PATRICK WILLIAMS’S most recent post covers many topics, and I will not be able to address all his points here. I will confine myself to the heart of the matter—the question of historical performance practice in plainchant. Williams writes:
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.
Williams writes as though there has been a large amount of new evidence for mensuralism in plainchant in the last century, but, if anything, the scholarly consensus that Gregorian chant was sung in proportional rhythm in its first centuries has decreased rather than increased. This has largely been a result of the researches of Dom Cardine and his students. Compare, in this regard, the assessments of the rhythm question in the reference works of Willi Apel and David Hiley. The latter certainly expresses more skepticism and, well, nuance in the matter than the former. The medieval sources quoted by R. John Blackley and others have been discussed and quoted in favor of mensuralism since the work of Lambillotte and they have been discussed and quoted against mensuralism since the work of Gontier. It is difficult to see what is new here; the most important “new” development in the study of plainchant rhythm since the early days of the Vatican edition is surely the advent of semiology, although I will admit that the Vollaerts book is of no small interest.
“Authentic” Performance • More broadly, the historical performance movement, which has gained a great deal of traction within classical music in recent decades, has more recently moved away from the idea of performing music “as it was originally conceived” precisely because it is impossible to separate interpretations drawn from historical sources from those drawn from our own artistic judgments. The master of poking holes in claims to historical authenticity was the late musicologist Richard Taruskin.
To cite a simple example used by Taruskin, we have many of Beethoven’s metronome markings. Most performers of Beethoven do not follow them, as the results seem unacceptable to these artists’ sensibilities. In this situation, a performance of Beethoven according to his own original conception is not “more authentic” but is actually rejected as artistically implausible. A better standard for a historically informed performance is one that reads the relevant writings and uses the relevant instrumental technology but then subordinates them to an artistic process, which is the actual performance of the music in a way that is compelling to an audience. Williams quotes Fr. Anthony Ruff on whether the interpretation of the trill in Bach should be based on whether it moves the listener to a spirit of Christian piety. My response is “of course!” In fact, I think that’s the best and most “authentic” yardstick for interpretation. Your trill might start on the right note and have the right number of twiddles, but if you are not directing the performance of it toward moving the affections of piety in the listener, I can only say that you are doing it wrong. I believe that is true even for those of my students who are not believers.
To cite an example more familiar to readers of this blog, I have expressed a difference of opinion in the past with Jeff Ostrowski about what a Pothier-style performance of plainchant sounds like. You can verify this for yourself by comparing my recording of the antiphon Justus Dominus with any of Ostrowski’s recent rehearsal videos of Mass propers. We don’t agree about how Pothier thought his music should be performed despite the fact that Pothier left a great deal of published writing on this specific topic in a modern language and left recordings of himself conducting plainchant. How much harder is it to reconstruct chant as it was sung twelve centuries ago, where the composers left no writing and no recordings?
The Evidence of the Medieval Theorists • What about the theoretical evidence for proportional singing? As I have written before, I find this evidence quite compelling. I think an honest reading of the circle around Hucbald suggests that they conceived of the notes of plainchant as existing in rhythmic proportions. Now, it is also true that the whole basis for writing about the phenomenon of rhythm came from Greek metrics, and that in this context they are likely to lean on concepts they know (the long is twice as long as the short) to describe phenomena they experience when they sing or listen to chant. To expand on this point just a bit, the world of the middle ages was one where the clocks had no second hands. Small units of time, when they are discussed in learned sources, are measured using the concept of long and short syllables of classical prosody (a practice probably no longer observed in the speaking of Latin). See the discussion of the experience of time in Augustine’s Confessions.
For me, it does not immediately follow that all the rhythmically rich sources of neumes we have from various geographical regions necessarily conform to this proportional idea. I think it is possible, but the evidence is just not sufficient to say so with any certainty. Many semiologists have pointed out the wide variety of different neume shapes and designs (for a simple and obvious example, think of the different sizes of uncinus and virga on display in Laon). From the point of view of the semiologists, equating all these various rhythmic signs with either a single long value or a single short value is too reductive. I will grant to the semiologists that it is possible that the rhythmic manuscripts document a performance tradition in some places that was not necessarily strictly mensural. The strongest theoretical evidence in support of this view can be found in Chapter 15 of Guido d’Arezzo’s Micrologus, one of the medieval books that has been cited in support of any number of rhythmic theories.
Let’s take a look at this section. I will draw from the translation by Warren Babb because it is widely available in music libraries and because the translator does not seem to take a side in the question of Gregorian rhythm. I urge the reader to consult the whole chapter. In addition to Babb’s translation, you can find translations into modern languages in both Gontier’s and Vollaerts’s books, obviously written from a Solesmes and from a proportionalist perspective respectively.
