HERE IS A WONDERFUL men’s ensemble out of the Netherlands called Cappella Pratensis. In January, 2015, they sang and video-recorded a concert entitled, “Josquin in Rome,” featuring music written by composer Josquin Desprez (c.1455-1521) for the choir of the Sistine Chapel, during the time that he was singing with that ensemble (1489-1495). This ensemble sings polyphony from manuscript part-books, and also sings selected Gregorian chants from manuscripts, both of which require a certain amount of scholarly interpretation of the proper way to execute these hand-notated scores.
Josquin was the pre-eminent composer of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, and his polyphony as sung at this concert is stunningly beautiful. I expected that.
What I didn’t expect, though, was the way that this ensemble sings plainsong. A commenter had posted, “Their metrical chant is a revelation!” which piqued my curiosity. Listen as the tenors chant the Gradual TOLLITE PORTAS or the basses chant the Alleluia AVE MARIA, GRATIA PLENA, and you’ll hear the fruits of this scholarly research. Listen again, as you view modern chant editions of the scores. (The “Tollite” is on p. 622 of the Gregorian Missal (1990), and the “Ave” right next to it, on p. 623.) A number of observations leap to mind:
1. By metrical, we mean chant with a regular pulse. Unlike the Solesmes method, of interpreting chant in melodic units of undulating two- and three-note groupings, eschewing a regular “beat,” the chants as sung here have a clear and regular pulse, which lends them a certain inexorable forward momentum.
2. Following the Solesmes-prepared scores in the Gregorian Missal reveals numerous subtle changes in the melody: the occasional note added, taken away, or modified in pitch. Considering all the variance amongst manuscript sources, such differences between a late printed score (drawn from several manuscripts) and a single early manuscript are not unexpected.
3. What is strikingly different is the absence of Solesmes rhythmic markings: they are not found in the manuscripts, and are not sung here. Markings to indicate lengthening of tones, such as episemas (lines) above some notes, or dots on other notes, are absent, and so the melody presses forward with consistent motion. Contrarily, the diamond-shaped neumes (rhombus) are sung with half the value of the other pitches — in effect, little groups of eighth notes that subtly animate the progress of these melodies.
The result is unlike any other performance of chant that I have heard, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. It is, indeed, a revelation.