Lesson 5: Names of the Notes

The names of the Gregorian notes can be found in hundreds of different publications. You probably already know that the St. Jean de Lalande Library of Rare Books (link) and the Church Music Association of America have both made available many hundreds of free PDF books containing Gregorian chant methods.

However, most people never ask the important question: “Where do these notes come from, and who gave them the different names?” The answer is that Abbot Pothier chose them, when he created the Vatican Edition for Pope Pius X. In fact, he had already chosen these neums for his earlier books (which served as the basis for the Editio Vaticana).

Abbot Pothier attempted to choose the most common neums from the Gregorian repertory. As we know, each monastery had its own individual “handwriting,” or way of writing neums. Some monasteries formulated neums in a similar fashion, while other monasteries used drastically different methods.

It would be a very serious error to suppose that Abbot Pothier tried to put every single neum into the Vatican Edition. For instance, Montpellier H. 159 uses an “upside down quilisma,” which does not appear in the Vatican Edition. Although it is true that not every neum ever created can be found in the Vatican Edition, on the whole, Abbot Pothier did an excellent job of choosing the most common, widely used neums, especially when one considers the limited amount of manuscripts he had available for comparison.

Since Lesson 6 presents a complete and comprehensive treatment of the Vaticana, with special emphasis on the famous Vatican Preface, I will not repeat that information here. However, you should be aware that the Vatican Preface presents the different neums, and I have excerpted these pages for your enjoyment:

   Table 1 (PDF) — English version, excerpted from Liber Usualis (Solesmes, 1961)

   Table 3 (PDF) — Latin version, excerpted from Graduale Romanum (Solesmes, 1961)

   Table 2 (PDF) — This is quite a nice English version (in spite of the misprint for the “scandicus.”),
            excerpted from Graduale Romanum (Nashdom Abbey, 1930)

Dom Mocquereau added rhythmic signs to the Editio Vaticana in order to help the singers render the chants. The precise way he applied these has a somewhat complex history, and will be treated in depth during a later lesson. However, we need to be aware of his method, since it is by far the most common way to sing Gregorian chant. A table of Dom Mocquereau’s special version of the Vaticana neums can be found in literally hundreds of publications. For instance,

   Chart 1 (PDF) — Excerpted from Gregorian Chant for Church & School (Goodchild, 1944)

   Chart 2 (PDF) — Excerpted from Mass & Vespers (Solemes, 1957)

   Chart 3 (PDF) — Excerpted from the Liber Usualis (Solesmes, 1961)

In particular, much can be learned by comparing the “earliest stages” of Mocquereau’s neum tables in Gregorian and modern notation, and the best place to find these rare editions online is the Lalande Library (link).

At a bare minimum, please do not fail to download the above PDF tables, since they give the “modern notation equivalent,” as you can see by this sample:

Before explaining some of the more confusing neums, I must draw attention to the neum table found in the Parish Book of Chant:

The beauty of this table lies in its simplicity, although (it bears repeating) the table differs ever so slightly from the Vaticana neum table on account of Mocquereau’s rhythmic additions.

Make sure to take special note (pardon the pun!) of the Flat Sign, which alters the pattern of half steps and whole steps we discussed earlier. The B-flat, when it occurs, only holds good as fas as the next natural sign, dividing line, or new word. Since you will probably forget this rule at some point, make sure you know where to find it. All the resources we have mentioned so far (Parish Book of Chant, Liber Usualis, etc.) contain this rule, so place a little “sticky note” next to it:

Therefore, you realize that the second note of vobis is sung as Ti-Natural, because the flat is canceled out:

Why is the flat canceled out? Because the flat “only holds good as far as the next new word.”

The traditional method of singing the quilisma (see “1C”) is to lengthen the first note (as in “2C”) and sing the middle note lightly. I had a friend who could never reconcile herself to this fact. She would call me on the phone and say, “Why did they do that? It makes no sense: by the time you see the squiggly middle note, it’s already too late to lengthen the note before it. It is like putting a warning sign at the bottom of a cliff you just drove off.” My only response is that we cannot always think of ancient Plainsong the same way we think of modern notation.

The traditional way to sing the Bistropha and Tristropha is simply to make them one long note (see the above chart from the Parish Book of Chant). In the following example, from the Offertory Anima nostra, the triple long notes (Tristrophæ) are marked with blue and the double long notes with red:

Another friend approached me about the Tristropha, saying, “I notice that the Tristropha is composed of three notes in a row. If this were modern music, we would enunciate all three notes. Therefore, is it not more authentic to sing three separate notes?” To answer his question, I first drew a chart like this:

Then I explained that in the 12th century, Catholic choirmasters and singers did not think about music the same way we do almost a millennium later. Nowadays, we have very specific time values for our notes: half note, quarter note, eighth note, sixteenth note, thirty-second note, etc. However, in the 12th century, they thought of things differently. As you can see, “1D” was a short note. “2D” was a little longer. “3D” was longer than that. I suppose that “4D” would be even longer. However, my fear is that singers will still be tempted to be “authentic” by looking at Gregorian chant as if it were modern music.

