M Gregorian Rhythm Wars contains all
M previous installments of our series.
HERE is much to respond to in the recent articles on Gregorian rhythm by my colleagues Jeff Ostrowski and Patrick Williams. My current scholarly project (my doctoral dissertation) is a reassessment of the Solesmes method considered as music theory in its nineteenth-century context, so I am delighted to see this series on various rhythmic interpretations of plainchant. While I use the Solesmes method at my church, I am interested in both of the other perspectives on offer here and I look forward to learning much from my colleagues. I expect to play something of an irenic role, as the argument seems to be primarily between the Pothier and mensuralist approaches (an odd argument at the present day). But there is one area where I must insist on a fully polemical position: what Ostrowski calls the question of “legislation” in his first post. The next time I write, I will sketch a historical survey of the nuance theory discussed by Williams.
The “Official” Rhythm • Ostrowski makes two broad claims in this and other posts—that the free-rhythmic interpretation of plainchant discussed in the original preface to the Vatican edition remains the “official rhythm of the Catholic Church” and that the addition of rhythmic signs in the Solesmes editions was “illicit.” In this post, I will argue that Ostrowski’s arguments for both claims are fallacious. Apart from what I believe is historical inaccuracy, referring to one among many disputed theories of Gregorian rhythm as the official rhythm of the Catholic Church begs the question and is destructive of the whole project of learning from other scholars with differing points of view.
Ostrowski lays out three pieces of evidence for the official censure of the Solesmes rhythmic signs, all of which have been discussed on this site before: the letter from Pothier to Widor (1906); the letter of Cardinal Martinelli to the German mensuralists (1910); and an excerpt from the instruction De musica sacra (1958). In other articles, Ostrowski has cited other decrees. I will not dispute any of this evidence other than to say these documents are open to interpretation.1 The conclusion he draws from this is summarized in this example:
The Church Still Mandates What? • Apart from the tendentious language, the problem with Ostrowski’s claim here is that the timeline is all wrong. Mocquereau did not modify the official edition, since it was his understanding from the very beginning of the project that Solesmes would be able to publish these signs as part of the agreement leading to the creation of the Vatican Edition. These episemata on “adorate Dominum” are in the 1903 Liber usualis, which predates the Vatican Edition. It is true that Mocquereau incorporated the rhythmic signs of his earlier books into the Vatican Edition as it was printed at Solesmes, but he did so with the permission of the highest ecclesiastical authority. According to claims made repeatedly in print by Mocquereau beginning in 1906, Mocquereau had the assurance of Pius X (the supreme legislator) from 1904 on that Solesmes would be free to include the rhythmic signs in its printings of the official editions. If this assurance was given, it certainly obviates all the other claims of “disobedience.” Ostrowski has downplayed the importance of this meeting in the past, but this requires some speculation about the motivations of both Mocquereau and Pius X. Was Mocquereau lying about the content of his meeting with the pope?2 If not, should we not give some weight to this in our assessment of whether things are “illicit” or not?
The passage cited in Ostrowski’s example is one I have written about on this blog recently. To summarize my previous post, according to the Solesmes school, the episemata on “adorate Dominum” mean that this passage should be sung broadly. Does the Church “still technically mandate” that we not sing this passage broadly? Perhaps someone can ask the Holy Father on his next flight whether we are “allowed” to sing from the Liber usualis. Or more specifically, if the Church currently mandates that we not take the ritardando suggested by the Solesmes books on the communio of the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost. I suppose that Archbishop Roche would be the current authority on this question (with regards to the Old Rite) apart from the pope.
I can only describe the history that has happened, not the history that Ostrowski wishes had happened. As I have discussed elsewhere, the Solesmes editions were adopted in the Diocese of Rome from 1912. The person responsible (according to Ostrowski) for writing the preface of the Vatican Edition, Peter Wagner, was advocating mensuralism (i.e., Patrick Williams’s position) in print by 1910. One can argue plausibly that Pothier’s accentualist rhythm was the “official rhythm” of the Roman Catholic Church for a few years, just as mensuralism was the “official rhythm” for some decades before that. But in practice, it was never universally adopted; it is hard to see how anything that is not (and was never) universal in practice can be considered to be the official practice of the universal Church. Apart from the feelings of Cardinal Martinelli, the rhythmic rules of the Vatican Edition preface were not considered binding by its own author within two years of the publication of the Vatican Edition Graduale. Does this not detract from the binding force of these rules?
