OHN BLACKLEY has recently published a 503-page PDF titled Laon 239: Chant Transcriptions in Proportional Rhythm, English & Latin, which may be of interest to many readers. His older articles, “On Realizing Gregorian Chant” and “Rhythm and Nuance in Chant,” are archived here. In this new volume commemorating the 50th anniversary of his Schola Antiqua, Blackley reveals a bit more about himself than I remember from his previous writings, namely that he belonged to a Catholic religious order for some time, the Christian Brothers, and conducted according to the Solesmes method while in the order (p. 481) and that he apparently now identifies more closely with “those of us on the outskirts of Christianity” than “those within Christianity” (p. 485). He writes, “Back in New York City, decades ago, we sang weekly Masses not necessarily as believers but as appreciators of Poetry [sic] in music & texts. Masses were sung through the liturgical year to celebrate a mythos of the rabbi Jesus in history & mystically” (p. 4). Now that that cat is out of the bag, let’s consider his technical approach to the chant.
Gradual for Maundy Thursday (p. 189)
Literalism and Syncopation • Blackley transcribes Laon 239 literally—perhaps too literally. In reference to David Hiley, Blackley writes, “Not he nor any semiologist nor anyone associated with Solesmes will face what is obvious among the shapes of the ninth-& tenth-century written musical signs: the ordinary sung note is a long that is divisible!” (p. 500), which is precisely the position I also articulated in a recent post. Unfortunately, Blackley himself has also failed to face something obvious in the adiastematic neumes, namely, that short notes generally appear only in pairs or other even-numbered quantities, with relatively few exceptions. Although he reproduces the significative letters such as c, t, and a, Blackley simply writes a short note in some instances where other editors, considering the evidence of tenth-century manuscripts besides Laon 239, prefer a weak beginning (initio debilis) grace note. The plain short note, sung as written, results in a ternary rhythmic group. Rather than a sort of holdover from the Solesmes method, such ternary groupings represent willingness to admit disruption of the tactus equal to one long note and, more broadly speaking, an unnecessary degree of syncopation (which can be heard in Schola Antiqua’s recordings). The work of Jan van Biezen, whose Rhythm, Meter and Tempo in Gregorian Chant Blackley includes in his bibliography, offers a corrective in regard to these apparent syncopations, with an approach that incorporates Cardine’s insights into a mensuralist framework consistent with the oldest extant sources and the medieval writers. Elsewhere, when a weak beginning note is clearly indicated in the Laon codex itself, Blackley uses a round note (e.g., at terra on p. 34 and figures e, j, k, l, and n on p. 478).
Worksheet for Midnight Mass (p. 42)
Curiosities • Blackley includes some drafts, comparative tables, and duplex editions that result in a more interesting presentation than merely including the handwritten performing editions in both Latin and English. From a few cursory glances, I note that an elegant style of early modern English is used, but with Adonai instead of Lord in many instances where Domine represents the Tetragrammaton; for example, “Thou hast shown unto me the way of life: thou wilt fill my soul with joy in the sight of thy face, Adonai” (p. 93). My only complaint with the notation itself is the inconsistent use of the custos or guide note. In some chants, it is omitted altogether; elsewhere, it appears at the right margin, where it ought to be, or at the right edge of unjustified musical lines. I also question his claim (as well as Jan van Biezen’s) that each syllable of psalm recitation in the Divine Office should have the value of a long note (p. 12), just like the introit verses of the Mass. Van Biezen’s translator, Kevin M. Rooney, mentions in a footnote that
Actually, the Commemoratio brevis calls for an exception in the canticles, the Benedictus and Magnificat, “which are sung so slowly that their antiphon should follow at the same tempo” (tr. Terrence Bailey, Commemoratio brevis de tonis et psalmis modulandis, p. 107). Since the psalm verses of Introit and Communion show the same solemnity of decoration as the canticles, it follows that they too are to be sung at the same tempo as their antiphons, i.e. half the tempo of the normal psalm verses. (“The Rhythm of Gregorian Chant” in Rhythm, Meter and Tempo in Gregorian Chant, p. 41)
Communion for Easter Sunday, in English (p. 241)
Thank you, sir! • As in his previous writings, besides the musical content, Blackley offers equally valuable personal anecdotes and impressions. On p. 491, he mentions how Vollaerts and probably Murray as well were pressured by their superiors to stop teaching the proportional rhythm of the Middle Ages—which is a good reminder that we need ordinary lay people involved in this important work. Blackley’s editions are clearly the result of years of painstaking labor. I wholeheartedly commend him for making them available to the world for free. I conclude this post with his own words stressing the importance of musicality in addition to accurate performing editions: “Transcriptions are best done by those who both sing & conduct and enjoy studying minute neumatic details & problems—all this while making sure that the horizontal musical line of each song is their main musical concern” (p. 52).
Fr. Jan Vollaerts, S.J. (left) and Dom Gregory Murray, O.S.B.
Pioneers of the Restoration of Proportional Rhythm in the Mid-20th Century