TODAY IS THE FEAST of St. Gregory, our patron. The so-called Gregorian rhythm wars, which we have named after him, have gone rather cold of late, after an initial flurry of activity. My involvement so far has been peripheral; the main argument, at least on this site, seems to be between Ostrowski and Williams. Ostrowski promotes a way of singing the Vatican edition that is at odds with the Classic Solesmes method, while Williams promotes a proportionalist approach. Since I mainly follow Dom Mocquereau’s (and sometimes Dom Cardine’s) method in practice, I don’t align perfectly with either side. In my first post, I disagreed vehemently with Ostrowski about the liceity, meaning, purpose, and effect of the Solesmes rhythmic markings. And in a later post, I offered a historical explanation for why people are so invested in the nuance theory of plainchant and so unwilling to accept the fully mensuralist or proportionalist approach.
In several posts now, Williams has asked a long series of questions that have gone unanswered by “the other side.” Since I do not belong to that “other side,” I was waiting to respond until some of the other contributors have had their say. I am rather skeptical (in terms of the big picture) of many of the claims of the mensuralists, but I had hoped to see some of the other interlocutors weigh in first.
Today, the feast day of one of the greatest Benedictines in history, I would like to offer some justification for the “Benedictine” approach to the introit discussed in Williams’s most recent post. I use the scare quotes because I mean very specifically the approach developed by the Solesmes congregation in the nineteenth century, which is still used in many places, especially in the Anglosphere. My point here is that many of us who read this blog are going to encounter this chant in our churches this July, and a lot of us are going to use the Solesmes method (or some variant thereof) to perform it. Can we do this in good faith as an artistic and musical approach, given what we know about history and performance practice? I am unashamed to say yes.
One reason we made so little progress in this series is that the methods that are here opposed to each other are setting out from very different places and operating with very different aims. This means that many of Williams’s questions are unanswerable in the form they are asked. For instance, in the most recent post, Williams writes: “I challenge contributors and readers alike to demonstrate how either the nuanced Solesmes rhythm or the equalist pure Vatican edition rhythm for this chant could possibly agree with the Messine neumes of L (Laon 239) or the St. Gall neumes of E (Einsiedeln 121).” But neither of these rhythmic approaches is designed to agree in every particular with these manuscripts! We sing from editions that take the melody from later sources, and we sing it according to a rhythmic system developed at Solesmes that did not take the rhythmic elements of the adiastematic markings into account at its founding. NB, this does not mean that there was no reliance on history or historical methods in the establishment of the Solesmes style; they just use different sources. Pothier leans heavily on Elias Salomon and Guido, and Mocquereau relies on his investigation into the pronunciation and accentuation of Latin, working with a variety of musical theorists and repertoires well outside of the sphere of liturgical chant (Palestrina, Beethoven, and Saint-Saëns all make an appearance). Obviously Williams disagrees with the conclusions here, but you can’t really set up a comparison along the lines of: “how well do these systems under comparison accord with the early, rhythmically rich neumes,” since only one of those systems purports to take those neumes as a starting point. Even the various semiological schools still often start from the point of view of the Latin words, accents, and psalmody.
In light of this, the best I can offer is to describe what the Solesmes approach actually is, once we admit that it is not primarily an attempt at Carolingian performance practice. Once we think about it this way, perhaps then we can give an honest assessment of its worth as a way of singing chant.
The Solesmes method is rooted in Dom Mocquereau’s practice as the schola director at Solesmes. He took up this role during his novitiate and continued in it until he ceded control of the choir to Dom Gajard in the 1910s. Although Dom Pothier and Dom Mocquereau later differed on some things, as has been endlessly rehearsed on this site, I maintain that there is a great deal of continuity from the early work of Dom Pothier and Dom Guéranger right through to the work of Dom Mocquereau and Dom Gajard. Mocquereau’s formation in this way of singing was deeply ingrained and tied to his vocation as a monk and a priest. My formation in this way of singing is also deeply ingrained and tied to my vocation as a musician and as a teacher. Maybe it is so for you too. As many of us can attest, it feels true and right to sing chant this way. In light of this formation, one can look to the manuscripts for some rhythmic details, but this is hardly the central point of the method. We have our approach as we practice it week in and week out, both inside and outside of monasteries. This is not to be taken lightly or dismissed out of hand as unhistorical!
