The Ageless Story

By Miller, Jennifer Gregory | Sacred Music, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

The Ageless Story


Miller, Jennifer Gregory, Sacred Music


I recently acquired The Ageless Story: With Its Antiphons, pictured by Lauren Ford, a slim children's book on the boyhood of Christ, beginning with his grandmother, St. Anne. Printed in 1939 by Dodd, Mead, and Company, Inc., it was the 1940 Caldecott Honor Book, the most distinguished American picture book for children for that year. I was enjoying other works by Lauren Ford and saw that a description of The Ageless Story mentioned Gregorian chant antiphons. Gregorian chant in a book with a secular award? This I had to see for myself.

The book is rare, but it's a gem. My copy is lacking a dust jacket and is a little worn on the binding, but the pictures are gorgeous and full-color, and yes, there are Gregorian Chant antiphons. The music itself is also a work of art, with the chant hand-calligraphed, with gorgeous illuminated Initial Capitals. The Chant is Solesmes style, with the front matter explaining "Grateful Acknowledgement is made to Societe de Saint Jean L'Evangeliste for permission to use rhythmic signs of Solesmes."

However, I wasn't excited only because of the illustrations in this book. It was the introductory letter that really grabbed me:

   Dear Nina,

   This book is dedicated to you because you are my goddaughter and
   godmothers are made to bring everything that there is about God to
   their godchildren as far as they are able.

   Of course, you know the story of the boyhood of Christ in the
   Bible, the most beautiful story in the world. I have copied this
   music and painted these pictures because they make it come real.

   The music is called Gregorian music. It is the true music of the
   church. It very nearly got lost and it pretty badly got spoiled and
   this is the reason why--

   If you want to know, it is the reason why everything gets spoiled.
   It was pride that spoiled it. There came a time in the turning of
   this funny world when men became very pompous (that time is called
   the Renaissance), when men went back to what the Greeks had done,
   and the Greeks were worshipers of the body. After that, Church
   music that you could sing and I could sing, and painting and
   architecture and all the beautiful things to do with God, lost
   their spirituality and became humanistic. That is why a Fra
   Angelico Blessed Virgin looks to be a Heavenly Soul and the Boy is
   all pure and kingly, while a Raphael one is just a good human
   mother with a good, fat baby boy.

   Now the music again. That is why they wove patterns all around the
   simple music--because they thought it needed to be more grand. It
   was beautiful music but it all became so complicated that they had
   to have special singers to sing it and, just like the Raphael
   Madonnas, it became good, human music and gradually lost its
   spiritual quality. And it became so difficult that it moved
   upstairs into the organ loft and that is why you and I just sit
   downstairs and listen.

   Don't think that Gregorian music wasn't sung any more. It was still
   sung in the Convents but the copyists became careless and forgot to
   put in the rhythmic signs so that it was wrongly sung and it all
   had to be discovered again.

   One day a little boy, smaller than Denise, was walking along the
   river bank in Solesmes with his nurse. Every day he walked that
   way. And he saw the ruins of the great old Benedictine Monastery
   reflected in the river. Gradually the ruins became built up again
   in his mind until he grew up and became a monk, Dom Gueranger, and
   started to rebuild those ancient ruins. He found something else
   necessary, too. He began to rebuild the ancient music. It was hard
   work. Dom Pothier and others came to help him--and then Dom
   Mocquereau. The monks at Solesmes are still working on it. They
   found the old illuminated manuscripts--the very oldest ones. They
   had to compare them all. They sent the monks all over the world to
   copy them. … 

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