Gregorian Rhythm Wars contains all previous installments of our series.
Please refer to our Chant Glossary for definitions of unfamiliar terms.
S GREGORIAN CHANT intended to be a series of notes of equal value, a combination of long and short notes, or a musical application of speech rhythm? Chant is a vast repertory including all of those styles, but in this exchange with Jeffrey Ostrowski, our focus will be the chants of the Proper of the Mass, namely introits, graduals, alleluias, tracts, offertories, and communions. I will defend the position that these chants are composed with a combination of long and short notes in 2:1 proportion. This interpretation is historically known as mensuralism, but more accurately called proportionalism or simply proportional rhythm. I will attempt to demonstrate that the oldest extant manuscripts overwhelmingly support proportional rhythm, and that the equalization of note values indicates a degeneration rather than a true evolution of the authentic traditional rhythm.
The Oldest Extant Manuscript Sources • Most scholarly editions of the past 50 years rely heavily on three adiastematic (staffless) manuscript sources: L, the Laon Gradual, Codex Laudunensis 239, from around the year 930 (the Laon municipal library website actually dates it to the ninth century); C, the St. Gall Cantatorium, Codex Sangallensis 359, from between 922 and 926, for graduals, alleluias, and tracts; and E, the Einsiedeln Gradual, Codex Einsidlensis 121, from between approximately 960 and 996, for introits, offertories, and communions. These three sources are well preserved, legible, and rather complete. Along with Chartres, Mont Renaud, and the few surviving fragments from Nonantola, they are unquestionably the oldest extant manuscripts from about A.D. 920 to 1000, and their reliability is acknowledged by nearly all chant scholars over the last century. This is not to say that these few manuscripts alone deserve to be studied to the exclusion of all other sources, but Fr. Vollaerts remarked that “To plead their value would be akin to forcing open an unlocked door” (Rhythmic Proportions, p. 7). Mr. Ostrowski apparently wants to lock the door, install a deadbolt, and throw away both keys!
Short and Long Values • In the oldest adiastematic manuscripts, short and long values are indicated by the shape of the neumes themselves and whether they are connected (cursive) or separated (non-cursive). Some of the length indications are indeed reproduced in later manuscripts with what Dom Cardine called the neumatic break or cut, where the punctum mora (augmentation dot) is typically added in the Solesmes editions, filling in the blank space of the Vatican edition. The Vatican edition and the diastematic manuscripts, however, are utterly irrelevant to the discussion of the original rhythm, as they either presume an equalist interpretation with occasional doubled notes or else an oral rhythmic tradition. In most cases, it is impossible to notate chant sung in equalist or accentualist (rhetorical) rhythm with adiastematic neumes in a way that would agree with the oldest manuscripts. The Solesmes editions reproduce a number the long markings of the ancient manuscripts by means of the horizontal episema, but they omit many others, treating the normal syllabic value as short and indivisible, and often marking only the first note of a group that ought to be entirely long.
A Couple of More Recent Examples • Before we delve into the chant, I wish to present two examples of altered rhythm and rhythmic ambiguity in more modern church music.
You likely know this tune with the words “O Sacred Head,” and you’ve probably sung and heard it only one way your entire life. Obviously, the first version, a series of stemless noteheads, gives no information about the rhythm. Which of the remaining three is the most correct or authentic? It can be argued that each version is “correct” and “authentic” in a particular time or place, but what if we ask the question in more explicit terms: Which version best corresponds to the oldest extant sources? The answer to that is unquestionably the last version, regardless of whether you’ve ever sung or heard it that way, how it’s printed in your favorite hymnal, how Bach used it, or whether you like the sound of the original version. Our opinions don’t change the historical evidence. There are rhythmic and isometric versions of dozens of hymn tunes, including the entire Genevan Psalter. Are the isometric variants, now several centuries old themselves, the result of mass hallucination, capricious publishers, or nothing more than the tendency of religious music to slow down and even out rhythmically over time? If we were to examine every non-Lutheran English hymnal available, we might conclude that the isometric version of Passion Chorale (O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden) authentically reproduced the original rhythm, but our conclusion would be erroneous because we neglected the oldest sources.