When you have numerous long notes in a row, the traditional way to sing them is to make a subtle “vocal impulse” (a.k.a. “repercussion”) between each group, like this:

When I first started to learn about Gregorian chant, I wondered why neums were written as they are. It seemed very complicated; very different from modern music where all the notes look the same. Eventually, I realized that the neums were created to help the eye recognize patterns of notes. After all, in modern music, all you see in vocal scores is this:

Whereas in Gregorian scores, the beautiful “shape” (mountains and valleys) of the melodies are revealed to the eye:

In some of the older chant books (especially circa 1920), certain authors taught that different neums are sung with specific emphasis. For instance, some books say that the singers ought to “attack” the pressus. Increasingly, these views (where they existed) were abandoned, and many simply do not “buy into” such theories. For example, here is what Dom Gajard has to say about the notion of “attacking” the pressus:

Contrary to a widespread opinion, the same applies to the pressus. It is no more a “strong neum” than any other. Composers have placed it on any degree of the scale and anywhere in the melodic line. We can at least say that no positive proof of its strength comes to us from antiquity. It is significant that most of the longer pieces of the Mass ( Graduals, Alleluias, Tracts, Offertories) finish with a pressus. This marks the end of the long apodosic descent in which the melody, moving gradually more slowly, pauses for a last time before finally coming to rest. Any sudden increase of sound at this very point would be ridiculous. Music is a language which has a definite meaning as well as rights to defend.
                    [Fr. Joseph Gajard, The Solesmes Method, 1960]

It bears repeating that the various neum shapes in the Vaticana are there to help our eyes grasp the melodic shape and tones. Indeed, in many Gregorian MSS, complex neums can be formed in more than one way. Here, for example, is an example from Dr. Peter Josef Wagner’s article (PDF):

In the following comparison, notice the neum above “dicent,” as well as the lack of a liquescent for “alleluia” (except in the Vatican Edition):

There are certainly many more examples. Here (URL) is an excerpt from Dom André Mocquereau’s Le Nombre Musical Grégorien (Page 156, Part II, Chapter 1), which, in spite of certain flaws, remains the most important treatise on Gregorian chant ever published. Dom Mocquereau also includes this chart (URL), with regard to the formation of more complex neums (Page 296, Part II, Chapter 7).

You may have noticed from the various tables that liquescents (i.e., liquescent notes) are tiny little notes that are sung exactly as normal notes are. Liquescents are a “cautionary sign,” warning the singers of the presence of multiple consonants, which must be clearly enunciated. As I mentioned before, some of the older chant manuals suggested that liquescents be sung softer, but just as many authors dispute this.

What is the proper way to sing a liquescent note? Some suggest that the liquescent itself should be completely turned into the next consonant sound, as in this video:

However, there are three potential problems with this approach:

1. This is not the traditional way of rendering liquescents, at least as far as the traditional Solesmes method is concerned.
2. As Charles Cole recently pointed out, liquescents were frequently applied to single syllables, and it is difficult to imagine them singing the consonant only in such cases!
3. There are many “unmarked” liquescents, as we shall explore in just a moment.

The normal way to sing a liquescent is to leave “just enough room” for the consonants to be heard, as in this video:

In the above video, the Vaticana liquescents were marked with yellow stars, while the red stars denoted “unmarked” liquescents. On pages 24-25, Joseph Gogniat (Little Grammar of Gregorian Chant, 1939) seems to suggest that liquescents were erroneously left out of the Vaticana:

It sometimes happens that syllables which by their nature would call for a liquescent note are not so printed. In this case, good pronunciation, good enunciation oblige us to consider the last neum upon these syllables as liquescent.

He then gives an entire table of “missing” liquescents:

However, it seems much more likely that Abbot Pothier and the Pontifical Commission only placed liquescents where certain ancient manuscripts placed liquescents. Obviously, we don’t know the precise MSS which influenced Pothier’s choices (although, certainly, we know some, because he spoke of them: Montpellier H. 159, Einsiedeln 121, Laon 239, San Gall 359, etc.). It has been rumored for more than a decade that Solesmes would soon release a special MS, said to have been extremely influential to Pothier’s decisions. In any event, it seems certain that the “missing” liquescents were not mistakes.

There can even be a “double set” of liquescent notes. For example, compare the liquescent notes (smaller diamonds) above the green box to the normal notes (bigger diamonds) above the red box:

In a certain sense, then, one could almost say that liquescent notes are “much ado about nothing,” at least as far as the Vaticana is concerned. Dr. Peter Wagner (Page 39) left the liquescents out of consideration in his 1907 article (PDF):

Notice that Dr. Wagner mentions he had to copy the MS by hand (which was also what Pothier did for years). Well, I was curious to see if Dr. Wagner’s transcription was accurate, so I looked up the MS online (which is such an amazing and fast tool). As you can see, he was 100% accurate, except (as he said) he ignored the liquescents (circled in red):

The Salicus and Scandicus will be treated in a later lesson, because this one has already become quite long!

I will close this section by including a very interesting document that may raise eyebrows in certain quarters. However, it is filled with interesting quotes like:

  The love of archaeology for its own sake may be carried to extravagance. There is no need to imitate the monks of St Gall, who, up to the XVth century, refused to adopt the progress shown in the Guidonian notation, and carefully preserved their own neumatic lineless notation, so difficult to understand. The event proved the unreasonableness of their conduct. On the other hand both wisdom and charity are shown in yielding to the progress of different periods, and in sacrificing one’s personal preferences in order to conform to the needs and disabilities of a large number of people.
  But can Gregorian melodies be transcribed into modern notation with faithfulness?
  Undoubtedly : nor can anything be easier than so to transcribe them. [!!!]

Here is the document, which is an excerpt from the 1904 Solesmes Kyriale:
    How to transcribe Gregorian chant into Modern Notation (PDF)