Gregorian Rhythm Wars contains all previous installments of our series.
Please refer to our Chant Glossary for definitions of unfamiliar terms.
GENUINELY APPRECIATE Charles Weaver’s latest post acknowledging candidly that the Solesmes rhythm “did not take the rhythmic elements of the adiastematic markings into account at its founding.” I have been forthright throughout this series about my intention to recover the rhythm of the earliest extant sources. This project will take years to complete, and I value constructive criticism. As I have stated previously, I continue to use the Solesmes method week in and week out with my men’s schola. Generally speaking, it gets satisfactory results, but I think there is considerable room for improvement in the method itself. I prefer the actual rendition to the theory behind it, but that’s the problem! Was Fr. Vollaerts mistaken when he wrote the following concerning the typical Solesmes-style performance of notes with the horizontal episema?
These sounds of longer duration have become, everywhere in the world (in all monasteries, churches, and even on gramophone records of perfect performances) sounds of absolute double duration collated with the ordinary short sounds of the cantus planus. (Footnote: An exception may be made for the long torculus and some other neum of four shaded sounds.) On the other hand, these same prolongations are often neglected altogether, resulting in the hearing of either longae of double duration, or of breves of single duration. . . . The singers, when adding some duration-nuance, immediately fall into a duration equalling two short sounds. Many choirs have been heard to treat these shaded tones often as sounds of even three short durations. (Rhythmic Proportions in Early Medieval Ecclesiastical Chant, 2nd ed., p. 229)
His assessment strikes me as astonishingly accurate. We can speak eloquently of long, beautifully shaped phrases, free rhythm, the importance of the tonic accent, and the spiritual aspects of chant, but those are hardly the exclusive preserve of the classic Solesmes method. Its truly distinctive characteristics are precisely what I have a problem with, namely the nuance and ictus theories that are its very heart and backbone. Take those away, and you no longer have the Solesmes method. I have articulated my objections to the nuance theory in some detail already in this series. Now I would like to elucidate the problems with the ictus theory.
The Ictus according to Mocquereau • The word ictus literally means stroke or beat. In conducting, it refers to the instant when the direction of the conducting gesture changes. This definition also applies in chant according to the Solesmes method, but in free rhythm without a steady beat, the ictus assumes a heightened importance. In order to stay together, the singers must know and understand what their conductor’s gestures correspond to in the printed music, and the Solesmes method furnishes rules to govern that. The placement of the ictus can be determined by a vertical episema above or below a note (rule 1). Where that indication is lacking, the ictus is placed at the beginning of a doubled or tripled note or on the note preceding a quilisma (rule 2). Where there is neither vertical episema, doubled/tripled note, nor quilisma, the ictus is placed at the beginning of a group of notes (rule 3). There is also a silent ictus at each full or double bar line within a chant (except in the rare instances when a slur is printed across the bar line). In syllabic passages where the ictus is not marked, its placement can be determined by counting backward two by two from the next known ictus and avoiding unstressed penultimate syllables whenever possible, giving preference to ﬁnal or accented syllables. If you don’t know and apply those rules, you’re NOT really following the Solesmes method, regardless of what books you sing from or which recordings you’re trying to imitate. There are additional, more obscure rules concerning the placement of the ictus on a “culminating virga” within a group and avoiding placement of the tonic accent in the middle (on count two) of a ternary compound beat.
Downbeat, Upbeat, or Both? • The ictus marks the beginning of a two-note (binary) or three-note (ternary) compound beat. Any note that appears to be isolated actually forms part of a binary or ternary beat with the preceding note(s) or rest. Each ictus is further characterized by whether it is part of an arsic or thetic movement: arsis is élan or impulse, and thesis is repose. Although each ictus is labeled as arsic or thetic, with the chironomic conducting gesture accordingly modified, the Solesmes Rules for Interpretation also state that “the rhythmic fall or thesis will necessarily occur on every second or third note in the course of the melody,” although “these steps or falls form in an ascending movement the arsic part, or rise, of the larger rhythm, just as every step one takes in climbing up a hill goes to the general movement upward.” Well, it’s a fine simile that leads to a crummy syllogism! Just imagine it: “Every ictus is thetic. Some ictus are arsic. Therefore, some arses are theses.” Confused yet? Hardly any of this has its basis in medieval music theory or in the manuscripts themselves. It is a made-up system based on a nineteenth-century theories, and its usefulness and validity must be judged according to how well it conforms to reality. Magister dixit, the appeal to authority, isn’t good enough.
Without Justification • In our little two-line introit, the Solesmes method incorporates four false ictus: one at the last syllable of plaudite, two at the second syllable of jubilate, and one at the end of Deo. I see no possible justification for the marked ictus on the second note of (plaudi)te. Weaver rightly (in my judgment) identifies mi as the structural pitch in his simplified version. The third syllable of jubilate is a praepunctis or disaggregate neume, inconsistently interpreted in the Solesmes method. The first note may be lengthened. You see that that note is graphically separated from the other three; this corresponds exactly to what Dom Cardine called the neumatic break. Although not the case here, many of these disaggregate neumes also correspond to the melismatic mora vocis of the Vatican edition. I say that those isolated notes are treated inconsistently in the Solesmes method because the lengthening of them is, as far as I can tell, a later addition to the “classic” method—proto-semiology, with no hint in the Rules for Interpretation. The relevance of this explanation is that the ictus is sometimes placed on the first note of such configurations, despite rule 3.