The following example shows only a bit of the rhythmic variety possible with a series of six notes, all drawn from chants or hymns:
If we were given only the stemless filled noteheads with one of the texts written beneath them, we could rely on our own memory for the rhythm, listen to someone else who knew the chant or hymn better, sing the melody with notes of equal value, make up our own rhythm, find it notated more precisely elsewhere, or find a good recording of it. Any of those approaches could result in the correct rhythm in a particular case, but it is self-evident that some of those approaches are generally more reliable than others. Do I need to present concrete evidence that a half note (within the same phrase) is longer than a quarter note, and moreover that its correct duration is exactly double that of the quarter note, that they are not merely nuances of one another, that syllabic stress in and of itself has no bearing on the duration of the note if the composer has set it otherwise, that a half note is the same thing as a minim and a quarter the same as a crotchet, that the same phrase can be notated with a combination of whole and half notes as with half and quarter notes, etc.? In modern music just as in chant, these sorts of things can be demonstrated by comparative analysis and the teaching of theorists, both of which I will begin to present below.
Deficiencies of the Vatican Edition • The pure Vatican edition is a slight improvement over stemless noteheads not only because of the neumatic breaks, but also because of the addition of bar lines. Still, it offers few other rhythmic indications, and it is also known to contain melodic and even textual errors. The Church’s call for “a more critical edition” of the chant books (Sacrosanctum Concilium, ¶ 117) entails more than just a reordering to meet the demands of the revised liturgical books. Nearly 60 years later, the more critical edition has yet to be promulgated officially, but the Graduale Novum (ConBrio, 2011; 2nd vol. 2018), which incorporates the recommendations for melodic restoration published in the journal Beiträge zur Gregorianik beginning in 1996, is a step in that direction.
Ad fontes! • That brings us to the chant in question, the introit Si iniquitates for the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost. Here is the critical apparatus from vol. 40 of Beiträge zur Gregorianik (2017):
The chant as it appears in the Graduale Novum:
Laon 239 (L):
My literal transcription of L into square notation:
Einsiedeln 121 (E):
My literal transcription of E into square notation:
A transcription of the antiphon combining both sources:
My performing edition, with additional long marks (discussed below), bar lines, modernized/standardized spelling, capitalization, and punctuation:
The same in modern notation:
Performance note: All grace notes should be sung before the beat and take their value from the preceding note, or they may be omitted at the choirmaster or cantor’s discretion. The half notes are editorial and could just as well be notated as quarter notes with a fermata.
Contradictions between L and E • As we lack both an unbroken rhythmic tradition and recordings from centuries past, unless we learn to read the ancient neumes for ourselves, we are left to our own uninformed interpretation or someone else’s. Although they give only an outline of the melody, the neumes have much to offer with respect to rhythm. You are of course free to accept my interpretation, Jeffrey Ostrowski’s, Dom Cardine’s, Dom Mocquereau’s, or anyone else’s, but I encourage you to examine the adiastematic neumes for yourself and judge any interpretation according to the best manuscript evidence. Note that L and E are in agreement with each other except at the following places:
- E writes a single neume, a pressus major, for the first two syllables, which represents a crasis or fusion of two identical vowels.
- At -ta- of iniquitates, L, St. Gall 339, and Montpellier H 159 give a single note:
E writes a franculus (also called a gutturalis or virga strata), which is a combination of virga plus oriscus. The oriscus in any form is never followed by a unison note. It follows that the melodic restoration from do to ti, mentioned in note 2 of the critical apparatus, is surely correct. Bamberg 6 and Chartres 47 (Ch) give the same figure:
Angelica 123 and Mont Renaud write a pes (podatus):
Here, an editorial decision has to be made. Because the Graduale Novum retains the square notation of the Vatican edition without distinguishing the oriscus, it is impossible to determine with certainty whether pes or franculus is intended. Hakkennes (Graduale Lagal), Stingl (Gregor und Taube), and Nickel (Graduale Renovatum) all use a franculus:
The direction of the oriscus is probably a scribal or typographical convention with no implications for the rendition. (I have used the two forms interchangeably in my own editions.) Kainzbauer (Graduale Authenticum) uses a square punctum:
I have chosen to use the franculus and have interpreted it as two short notes.
