Mary Berry: Enthusiast for Gregorian chant

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The Independent Online

Mary Berry was a musician who, throughout a long and varied professional life, enriched the world of sacred music in a wide variety of ways. Lecturer, writer, performer, broadcaster, teacher, scholar and undoubted enthusiast, her devotion to Gregorian chant did much to help us understand, nurture and develop this most ancient of traditions.

The youngest daughter of the Vice-Master of Downing College, Mary Berry was born in Cambridge in 1917 and, like her two elder sisters, educated at the Perse School. She might never have seen hills higher than the Gog Magogs had not her family made two vital decisions. The first was to spend one Easter in France, at the Benedictine Abbey in Solesmes, where the Holy Week offices, sung by monks, made a lasting impression upon her: the second was to study in Paris, a bold and decisive step that ultimately led to a lifelong friendship with the distinguished French musician Nadia Boulanger.

Aged 17, as a pupil at the Ecole Normale de Musique, she made contact with Boulanger whose prestigious weekly lectures first introduced Berry to the delights of medieval music. Returning to Cambridge, in 1935, she entered Girton College to continue her musical studies. In her second year she was awarded the John Stewart of Rannoch Scholarship in Sacred Music.

However, she was also experiencing a most traumatic crisis of faith. Although initially brought up in the Church of England, she now found herself increasingly drawn to Catholicism, and was received into the Catholic Church just prior to graduation, in 1938. Two years later, nursing in Europe, she joined an Augustinian order in Belgium as a noviciate. Finally in 1945, she fulfilled her vocation, becoming in religion, Mother Thomas More.

In 1963, after a long period spent abroad, Mary Berry went back to her academic roots in Cambridge. Under the supervision of Thurston Dart, she successfully completed her doctorate on the performance practice of late medieval chant. Initially she returned to her old college before, in 1970, being awarded a Senior Research Fellowship at Newnham.

As a scholar, she first made headlines in 1966, when, amid research at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, she was able to throw welcome new light on the much loved 15th-century Advent processional, "Veni Emmanuel". Equally distinctive was her painstaking reconstruction from part books in the Vatican Library of Palestrina's beautiful Parody Mass, Missa Descendit Angelus Domini. However, it was her bold realisation of the same composer's Missa Ave Maria, interspersed with sections of the Proper of the Mass for the Feast of the Assumption, that gave such added lustre to the distinctive 1983 recording made by Philip Ledger and the Choir of King's College, Cambridge.

It was at this time that, fearing for the future of her beloved plainsong, she began an extensive promotional campaign to highlight the problem. Successfully organising a diverse range of master-classes, workshops and weekend seminars, she would welcome all-comers, able almost without exception to turn them into matchless exponents of the art.

In 1975, specifically for the study and performance of Gregorian chant, she founded a new group of singers, the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge. Together with a group of the Schola's younger professional singers, the Cantors, in recent years, they have produced a small but most distinctive discography. Cleverly uniting historic locations with appropriate music, their recording of the 10th-century Winchester Troper won the 1994 Mitchell Beazley Award. A 12th and final recording of Guillame de Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame, like the series itself, now provides a most fitting memorial to her work and achievements.

As a writer, she made many significant contributions to specialist periodicals, as well as to Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Remaining models of clarity are two complementary handbooks dating from 1979, the invaluable Cantors, and, not least, that most essential guide, Plainchant for Everyone. For almost 40 years she was a highly valued member of the Gramophone critic's panel. Her final review will appear in the July issue.

Kenneth Shenton

Mary Berry, conductor, writer, musicologist and nun: born Cambridge 29 June 1917; professed a nun of the Canonesses Regular of St Augustine of the Congregation of Notre-Dame de Jupille 1945; Old Students Research Fellow, Newnham College, Cambridge 1971-73, Praelector 1971-82, Director of Studies in Music 1971-84, Justine Ward Research Fellow 1974-83; CBE 2002; died Cambridge 1 May 2008.