Clarity in Modern Notation • The Solesmes monks also produced an edition of the Liber Usualis in modern notation, with more vertical episemata than appear in the “square note” editions. In the modern notation, the ictus is marked on the last note of -bi-, which means there must be another on the second note of -la-. The accompaniment edition by Achille Bragers agrees with this ictus placement. Rule 3 requires an ictus on the first note of -bi-. I established in my last post that the torculus here has a weak beginning (initio debilis) note, making it equivalent to a clivis with a lower auxiliary grace note (Kainzbauer prefers the term clivis urgens). Is it in any way reasonable to place the ictus on that weak beginning note? Of course not! Likewise for the short last note. Of the three notes, the upper note is the only one that falls on the beat. How can it be otherwise? (Incidentally, it occurred to me this past Sunday, singing from the Solesmes edition, that the same figure occurred twice in the gradual, at praevaleat and judicentur.) The placement of the ictus on the last sol of Deo is less objectionable than the other three cases, as there are indeed manuscripts that support a short-short-long short-short reading of the last five notes (Chartres 47, for example), and it is perfectly legitimate that Weaver has questioned my proposed rhythm here. If you’ve been following this series, you know by now that my principle is generally to give preference to the oldest available sources. I mentioned the use of a torculus in the Beneventan manuscripts (Bv 34 shown below), which are not the oldest sources. I won’t elaborate here, but Cardine’s discussion of the neumatic break helps explain why the Laon and St. Gall scribes simply didn’t use that notation.
More than Two Note Values • Besides the long and short note values of L and E, I have acknowledged a third durational value present in the notation of L: the weak beginning note of what Cardine called the special torculus, discussed in the previous paragraph. Weaver mentions the presence of virgae both with and without episemata in E, with the implication that they might represent more than two durations according to context:
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).
It will be helpful to compare Bamberg 6 (top) and St. Gall 339, both of which might be older than E; it should not be forgotten, however, that L is probably at least three decades closer to the authentic tradition than any of the St. Gall sources for this chant.
Both Bam and 339 write an episema at each of the three occurrences of the bivirga; E does not. In L, I count seven instances of the letter a, all but one of which occur between notes that are already definitely long, including the three pairs notated as bivirgae in the St. Gall neumes. At Omnes, Bam writes the last note of the climacus definitely long; instead of pes + virga (bivirga urgens?), 339 writes a tristropha. For the third through eighth notes of the opening neume, no two of the four sources agree literally. Here are their rhythmic indications:
Frankly, my solution is as good as any. At Deo, Bam and 339 contradict each other (and L and E) regarding the length of the fourth, fifth, and sixth notes. The greatest peculiarity seen so far occurs in Bam at ex[s]ultationis. At -ta-, there are three long marks: episema, t, and x. What are we dealing with here, and why do the other three manuscripts not show anything extraordinary? When I undertook my analysis of this introit for my previous post, I consulted the comparative table here to see if any source suggested an initio debilis neume on the following syllable, -ti-. At least in proportional rhythm, grace notes take their value from the preceding note, not the following note. I wonder if the triple long indication is nothing more than a reminder to hold the note a full beat without adding a grace note. We may never know!
Steps toward Restoration • For your consideration, I offer a partially corrected rhythmic edition based on the foregoing discussion, which corrects three of the false ictus and incorporates the points of interpretation mentioned by Weaver. You can verify that this version adds rhythmic markings but makes no changes to the Vatican edition:
Unlike in the Solesmes edition, there are no positive errors, but many of the manuscript indications are lacking. Where are those long bivirgae? What about the penultimate note of gentes, definitely long in all four of the manuscripts? What about the isolated uncini (Laon), tractuli (St. Gall), virgae (St. Gall), or puncta (Vatican) at -mnes, -di-, ma-, ju-, -te, vo-, and -ta-? In contrast to the same neumes at -bus, -o, and -nis, is there some good reason to interpret those other seven as short, especially the three on stressed syllables and the one with a triple long indication in Bamberg 6? Would something like the following not gain greatly in fidelity to the oldest sources, meanwhile avoiding dealing with the manuscript ambiguities (1–3, 6, 7) and controversial points of interpretation (4, 5, 8)?
This looks awfully close to my edition (below), with only those eight long marks lacking. Sing it. Whether you interpret the long notes as double proportions or slight nuances is unimportant for the moment; just be sure to sing them long enough that a scribe wouldn’t notate them as short notes.
