HE BIBLE SAYS: “There is no God.” But the full context (Psalm 13) reveals the meaning: The fool saith in his heart: There is no God. Many vicious attacks on Dom Mocquereau’s rhythmic theories are reprehensible because they fail to take into consideration the context. An informed person understands what Dom Mocquereau was up against in those days. In spite of flaws in Mocquereau’s system, it was infinitely better than the tedious, mensuralistic, hammer-like method of performance that had gained popularity in the 19th century. Therefore, I wish to make it clear my criticisms (in the following article) must not be viewed as acrimonious attacks. Rather, they are sober reflections by one seeking the truth. Indeed, I sang according to Mocquereau’s method for two decades, but eventually abandoned it because his modifications (which are technically illicit) tend to distort and mutilate the melodic line.
“Ictus” Definition • For this article, The Solesmes Method will denote the rhythmic system devised by Dom André Mocquereau (d. 1930) and Dom Joseph Gajard (d. 1972), who believed in the ictus even more than Mocquereau. Studying this system since the 1990s, I have encountered no fewer than twenty-three (23) different definitions of Dom Mocquereau’s “ictus.” These come from Mocquereau himself, or his followers: Dom Suñol, Dom Desrocquettes, Joseph Robert Carroll, Justine Ward, and so forth. In the signed PREFACE to the Editio Vaticana 1905 KYRIALE, Prior Dom Mocquereau defines the ictus as a “foot-fall.” Specifically, he says: “When a series of sounds is sung, a careful observer will note that the voice appears in its passage to impart a particular touch to every second or third sound, using such notes as carrier-beats or supports, gathering from such scarcely perceptible and fleeting pauses or resting-places (repos) an impetus for its continued flight, until the end of its course is reached. These touch-points in the vocal movement are like a flying bird’s wing-beats…” According to Dom Mocquereau, then, one may think of the ictus as a foot-fall, a touch, a carrier-beat, a support, a pause, a resting-place, a touch-point, or a wing-beat. Dom Gajard calls it a blow, a rhythmic-touch, or a strike. The introduction the 1961 LIBER USUALIS defines the ictus as “the beginning of the beat.” Joseph Robert Carroll defines the ictus as the first beat of each little measure. Dom Gregory Suñol defines the ictus as a footstep. Professor Gustave Reese of New York wrote: “Exactly what Solesmes scholars mean by an ictus is somewhat difficult to grasp.”
They Will Email Me • Once this article is published, people will send me emails saying I don’t understand the true definition of the ictus. Dr. Eugene Selhorst of Eastman used to characterize the ictus as “the little man who wasn’t there.” Indeed, as Dr. Darina McCarthy points out, according to Mocquereau’s theory: “a single note could in certain circumstances be both arsic and thesic.” Monsignor Francis P. Schmitt wrote: “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.” The ictus has somewhat fallen out of favor these days, but years ago it was popular. For example, in 1990 Father Ronald F. Krisman (who worked for the NCCB Committee on the Liturgy) approved for liturgical use a 262-page book covered from head to foot with the ictus. Mr. Malton Boyce was considered an expert in Dom Mocquereau’s method. Indeed, Justine Ward chose him to create the organ accompaniments for her books (which she claimed were simply passing on the teachings of Dom Mocquereau). In 1919, Malton Boyce wrote as follows:
“To Bewilder Him Thoroughly” • Broadly speaking, my experience has shown that Dom Mocquereau’s system produces elegant results when applied to melismatic passages (although the chironomy breaks down when episemata enter the picture). On the other hand, I believe Mocquereau’s system applied to syllabic passages is absurd. Consider a passage such as this:
With much original research, Darina McCarthy has treated the controversies over Mocquereau’s system in her fabulous dissertation: Heinrich Bewerunge: A Critical Reassessment of His Life and Influence (2014). Writing to Dame Laurentia (Dom Mocquereau’s friend at Stanboork Abbey) on 29 October 1904, Father Bewerunge spoke poorly of the Solesmes theories: “If you begin by telling a man that in a word like Deus the first syllable corresponds to the weak beat, the second to the strong beat of a modern bar, the only thing accomplished will be to bewilder him thoroughly.”