- At the beginning of the first Domine, L has a doubled note, where E has a long pes. The other modern editions agree with L, except Lagal:
Note 5 of the critical apparatus states that the reading of the Vatican edition is left alone here, citing the many manuscripts contradicting E, including others of the St. Gall family.
- At the beginning of sustinebit, both sources write a torculus resupinus, but L has the first note long. The other St. Gall manuscripts concur with E, but Mont Renaud and Benevento 33 and 40 seem to agree with L:
Again, an editorial choice must be made. Lagal also writes the first and last notes longer:
Some of the other adiastematic manuscripts are less clear.
- Finally, at -ne- of sustinebit, L writes the rhythm long-long-short-long, and E writes long-long-short-short. L’s rhythm for this figure often corresponds to the inverse quilisma in Montpellier, but that is not the case here. Angelica and Mont Renaud, however, do write figures that involve notes of more diminished value:
I have interpreted L’s reading as three long notes with an ornamental note between the upper note and the last note.
Comparing Other Sources • Neither L nor E writes the last note of -a- of propitiatio as long, but other manuscripts do, e.g. Bamberg 6 and St. Gall 339:
Compare the clivis at -ve- of observaveris with the one at the beginning of propitiatio:
Both L and Ch (which Mr. Ostrowski misinterpreted) use the short cursive (connected) form for the first and the long non-cursive (separated) form for the second. E writes a c (celeriter, swiftly) over the first and an episema on the second. Now compare the pes at -qui- of iniquitates with the one at the beginning of the second Domine:
The difference between the short and long forms is readily apparent.
The Authority of Different Manuscripts • A good initial test of the rhythmic reliability of a given manuscript is whether or not it differentiates between short and long forms of the clivis and pes. Already in the tenth century, some fail to distinguish long from short—which is not to say that no distinction was observed in the singing, only that it was not notated. Many such manuscripts can be classified as non-rhythmic. (If Mr. Ostrowski wishes to see an intermediary semi-rhythmic manuscript “halfway” between proportional and equal rhythm, then let him consult chapter 1 of Fr. Vollaerts’ Rhythmic Proportions in Early Ecclesiastical Chant for a classification of tenth- through twelfth-century manuscripts. I really have nothing to add to what has already been said there by Fr. Vollaerts.) Why seek answers in less precise manuscripts when we have fairly unambiguous sources at our disposal? In a manuscript without deliberate long-short indications clearly noted, it is hardly realistic to expect such indications to be added accidentally, especially decades or centuries after proportional rhythm had deteriorated into equalism.
Unnecessary Magical Thinking • I challenge Mr. Ostrowski to show where Dom Mocquereau claimed that the “primitive and universal rhythmic tradition” was lost due to “mass hallucination.” As far as I can tell, the claim of mass hallucination is a straw man of my colleague’s own creation. We can prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that a rhythmic deterioration and equalization occurred in many Reformation-era chorale and psalm tunes. Why on earth should it seem incredible to anyone to think that the same thing could have happened to Gregorian chant more than half a millennium earlier and some four centuries before printed music? We have evidence for it not only in the manuscripts themselves, but also in contemporaneous writings. Yet Dom Mocquereau had the gall to claim that “The medieval authors not only contradict one another, but often, alas, do not really know what they are talking about” (Monographie grégorienne VII, p. 31, quoted by Murray). Now getting back to the chant . . .
What Is the Quilisma? • At the end of Deus, every note is long except for the quilisma itself, but the Solesmes edition marks only the second note before the quilisma, with the note immediately preceding the quilisma also understood to be long:
How should the quilisma be sung? The preface to the Vatican edition describes it as a trill, tremolo, or shaken note; these three terms are used in the English edition of the Liber Usualis to translate the Latin nota tremulae vocis and nota volubilis. Timid is another possible translation; cf. the English adjective tremulous. The Solesmes method and most semiologists simply treat it as a light short note. Dom Mocquereau and Dr. Van Biezen thought the quilisma represented an ascending portamento—a slide through several notes. Fr. Vollaerts and Dom Murray transcribed it as two notes, the first normally being a repetition of the preceding note. Prof. Kainzbauer has argued that the quilisma is merely a cautionary sign before an ascending skip, neither a note nor a portamento. In my modern notation edition, I have used the standard notation for a portamento or glissando, leaving the interpretation up to the director or performer.
