Gregorian Rhythm Wars contains all previous installments of our series.
Please refer to our Chant Glossary for definitions of unfamiliar terms. FAMOUS LATIN AXIOM asserts, de gustibus non disputandum est: “in matters of taste, there can be no disputes”; colloquially, “there’s no accounting for taste.” Once we have moved into the realm of the subjective based on personal preferences, it indeed becomes more difficult to find common ground. It is obvious to me and nearly everyone else who has seriously studied the evidence that the Solesmes method is largely based on misinterpretation of the tenth-century MSS and does not accurately represent how chant was sung at any period during the Middle Ages, and that chant was sung differently in the twelfth century than in the tenth; here I refer not only to the practice of organum, but to the rhythm itself. In the MSS and in contemporaneous writings, a change from proportional to equal rhythm is evident, which is known to have taken place during the eleventh century. The following points are facts, not opinions:
- the Vatican edition remains an official edition of the Catholic Church
- the addition of rhythmic markings is explicitly permitted as long as the notes are not altered
- a typical edition of the chant books reordered for the reformed postconciliar liturgy was mandated by Vatican II; in fact, the former edition was mostly retained and promulgated in the 1970 Ordo Cantus Missae and the 1983 Ordo Cantus Officii, revised and newly printed with the same title in 2015
- a more critical edition of the chant books already published since the restoration by St. Pius X was also mandated by Vatican II; these have yet to be officially promulgated 60 years later!
- an edition of the chant books containing simpler melodies for use in small churches was mandated by Vatican II; for the Mass, that was fulfilled by the 1967 Graduale Simplex, revised and reprinted in 1975, which includes a simplified Kyriale
- for the traditional Latin Mass, also called the extraordinary form of the Roman rite, chant renditions in the style of Eugène Cardine or Marcel Pérès are acceptable
I pose the following questions to my colleagues: 1. What is the mind of the Church today regarding chant interpretation? 2. Does the Church give us objective principles to determine what constitutes a prayerful aesthetic, and 3. are there different standards for the Latin and Eastern rites? 4. Why is MS age important? 5. Do the oldest MSS bear witness to elements of performance that disappeared in later centuries?
Official versus Actual Vatican Edition • There is no question that the Vatican edition remains official, that the Solesmes editions are permitted, and that other interpretations—even those that deviate from the notes of the Vatican edition—are acceptable for liturgical use. Fr. Stephen Concordia, OSB, seems to have misread or misunderstood Mr. Ostrowski’s position. As he notes correctly in his guest post, the Solesmes rhythmic markings are absent in the Graduale Simplex, but he also claims that “At Papal liturgies where chant is sung, and a worship aid has been printed for the congregation that includes the chant melodies for the congregation to sing, the rhythmic signs of Solesmes are entirely absent.” While it is true that the vertical episemata are absent, there are horizontal episemata and dots aplenty—actually more of them than in the Solesmes editions. Consider this example from the libretto for last year’s Midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica:
The Mind of the Church • With the above facts before us, which of the following interpretations conforms to the mind of the Church?
- the chant as actually sung for papal Masses in the Vatican
- the printed Vatican edition promulgated by St. Pius X over a century ago, without rhythmic markings
- the printed “classic Solesmes” editions
- the printed “new Solesmes” editions
- the chant as actually sung at Solesmes at any given time
- any of the various and sundry other interpretations—semiological, mensuralist, rhetorical, etc.—with or without melodic revisions
Quite simply, the Church tolerates every single one of the above approaches; for the traditional Latin Mass and the novus ordo alike, we are free to use any of them (subject to local regulations, of course). The old Medicaean edition, officially suppressed, even continues to find a place in the celebration of the liturgy in Vienna, apparently with ecclesiastical approval. The Catholic approach to chant today is, well, catholic. If and when the more critical edition is ever promulgated, it will be the standard by which other editions and interpretations ought to be evaluated. Regarding the Vatican edition, we should bear in mind that St. Pius X himself, in a letter to then-Archbishop Dubois from July 10, 1912, wrote that “It is important that these melodies should be performed in the manner that they were originally conceived as works of art.” Surely it was not his intention to impose a rhythm contrary to the oldest MSS! We now have a much better understanding of how our chants were originally conceived than anyone had 110 years ago. Why continue to look to Solesmes or Rome of yesteryear for guidance? We are at the end of 2022, with an ecumenical council, massive liturgical changes, the historically informed performance movement in classical music, and, most importantly, 114 years of chant studies having taken place since the Vatican edition was promulgated.
