HOSE MUSICIANS who sing for Masses following the 1974 Graduale Romanum will sing Alleluia Ego sum Pastor bonus tomorrow, for Good Shepherd Sunday. This alleluia was not sung this year by those choirs following the 1962 calendar, since the Sunday was replaced by the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. In some of its melismata, this melody has a recurring feature that is extremely rare: a horizontal episema over a non-ictic note, shown in the boxes below:
Click here if you cannot see the image.
Doesn’t this seem like a needless complication of a simple melody? You may have good reason to ignore the Solesmes markings. These various dots and lines form no part of the official Editio Vaticana, and they are out of favor among semiologists and mensuralists as well. What is the point of all these ictus and episemata then? If you want to know why I think the Solesmes theory is worth your consideration, you should come to the Sacred Music Symposium. For the moment, let’s just assume that your choir is trying to follow the Solesmes system (since many people still sing from these editions). What are we to make of this strange notation? In this post, I will try to give a musically satisfying answer to this question.
Most of the time, the horizontal episema aligns with the rhythmic ictus. It seems natural that the F of the last clivis get both the length (as indicated by the episema) and the rhythmic ictus, to avoid a sense of syncopation. In that case, both notes of the clivis would be ictic and long, so why is the music written the way it is, rather than as shown below?
Let’s analyze this alternative version from the perspective of rhythm. This passage consists of three neumes, each of which contains multiple composite pulses or beats. Remember that these “beats,” which the Solesmes method marks with the ictus, have nothing of emphasis about them, but are merely a way to organize the melody mentally. The beats (and the ictus) should never be heard by the listener. The first neume is a pes subbipunctis containing three triplex composite pulses (arsis–thesis–thesis). The second is a scandicus subbipunctis containing a duplex composite pulse followed by a triplex composite pulse. The second ictus falls naturally on the virga that is the melodic climax of this neume. The third neume is a clivis, in which both notes receive the dot of the mora vocis. The first and third neumes are rhythmic neumes (that is, they are self-contained, with final notes featuring the mora vocis), while the second neume links to the third by juxtaposition. This version is simpler and in fact more in line with the official rhythm of the Editio Vaticana, but it also gives (to my ear) too much weight to the final cadence. Dom Mocquereau suggests that such cadences (two double-length notes on a podatus or clivis) are reserved for larger phrase units, but they do occasionally occur in small phrases: see Alleluia Non vos relinquam.
The Solesmes version of this passage has a bit more nuance and interest. To see what I mean, consider the melody as given in the Solesmes books, but this time imagine it without the horizontal episema:
Mocquereau marks the ictus on the last diamond-shaped note because of a notation in the St. Gall manuscripts, since in at least one source of this figure this note is shown as a tractulus rather than a punctum. Such an interpretation will surely run afoul of the work of more recent semiologists. Let’s ignore the question of historicity for the moment and just consider the text in front of us. The effect of this ictus mark is to change the way the second neume connects to the third. Now these neumes are joined by linking rather than mere juxtaposition, and they form a larger compound rhythm (arsis–arsis–thesis–thesis). This is a very satisfying group to sing, with a slight acceleration toward the climactic virga and a gentle relaxation thereafter.
Once you are used to singing it this way, add the episema back in, remembering that it does not amount to a doubling of the note value, but gives a certain shade of nuance or emphasis to this note.
Now the F at the beginning of the last clivis does not feel like the goal of the melody, as it invariably did in our alternative version. Rather, its off-ictic character means that it has a certain slight liveliness, but its off-beat placement means that it is merely a slight interruption of the modal melodic motion from E to D. It is like a somewhat emphasized escape tone, to put it in modern terms.
None of this analysis is necessary to singing this chant beautifully. But if you choose to adopt the Solesmes approach, such detailed work can only improve your singing of it, as it makes us attend to the shape of the phrase as a whole. We do not want to fall into the fault of blindly doubling every episema, treating all the long notes as the same. To me, this kind of nuance is particularly fruitful, especially when we remember to put it in spiritual terms. The schola will sing this little rhythmic figure some six times over the course of the chant (alleluia, verse, repetition of alleluia), and in each case the figure occurs in a part of the melody that lies beyond words, in the pure “singing with jubilation” that is the hallmark of the alleluiatic verses. Without the word accent to guide us, this quirky Solesmes rhythm gives us something on which to hang our jubilation.