May 08, 2008
Musicologist and nun. Born June 29, 1917. Died May 1, aged 90.
nun and don of the University of Cambridge, Mary Berry was highly
influential in reviving Gregorian chant in Britain and abroad. Through
the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge she promoted the teaching, study and
performance of Gregorian liturgical music within a 2000-year-old
tradition of Christian song and, after the sweeping changes generated
by the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, she preserved the chant
and kept it alive when the old certainties were falling all around her.
The youngest of three sisters, Mary Berry was born into academe. Her
father, Arthur Berry, was vice-master and librarian at Downing College,
Cambridge, while her mother, Ethel, was the daughter of a clergyman.
All three girls attended the Perse School but, while Bunty and Claudie
went on to Oxford, Mary chose Cambridge "because the music was better".
After school she spent a year at the Ecole Normale de Musique in
Paris, studying under Nadia Boulanger, who inspired in her a love of
early church music. Arriving at Girton as a Turle scholar in music in
1935, she was awarded the John Stewart of Rannoch scholarship in sacred
music in her second year. Although reared in the Church of England, she
was drawn towards Catholicism and in 1938 was received into the
Catholic Church by the bishop of Liege before graduating with a
Cambridge music degree.
Then war broke out. When she was nursing with the Red Cross, her
calling took a deeper turn. In March 1940 she joined the novitiate of
the Canonesses Regular of StAugustine of the Congregation of Notre-Dame
de Jupille in Belgium.
This put her right in the line of the invading German army and two
months later the novitiate was evacuated on the last train to Paris
with its few possessions wrapped in scarlet blankets, "hardly the best
camouflage", as she later recalled.
Throughout that summer of danger the young nuns joined the streams
of refugees trudging through France until a fellow novice, an
ambassador’s daughter, arranged travel papers for Portugal and they
found safe harbour in Lumiar, a suburb of Lisbon, opening two schools
soon after they arrived. There Berry lived out the war.
After the war, she taught and nursed. She made her final profession
in 1945, becoming Mother Thomas More in religion, before being sent to
Rome to teach music and English, and to take charge of an infirmary
during a typhoid epidemic. She performed similar offices back in
Jupille, then, while in Dijon, she was sent to Gregorian chant courses
at the Institut Gregorien in Paris.
This was a turning point in her life. Returning to Cambridge in 1963
to work for a PhD in musicology under Thurston Dart, she founded
centres in England and Ireland for the teaching of chant, wrote for the
New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and in 1968 was awarded a
doctorate for her thesis, the Performance of Plainsong in the Later
Middle Ages and the 16th Century.
By then a fully fledged academic, she was appointed director of
studies in music at Girton and, two years later, was awarded a
fellowship at Newnham College, Cambridge, while also heading its music
Meanwhile, all was not well with the church she loved. In the surge
to modernise, much had been lost: the Latin language, the liturgy,
music and the chant. She felt that a tradition and culture was on the
brink of destruction, and what could she, a convert who had been
received into that tradition, do about it? The catalyst was not long in
In 1975 a colleague, Rosemary McCabe, experienced a eureka moment
that was to reconfirm the course of Berry’s life. Lying in her bath one
day with a copy of Early Music magazine, McCabe read it from front to
back, then, springing from the bath, informed her startled colleague,
"There’s nothing in it about the chant. You must do something!"
Berry often told this story of how the Schola Gregoriana of
Cambridge was founded. Beaming at the assembled singers who gathered at
the Schola’s singing weekends, workshops and pilgrimages, she welcomed
From the Schola’s first service on Palm Sunday that year in St
John’s College chapel, "our main aim was to tell people about this
wonderful, virtually unknown, music", and she did this by orchestrating
medieval services, concerts and liturgical plays. She revelled in
dressing up for the ancient liturgies with meticulous attention to
detail and occasional wild improvisation.
As her work became known, her teaching of the chant took her all
over the world: to France, Estonia, Canada, the US and Australia.
Galvanised by her knowledge and encouragement, numerous local chant
groups were formed, including a flourishing all-black choir from
Dominica in the Caribbean. Devout and erudite, Berry radiated a joyful
and sunny blessing, occasionally interspersed with crisp commands if
singers hit a wrong note. There were no concessions to ignorance –
either of the chant or the liturgy – but her bubbling humour leavened
long hours of choir practice.
With a fund of interesting and mildly scurrilous anecdotes delivered
with a twinkle in her eye, she was fortunate to attract many fine
cantors to sing at festivals and record CDs on the Herald label.
The cantors of the Schola, a professional group of singers
interested in Gregorian chant and early music, specialise in the
reconstruction and performance of liturgy from the 10th century to
Led by Berry, they were the first in the field to record a
reconstruction of a festal service based on tropes and organa of the
Winchester Troper, and this won the Michael Beazley Medieval Recording
of the Year in 1991. Their work was, and continues to be, significant
in bringing early music to a wider audience.