T THE SACRED MUSIC SYMPOSIUM last month, my colleague Jeffrey Ostrowski renewed his call to return to the use of plainchant editions without the addition of the Solesmes rhythmic signs (the dot signifying mora vocis, the episema, and the ictus mark). He has recently posted a version of his talk laying out how one ought to sing from such an edition. In my response at the symposium, I made the case for a less restrictive interpretation of the Church documents on the rhythm of plainchant, with a defense of Dom Mocquereau’s actions in particular. I encourage anyone interested in hearing multiple perspectives on the question to view my talk.
One issue addressed only briefly in my talk is what Pothier’s method of plainchant interpretation actually is, since I differ from Jeff somewhat on this point. It’s so easy to get caught up in questions of notation (whether to include the signs or not and how to sing the signs), that we can easily lose sight of the fact (known to every performer of music) that just singing the notation does not constitute a performance but rather an execution, in every sense of that word. Plainchant, the most perfect form of musical prayer produced on earth, demands much more of us than that we execute it! Pothier’s approach is rhetorical, relying on the accentuation and pronunciation of the text to guide the performance. Many semiologists of the Cardine school concur with Jeff that Pothier’s rhetorical approach is a better starting place for performance than Mocquereau’s elaborate system. If that is so, it seems that all of us can benefit from studying that approach.
Suppose that we want to sing a piece of plainchant using Pothier’s method. What would that sound like? Fortunately, Pothier addressed the question of interpretation at length in his 1880 book Les melodies grégoriennes. From the rhythmic point of view, the main feature is the mora vocis, an idea drawn from Guido d’Arezzo (early eleventh century). The idea is that one holds or delays on the ending of a melodic figure in order to create rhythmic distinctions and groups, which correspond to an orator’s punctuation, the free and language-driven rhythmic delivery which gives life and sense to a speech. This idea is abstract, but fortunately we have a concrete example as well. At one point Pothier gives a complete analysis of the communion antiphon Justus Dominus from the Wednesday after the second Sunday of Lent. Here is a translation of his neume-by-neume guide to performance.
* PDF Download • Pothier’s Instructions for “Justus Dominus”
—English translation by Charles Weaver.
Let’s go through this melody section by section, in order to draw some general conclusions about the rhetorical-accentual approach. Below is the score as given in the Vatican Edition printed by Schwann. There are some slight differences in both text and melody between the versions printed in 1880 and 1908. The text is from Psalm 10: “The Lord is just and hath loved justice; his countenance hath beheld righteousness.” This text divides as we might expect into two halves, of which each half divides further into two halves, for four groups (members) in all. These divisions are indicated clearly by the bars, with a hierarchical differentiation between the two quarter bars and the full bar.
The first member, consisting of the first two words, is set simply. Pothier’s notes indicate two important points beyond the mere observance of the quarter bar, though. The first is that a neume group such as the one at the end of “Dominus” must be sung completely connected, with a single “attack” of the voice. We will see below that the idea of the impulse or attack of the voice is central to Pothier’s rhythmic approach. The second and more rhythmically consequential point is that the end of “justus” should be elongated (mora vocis) to underline the distinction between the words. In other words, Pothier does not suggest four exactly equal time values for the first four notes, rather there is a slight elongation of the second to enhance the clear pronunciation of the text.
In the second member, Pothier again suggests a mora vocis after “justitiam” (“justitias” in the Vatican edition) in order to distinguish the words from one another. On “dilexit,” we have a long melisma on the last syllable. Here again there is much more rhythmic nuance than what is explicitly dictated by the notation. Pothier divides this melisma into several “attacks of the voice,” and he indicates these fresh attacks by rewriting the vowel six times, as shown here.
Pothier treats the five groups separately:
- The initial clivis is sung “with a slowing of the voice” to distinguish it from the group that follows.
