Gregorian Rhythm Wars contains all previous installments of our series.
Please refer to our Chant Glossary for definitions of unfamiliar terms.
OME READERS were possibly startled to see my modern notation transcription in part 2. “Surely you don’t mean it should actually be sung that way!?” Indeed I do! Fr. Vollaerts, Dom Murray, and Dr. Van Biezen all used modern notation with eighth and quarter notes for their examples. Blackley used square notation with black and white notes for his, but the idea is the same, regardless of the style of notation used. Although we concern ourselves with paleography, which is the study of manuscripts, and semiology, which is their interpretation, it is a slight mischaracterization to consider us semiologists per se. The proportionalist, equalist, accentualist, Solesmes, and semiological approaches are considerably different from one another and should be regarded as discrete schools of thought for both historical and practical reasons. Just as in part 2, I will begin with an example from a Renaissance-era tune of Protestant origin but familiar to Catholics as well, and for which we can demonstrate rhythmic variants with irrefutable evidence.
Proportional or Equalist? • In many churches, Old Hundredth is notated in the hymnal with this rhythm:
but actually sung this way:
or possibly vice versa. A congregation that sings “Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow” every Sunday of the year probably never looks at the book, but the situation is different if they’re called upon to sing several stanzas of “All People That on Earth Do Dwell” or some other text to the same tune. If the notated rhythm is different than what they know from memory, the organist will have to make a decision about whether to play the hymnal version or the rhythm they’re accustomed to (and I would recommend the latter). Local custom and oral/aural tradition may take precedence over the notation.
False Equivalence • Now I ask you this: On the basis of the above example, would it be illogical for us to assume that a half note and quarter note are just different ways of writing the same thing? Yet, we all actually know better. Nor can we in good faith claim that a half note only represents a nuance of a quarter note, or that a quarter note only represents a nuance of an eighth note. No! They indicate strict 2:1 proportions. Imagine a “nuanced” version of Old Hundredth:
It’s probably not sung that way anywhere in the world, but that is exactly the style of singing most people now think of as “chant-like.” As an aside, a colleague facetiously refers to the isometric version as the Old 75th. We should note that in the Genevan Psalter, the tune is actually used for Psalm 134, not Psalm 100.
Dubious Theories • As far as I can tell, the theory of rhythmic nuances in chant, as opposed to more or less strict proportional durations, is largely the invention of Dom Mocquereau (1849–1930). (Professor Weaver, however, brought to my attention a passage from 1859 in support of nuanced rhythm by Canon Augustin Gontier, a friend of Dom Gueranger’s.) One of Dom Mocquereau’s other claims to fame is his ictus placement theory, along with its two- and three-note groupings, chironomic drawings, and peculiar application of arsis and thesis. The Solesmes ictus placement is useful for teaching singers to count a certain way so that they stay in sync with one another (and, in some cases, with an organist at the opposite end of the church), but it is thoroughly unhistorical. The Gregorian semiologists, who follow the approach (not a systematic method!) of Dom Cardine (1905–88), reject Dom Mocquereau’s ictus theory but retain his nuance theory. Why?
Exact Doubling • Both the Solesmes method and Cardine’s semiology reject strict rhythmic proportions—except where they don’t! Supposedly, the horizonal episema in the Solesmes editions comes from an ancient manuscript source, whereas the punctum mora or augmentation dot is an editorial addition. In fact, there are horizontal episemata that are also editorial. Be that as it may, the foremost expositors of the Solesmes method tell us that the dot represents a doubling of the note; the episema, only a nuanced lengthening. That may sound reasonable enough, but why should signs added by 20th-century editor monks indicate strict proportions and those from the tenth century only nuances? To my knowledge, this is never explained.
The Medieval Theorists • We have a number of quotations from medieval writers in support of proportional rhythm, and none in support of nuanced rhythm. We saw in part 2 how Dom Mocquereau cavalierly discredited the medieval writers as ignorant of the subject matter and disregarded their teachings in favor of his own theories. It would be interesting to learn how Cardine, Agustoni, Göschl, Joppich, Fischer, Berry, Kelly, Saulnier, and other semiologists have dealt with the contradiction between the medieval rhythmic proportions and the nuances of semiology. In semiology, the normal note value, represented by the tractulus in the St. Gall notation and the uncinus in Laon, is considered to be of variable length according to context. Without a value of fixed length (naturally relative to tempo) serving as a rhythmic baseline, the semiologists are indeed working with “nuances of nuances,” as Jan van Biezen characterized their approach, adding, “and that is of course nonsense” (“The Rhythm of Gregorian Chant,” translated by Kevin M. Rooney, p. 25 of Rhythm, Meter and Tempo in Gregorian Chant). In this discussion, it is not my place to present the arguments in favor of a nuanced approach (if there actually are any!), as that is not the position I am defending, but I will be happy to respond to any that are presented by other contributors, provided they respect the oldest manuscripts and the rhythmic doctrine of the medieval writers; otherwise, we might as well be speaking different languages.
Needless Complications • A return to the straightforward proportional rhythm of the Middle Ages is much to be preferred to either the Solesmes method or the assorted approaches of the semiologists, which often sound remarkably different from each other. The semiologists have complicated and overanalyzed chant beyond the comprehension of the average musicologist or cathedral choirmaster, not to mention the average parish cantor or chorister. I showed some of my singers the three volumes of Agustoni & Göschl’s Introduction to the Interpretation of Gregorian Chant and commented that the 1:2 proportion of the medieval theorists is apparently either so difficult or musically unsatisfying that we need a 1,000-page introduction to get us started singing properly. According to R. John Blackley, “It’s said that one must study six years in Rome to be considered a semiologist” (Rhythm in Western Sacred Music before the Mid-Twelfth Century and the Historical Importance of Proportional-Rhythm Chant, p. 96). In the interest of full disclosure, I want to acknowledge that I continue to use the Solesmes method week in and week out, simply because those are the editions we currently have at our disposal for the traditional Latin Mass, but even the two- and three-note groupings of that method are a complication in comparison to proportional rhythm.
Final Thoughts • Where does an equalist rendition of the Vatican edition fit into all of this? In fact, I believe Mr. Ostrowski’s approach, like mine, also represents a rejection of the nuance theory. In his recordings, I hear a strict doubling of notes before bar lines, at the melismatic mora vocis, and before the quilisma. Any slight rhythmic nuances are on the order of agogic accents or rubato rather than an interpretation of manuscript markings. Although a little on the fast side for my taste, which is understandable for a solo recording,* I believe his interpretation is faithful to the manner in which Gregorian chant was sung for many centuries—just not in the ninth, tenth, or early eleventh century. Will I be charged with antiquarianism? I unashamedly wish to restore something from the past that died out, but so did Pope St. Pius X and the monks of Solesmes; unfortunately, they misinterpreted some of the evidence. We don’t have all of the answers before us, but we do have the benefit of another 125+ years of subsequent scholarship. St. Cecilia, pray for us. St. Gregory, pray for us. St. Pius X, pray for us.
*For a recording intended to help choral singers learn their part, most directors have learned from experience not to breathe where they would as soloists. We generally seek longer phrases, which are accomplished by stagger breathing. It is often easier to speed things up a bit in order to get through a long phrase in one breath than to retrain people not to breathe where we did in the practice recording. For this reason, even for purely demonstrative purposes, I prefer to get ensemble recordings whenever possible.