Let’s take a look at the specific example under discussion.
How do we Solesmes partisans approach this melody in terms of its rhythm? We think about its textual prose rhythm, which, according to the ancient rhetoricians, is its number. This rhetorical rhythm is the origin of Mocquereau’s idea of Gregorian musical number. The pillars of the Solesmes style, as I will never tire of saying, are attention to the accentuation of the words and the rhetorical and grammatical divisions, as these things interact with the melody given in the neumes. This is equally true of the approaches of Pothier, Mocquereau, Gajard, and Cardine. But let’s focus on the earlier half of that continuum for the moment. We observe the divisions at various levels (think word, phrase, clause) by means of the mora vocis, as described by Guido. In this case, we have two musical phrases, each of which corresponds to half of the psalm verse. The first phrase divides grammatically into the subject (omnes gentes) and the predicate, in the form of a command (plaudite manibus) separated by the quarter bar line. The second phrase has the usual parallelism with the first, and here the grammatical division is between a second command (jubilate Deo) and the prepositional phrase that explains how we are to do this (in voce exsultationis). We lengthen the endings of these various sections with added time or length (the mora vocis) in proportion to the importance of the grammatical division.
So much for division; now let’s look at the accentuation of the words. Five words agree with the theory of the tonic accent (i.e., the accented syllable is sung on higher notes): omnes, gentes, jubilate, Deo, exsultationis. Two do not: plaudite, manibus. The other two words, in and voce, are neutral. This is all perfectly normal, as melodic considerations are always paramount. But we can think about the accent of each word when we sing, in spite of the melodic shape. Considering the accentuation of the melody more broadly, we have two main points of melodic accent, on the first syllable of gentes and the accented syllable of jubiláte. Thinking at the level of the phrase, the first of these accents will be the focus of the first two words but also of the first half of the text, while the second of these will be the focus not only of jubilate Deo but also as a goal of the whole chant, the central high point of a melodic architecture.
Division and accent—this is the rhythmic basis of the classic Solesmes way. You can get a sense of this by reciting this verse recto tono, with attention to these hierarchies of accent for each word, member, phrase, and the entire verse. Or perhaps, to make my point clearer, we could consider a simplified version of the melody. Mocquereau uses this kind of analysis in a few places in Le nombre. I’m being just a bit whimsical and Schenkerian here, so please indulge me. Sing this simplified version through, adding a little extra time before each bar, and with a subtle accelerando and crescendo toward each melodic high point and a subtle diminuendo and ritardando after each high point. This will give you some idea of the mental framework someone formed in the Solesmes way has for this melody.
Now if we go back and sing the original melody with this same shape (division and accentuation) in mind, you will have the broad outlines of a Solesmes approach. There are some details glossed over here, which is where Pothier and Mocquereau generally disagree. I will leave the question of counting aside for the moment. Following the Mocquereau/Gajard approach, the only notes that we will specifically lengthen apart from the mora vocis at the ends of each section are the first note of –tes in gentes (also true in the non-Solesmes Vatican edition), the torculus in manibus (also true in Pothier’s practice, although this is unmarked), and the first note of –la- in jubilate, by neumatic disaggregation.
I believe that following what I have laid out here can lead to a beautiful liturgical performance of this melody that respects its design, its rhetoric, and its number. I will even go so far as to say that I favor it aesthetically over the various rhythmic transcriptions offered by Williams. Now, that is not an argument for one approach over the other; I am merely stating my preferences. Importantly, nothing in this rhythmic approach comes from anything other than the words and the square notation.