Equal Note Values? • The syllabic value is long, without exception in this introit; no syllable is notated with a punctum or with a tractulus or virga with c. If the chant were intended to move in equal note values, we should expect long notes throughout—non-cursive forms in L, and extensive use of the episema in E—but that is not the case. I count seventeen cursive or partially cursive neumes, affecting at least 33 notes, not including the quilisma, and L and E are in agreement about all of them.
A Challenge • Every modern edition writes a long note or bar line at the end of est, which is a plain, short, cursive torculus in the manuscripts—the same figure as at qui- of quia. Although I already accept the short-short-long interpretation as correct, I would like to challenge readers to submit evidence of a long (doubled) note at the end of est from any manuscript; unfortunately, Bamberg 6 is illegible at this spot. In my opinion, there is not enough proof from this chant alone to support the long interpretation of the three notes I’ve marked with the horizontal episema at est, including that final note, likewise at qui- of quia. The principles for the interpretation of those notes can be inferred from studying other chants. Many examples could be furnished, but I will cite only the recent introit Deus in loco for the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, again from the Graduale Novum:
Straining Credibility • Are we to believe that and are rhythmically identical, even though they’re notated differently, and that the separation in the first neume is meant to indicate nothing more than a slight impulse on the fourth note, if that? In case of any doubt that the two torculi have the rhythm short-short-long, compare Bamberg 6, which adds an episema at the end of each of them:
Even though this example alone might be insufficient to establish that the normal rhythm of the cursive torculus is short-short-long, it demonstrates that one scribe wrote an episema twice where others didn’t. In this particular case, does the discrepancy point to the existence of a local rhythmic variant, or does it suggest that long notes were understood elsewhere even without an episema? If six short notes were intended, why not notate the first example the same as the second? In fact, the only late medieval diastematic manuscript I consulted, Rheinland 61 MS-D-11, a Gradual from the end of the fourteenth century, writes what we might expect for equal rhythm:
Ignorant Standardizations • More than four centuries later, there is no trace of the separation between two torculi—and indeed, no trace even of the torculi themselves or the preceding long uncinus or virga, which have mutated into a porrectus subbipunctis and clivis. To my knowledge, none of the tenth-century manuscripts writes the first neume that way. In studying the adiastematic neumes, the idea that the last note of a torculus should ordinarily be understood to be long, although not yet conclusively demonstrated, sheds light on the correct interpretation of the other introit:The separation between the fourth and fifth notes is also significant, which we’ll examine as we encounter similar neumatic elements in the coming weeks.
Why Bother? • We have now established a very probable reading of the oldest manuscript sources. Does it makes more sense to judge other manuscripts and editions in light of the oldest sources, or to judge the oldest manuscripts in light of later or less authoritative sources? While it is true that the original rhythm of the chant remains unknown, it is no longer possible to make the same claim concerning the rhythm indicated in the tenth-century manuscripts. The crux of the matter is not whether we can understand the manuscripts, but whether we should incorporate what they reveal into our singing. Are the later rhythmic changes a sign of deterioration or of progress? Is the 1908 Vatican edition the evolutionary goal of all Western chant? If the answer is no, let’s not pretend otherwise. There were approved editions before it, and there will surely be approved editions after it. To address a specific claim made in part 1, I have looked over the April 2022 USCCB Committee on Divine Worship NewsLetter and noted the Ordo cantus Missae (cross-referenced to the pre-Conciliar Graduale Romanum) listed as one of the “principal books of music for the Eucharist,” but I do not see it stated that “‘Gregorian chants of Mass parts and Propers’ must [emphasis mine] be taken from the pre-Conciliar Graduale Romanum”; in fact, I see several books listed that contain chants found in neither the pre-Conciliar Graduale Romanum nor the 1974 edition, including one book in English. Furthermore, the wording principal books implies that the listing is not exhaustive.
