he built a separate reputation in those spheres, his legacy in the SSM was his contribution to plainsong. In 1952, Fr Harold Firkins, a fellow SSM missionary, in a memoir of his time in South Africa, noted of Norton: ‘We owe him gratitude for having established Plainsong in our Sesuto [sic.] Mass, so well that it flourishes to this day’ [SSM/PP/40].

What do we learn from Norton who was ‘mad on plain-song’? Foremost, it is that music was an important part of missionary practice, to which many in the mission field devoted a lot of energy and time. But while he was celebrated by his peers, Norton’s legacy, however, is not so straightforward. The archival papers tell us next to nothing of the local agents and informants who would have helped him in his work of adapting plainsong for use with Sesotho, nor what the Basotho people thought of this new music. Language, not least musical language, was a highly contested realm of the mission field with missionaries often struggling to translate effectively their texts into local languages and dialects. What did happen is that the musical language of plainsong and the pre-existing musical systems found at Modderpoort came to shape and influence each other in complicated ways. That find in the Borthwick that prompted me to look further at Norton and his plainsong, therefore, points us to the complex story of colonial missions, and this is the focus of the current phase of the research for my Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship.

Acknowledgments: I’m very grateful to Charles Fonge and the Staff at the Borthwick for their assistance with my research.

Further information: If you'd like to find out more about this story and the history and music of colonial missions, Dr Burnett will be expanding on his research in an online seminar on Wednesday 28 February 2024, 4pm to 6pm. It is open to staff, students, the public. Details can be found through the link.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.