A More Recent Legal Opinion • Several recent posts have already cited the dubia of Fr. Pietras, answered by the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei in 2018. Ostrowski has raised some issues with the wording of the question. But the sense of the question is very clear: may we sing plainchant at Mass according to different interpretive schools vis-à-vis rhythm? The answer is clearly “affirmative.” Ostrowski’s position is that since the questioner does not seem to share Ostrowski’s views on the official status of the Vatican Edition rhythm that the answer (“affirmative”) should be taken to mean its opposite (“technically no”).
Let us summarize. Given that:
- The “pure Vaticana” rhythm has not been followed universally at Rome for at least 110 years, when the Solesmes books were permitted there as a diocesan policy
- The author of the Vatican Edition preface became a mensuralist two years after the publication of the Graduale
- The PCED refused to offer any correction to Fr. Pietras in 2018 when asked about different interpretations
Shall we really draw the conclusion that “the Church still technically mandates” this rhythmic interpretation? Would it not be more correct to write, “Some part of the Church, working apart from the pope, technically mandated this rhythmic interpretation in 1906, but this was never really enforced or agreed upon, and now the Church gives broad freedom in questions of musical interpretation?” I admit it doesn’t have the same ring to it.
A Better Basis for Argumentation • Ostrowski offers a better argument against the Solesmes signs at the end of his article: “However, years of teaching choirs have demonstrated that—especially with a large group of singers—Mocquereau’s illicit modifications cause the chant to become fussy, plodding, and somewhat stagnant.” It is an aesthetic argument. He does not like the results of the rhythmic signs, which is a much better reason to ignore them than any absurd claim based on what the Church does or does not “still technically mandate.”
Ostrowski marshals plenty of evidence from the manuscripts for his particular claims about one instance of Mocquereau’s work. I will not get into the paleographic dispute between Ostrowski and Williams, which has become quite detailed. In short, it comes down to a question of which century of chant we most wish to draw on in our performances. Williams prefers the signs of the ninth and tenth centuries, while Ostrowski (like Pothier) takes a view that encompasses more and later sources. I can see merits in both points of view, and I may address them by and by.
A Solesmes Interpretation • In terms of a Solesmes interpretation of a chant, the rhythmic signs drawn from paleography are not the most important thing. Ostrowski and Williams have focused on the introit for the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, with a particular phrase featuring episemata as a specimen. One can certainly leave out the episemata of the specimen and still be singing a Solesmes interpretation. The converse is also true. To focus on these elongations at the expense of interpreting the chant as a whole must have a deleterious effect. If I am singing this introit in the Solesmes style, my eye is drawn much more to the initial modal ascent on Si iniquitates, the general accent on sustinebit, preceded by the melodic climax on the first syllable, and the beautiful off-ictic accents on apud and Israel.
As for the episemata that form the subject of Ostrowski’s specimen, what these signs tell me (accurately) is: “in some early source or other, these clives were marked as long notes. You should take account of this as you ponder the meaning of ‘propitiatio.’” This is not bad information to have as an interpreter of chant. I also do not think this knowledge detracts from the “force and meaning” of the notes in question. In my last post, I quoted Dom Gajard on the episema, but I will offer Gajard’s words here again as they represent quite a beautiful sentiment:
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 helps to give our Gregorian melodies their contemplative value.
Ostrowski, wishing to avoid fussiness, may justifiably refuse this invitation. But to argue, as he has, that these signs and the prayerful and aesthetic movements they embody are “illicit” is just wildly off the mark.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Reasonable people may disagree on these things. For instance, one can certainly read Cdl. Martinelli’s letter as applying only to the German mensuralists to which it is addressed. In this case, Mocquereau is counted among the theorists advancing free rhythm discussed in the later part of the letter. Likewise, although Ostrowski reads “force and meaning” in a particular way from the last document, it is not at all clear that a sign indicating a nuance of phrasing robs a note of its “force and meaning.” After all, the note’s pitch, syllable, and position in the neume is unchanged. The sign just suggests that this particular note is longer or weightier than some other note around it. Polemics aside, there is nothing in the Vatican Edition Preface forbidding such nuances. Whether the episema “unduly” lengthens the note to which it applies is obviously open to debate.
2 Since I first wrote this article, Ostrowski has mentioned this meeting in another post. Ostrowski suggests that Mocquereau may have tricked Pius X into allowing the rhythmic signs by implying that he would follow the official rhythm. Since the rules of the Vatican Edition Preface did not exist yet, and since Mocquereau’s position with regard to rhythm was well known, this scenario seems unlikely to me. More likely is that Mocquereau made the agreement with the pope with the full Solesmes rhythm in mind. Of course, this suggests that the rhythmic signs are not illicit.