Now, suppose we want to go further and look at the older neumes, engaging in some historical study. Can we do this within the framework based on the words and the accentuation? Certainly we can. Let us look at the version in the Graduale novum.
For Williams, these neumes are the main focus of his rhythmic approach. Today I want to look at them likewise as an object of study, but within the traditional (rhetorical/accentual) framework that I have described above. Here are the points I would notice in this study, word by word:
- Omnes. The two MSS differ on the length of the notes at the bottom of the melodic gesture (the fifth and seventh notes). The episemata in E are a nice touch on the return to the F, and within the framework of the crescendo we are singing, they can be observed as a way of building energy toward the melodic high point that follows. There is an augmentative liquescence at the end of this first syllable, which we can observe by paying special attention to the pronunciation of the -m- and allowing extra time for the formation of the letter as needed.
- Gentes. Augmentative liquescence gen-. Both the MMV on –tes and the mora vocis at the end of the word are confirmed by the MSS.
- Plaudite. L suggests time at the end of this word. Mocquereau chose to ignore this in favor of the phrase.
- Manibus. The mora vocis is confirmed.
- Jubilate. The neumatic disaggregation is confirmed.
- Deo. There is a beautiful differentiation between the first four notes and the rest of the notes, since the first four are all lengthened. As we are coming off of the melodic high point of the melody, we can really dig into these first notes. This would be a big change from the classic Solesmes approach to this melody.
- In. Not much to say here.
- Voce. The MSS disagree, which requires either some explanation, or we can just say they disagree. The Solesmes method here more or less follows E, but without any special attention to the first Romanian letter T..
- Exsultationis. Not much to say here. I have no idea why the first note is an oriscus.
Now, if we accept Williams’s thesis that the long values are always twice as long as the short values, then obviously this approach is just insufficient. But there is actually rather a lot of variety in the signs here. It is not immediately obvious that strict proportionality (as seems to be described by many of the early theorists) is what is being suggested here. For instance, we get, in E, the virga with episema, but we also get the virga without episema. These are both long, but equal (by necessity) in the mensuralist way. But when the same stroke is in composition as in the several examples of the climacus, it becomes short. And it is equally short regardless of the addition of the letter c (with c in plaudite; without in omnes and Deo). Sometimes a note that ought to be short is interpreted as a long because the short version would create a group of short notes with an odd number of notes. In light of Williams’s tactus, this gives rise to syncopation in the modern sense. But this avoidance, to my ear, creates other musical problems. Consider the last two notes of the words Deo and exsultationis. I do not understand from the signs why the penultimate notes of these words should be long, as they are in Williams’s transcriptions. I find his rhythm in these passages rather distracting; in Deo, the G of the last clivis, which I consider melodically important, becomes an unaccented neighbor tone in modern terms. The same is true for the last A of exsultationis.
I want to do justice to Williams’s work here. But I have a hard time musically in those spots. It seems just a tad procrustean. And for me, this problem is only compounded when we proceed to the psalm verse that follows the antiphon. Being quite honest about my own formation and musical preferences, my musical judgement is that the accentualist approach is just more natural here.
There is more to say, and I have left some things unsaid in this post. In particular, I must offer in future some more justification for my claim that the strict proportionality of two basic note values is not immediately apparent to me in these MSS. I have hinted at some possible conflicts, but I certainly have not developed the argument fully. I have also not addressed some of the central claims about the nature of musical time. I have done my best to follow the many elements of Williams’s arguments in favor of that proportionality in good faith. And I hope I have given here the beginnings of an apologia for why I cannot (at the moment) follow him all the way.
I hope to write more soon. In the mean time, as that great exercise in the tonic accent, the Litany of the Saints, has it, Sancte Gregóri, ora pro nobis!
Gregorian Rhythm Wars contains all previous installments of our series.