The Latin Text • In a short essay titled “On Realizing Gregorian Chant,” R. John Blackley has insightfully written the following: “The lack of weighted accent in the French language has kept Solesmesian theorists from seeing what an absurd situation it is when, in equalist rhythm, two notes fall on an unaccented syllable and only one note falls on a neighboring accented syllable, since weight is thereby taken away from the accented syllable and placed upon the unaccented.” (Note that Blackley categorizes the Solesmes method as nuanced equalism, a label many of its adherents would reject.) In fact, there are a number of cases where it’s not a matter of two notes on an unaccented syllable, but a long melisma with many notes right next to the stressed syllable set to a single note—and in the Solesmes edition, a short note at that! It should be self-evident that the text is irrelevant within a melisma. Of course the melisma must be sung on the correct vowel, but the text articulation occurs at the beginning of the first note and the end of the last note, i.e., the beginning and end of the neume.
Aesthetic Considerations • Largely because of the Solesmes hegemony, several generations of singers have been taught to approach chant as sung prayer, which is certainly not a wrong idea per se, but many understand sung prayer as the expression of personal devotion rather than the proclamation of a sacred text, which can lead to an introverted and contemplative aesthetic not fully in keeping with the actual role of chant in the liturgy. When I listen to what I consider some of the better semiological recordings, for example those of Einsiedeln Abbey under Fr. Roman Bannwart, the Coro Gregoriano de Lisboa, the Schola Resupina, or even St. John’s Abbey and University under Fr. Anthony Ruff, and then listen to Solesmes, Fotgombault, or Triors, the latter three sound whiny (this is a subjective judgment, and the same can be said of other semiological recordings, even some of the more famous ones). If I also listen to the monks of Mt. Athos or the cantors of St. George the Great Martyr Melkite Church, where I had my own initial exposure to Byzantine chant, the chanting of the French monks sounds fussy and enfeebled in comparison, if not downright effeminate—again, a subjective opinion, but I think many people would agree. Is a prayerful aesthetic lacking in the semiological interpretations, or in the proportional rhythm chants of the Byzantine rite or other Eastern churches? In another short essay titled “Rhythm and Nuance in Chant,” Blackley identified the heart of the matter:
The chant of the 9th- and 10th-century neumatic manuscripts was not, as might be assumed from the various Solesmes methods, a music ethereal in style or essence. Such longing for a beauty that is Gothic, redolent of spired churches, moving with grace from assured minds to trusted heavens, stems from habit, and understandably, but not from facts and history. History, along with honest attempts to sing the chants as they appear in the earliest manuscripts, discloses a song more robust in stature: and the long notes that bear its melodies are founded on, nestled in the earth just as soundly and nobly as any Romanesque structure.
Affects and Affectations • Fr. Anthony Ruff, OSB, brought up the topic of sacred psychology in his book Sacred Music and Liturgical Reform: Treasures and Transformations and caricatured some of the arguments for a particular style of chant interpretation as akin to arguing about what kind of trill in baroque music would better move the listener to Christian prayer (pp. 492–3). I have said before that any style of chant sung well is capable of cultivating prayer (and sometimes even chant sung poorly). I want to thank Charles Weaver for the best summary of the history of the nuance theory that I’ve seen anywhere. With that said, there is no need to cling to historically untenable interpretations on aesthetic or spiritual grounds. The Solesmes method is designed—and by designed, I mean made up—to achieve a particular aesthetic result and does not facilitate the performance of the chants “in the manner that they were originally conceived as works of art,” as desired by St. Pius X. The Solesmes editions omit more of the oldest rhythmic indications than they reproduce, and those they do include are wrongly interpreted as agogic nuances. Other than most of the horizontal episemata, their rhythmic markings are 19th- and 20th-century inventions. Solesmes may have intended to set their interpretation in opposition to the secular and the modern, but they actually created a style of singing largely opposed to the entire history of Gregorian chant while posing as something authentic and traditional.