Here is how the chapter begins, with Babb’s editorial comments enclosed in brackets:
Just as in verse there are letters and syllables, “parts” and feet and lines, so in music there are phthongi, that is, sounds, of which one, two, or three are grouped in “syllables”; one or two of the latter make a neume, which is the “part” of music; and one or more “parts” make a “distinction,” that is, a suitable place to breathe. Regarding these units it must be noted that every “part” should be written and performed connectedly, and a musical “syllable” even more so.
A “hold” [tenor]—that is, a pause on the last note-which is very small for a “syllable,” larger for a “part,” and longest for a phrase [distinction], is in these cases a sign of division. It is good to beat time to a song as though by metrical feet. Some notes have separating them from others a brief delay [morula] twice as long or twice as short, or a trembling [tremula], that is, a “hold” of varying length, which sometimes is shown to be long by a horizontal dash added to a letter. Special care should be taken that neumes, whether made by repeating one note or joining two or more, be always arranged to correspond to each other either in the number of notes or in the relationship of the durations [tenores]. At some times let equal neumes be answered by equal; at others let “simple” neumes be answered by those two or three times [as long]; and at still others let neumes be juxtaposed with others three-halves or four-thirds [their size].
Do you see the problem here? Advocates of both proportional and non-proportional rhythm can find something to grab onto here. It is a matter of interpretation. For the mensuralists, you get the idea that it is good to beat time in a chant “as though by metrical feet.” But that is where interpretation comes in. Are the feet regularly spaced as they often are in poetry? Vollaerts and other proportionalists read the closing part of the quotation to say yes. But the Solesmes school, starting with Gontier in 1859, reads the same passage as describing proportionality between the lengths of incises (neumes in Guido’s terminology) rather than individual note values.
Two elements of this passage are favored by the non-proportionalists. First, there is the description of the tenor or mora vocis, which is of variable size depending on the hierarchy of the groups of the song. In Guido’s terms, these are: phthongi, syllables, neumes, distinctions. We can restate this in the modern terms we usually use to discuss chant: notes, neumes (figures), incises (members), phrases. You can see here the root of the both of the first two Solesmes methods—the mora vocis creates rhythmic groups with a nuanced (variable) addition of time. The lowest level tenor described here, that between individual neumes, is made in the Pothier method by the use of a dynamic accent accent at the beginning of each neum, while the higher levels are indeterminate in relation to time and are left to the artistry of the interpreter. In the Mocquereau method, the lowest level (the division between neumes) disappears in the face of the succession of compound beats (Mocquereau’s editorial invention), but the upper levels remain, albeit in a more systematic and calculated way than in the Pothier method. Second, there is the description of the tremula, which seems to correspond to what we now call the episema. This seems to indicate a lengthening that comes in various degrees. Whether or not this is proportional (as are some of the other descriptions of lengthening in this chapter) is obviously open to interpretation.
The rest of the chapter likewise alternately favors both proportional and non-proportional interpretations. On the proportionalist side, there is an insistence on the similarity between particular neumes and metrical feet (which were indeed based on long and short quantities in a strict proportion). On the non-proportionalist side, there is the following image: “Towards the ends of phrases the notes should always be more widely spaced as they approach the breathing place, like a galloping horse, so that they arrive at the pause, as it were, weary and heavily. Spacing notes close together or widely apart, as befits, is a good way to indicate this effect [in writing].” You can see here an inspiration for the method of spacing used in the Solesmes and Vatican editions. The gradual slackening toward the end of the phrase is, of course, also a hallmark of the Mocquereau method, where it is called the apodosis. I can’t think of a clearer description of the idea of flexibility and nuance in tempo.
How to Move Forward • Interestingly, for a chant rhythm war between a proportionalist and a proponent of the “pure” Vatican rhythm, both parties seem to spend a great deal of time attacking Dom Mocquereau. To be sure, Mocquereau is quite vulnerable to attack, because all three of the following statements are true.
- The Mocquereau method alters what Ostrowski calls the “official” rhythm by adding rhythmic signs. Some of these are drawn from particular manuscripts, especially Laon and St. Gall.
- Mocquereau left out of his editions many other signs that affect the rhythm and that are found in the same manuscripts.
- Mocquereau’s method is based primarily on ideas that are not drawn from either the manuscripts of neumes or from medieval writers on plainchant. Instead, these ideas form part of a larger scheme based on abstract ideas about rhythm as well as ideas drawn from Latin grammarians: ictus, arsis, thesis, protasis, apodosis.
Now, I do not claim that Mocquereau’s method represents the authentic rhythm of St. Gregory or represents exactly how the chant was sung in the eighth century. Mocquereau thought his method did represent those things, but I am somewhat more skeptical. I am also skeptical about many of the wild, “earlier than thou” claims of the historical performance movement. The performance of plainchant in a way that tries to honor or represent the medieval tradition always requires some amount of interpretation. The interpretive leaps made by Mocquereau are well documented by his critics, including both Williams and Ostrowski. I wish to point out in reply that proportionalism also involves two major interpretive leaps:
- Equating the comments of Hucbald (and his circle) and Aribo to the effect that there are strict proportions between longs and shorts in music with the graphic indications in certain early manuscripts of neumes.
