ANY READERS can probably relate to what I’m about to say. Growing up, I listened to music with such rapt attention that for certain recordings—e.g. Chopin’s FANTAISIE (Opus 49)—I could tell you the exact measure in which the cassette tape would “run out.” When the cassette tape “ran out,” it was necessary to eject the tape and flip it over. A member of the older generation told me something similar: their ears memorized precisely where the record would “skip” in certain pieces. In high school, I worked for a sports complex, refereeing football and umpiring baseball—but I couldn’t wait to get home each evening to learn more music! I listened so carefully, eventually I could tell the difference between great pianists (Cortot, Horowitz, Godowski, Lhevinne, Rachmaninov, Tiegerman, Richter, Hofmann, and so forth) by hearing just a few bars.
Aesthetics • Aesthetics are crucial, but one cannot begin with lofty concepts such as agogics and quarter-pedaling. First, one must learn where Middle C is on the keyboard. We have discussed in great detail the “finer points” of Gregorian interpretation … but it’s worth remembering that those “finer points” are worthless if one’s choir is struggling to sing the correct notes at tempo! When I created the following MUSICAL BOOKLET FOR THE “RORATE” MASS, I focused heavily on different approaches to the plainsong rhythm. However, the most important thing is to rehearse the plainsong and make it sound as good as you can with your singers:
* PDF Download • RORATE BOOKLET (39 pages)
—Musical Booklet for the Saturday “Rorate Mass” • Extraordinary Form.
Esoteric “Ictus” • Justly or unjustly, Dom Mocquereau’s ictus has garnered a reputation for being impossible to understand. I’ve encountered many directors who claim to know what it’s all about—but when someone tries to describe it, they say: “That’s wrong.” One could be forgiven for believing only the illuminati can know the true meaning of the ictus. Dom Gajard’s famous saying (“the ictus is more in the mind than in the voice”) didn’t help matters. Monsignor Francis P. Schmitt hated Dom Mocquereau’s rhythmic theories. In 1977, he wrote derisively:
The ictus, an accent which miraculously was not an accent, must be binary or ternary whether one counted from the beginning or the end of the phrase and regardless of what syllable it might or might not hit. Dr. Eugene Selhorst of Eastman used to characterize the ictus as “the little man who wasn’t there.” And Terence Gahagan, a onetime wag about Westminster during the days of Richard Terry, would ask: “How can you ‘uplift’ an accented syllable when you are singing it, as suggested by Solesmes? Do you rise on tiptoe, raise your eyebrows, and swing an arm upwards?”
Dom Pierre Combe described 1 the matter as follows:
For Dom Mocquereau, Gregorian rhythm is no longer the rhythm of speech, but musical rhythm, depending more on the melody than on the text. In this sense, he was fully aware that he was in line with his predecessors, whose teachings he was merely perfecting. For him, rhythm was still free, not subject to measures, combining at will binary and ternary elements; yet the rhythm is also precise, because it is made up of precise values, as are the elementary rhythms and compound rhythms. Rhythm, according to Dom Mocquereau, is also emancipated from intensity, and rhythmic footfalls often come to rest on the soft final syllables of words with the light and lively Latin tonic accent.
Poor Spokesmen • In spite of what some claim about my opinions, I actually feel that Dom Mocquereau’s theories about “putting the musical line first” make a lot of sense. At the same time, I believe some of Dom Mocquereau’s disciples do his system great harm. The following explanation of the ictus comes from a musical book published by the SOCIETY OF SAINT PIUS X (“SSPX”):
In my humble opinion, this ‘explanation’ by the SSPX book is sheer gobbledygook.
1 This article includes excerpts from: HISTOIRE DE LA RESTAURATION DU CHANT GRÉGORIEN D’APRES DES DOCUMENTS INEDITES: SOLESMES ET L’EDITION VATICANE published in 1969 by Dom Pierre Combe of Solesmes Abbey. The Catholic University Press published an English edition in 2003, translated by Dr. Theodore Marier and finished by a former student of his (since Dr. Marier had died before the work could be completed). Someone very close to Dr. Marier told me that he found the work of translation tedious, and would exclaim: “Well, I guess I’d better go subtract a few years off Purgatory by translating Combe!” The 2003 version is called: “The Restoration of Gregorian Chant: Solesmes and the Vatican Edition.” Broadly speaking, the 1969 book by Dom Combe is a collection of journal articles. Many of the Italian sections in the 2003 version were translated by Monsignor Robert Skeris.