RECENTLY CONDUCTED an experiment. On Quinquagesima Sunday, I gave some female singers the “Old Solesmes” rhythm instead of the Dom Mocquereau method they’re used to. I didn’t tell them anything about the rhythm. I just said: “Do the best you can with this.” They sang very well during Mass, although they elongated several notes they remembered from the Dom Mocquereau version. Here’s the recording:
* PDF Download • Introit for Quinquagesima
—According to the “pure Vaticana” rhythm; A.K.A. “Old Solesmes”.
Afterwards, when asked which they preferred, they replied: “We like the rhythmic markings.” (Perhaps they preferred the safety of the markings to the freedom of the “Old Solesmes” method.)
Terminology Matters: When you’re listening to Bach’s A-Minor Prelude and Fugue (BWV 543) somebody might erroneously say: “You’re listening to classical music.” When you’re listening to Maurice Ravel’s Jeux d’eau, that same person might also say: “You certainly love classical music!” Needless to say, none of these is classical music. The classical period is Schubert, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, and so forth. On the other hand, you know that most Americans have a habit of labeling “concert music” (Baroque, Romantic, Modern, Medieval, etc.) as “classical music.” It’s totally wrong, but there’s nothing we can do about it. I mention this because confusion exists regarding the term “Old Solesmes.”
A Little Bit Of History: During the 1970s and 1980s, a certain way of approaching plainsong became popular among followers of Dom Eugène Cardine. He was a monk of a Solesmes Abbey, but Dom Cardine never directed the choir at Solesmes; rather, he taught at PIMS in Rome. (Some people claim he was sent there because he didn’t get along with Dom Gajard.) Dom Cardine made clear that semiology “is not a method,” but his students—in spite of his warning—do consider it to be a method. Dom Cardine’s system was at first called “Gregorian Diplomatics,” but these days it’s always referred to as Gregorian Semiology.
A Brief Digression: Attempting to fully describe “Gregorian Semiology” in this article would be foolish. However, I can briefly say that semiology uses “educated conjecture” to guess how certain MSS may have been sung in the Middle Ages. Nobody is obliged to accept semiological ideas, because semiology is just a theory. I had the privilege of studying with Dom Cardine’s boss, and he very carefully pointed out certain obstacles Gregorian Semiology must overcome. For example, here are three reasons some scholars reject Cardine’s Semiology:
(1) It is based upon the “primary source” theory, which is not accepted today. (Incidentally, that’s the same reason it’s silly to add adiastematic neumes from the 9th century above the Editio Vaticana, which is a CENTO.)
(2) Gregorian Semiology tends to favor the “cleanest” MSS, as well as those easily available at the time, declaring those MSS to be “the most authentic.” Just because something is accessible and clean doesn’t de facto mean it’s “the most authentic.” That’s like saying a book on your shelf is better than some other book “because I can reach it without getting a ladder.” Some feel the MSS favored by Gregorian Semiology do not adequately represent the broad repertoire. (In the year 2021, of course, we have unfettered access to the most marvelous MSS—adiastematic neumes, heightened neumes, and diastematic neumes—thanks to the internet.)
(3) Those of us who understand the process by which plainsong pitches are determined have a very difficult time accepting some of the theories about diastematic notation put forth by semiologists. In reality, this process gives us clues about the rhythm of plainsong, as any thinking musician would expect.
Getting Back To The Point: When certain quarters started experimenting with Semiology, they tried to distinguish their attempts from the traditional method, which they labelled as “Old Solesmes.” This was a poor choice of words. First of all, sémiologie grégorienne itself is now an “old” theory, which many have rejected due to ancient MSS evidence made available by the internet. More importantly, “Old Solesmes”—strictly speaking—would be Abbat Pothier’s free oratorical rhythm. The Dom Mocquereau method, which has been adopted almost universally over the last 115 years, is normally described as “the classical Solesmes method.” It is often claimed—incorrectly—that Solesmes publications “abandoned the rhythmic signs in the year 2000.” In fact, Solesmes Abbey published a Gradual (not a reprint) which retained 100% of the traditional rhythmic signs—directly from the classical Solesmes method—as recently as 2012.
