M Gregorian Rhythm Wars contains all
M previous installments of our series.
IN a previous post, Patrick Williams wrote, “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. . . . 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.” I want to expand on my comment to him and offer some historical background on what Williams calls the nuance theory of plainchant rhythm, as practiced at Solesmes. It is true that Mocquereau went very far in researching the rhythmic signs of St. Gall and Laon and performing them in a nuanced way, but he did so within a tradition of chanting that has been part of Solesmes since its modern foundation in 1833. I believe that this context will go a long way in explaining why practitioners of the free-rhythm methods (I include here followers of three monks of Solesmes: Pothier, Mocquereau, and Cardine) and practitioners of mensuralism are unlikely to reach an agreement on the proper performance of plainchant.
Dom Guéranger • If any one person is responsible for the nuance theory of plainchant, it is Dom Prosper Guéranger (1805–1875), the visionary founder of the Abbey of Solesmes. A wealth of material by and on Dom Guéranger is available to readers of French at http://www.domgueranger.net/. Guéranger was one of the leading voices for liturgical renewal and restoration in the nineteenth century, and singing played a large part in this restoration. In Guéranger’s view, Gregorian chant, the preeminent type of liturgical singing from the age of faith, is to be viewed in opposition to modern music, which features modern tonality and modern measured rhythm. You can get the flavor of Guéranger’s historical account in this quotation:
It must be admitted that we had lost the key to ecclesiastical chant: several causes contributed to this deplorable result. The starting point is the custom, introduced from the end of the 16th century in our great churches and maintained up to the present, of using only low voices for the choir, and accordingly to adopt, for all the chants of the mass and of the offices, a pitch which is too low to almost all human voices. Deprived from now on of the possibility of joining in the choir’s singing, the faithful fell back on private and silent readings, isolating themselves more and more from liturgical prayer.
For their part, the singers, no longer obliged to rely on the traditional modulations [i.e., modality] that the people had imposed on them, soon began to beat time, with the aim of giving the plainsong a measure of some kind that would bring it closer to music. This was to annihilate in one fell swoop all the delicate melody of Gregorian chant, but the singers who had the monopoly and who were to keep it for so long were hardly able to appreciate this melody. Their merciless way of performing the plainchant was definitively consecrated by the invention of that instrument as awful in form as in name, which was called the serpent, and which we have seen modified in our days by that other monstrosity in honor of which the word ophicleide was coined from the Greek.
Notice the features of a performance style that Guéranger associates with measured singing: the use of modern instruments; the introduction of modern tonality (i.e., the leading tone below the tonic in every mode); the denial of the sensus fidelium as represented by simple and unaffected congregational chanting. In opposition to this modern performance practice, Guéranger instituted a way of singing chant at Solesmes with a rhythmic style based entirely on the recitation of Latin prose speech rhythm.
Canon Gontier • This rhythmic style has been immortalized in by Augustin-Mathurin Gontier (1802–1881) in his Méthode raisonnée (1859), which you can find here. Gontier’s method is based entirely on the singing of the monks of Solesmes, and Guéranger wrote a commendatory introduction, referring to it as the only true method of singing chant. Gontier defines plainchant this way: “Plainchant is a modulated recitation whose notes have an indeterminate value and whose rhythm, essentially free, is that of speech.” The rhythm of plainchant is not that of poetry, which consists of long and short syllables, but of prose speech, which is based on organization of the word around the accented syllable. Taking a famous definition from Tinctoris, Gontier establishes that “the notes of plainchant are of an indeterminate value.” They are indeterminate but not random. The length of the notes is dictated by the length of the syllables of the Latin word when spoken with proper oratorical pronunciation. Plainchant is a kind of speech:
Plainchant is a real language, and cannot be learned by a method, any more than a living language can be learned by a grammar and a dictionary. A method of any kind can only lead to unintelligent spelling or defective pronunciation. We must live with those who speak this language in order to speak it correctly, to understand and express all its nuances and delicacies. There are two aspects of plainchant which are especially striking. First, it is the simplicity, the naturalness which ensures its perpetuity; plainchant is the sung prayer of the people; its text is prose; its movement is speech; its prosody is the accentuation of the people; its tonality is the tonality of the people, the natural scale of sounds. But let us raise our voices, sursum corda, there is in the plainchant a mysterious and untranslatable meaning, it is the accent of faith and the anointing of charity; it is a humility full of confidence, which seems to want to penetrate the heavens, and to associate, in a unified concert, the songs of the earthly Jerusalem with the songs of the heavenly Jerusalem. This is why the stiff and inflexible stiffness of the musical note could never be the true expression of public prayer, because there is something worldly and artificial in the metrical value of the note, because the measured note erases as much as possible the meaning of the song. Instead, its nature is speech; in the prosaic declamation of the plainsong the note and the measure are erased, numeri latent, to bring out the whole sense that is in the text and in the melodic progression.
In essence, Gontier’s method is a rejection of both equalism and mensuralism. The citation numeri latent derives from the renaissance humanist Gerardius Vossius, who says that that quantity (long and short) of prose speech are hidden. We can summarize Gontier’s method as speech rhythm for syllabic chant, and grouping in melismas based on melodic shape, with accents on the high notes and space between melodic figures. The speech rhythm Gontier describes is not one of length on accented syllables but one of length on final syllables. We will see this important idea developed further by other writers.