Organ Accompaniment • While attempting to define the ictus, Justine Ward wrote that Mocquereau’s rhythmic groupings constitute “a purely spiritual thing which happens in our own thoughts.” In the real world, however, accompanists must decide where to place chords. Writing to the organist Giulio Bas (d. 1929) on 19 January 1903, Dom Mocquereau declared that “the ordinary place of the chords” is on the ictus. Dom Mocquereau’s followers unanimously agree:
* PDF Download • DOM GAJARD (1938)
* PDF Download • ACHILLE P. BRAGERS (1934)
* PDF Download • DR. EUGÈNE LAPIERRE (1949)
* PDF Download • HENRI POTIRON (1949)
* PDF Download • DOM GREGORY SUÑOL (1929)
Did you notice what Dom Gregory Suñol said? [Dom Suñol was a highly-respected spokesman for Mocquereau’s system.] He said changing chords on the ictus is “the universal law about which no difference of opinion is possible.” Therefore, let’s apply this law to the excerpt above and observe the results:
Hundreds of examples could easily be cited demonstrating this peculiar method, which “fractures the brain” of anyone who knows how to pronounce words correctly. For example, here is an example from Dom Jean Hébert Desroquettes (d. 1972), who served as organist at Solesmes Abbey. Or consider the version by Henri Potiron, whom some consider the foremost proponent of the “Solesmes style” of organ accompaniment. Or consider this example published by Solesmes Abbey in 1981. To make the Mocquereau method absolutely clear, consider the Stabat Mater harmonized by Achille P. Bragers:
Bizarre Results • I assume the reader will agree that Mocquereau’s results are wacky, disturbing, and unacceptable. But there’s another approach which may be adopted by organists. Let’s call it the “Belgian Method,” since it was followed by composers at the LEMMENSINSTITUUT in Belgium. For a choral version of Stabat Mater composed by Gustaaf Nees (d. 1965), locate #90206 at the LALEMANT POLYPHONIC website. The organ accompaniment may be downloaded for free:
* PDF Download • STABAT MATER (organ accompaniment)
—Composed by Gustaaf Nees (d. 1965) • “Nóva órgani harmónia” (1940s).
Apples-To-Apples • In the Brébeuf Catholic Hymnal, the “Belgian Method” was used to harmonize the Stabat Mater, which you can hear at #480 in the Brébeuf Portal. If you want an “apples-to-apples comparison,” listen to #486, which uses an English translation of the Stabat Mater from a Roman Catholic hymnal printed in 1599AD(!) This translation conveys the meaning of the original Latin in a breathtaking way:
The Real Test • Without any preparation whatsoever—that is to say, without any rehearsal—I handed out #486 in the Brébeuf Hymnal to my volunteer choir during Mass. Listen to how beautiful and natural their rendition is:
Backlash Against Mocquereau • In her fascinating book (The Politics of Plainchant in fin-de-siècle France, 2013), Dr. Katharine Ellis describes the backlash against this theory of changing chords on the ictus. Specifically, Ellis cites contemporaries who warned the monastery about “Dom Mocquereau’s obsession with non-accentualist approaches to chant delivery and accompaniment.”
Mocquereau’s Justification • Based on private study undertaken in 1880, Dom Mocquereau came to believe that scholars for hundreds of years have misunderstood the nature of the Latin tonic accent, and justified his findings in various publications: La Psalmodie Romaine et L’Accent tonique latin (1895), sections of the Paléographie musicale, numerous journal articles, and especially Le nombre musical Grégorien. The 1961 LIBER USUALIS says the ictus should preferably be placed on the final syllable of each word, not the tonic accent. It also claims “the Plainsong composers—much less the interpreters—did not create this rhythm.” Rather, it insists that Mocquereau’s rhythm “has sprung out of the natural rhythm and melody of the Latin words…” It is not my place to attack Dom Mocquereau’s theories about what he called the spirituality (“lightness”) of the Latin tonic accent, but it’s worth noting that many authors disagree with his thesis. They believe Dom Mocquereau was attempting to provide a scholarly justification for the way French people naturally pronounce Latin. [Those who speak German tend to heavily pronounce each tonic accent, whereas the “accent” in French words tends to fall on the final syllable.]
Do They Follow Them? • Since the 1990s, I have listened to recordings by the monks of Solesmes. I often notice instances where they ignore Mocquereau’s rhythmic markings. The following recording of CREDO I—as far as I can tell—was recorded under Dom Gajard. [Can any of our readers verify this?] They really do seem to ignore many markings…so perhaps we can persuade them to adopt the official rhythm! (In my humble opinion, the tempo is also much too slow.) What do you think?
Let’s Get Real • With the current crisis in the Church, the last thing we need is dishonesty and scams. I have already described the way Dom Mocquereau—by changing the official rhythm—caused immense damage to the edition Pope Pius X had promulgated heroically. Indeed, so much confusion was introduced by Mocquereau eliminating elongations (which were supposed to be there) and adding elongations (that weren’t supposed to be there), it’s possible he single-handedly thwarted the restoration of CANTUS GREGORIANUS. It’s also time for us to be honest about the ictus. Is anyone in the world willing to defend markings like this?
Can we just be honest and admit there has never been a teacher of Gregorian chant who ever asked his students to sing those phrases differently?
Conclusion • Those who regularly read this blog have probably noticed that our various contributors don’t agree on everything. This causes no problems, because we have for respect for one another. Indeed, our disagreements cause us to ‘sharpen’ our arguments and (hopefully) broaden the scope of our knowledge. That makes us better musicians—which means we are better equipped to fulfill the vocation we’ve been given by the Holy Ghost.
God is the Author of all truth. Therefore, I humbly offer to God these reflections (which I have carefully formulated in the article above). Like my colleagues, I ardently desire music in the Catholic Church to be sacred, beautiful, and universal. Let us thank God for the opportunity to serve His Church, and—if it be God’s Will—make a difference. Nobody should ever be afraid to calmly and soberly speak the truth about sacred music. This is what I have attempted to do in the above article. Hopefully our readers will find my reflections beneficial.