Manuscript Dates • The following dates are given in part 1:
- St. Gall 359, Cantatorium (C), 877
- Bamberg 6, ca. 905
- Laon 239 (L), ca. 927
- Chartres 47, ca. 957
- Einsiedeln 121 (E), ca. 961
- St. Gall 339, ca. 1039
I believe one of these could be off by nearly a century based on the dates given in standard editions and scholarly works. The use of ca. gives some wiggle room, but 95 years is really pushing it. Although age does not in and of itself guarantee accuracy, and we cannot determine the age of many MSS with certainly, it is helpful to have a general idea of whether we’re dealing with a group of MSS spanning as long as 163 years (877–1039) or as short as 55 (926–980). After all, 108 years is a difference of four or five generations, and MSS from more than a century and a half apart cannot be considered contemporary with one another. On my website, I list the following dates:
- St. Gall 359, Cantatorium (C), 922–926
- Laon 239 (L), ca. 930; the municipal library site still dates it to the ninth century
- Einsiedeln 121 (E), 960–996
- Bamberg 6, 966-1000
- Chartres 47, tenth century; destroyed in 1944
- St. Gall 339, 980–1000
These figures are based on editions such as the Graduale Novum and Graduale Triplex, the Graduale Synopticum and gregorien.info websites, the library websites where the digital facsimiles are hosted, and scholarly writings including Agustoni-Göschl, Blackley, Cardine, Gajard, Murray, and Vollaerts. I would be interested to know Jeff Ostrowski’s sources for his dates.
Disappearing Verses • It is well known that the melismatic Offertory verses and syllabic Communion psalm verses (chanted to the same tones as the Introit psalm verses) were no longer notated in later MSS, with a few exceptions, for example, the Requiem Mass (cf. Saint Edmund Campion Missal, third edition, pp. xvi–xxiv). To apply the same arguments used in part 1, would it be at all reasonable to suppose that those verses were only sung in certain monasteries in the tenth and eleventh centuries, not all across Europe? Or would it be more reasonable to view their general disappearance from the later MSS as evidence that the chants were no longer sung as they used to be? Likewise, would it be more reasonable to suppose that the tenth-century rhythmic indications were only intended to represent nuances from a particular monastery, or to view their general disappearance from the later MSS as evidence that the chants were no longer sung as they used to be? I am pointing out an inconsistency in argumentation, and these are not merely rhetorical questions.
Conclusions • My opinion is that the mind of the Church in the matter of chant interpretation remains the same as St. Pius X articulated 110 years ago, namely “that these melodies should be performed in the manner that they were originally conceived as works of art.” The same Pope enumerated the most essential qualities of sacred music as sanctity, goodness of form, and universality (Tra le sollecitudini, ¶ 2), yet with the nuance theory, we have a sort of musical isolationism instead of universality. “If Gregorian chant had truly had only nuances of duration, then it had to assume a completely isolated position. Something like this was and is namely unknown to the vocal monophonies of other Christian churches: Byzantine, Greek, Syriac, Coptic, etc.” (Jan van Biezen, “The Rhythm of Gregorian Chant,” translated by Kevin M. Rooney, in Rhythm, Meter and Tempo in Gregorian Chant, p. 26). Regardless of whether the MSS that constitute what Vollaerts called the model group (p. 7) come from a period spanning 55, 110, or 165 years, they furnish striking evidence of an overwhelmingly uniform melodic and rhythmic tradition, which is all the more reason to question the reliability of later MSS with regard to the rhythm. I would like to close by quoting Fr. Stephen Concordia’s guest post: “To approach an interpretation as close as possible to an ‘original’ rhythm there is no witness, no testimony, no factual evidence historically closer than the adiastematic neumes.”