Dom Pothier • Gontier’s method is refined and more or less perfected by Dom Pothier (1835–1923) in his excellent Les mélodies grégoriennes, which still has much to offer the reader today. You can download it in French here. Pothier made many improvements in the notation of particular neumes, and his typeface, first published in this book, forms the basis for the familiar Vatican Edition. I will comment here on only two aspects of Pothier’s system: the nature of Latin accentuation and the use of the mora vocis. For Pothier, the Latin word has a natural rhythm to it, which we may think of as a rise and fall. Imagine the graceful movement of a dancer, who rises off the ground and then alights again. The first part of this movement is the rise (arsis or upbeat) and the second part is the fall (thesis or downbeat). The accented syllable in Latin never comes on the last note, so the natural place of the accented syllable in Latin is on the rise. The place of the final, unaccented syllable is on the fall. The rise is short, quick, energetic, and light (think of the dancer again), while the fall is the place of rest and repose and length. It follows that the proper pronunciation of Latin when sung would make the accented syllable a short and high note (high in pitch) while length would be added to the end of the word, the natural place of repose. We call the pitch accent in Latin the tonic accent. According to Pothier and his followers (including Dom Mocquereau), its nature is high, light, and brief and not heavy and stressed like modern Romance languages.
The idea of adding length to the ends of words as a way of clarifying and organizing their utterance works at every level of organization in time. This is Pothier’s understanding of the concept, drawn from the eleventh-century Benedictine Guido d’Arezzo, of the mora ultimae vocis (lengthening of the last note): we lengthen a tiny bit between each word so we can distinguish what the words mean; we lengthen a bit more between phrases; and we lengthen the most between sentences. By spacing different groups in this nuanced way, we arrive at a performance of chant that is something like the delivery of a speech by a great orator. You can hear my performance of an antiphon according to Pothier’s method here. Note that in spite of the notation, the notes are clearly not meant to be sung as the same length. You can also hear Dom Pothier practicing the mora vocis between words in his surviving chant recordings.
Dom Mocquereau • My colleague Jeff Ostrowski has long made a project of attacking the rhythmic signs developed by Dom André Mocquereau (1849–1930) and added to the Solesmes editions both before and after the propagation of the Vatican Edition. We must not let the polemics over the signs obscure the continuity (tradition) that exists between Guéranger, Gontier, and Pothier on the one hand and Mocquereau, Cardine, and the monks who sing at Solesmes now on the other. Mocquereau insisted that the germ of the Solesmes theory was to be found in what Pothier asserted about the Latin tonic accent, that its natural place is on the rise of the rhythmic motion (think upbeat) and not on the fall of the rhythmic motion (think downbeat). A large part of Mocquereau’s crowning work, the second volume of Le nombre musical grégorien (1927), is devoted to the nature of the Latin tonic accent, and his definition of that theory is certainly based on this idea of Pothier—the disassociation of the Latin tonic accent with the downbeat. I could easily jettison every single horizontal episema in the Solesmes Vatican Edition, but I would still find a great deal of value in the way the Latin accent interacts with the rise (arsis) and fall (thesis, ictus) of the rhythm in its beautiful, Solesmian undulation. The part of the theory that Ostrowski calls “harmless” is in fact almost the whole theory!
The Nuance Theory in the Present Debate • The nuance theory, practiced with or without the various episemata that have formed the subject of recent controversy on this site, is thus tied up with certain kind of spirituality, derived from Dom Guéranger, in which this prayerful music is set in opposition to the secular and the modern. This is a kind of spirituality I wrote about in my very first post on this site, written as a guest. The singing of plainchant in prayerful free rhythm is deeply tied up with my own religious thoughts and practice. I’m sure this is true for many of us.
Now how does this context affect our present debate? Note that none of the theorizing of Guéranger or Gontier mentions rhythmic signs or altered neume forms of the ninth century. Instead, it is a way of chanting that arose as part of the liturgical movement in the nineteenth century, and it rejects mensuralism as a modern (i.e., renaissance) invention, not to be found in theorists like Elias Salomon on Tinctoris. It takes its basis in the accentuation (hidden numbers) of prose speech in Latin. When Dom Mocquereau began his research into Gregorian rhythm, he did it within this framework, established by the great founder of his abbey, Dom Guéranger. The same applies to Dom Cardine. Neither would have been persuaded by any amount of theoretical evidence of mensuralism, since the entire framework for approaching Gregorian rhythm is in the rhythm of spoken Latin prose, as shaped by the successive work of Guéranger, Gontier, and Pothier.
I am not, for the moment, addressing Williams’s theoretical or historical claims in favor of mensuralism. These are, I admit, formidable. Instead, I hope I have given a sense of the background to why so many people might find mensuralism unacceptable on aesthetic or spiritual grounds. To put it in terms we have all thrown around in recent posts: Ostrowski looks at an episema and sees an illicit modification to the rhythm that he thinks best and that his singers like; Williams looks at the same episema and sees a double note, based on historical evidence; I look at it and think, “Patrick might be right (if we really can equate the writings of Hucbald and Aribo with the signs in some of the adiastematic neumes).” But having encountered Solesmes chanting back in 2005 and subsequently reforming my life and orienting it toward the sacred, I think I get a lot more out of it by seeing an invitation to open my heart in an expressive way to the indwelling Guest. I’m sure there is some common ground to be had with both my colleagues, but are these unbridgeable gulfs?