- This group has an accent (dynamic or agogic emphasis) on the pressus, followed by a concluding mora vocis. This is the only one of the many morae vocis in the chant that would count as a melismatic mora according to the definition seen in many places on this blog.
- The torculus is sung with a fresh impulse and “with a slowing of the voice” to distinguish it from the group that follows.,
- This group has a fresh impulse and an accent “in the manner of a syncope” on the high note followed by a “barely audible slowing of the voice.”
- The clivis gets a fresh impulse, a “slowing of the voice” and then a “complete rest with a breath.”
This is a lot of detail for a single melisma; the point is that the spacing of the notes and the barring (the “official rhythm”) suggests only two long groups in the word “dilexit” (the sol after the pressus and the final clivis), but Pothier’s method of setting the neumes and words apart actually suggests five places where there is a small amount of time added. In fact, it is clear from this example and from the entire book that every neume should be set apart and separated audibly (using rhythm) in a Pothier-style performance.
In the third member, we get two groups on the final syllable of “aequitatem,” both of which are to be lengthened somewhat and set apart in time from the following word. “Vidit” ends with a mora vocis as well.
In the fourth member, we get an initial group of four notes ending with some separation in time. The last note of this group is la in the Pothier edition and sol in the later Vatican edition. There follows a series of two quilismas on the final syllable of “vultus.” Taking the first of these as our example, Pothier describes two possible methods of performance for the quilisma (see pages 93–95 of his book): either an ornament on the first note consisting of a turn (la-si-la-sol-la) or a mordant (la-sol-la) and skipping the quilisma note entirely; or a style of performance more similar to what we do today, with the quilisma note merely sung lightly and prepared by an emphasis on the previous note. “Vultus” ends, of course, with a slowing of the voice. In the last word, “ejus,” Pothier suggests a light accent on the culminating virga of the typical cadential figure (the scandicus subbipunctis resupinus).
What insight can we gain from this thorough walk through this antiphon? I want to highlight two points for your consideration.
- The text is the primary source of the rhythmic interpretation, and this is accomplished mainly by setting words apart from each other with length. Pothier identifies a mora vocis on every single word in the chant (except for “et”). Adding time at the ends of words in the middle of incises, which is something criticized in the Solesmes approach, is a central feature of Pothier’s approach.
- Within melismas, there are not only the spaces indicated by the white space (the melismatic mora vocis). There are also other smaller amounts of musical space added to separate all the neume groups and to provide an impetus for a fresh vocal attack on each one.
The Pothier approach does not forbid other lengthening between neumes. Indeed, such lengthening is frequent and is a key feature of Pothier’s style.
What does it sound like when we sing like this? Here is a quick attempt at following Pothier’s recipe for this antiphon. Singing alone and needing to conserve air, I inadvertently rushed through the the end of “vultus,” where I should have added a brief mora vocis.
If you listen to Pothier’s performances, as have been published on this blog before, it is easy to hear that he often does add subtle time at the ends of words and neume groups beyond what the rules of the Vatican edition preface would suggest. We must either conclude that Pothier contradicted the “official rhythm” or that the interpretation of chant according to the Pothier style is much more complex and free than a restrictive reading of the rules allows.
The lesson I draw from this exercise is that the controversy between the Pothier camp, the Solesmes camp, and semiological school is much more heated in terms of notation than in terms of actual interpretation. All three schools would take Pothier’s approach here as a fine place to begin an interpretation of this piece, even though the various schools would differ in whether to add signs (dividing the melody into ictus groups) or to draw in the St. Gall neumes to look for paleographic support for some of the interpretive ideas. If you choose (for whatever aesthetic or legalistic reasons you please) to eschew the more recent approaches (Solesmes, semiology, mensuralism) and adopt the Pothier accentualist style in your parish, you must still reckon with Pothier’s musical rhetoric, which is every bit as complex and worthy of study as the other schools of interpretation. Singing the notes is not enough in any music, least of all in the music with which we give sonic life to the prayers of the Holy Mass.