Forbidden or Fostered? • As for the legislative aspects, it seems unreasonable if not disingenuous to argue that a style of interpretation that is not used at the Vatican—and probably not anywhere in Rome—is to be considered normative for Catholic worship in the Latin rite, let alone obligatory. Mr. Ostrowski has himself written that, “It’s actually not forbidden to sing from ancient manuscripts—so long as the text is not altered—and this was done by the Sistine Chapel during papacy of Pope Saint Pius X.” He has either changed his position or else he believes that the various restored editions (including mine) are not based on ancient manuscripts. I think I have already clearly and sufficiently demonstrated the contrary. The 2018 Pietras dubia response made it clear that other versions of the chant are allowed, and unless there has been a subsequent prohibition in the last four years, which I’m unaware of, it remains definitive. Therefore, I am unwilling to concede that the pure Vatican edition rhythm is in any sense even technically the only permissible interpretation; if that were indeed the case, it would reflect neither actual practice nor the mind of the Church as expressed in the liturgical constitution promulgated by an ecumenical council.
Closing Quotation • I do not wish to play the role of apologist for either Mocquereau or Cardine, but it is absolutely false to claim that Dom Murray saw no need to offer any explanation of how the rhythmic decline occurred. I am now well over my intended word count, but I would like to close with a long quote from Murray:
This [the eleventh] was the century during which the primitive oral tradition, especially as regards the rhythm, was rapidly being lost and forgotten, and less and less attention was being paid to the older manuscripts and their rhythmic indications. Even when new manuscripts were compiled in the old notations, the scribes often reveal a misunderstanding of the old rhythmic symbols which they appear to use as merely graphic conventions. In the musical treatises of the period, too, there are many complaints of the rhythmic decay of the Chant. A typical example is to be found in the Commentary on Guido’s Micrologus by Aribo, written about twenty years after Guido’s death. ‘A tenor,’ he says, ‘is the length of a note which is in equal proportion if two notes are made equal to four and their length is in inverse proportion to their number [i.e., two long notes are equal to four short ones]. So it is that in the old antiphonaries we often find the letters c, t, and m, indicating respectively celeritas, tarditas and mediocritas. In olden times great care was observed, not only by composers of the Chant but also by the singers themselves, to compose and sing proportionally. But this idea has already been dead for a long time—even buried.’
That the ‘proportional singing’ of which Aribo speaks was a question of proportional note-values is clear from the context. That it had ceased to be the practice is equally clear. In any case the four-line staff notation made no provision for rhythmic indications, and, by making it possible to sing at sight, destroyed all ideas of depending on, still less preserving, an oral tradition. But, as Aribo indicates, the old rhythmic tradition was already dead. One of the chief causes of its extinction was undoubtedly the widespread practice of organum, in which the Chant was sung in parallel fourths and fifths. This practice was already at least a hundred years old, and the tenth-century documents, Musica Enchiriadis and Scholia Enchiriadis, both explain that its characteristic feature was its slow pace (morositas). Elsewhere we read that this slow pace made it practically impossible to maintain the proper rhythmic proportions between the short and the long notes of the Chant, even though these were still being indicated in the notation: ‘We still write down points and strokes in order to distinguish between the long and the short notes, although music of this kind [organum] has to be so solemn and slow that it is hardly possible to maintain rhythmic proportions in it.’
With the disappearance of rhythmic proportions between long and short notes, the original rhythmic tradition perished. Henceforth the Chant was performed in notes of equal length, so that by the time the staff notation was introduced there seemed to be no need to do more than write down the precise notes and intervals. (Gregorian Chant according to the Manuscripts, pp. 7–8)
Gregorian Chant according to the Manuscripts by Dom Gregory Murray, O.S.B., pp. 3–22
Rhythm, Meter and Tempo in Gregorian Chant by Dr. Jan van Biezen, preface & pp. 19–41