Lesson 11: Gregorian Rhythm

   If you have not completed all the other lessons, please do so before reading this section. Thanks!

When singing Gregorian chant with 3-4 singers, I normally do not recommend the use of chironomy (i.e. Gregorian conducting gestures). On the other hand, for absolute rhythmic precision, I suppose chironomy would prove helpful even for a very small Schola. Apropos of this statement, I remember listening to a presenter go on and on in unflattering terms about the Solesmes method, vehemently proclaiming what he hoped would be a revelation to us: “I have heard they don’t even use the ictus at Solesmes itself!” He was probably correct in his assessment, but he forgot something very important. He forgot to mention that the Solesmes monks sing together for hours and hours each day, seven days a week, every day of their life. Obviously, in such circumstances, chironomy is not required.

In general, when conducting medium to large sized groups of singers, chironomy is absolutely essential. Without it, two things usually happen:

(1) The choir sings very slowly.
(2) The choir has no idea why the conductor is waving his arms around.

When it comes to rhythmic theories, talk is cheap. What matters most is how one’s choir actually sounds. The Solesmes recordings made under Dom Gajard (along with a few others) serve as the absolute standard by which all other Gregorian Scholæ are judged, at least as far as the author is concerned. I am sure others have different experiences and a completely different perception. However, all I can do is share my experience, and some “tips” regarding rhythm. Hopefully some will find them valuable.

In the traditional Solesmes rhythm, the ictus always denotes “1.” The rhythms are made up of patterns of 2’s and 3’s, which is an eminently beautiful and natural way to organize the rhythm. Here are some examples of ictus (since “ictus” is 4th declension, the plural of “ictus” is “ictus”). The ictus is the little vertical line, circled in red:

Sometimes people say, “But they didn’t count in 2’s and 3’s in the Middle Ages. Why should we?” The correct response is to gently point out that nobody sang from the Vaticana in the Middle Ages, either. The Vaticana (as we’ve discussed already) is an edition based on the entire tradition of mediæval MSS (that “entire” is important), and, incidentally, was influenced by the artistic sensibilities of Abbot Pothier. The 2’s and 3’s added by Mocquereau only exist to help the singers stay together and “feel” the music together. It is a beautiful system that works like a charm.

Incidentally, Joseph Gogniat was one of the biggest critics of Solesmes. He invented his own system that he claimed was much simpler than the “convoluted” Solesmes rhythmic method. However, once I show an example, it will probably be fairly obvious why Gogniat’s system did not catch on:

How does one learn about the “theory” of how to place the various ictus? The easiest way would be to download these:

   Textbook of Gregorian Chant (PDF) — Dom Gregory Suñol

   An Applied Course in Gregorian Chant (PDF) — J. Robert Carroll

   The Rhythm of Plainsong (PDF) — Dom Joseph Gajard

   The Solesmes Method (PDF) — Dom Joseph Gajard

   Le Nombre Musical Grégorien (PDF) — Dom André Mocquereau

   Greorian Chant Analyzed and Studied (PDF) — Marie Pierik

   Gregorian Chant According to the Principles of Dom André Mocquereau (PDF) — Justine Ward

   Section on the Ictus (PDF) — from Mass & Vespers

   Section on the Ictus (PDF) — from the Liber Usualis

   Section on the Ictus (PDF) — from the Parish Book of Chant

If you are interested in criticism of the ictus, Monsignor Francis P. Schmitt and Dom Andrew Gregory Murray were probably the most outspoken critics.

For myself, I normally use a “modified” version of the Solesmes method. For instance, Solesmes goes to great effort to avoid putting the ictus on the tonic accent. When this is done, the effect is light, fluid, and beautiful. However, I have found English-speaking singers sometimes find this counterintuitive, so in syllabic passages I will often place the ictus on the tonic accent. It is also important to remember the injunction in the Liber Usualis at the end of the ictus section:

Finally, regarding the rhythm of Gregorian chant, always bear in mind these rules:

(1) The chant must be sung lightly and not too slow.
(2) All the singers must be perfectly together.
(3) Avoid any “hammering” or heavy accents, especially regarding the tonic accent.

Probably the biggest mistake I have noticed with regard to Gregorian chant is a “Baroque” treatment of the tonic accent. By this I mean, they treat the Latin accent as the Baroque composers do, giving it strong emphasis. Some people even “hammer” the tonic accent. It must be understand that the Gregorian composers set the text in an extremely sophisticated manner, with great depth. The sophistication of the music goes way beyond a mere “pounding” of the tonic accents. For those who would argue that Gregorian chant is based on the tonic accent (and many today do), I can but recommend a careful study of the Gregorian repertory, which reveals so many instances like these:

To quote Garfield the cat, “no force on earth” could make me believe that the tonic accent constitutes the height of the phrase in instances like these, and there are thousands more. Furthermore, I commend to your attention the treatment of the tonic accent in Psalm tones like these:

Again, the Gregorian composers had a much more sophisticated, subtle, mysterious, deep, and artistic way to honor the text than the Baroque composers would do, centuries later. This is not to criticize the Baroque composers, by the way: the Baroque is one of my favorite musical periods. However, we must never apply “Baroque” standards to Cantus Gregorianus.

Willi Apel was quite correct when he warned us never to “blame” earlier composers for not conforming to the Baroque methods of treatment of the tonic accent, and would often cite this example by Dufay:

ADDENDUM: A very nice summary of the Romanian signs (mainly taken from Mocquereau) has been written by Lura Frances Heckenlively: Summary of the Gregorian Romanian Signs (PDF)