About this blogger:
A theorist, organist, and conductor, Jeff Ostrowski holds his B.M. in Music Theory from the University of Kansas (2004), and did graduate work in Musicology. He serves as choirmaster for the new FSSP parish in Los Angeles, where he resides with his wife and children.
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“Sacred music, being a complementary part of the solemn liturgy, participates in the general scope of the liturgy, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful. It contributes to the decorum and the splendor of the ecclesiastical ceremonies, and since its principal office is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful, its proper aim is to add greater efficacy to the text, in order that through it the faithful may be the more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.”
— Pope Saint Pius X
Shall the Accented Syllables be lengthened?
published 30 November 2010 by Jeff Ostrowski

The Latin tonic accent: To lengthen or not to lengthen? That is the question.

Perhaps it would be well to start by saying that this post is “nothing new.” After all, countless articles about this very issue have been published, some dating from the early 19th century. In truth, even medieval treatises dealt with this subject, going back almost to the time of Charlemagne!

Just last night, I was glancing through some articles by Dom Gregory Hügle, and one of his articles from 1905 was called “Shall the Accented Syllables be lengthened?” It seemed a good title for this post, so I stole it. I hope Dom Hügle doesn’t mind!

In this brief post, I will not have time to treat melismatic examples like this (what the humanists of the Renaissance called “barbarisms”):

Reminder: the correct word accentuation is áperis. (For those who desire a long conversation about such instances, these five pages by Willi Apel might serve as a starting point.)

Briefly stated, whenever Gregorian melodies do not treat the Latin tonic accent in the same way that “more familiar” composers do (for example, composers of the Baroque), some people are very bothered by this. Those who have had occasion to watch my seven videos on the Vatican Edition know that the Vatican Edition does not specifically indicate the syllables/notes to lengthen at the end of phrases. Nor does it tell us how long they ought to be lengthened.

Six or seven years ago, I had the privilege to interview one of the foremost Church musicians of our age, who also happens to speak eleven languages fluently. He explained (giving examples!) that different languages can influence the way native speakers of those languages perform and sing music. In particular, German speakers sing and think about Gregorian chant in a completely different way than francophones do. In German, the accent is very strong. In French, it often seems that there is no word accent at all. Haberl makes a very strident statement about this, and I mention this in my presentation on the Vatican Edition.

For our purposes, in Latin, we usually deal with two kinds of accentuation: trochaic and dactylic. By the way, Dom Gajard seems to refer to trochees as “spondees” (Click Here to read Gajard’s words).

Trochees would be: Déus, Própter, Nómen, Méus, Plantátus, posuísti, diérum, florébit, confitéri, praevenísti, etc.

Dactyls would be: Dóminus, Líbani, átriis, lápide, longitúdinem, etc.

First of all, dactyls cause no problems to anyone. Nobody has the slightest problem with examples like this:

The problem comes from trochees. The French like to mark them thusly:

Whereas the Germans always mark them like so:

The French always prefer this treatment:

But the Germans prefer this treatment:

Incidentally, I recently came across these examples, printed by the “Germanesque” Caecilia in 1933. As expected, they favor the German treatment of the Latin tonic accent.

There really is no escaping this problem. “To lengthen, or not to lengthen: that is the question.”

Some people (e.g. Joseph Gogniat) try to take a “middle road,” where they just slightly lengthen the penultimate note (I find this hard to do with a choir). Others (e.g. Fr. Dominic Johner) say that it’s best to do the German approach half of the time and the French approach the other half of the time (because doing the German approach 100% of the time would be too “heavy”). Still others, like the Solesmes monks under Dom Gajard, pretend that they are not lengthening the second to the last note, but often double it (for audio examples of this, please see the final video of my presentation on the Vatican Edition).

So, what is my answer? Actually, I don’t really have one, except to point out that Gregorian chant is not 100% synonymous with 21st century speech, nor the Baroque treatment of the tonic accent. I can remember a teacher of mine (years ago) exclaiming, in no uncertain terms: “Gregorian chant is SONG. It’s SUNG. To say that Cantus Gregorianus is identical to speech is ridiculous. If they had wanted mere speech, they would have simply SPOKEN the words. If they had wanted mere textual declamation, they would have DECLAIMED the text. Speech is not the same as song.” I cannot remember my teacher’s exact words, so I’ve paraphrased them.

Without coming down in favor of either the German or the French treatment of trochees, I would suggest two things:

1. The Gregorian melodies employ an extremely sophisticated method of composition, which treats the text in an extremely sophisticated way. It’s not a matter of merely pounding out the tonic accents like the Baroque composers sometimes do: DO-minus . . . DI-xit . . . AD . . . ME . . . etc.

2. The Gregorian repertoire was composed over many centuries, so it would not be logical to expect that every monastery over the last 1500 years sang Gregorian chant exactly the same way.

What is more interesting to me, however, than the debate over trochees are the instances where Gregorian psalm tones do not even come CLOSE to honoring the Latin tonic accent. Here are several examples:

Again, I point out that the Gregorian repertoire is unspeakably large, and the composers over the centuries employed different compositional techniques. I suppose it is possible that in our “urtext” age, some folks simply cannot adjust themselves to this “freedom.” Perhaps I have an advantage, in as much as I’ve spent my entire life studying the artistry of the great pianists. One listens to various interpretations of the same piece and one hears conceptions that are DIAMETRICALLY OPPOSED. One begins to realize that there is often not just one “correct” interpretation when it comes to great music.

It might be well to end this brief post by quoting Willi Apel on this subject. Speaking of the thousands of instances where Gregorian chant does not honor the Latin tonic accent in the same way Baroque composers did, Apel says:

Examples of downright mis-accentuation are not rare even in fifteenth-century polyphonic music, a striking example being the passages angélorúm (correctly angelórum) and salvé radíx sanctá (instead of sálve rádix sáncta) in one of Dufay’s settings of Ave Regina Celorum. In cases like this, one cannot help feeling that the seemingly “bad” accentuation is actually a “good” one, dictated by the intention to counteract rather than over-emphasize. Whether the “barbaric” melismas in Gregorian chant result from such an intention or from plain indifference, it is impossible to say. (read more)

When it comes to applying Gregorian theories to the English language, I chose modal tones that “pose no problems,” as one can see by looking at our recent Psalm publication.