- Asserting the equivalence of the various signs that affect the rhythm: the episema, the Romanian letters, the non-cursive forms, the neumatic break, and the various combinations of these things that occur in the manuscripts.
Perhaps these leaps are justified, but they are indeed leaps of judgment, that go, by necessity, beyond the testimony of the individual musical manuscripts. This kind of interpretive leap is a feature of historically informed performance, not a bug. To be historically informed performers, we must make leaps like this, because the evidence supplied by the written record of the past is insufficient to create a modern performance of a piece of old music. In an interpretive question, both sides accuse the other of leaps of logic and in making interpretive claims that are unsupported by the historical evidence. The only way forward in this situation is to try to understand both positions and to see the internal logic and internal assumptions of each. The individual artist is then free to make judgments based on the merits of each and the requirements of the particular situation.
Blackley’s Straw Men • Williams cites Blackley, who has made several recordings of Gregorian chant in the proportionalist manner, a couple of times in this article. Blackley does not take the “understanding both sides” approach that I’m advocating here. Williams provides the following quotation, which he describes as insightful: “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.”
This quotation is not only not insightful, it suggests to me that Blackley has not understood or even read any of Mocquereau’s central arguments. Mocquereau devoted several hundred pages of Le nombre musical grégorien to the nature of the Latin accent, with copious quotations from Latin grammarians spanning several centuries. Blackley is free to reject Mocquereau’s thesis (that the Latin accent is high, light, and short and falls most naturally on the upbeat of a rhythm), but to say that Mocquereau didn’t understand the Latin accent because he was a native French speaker is obviously not a scholarly refutation. To begin with, it seems to me that the French language has a rather strong weighted accent!
Another clue that Blackley has not read Mocquereau is that he equates Mocquereau’s methods with Gothic architecture. This is precisely the same image used by Mocquereau in Le nombre musical grégorien (vol. 2, p. 240). Mocquereau believed that his nuanced, supple rhythmic approach was best represented by a Romanesque arch, which has none of the sharp corners of measured, Gothic music!
In light of these statements, the following quotation from Blackley’s book is just too much: “To be frank, enlightened scholarly dialogue with the school of Solesmes and its followers has been painful at best during the last fifty years, and an often disdainful manner has rested upon a not inconsiderable financial and sociopolitical base.” Is it usual in “enlightened scholarly dialogue” to ignore or wave away several hundred pages of your interlocutor’s arguments, and then to make insinuations that your interlocutor is motivated by financial interests?
Why We Rely on the Past • This article has become longer than I intended. I hope I have demonstrated the limitations of a purely historical approach. We are left with a question posed by Williams: “Why continue to look to Solesmes or Rome of yesteryear for guidance?” Given that many liturgical celebrations in the Church do not have anything to do with Gregorian chant at all, the answer to this question seems quite natural in the context of the traditionalist movement. I draw guidance from these people who have gone before us and who have so zealously advanced the cause of liturgical beauty: Dom Gajard, Dom Mocquereau, Pius X, Dom Pothier, Dom Guéranger. The person who taught me to chant, Andrew Mills, learned it from Theodore Marier, who learned it from Dom Gajard, who learned it from Dom Mocquereau, who learned it from Dom Pothier. There is a continuity here that is beautiful and meaningful. I can trace my study of plainchant all the way back to Guéranger. I believe the same is true for my colleagues. Now this doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in trying some of these other ideas. I will certainly read anything Patrick Williams writes with interest because he is clearly knowledgeable and conversant with the early sources in an entirely admirable way.
Within my own chanting life, things change incrementally, and tradition with a small t weighs heavily on every decision. The schola I sing with has been chanting together for about fifteen years. I am actually the newest member, since I started in 2012. I took over from a previous director, David Hughes, who is also steeped in the spirituality of the Solesmes style, so we follow the Solesmes method in our schola. Changes in interpretation are small and gradual. In the last year, I have introduced the idea of the “broad” approach to passages with many episemata, discussed previously on this blog. I have also introduced the nuance of the neumatic disaggregation, which I will write about some other time. When I sing funerals or other Masses alone, I sometimes incorporate more of the ideas of Cardine, and I sing from the Triplex. I would be wary of introducing too much mensuralism into the propers or ordinary, precisely because of the traditions we have established, but we have sung some Latin hymns mensurally.
I am comfortable with this approach, as I believe it balances history with tradition and aesthetic judgment. I am sustained by the guidance I have gleaned from those who taught me and ultimately, it is true, from the Solesmes and Rome of the past. But I also take a great deal of sustenance from the more recent work of the monks of Fontgombault and elsewhere. I am thinking particularly of the Laus in Ecclesia series, including the excellent introduction written for it by Cdl. Sarah. History has its place, but it also has its limits.
Gregorian Rhythm Wars contains all previous installments of our series.