Y COLLEAGUE Jeff Ostrowski has advocated for a return to an older, free-rhetorical approach to chant rhythm, based on non-Solesmes prints of the Vatican edition. I have reservations about a few of his premises: e.g., whether the Vatican edition without the Solesmes markings is the “official” rhythm of the chant or has more official backing than various other schools (mensuralism, semiology, classic Solesmes). If you want to hear more of my views on the topic, you can see my presentation from the most recent Sacred Music Symposium. Still, it’s an interesting idea, and one that I want to foster and promote, since I can think of nothing so important to the cause of sacred music as thoughtful consideration of the issues of chant rhythm.
Lack Of Agreement • This can seem like a dry topic, but it actually deals with practical issues faced by every choirmaster who wants to promote plainchant. One example of this is how to approach slowing down at the ends of syllabic chants where the second note from the end is on an accented syllable. Everyone agrees that we should round off the phrase by lengthening the arrival on the last note, but nobody seems to agree on the details. Do we lengthen the last note only? Or both the accented syllable and the final syllable? How to decide? Jeff, in his inimitable, alliterative way, has called this problem “trochee trouble.” See this recent post on accompaniments for the simple Salve Regina melody. The term trochee, drawn from the theory of poetic meter, refers to phrase endings where the second syllable from the end is accented (think, “Ad te clamámus”). Anyone familiar with the common (“Mocquereau”) method of singing Regina Coeli will immediately recognize the quandary by examining this German version from 1928.
The Solesmes Dot • What is the big deal? The versions of the Vatican Edition without the Solesmes markings give no guidance on how to deal with these cadences, which means that the singers or conductor must come up with their own solution for each case. This is an incredibly important practical point. This is one circumstance where recourse to the Solesmes editions certainly simplifies a performance, as all the notes to be lengthened at such a cadence are marked with the dot signifying a doubling in length of the note. In essence, the editors of the book, Dom Mocquereau and his associates, have made the decision for you. Simplification and uniformity is often the main reason cited for adopting the Solesmes rhythm. Jeff is fond of citing the Cardinal Martinelli letter of 1910, but more telling to me is letter of Cardinal Pietro Respighi from February 1912. Cardinal Respighi was the vicar of Rome at the time, and the letter gives specific instruction to the clergy of Rome on the implementation of Pius X’s legislation on sacred music:
Every schola cantorum or choir should have its own special musical library for the ordinary performances in church, and they must possess first of all a sufficient number of Gregorian books in the Vatican edition. To ensure uniformity in the rendering of the chant in the different churches in Rome, these may be used with the addition of the Solesmes rhythmical signs.
Perhaps the Solesmes signs contradict what Jeff considers the “official” rhythm, but their usefulness was recognized even by Pius X’s own vicar general!
Whence Mocquereau’s Approach? • Whether or not you choose to sing from the Solesmes editions, or from editions leaving the the rhythm of these phrase endings indeterminate, you might wonder how such decisions were made in the production of the Solesmes editions. How does Mocquereau approach the problem of trochaic endings? Is it merely based on a French predilection for long final syllables? I can answer that question. Fortunately, Mocquereau wrote several long and comprehensive books about the rhythm of chant, and his treatment of this particular issue is quite interesting. The practical implementation of chant rhythm according to the various schools is much more complicated than it appears at first: the mensuralists often have a great regard maintaining a sense of freedom and rhetorical flexibility; Dom Pothier discusses a kind of flexible rhythm that seems far removed from a dry reading of the Vatican edition; and the semiologists are often well aware of the limitations of their own approach.
A Fascinating Document • The passage in question is some half-dozen pages of the second volume of Le nombre musicale grégorien, from 1927, which has never appeared in English. I post a translation of it here as a record of Mocquereau’s working method, as I know it will be of some interest to our readers.
* PDF Download • Dom Mocquereau: “Trochees”
—Translation from French to English: Charles Weaver (August 2022).
“Absolutely Required” • In essence, Mocquereau reads these cadences based on the melodic context. The simplest case involves the last two notes being in a unison. In this case, especially if the two notes are approached from above, Mocquereau suggests lengthening at phrase endings but not necessarily at the ending of smaller units (Mocquereau’s “incises” and “members”). This is something like what Jeff has called the Dom Johner compromise. But in other cases, if the context warrants it, Mocquereau suggests that the doubling is less good: “It is the musical context and taste which decide whether to use or reject the doubling; the study of each case in particular is absolutely required.”
WISH TO DRAW your attention to two brief quotations, which I think shed light on Mocquereau’s approach in general. The first regards moments in the Antiphonale where he has not doubled: “One finds in the antiphonary, at certain members of the phrase, the note of the accent not doubled, in order to lighten the chant. But one can very well double it, if one wishes.” In other words, we shouldn’t be too dogmatic about the Solesmes signs. They point the way to an interpretation of chant, but that is never enough. It is musical taste and, more importantly, prayer, which must guide us. The second quotation, from the conclusion, is in much the same flavor: “the codification of these rules cannot, moreover, be too broad. I should also say that the performance of musical pieces can modify, in practice, one or another of these rules.”
Slow, Steady, Considered • Should you feel bound by the Solesmes rhythms? No! I hope this document gives a little bit of a glimpse into the kind of work that went into them. We can peek into l’atelier de paléographie musicale and see the slow, steady, considered work of the monks. As we work in our parishes, we can take their advice or not. It is offered in a spirit of charity. And subsequent generations of scholars, of the Cardine school, would certainly reject it. But I think we should consider it in that same spirit.
Oremus pro invicem!