I HAVE been privileged recently to take part in several discussions with colleagues about the niceties of chant performance practice. One experienced director and singer, for whom I have great respect, recently wrote the following to me by email, and I think he is absolutely correct:
My experience is that most people who know something about the chant are performing in “no-man’s land;” that is, they think they are performing according to the rhythmic method of Doms Mocquereau & Gajard, but are really doing a cartoon version of it, instead of the full painting.
Now, my admiration for the method of those two monks of Solesmes is something of a minority position on this blog, and this idea that we mostly don’t know what we are doing with a method that is supposedly universal, easy, and simple is dangerously close to saying “True Solesmes rhythm has never been tried!” But I do think it’s important to take a look at the best of what a performance style has to offer if we are going to make an honest critical assessment of it.
A case in point of what I mean is the communion today in the Old Roman Rite, on the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The second phrase begins with the following passage:
I think I know what my colleague Jeff Ostrowski would say about this passage; he would say that by adding this string of episemata, Dom Mocquereau contradicted the official rhythm to the detriment of the flow of the musical line. And, if this is sung in the way I imagine most people with only a passing knowledge of the rules of the Solesmes method would sing it, he would be right. But if we go deeper, I think we can see some very beautiful and inspiring musicality and spirituality.
If there is something curious happening in a proper chant, we should always turn first to the excellent book of commentary by Dom Johner on the propers of the Roman Gradual. Here is what Johner says about this passage:
The solemnly descending line in the second phrase expresses the idea of adoration—a profound bow, a prostration before the majesty of God. In the annotated manuscripts each of the clives over the words (ado)-rate Dominum is marked with a hold, thus enhancing the impression of reverence. But the solemn spirit is made less formidable by the fact that each new clivis opens on the same note with which the preceding closed.
So these rhythmic signs have both a source (the early, rhythmically rich manuscripts) and a rationale (bowing down to the Lord in adoration). But if the result is still ugly, then this is an unacceptable practice and probably also not what was intended by the editors of the Solesmes books. So how should we sing it? If we want to know how these signs were interpreted in the classic Solesmes method, we can turn to the indispensable book on that method by Dom Gajard. Gajard mentions this passage in the middle of a discussion of the episema that bowled me over the first time I read it:
The horizontal episema is thus a shade of expression, which means that its value is in no way mathematical but depends on numerous factors based on no fixed rules. The interpreter will have to choose the shade of color he thinks best for it. Speaking generally, it is best treated gently. It is an invitation, not to external display, but to enter into one’s soul and there to find the indwelling Guest. It is one of the elements which greatly help to give our Gregorian melodies their contemplative value.
So far we have spoken only of cases where the horizontal episema covers a single note or two notes. If it should extend over a whole long passage as, for example, on the portavit of the Response Ecce vidimus for Maundy Thursday, or the adorate Dominum in the Communion Tollite hostias for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, care should be taken not to hammer out each note. The whole passage needs to be sung broadly, as though marked cantando or allargando.
So as a practical matter, if we are singing this passage according to the Solesmes method, we should absolutely not be singing these as ternary groups, but with the whole passage sung somewhat slowly. You can hear just such a recording through the Neumz app. Singing with this kind of gentle cantando descent seems especially appropriate to the words and very beautiful.
But the general observation is actually more important than this one instance. in this passage of Gajard, we see the absolute reverence that the architects of the Solesmes method had for the spiritual side of chant. We might imagine a resultant examination of conscience for the chorister. Aren’t we all, as Catholic singers and choir directors, tempted to sometimes be casual about our chant? When you approached this passage this morning, if you sang it, did you see each episema as an invitation to enter into your own soul and encounter the indwelling Guest? If not, are we really doing the Solesmes rhythm justice?