“Old Solesmes” Method: As we discussed in a lengthy article, the classical Solesmes method uses rhythmical signs added by Dom Mocquereau, Prior of Solesmes Abbey. In many of his prefaces, Dom Mocquereau refers to Abbat Pothier’s editions as “the old notation,” and makes clear the new Solesmes method doesn’t follow “Old Solesmes.” Let us briefly review: (a) “Old Solesmes” is the free oratorical rhythm promoted in plainsong books published at Solesmes while Dom Pothier was still there; (b) “The Classical Solesmes Method” is the rhythmic method of Dom Mocquereau, which has been almost universally adopted over the last 115 years; (c) “Gregorian Semiology” was an approach taken by certain parties circa 1975 which still has a following in certain quarters but whose tenets have come under scrutiny by scholars.
How It Began: Like so many others, I grew up with the “classic Solesmes method,” but became curious about Abbat Pothier’s method in the 1990s. At that time, I simply couldn’t understand figurations like this:
I wondered why such a phrase wasn’t written like this:
Eventually I stumbled upon the complete history of the Editio Vaticana, about which I have written so frequently over the last fifteen years. (Don’t worry, I’m not about to repeat all that!) The Vaticana adopted the rhythm of “Old Solesmes,” but—as we all know—in the end, Dom Mocquereau’s system won the day. Some important figures who supported “Old Solesmes” were Abbot Josef Pothier, Dr. Amédée Noël Gastoué, Dr. Peter Wagner, Monsignor Jules Vyverman, Dr. Karl Gustav Fellerer, Dr. Urbanus Bomm, Monsignor Francis P. Schmitt, Monsignor Jules Van Nuffel, Flor Peeters, Monsignor Johannes Overath, Joseph Gogniat, and Charles-Marie Widor. The Roman decrees said the official rhythm must be observed, but Dom Mocquereau’s method became so popular that nobody paid any attention to the Roman decrees—even in Rome itself!
What’s To Be Done: What does this mean in practice? Only a fool would attempt to implement the official rhythm when the classical Solesmes method has reigned supreme for 115 years. However, this has always bothered me, because the classical Solesmes method frequently distorts the melodies. By the way, this is not the case when it comes to the KYRIALE—which has an incredibly small amount of Melismatic Morae Vocis. (If you forgot what MMV are, try: 001 002 003) The distortions mainly happen not in the KYRIALE, but rather in the GRADUALE and the ANTIPHONALE. For instance, look how Dom Mocquereau destroyed this antiphon:
Problems With Dom Mocquereau: Dom Mocquereau’s errors would later be taken up by the Gregorian Semiology camp. Both schools erroneously apply certain nuances from particular monasteries to the Editio Vaticana, which is a CENTO. That makes no sense; it would be like applying pedal markings from Liszt to a piece by Schumann. Moreover, those markings were most likely extremely subtle indications. To make matters even worse, both the classical Solesmes method and the semiological approach ignore many of the Romanian Letters. (I personally believe they simply didn’t like some of the Romanian Letters—e.g. one of them means “hit the note like a hammer”—but that doesn’t justify ignoring them.) Abbat Pothier, in his famous de caetero letter, said the following about Dom Mocquereau’s rhythmic markings:
We will discuss this dilemma more during the coming months. I wonder if anyone would have the pluckiness to revert to “Old Solesmes.”
Addendum: I would like to add something, if I may. We recently sang Ash Wednesday, and the 1953 Schwann edition did something very peculiar. They completely forgot about this Melismatic Mora Vocis (MMV) in “Juxta Vestibulum”:
Usually they mark it one way or the other, telling the singer either: (1) to ignore the mora vocis, or (2) to elongate the note. But in this case, they missed it. The Nóva Órgani Harmónia places a dot there. Dom Mocquereau ignores it, which is typical.
Speaking of Dom Mocquereau, he often had quite a difficult time adding his rhythmic markings to the official edition, because he wasn’t allowed to change the official notes. He admits this in one of his books, talking about the (fake) Solesmes Salicus. Here’s an example of him trying to “cram” the marking on the neumes: