Gregorian Rhythm Wars contains all previous installments of our series.
Please refer to our Chant Glossary for definitions of unfamiliar terms.
T THE FRONT OF THE LATIN-ENGLISH EDITIONS of the Liber Usualis are printed the Rules for Interpretation, a translation of Dom Mocquereau’s prooemium (preface or introduction), which can be found in the all-Latin editions from before 1934, including the modern notation editions. In the all-Latin editions currently in print, Dom Gajard’s 1934 preface replaces the earlier one by Dom Mocquereau. Dom Gajard begins with the concept of tempus primus or protos chronos, defined as the primary and indivisible beat. In Gregorian Semiology, Dom Cardine writes of what is translated in the English edition as the normal syllabic beat (Italian tempo sillabico normale, French temps syllabique moyen, Latin valor syllabicus medius). I prefer the term normal syllabic value, as beat lacks precision in English and can mean ictus, tactus, stroke, pulse, count, simple beat, compound beat, tempo, speed, or rhythm in general.
Solesmes Method • The idea of the normal syllabic value is different in proportional rhythm (mensuralism), equalism, the Solesmes method, and semiology. We have already seen that in the Solesmes method, there is the notion that the primary or elementary note value is short and indivisible. The Rules for Interpretation state in at least three places that a single note has the value of an eighth note or quaver in modern music:
The single notes without rhythmic signs have the value of a quaver in modern music. (xx)
Each note in Plainsong, whether isolated or in a group, whatever be its shape, has the same value, the value of a quaver in figured music; followed by a dot, its value is equivalent to a crochet. (xxij)
A single note has exactly the same value, in intensity and duration, as the syllable to which it is united. The approximate value of a syllable may be reckoned as a quaver. (xxv)
The last of these three quotes suggests some degree of flexibility relative to the text, but not enough to result in anything approximating a triplet, let alone a dotted eighth (quaver) paired with a sixteenth (semiquaver). Syllables set to isolated long notes (marked with dot or horizontal episema) are the exception to the rule.
Gregorian Semiology • In Dom Cardine’s semiology, which is essentially a more mature development and revision of the Solesmes method, the normal syllabic value is correlated with the amount of time it takes to pronounce a syllable with an initial voiced consonant and a vowel. That value can be augmented, e.g., if there are voiced consonants at the end of the neume, or diminished, e.g., if there is no initial consonant. Dom Cardine gives the following examples:
five normal syllabic beats: Veni Dómine
five heavy, lengthened, or enlarged beats: non confundéntur
five light, fluid, or shortened beats: dii eórum – fílii tui
Now this explanation sounds quite reasonable and is undoubtedly true in some cases, but do the adiastematic neumes support it for the chants of the Proper of the Mass? I answer no. We have many chants that are liturgical recitative, in free speech rhythm and chanted according to a formula: the psalmody of the Divine Office, the prayers of the celebrant, and the readings, for instance, but the Proper of the Mass sung by the schola cantorum is not in that same style, and it is doubtful that even the psalm verse and Gloria Patri of the introit can be categorized as recitative in free oratorical rhythm. After all, those verses have their own tones not used for any part of the Divine Office, with the repeated notes written as a series of tractuli, uncini, or virgae—not to mention the mediant cadences written with short notes in several of the modes.
Equalism • In equalism as espoused by Jeff Ostrowski, every syllable has an equal value, as the name suggests, unless doubled. There are no durational nuances to speak of. It is fair to say that, just as in the Solesmes method, the normal syllabic value is short and indivisible. This is the most straightforward and uncomplicated of all the rhythmic approaches, but we have already seen that it is not supported by the oldest manuscript sources.
Proportional Rhythm • In proportional rhythm, the normal syllabic value is long, and short neumes are the exception. This interpretation is borne out by the adiastematic neumes themselves. There is no question that a syllable set to a single note is normally notated with a tractulus, uncinus, or virga. In both the Solesmes method and semiology, these neumatic signs are usually given a longer value within the context of a multi-note neume than when isolated. Why? What possible justification is there for that interpretation other than the deliberate avoidance of mensuralism? Furthermore, when a syllable is actually notated with a short note in the adiastematic sources—punctum, virga with c, or tractulus with c—the Solesmes editions don’t treat it any shorter than if it were written with a long sign in the manuscripts! At least the semiologists are generally more faithful to the sources in those instances.
A Diminished Augmented Syllabic Value? • Let us consider an example that was mentioned only in passing in a previous post, the Midnight Mass communion In splendoribus:
The Vatican and Solesmes editions give two notes of equal value for In splen-. We cannot possibly reconstruct the oldest sources from such interpretations. That leaves us with semiology and proportional rhythm as valid possibilities. Here, the first note is definitely long and the second is written emphatically short on the syllable splen-, which has three consonants at the beginning, one of which is a sonorant or voiced consonant, with another voiced consonant at the end of the syllable in conjunction with a voiced consonant beginning the following syllable. Ordinarily, such a complex articulation would require the augmented syllabic value according to Dom Cardine’s theory, but here it’s decidedly short. A common critique of semiological interpretations is that they all sound different from each other, and I think there are reasons for that. The real problem with semiology is not that it neglects the rhythmic indications of the oldest sources (although that is sometimes true too), but rather that it overinterprets them. I wish to reiterate what I said in my second post in this series:
The semiologists have complicated and overanalyzed chant beyond the comprehension of the average musicologist or cathedral choirmaster, not to mention the average parish cantor or chorister. I showed some of my singers the three volumes of Agustoni & Göschl’s Introduction to the Interpretation of Gregorian Chant and commented that the 1:2 proportion of the medieval theorists is apparently either so difficult or musically unsatisfying that we need a 1,000-page introduction to get us started singing properly.
As an expansion of the Solesmes method but without the binary and ternary rhythmic groupings, Gregorian semiology is like the nuance theory on steroids.
Taking Everything into Consideration • Based more on my own intuition than any solid evidence, I believe that In splendoribus probably represents a dotted rhythm. Dotted rhythms lie outside the 1:2 proportion, but there are exceptions to many rules! The same text occurs in the gradual of the same Mass, with the same rhythm:
There is no doubt that long and short neumes are juxtaposed here in both chants. The question is whether the first two notes taken together equal one beat, two, or one and a half:
(the pitches are taken from the communion; the rhythm is equally applicable to the gradual)
Any one of the above renditions is an improvement over an equalist interpretation in terms of fidelity to the oldest sources. I do not claim to have a definitive answer, only a proposal that is in accord with the oldest sources and that represents an improvement over the Solesmes method. In light of the evidence, how do the present-day defenders of the Vatican and Solesmes editions justify their positions? What do they make of the edition actually used in the Vatican?
The evidence of the adiastematic manuscripts and the medieval writers should take precedence over our modern theories, not the other way around. In keeping with the spirit of the pre-Lenten carnival season, I wish to close with a bit of levity by sharing a delightfully acerbic remark from the celebrated organist and composer Charles-Marie Widor regarding the work of the Solesmes monks: “Their Paléographie, which had begun so well, finished like a watercolor course taught by the blind” (“L’ Œeuvre de Gevaert,” p. 399, n. 1; tr. John R. Near in Widor: A Life beyond the Toccata, p. 234), along with a somewhat pertinent meme (complete with a typo!)—after all, are we not arriving at nearly opposite conclusions based on the same evidence?