Problem Spots • I drafted this section as a separate follow-up post but subsequently decided to include it here. All three of the controversial points of interpretation referred to above concern whether or not a note at the end of a neume is long. Mainstream semiology is in agreement that each of these notes should be long. To my knowledge, the principle is not articulated in Cardine’s Gregorian Semiology, but rather in his introduction to the 1983 Liber Hymnarius published by Solesmes, where he states as a rule that notes at the end of an otherwise short, cursive neume regain the normal syllabic value, which he calls the recovered syllabic value (valor syllabicus recuperatus). That principle is consistently applied in the Graduale Lagal (below) for neumes of three or more notes—although that edition was rejected by Cardine himself. Unlike proportionalists (mensuralists), semiologists make no distinction between odd- and even-numbered groupings. The specific neumes in question in the introit Omnes gentes are the cursive porrectus at -la-, the climacus resupinus flexus at De-, and the torculus resupinus flexus at -o-. Arguments for the short-short-long interpretation of the cursive porrectus in particular are to be found in the works already cited in this series.
As for the climacus resupinus flexus, I mentioned the Beneventan notation of the last three notes as a torculus, in opposition to the typical Chartres notation as short-short-long short-short. With only a little effort, I was able to identify sixteen other occurrences of this figure in fourteen chants, with most of them notated in four or five manuscripts; someone more enterprising will surely find additional examples. Among about 70 total instances I examined in Laon and the four oldest St. Gall sources (C, E, Bam, 339*), I found only two where the first note alone was written long, three where the third note alone was written long, and one where the fifth note was written long. Additionally, there is one instance where the fourth and fifth notes (the clivis) are both long, and another where the entire five-note figure is long. In none of these cases is a particular long mark duplicated in another source for the same chant. In contrast, the letter c above the fourth note is so prevalent that I didn’t attempt to count its occurrences. There are a few instances of c above the first note, and at least one of st after the third note. I did not notice a single instance of c or n next to the final note, but that is not sufficient to say definitively that it is not short. The data is inconclusive, and you can see why I call this a problem spot.
[Update: A few hours after publishing, I remembered a very similar figure (scandicus subbipunctis resupinus flexus) in the gradual Domine praevenisti, written entirely short in E, C, and 339. Bam writes the first, second, third, and fifth notes long, which correspond to the first and third notes of the climacus resupinus flexus. Fortunately, one of the surviving tenth-century fragments from Nonantola includes this chant and shows an episema on the last note at both occurrences (ei and saeculum). It might not be our smoking gun, but this evidence is certainly is worth noting. Below is Jan van Biezen’s transcription.]
Although they are both nominally cursive figures of five notes, unlike the climacus resupinus flexus, the torculus resupinus flexus is actually written without lifting the pen. It would be helpful for demonstrative purposes if some scribe had written it with an episema or t at the last note, but alas, we have no such luck. I only compared two other examples, both from the Midnight Mass offertory Laetentur caeli, but I will be on the lookout for others. If you don’t find the semiological principle of lengthening the final notes of neumes persuasive, consider whether my arguments concerning the rest of this chant have been convincing. If yes, then you can confirm for yourself that the short notes elsewhere either come in pairs (or other even numbers) or are grace notes, but here, at the end of the chant, we apparently have an odd number of short notes. Either there is syncopation, or there is some other explanation. I can think of only four ways out of the problem: 1. one of the notes is long, 2. the first note is a grace note, 3. the neume starts on the half beat instead of the beat itself, or 4. the following neume starts on the half beat. I see no evidence in favor of any of the latter three. My “solution” is to lengthen the last note, but I remain open to any other evidence-based possibilities.
Too Much? Not Enough! • I have shown that the Solesmes editions omit many of the length indications of the oldest sources. Although Jeff Ostrowski claims that the rhythmic markings are “technically illicit,” the 1958 Instruction on Sacred Music and Sacred Liturgy De musica sacra et sacra liturgia could hardly be any clearer: “The rhythmic signs which have been inserted into some chant editions on private authority are permitted so long as they not alter the melodic line of the grouping of the notes, as they appear in the Vatican editions.” Unfortunately, unlike for melodic variants, the Church has established no requirement that such rhythmic signs actually be correct or taken from ancient codices. There are no ictus marks per se in the adiastematic neumes, but do the Solesmes editions also fail to place the beat correctly? According to their own rules, there are 34 compound beats in the Solesmes edition of this antiphon. Thirty ictus are placed correctly, which doesn’t imply that the rhythm of the entire compound beat is correct. Only eleven of the Solesmes compound beats can be considered correct, with the ictic note marked in green (10) or brown (1) below. The four erroneous ictus discussed above are marked in red. Purple signifies a correctly identified ictus without the entire compound beat being correct (19 including the bar line; notice that the total so far adds up correctly: 10+1+4+19=34). Blue signifies an ictic note not identified by application of the Solesmes rules (24). Gray signifies non-ictic notes not misidentified as ictic (12). I invite you to verify for yourself that the total number of beats in my proposed proportional rhythm is 53, compared to the 34 of the Solesmes edition:
11 compound beats correctly identified (1 of them debatable)
+18 additional correctly identified ictic notes
+24 unidentified ictic notes
What percentage shall we consider a passing score? I believe we can achieve true artistry, beauty, piety, and authenticity in our singing without ictus placement rules and ternary groupings. What do you think?
* Jeff Ostrowski refers to these collectively as “Moc’s Fantastic Four,” with “Moc” being Dom Mocquereau.