Gregorian Rhythm Wars contains all previous installments of our series.
Please refer to our Chant Glossary for definitions of unfamiliar terms.
OLO SINGING IS A MAJOR FEATURE OF GAELIC SONG, and people who have sung Gaelic songs since childhood, as I have, take great pleasure in singing ametrically from memory. Nothing is more natural to them. Yet, despite this cultural preference, when it comes to singing the ancient melodies of the Roman rite, the evidence placed before me has compelled me to consider part of this repertoire (including items of the Ordinary of the Mass, hymns, office and communion antiphons, sequences, tropes and prosulas) as undoubtedly metrical in nature, and the rest of it possibly and even probably so.
This is not a vain consideration, because metre is a great help to the singers in congregations and choirs with regards to singing in time with each other, una voce as it were, particularly if many of the items in their repertoire are only sung once a year from memory, as is the case for so many members of the chant scholae I have ever sung with, and as was the case for the chant scholae of the first millennium. Rhythmic variation pervades Roman chant, so remembering which notes are long and not long is hard enough without having to deal with the additional and arbitrary difficulties of exactly how long to hold them ametrically, which attracts uncertainty and pitch overlap between voices like a flame attracts moths. Use of metre introduces significant security of performance into the communal singing (from memory) of rarely sung items, and commendably reduces the element of whimsy in the structure of the music of the Mass.
It is therefore important and relevant that it is difficult to believe that the various ancient neumes used to notate repercussion of a pitch (stropha/punctum, virga, and episema/tractulus) indicate only various lengthenings of a single unrepercussed pitch of indeterminate length. It is particularly difficult to believe this in the light of ancient writings by music theorists who testify to the existence of repercussion in the chant. The notulae that represent the repercussion of single pitches on single syllables are used in a variety of combinations which indicate that the repercussions were performed to varying patterns of durational values.
We disbelieve the latter at a cost because some of these patterns illustrate the rhythms most basic to the ancient musical style. A statistical examination indicates that the two most common rhythmic patterns of pitch repercussions on a single syllable comprise two long durations (the rhythm of a spondee in classical metres), or two short durations followed by a third that is most probably long (the rhythm of an antidactyl or anapest). These two rhythms are so fundamental to single syllables in the Proper of the Mass that their alternative, the dactyl (long short short), is not often identifiable with any certainty from the ancient notations as being present within single syllables. Even patterns of pitches that are not repercussions rarely display a dactyl as the single rhythm of a syllable unless it contains a semivocal pitch (i.e., a pitch not sung on a straightforward vowel).
Consequently, and perhaps surprisingly, not one word of three syllables in the ancient Easter sequence Laudes Salvatori voce is sung to the rhythm of a dactyl. In the majority of the three syllable words of this sequentia, it is the first syllable which is stressed, like the words Domino, homines and gloriam; the same is true of all the two syllable words, like primo, ergo and astra. One might envisage the stressed syllables being marked long and the unstressed syllables being marked short in most of these cases. However, the most common approach used in sequentiae for two syllable words is to mark both the stressed syllable and the following unstressed syllable as long (a spondee). For three syllable words that have initial verbal stress, the most common approach is to mark both the stressed first syllable and the unstressed second syllable as short; and the unstressed third and last syllable of the word is long, instead of the first syllable (an antidactyl). In short, longer durations are being applied to final unstressed syllables.
That this happens, and happens so frequently, cannot be for primarily linguistic reasons. The words of three syllables are being squeezed into the same overall duration as that of the two syllable words, just as two macrons in Greek poetry last as long as two microns and a macron, or as two crotchets in music last as long as two quavers and a crotchet. There is no convincing reason other than the existence of metre for the first syllable of a word like Dominus or gloria to be so often short in duration.
Moreover, this kind of geometricising of rhythm is used with other types of words to construct duple rhythm in the sequentiae. Most of the words of four syllables are stressed on the third syllable, like the words exultemus, gratulentur and spiritales. Their last two syllables are treated like two syllable words by being given a long duration each, while their first two syllables are both short (the rhythm of a double iamb or minor ionic). Combinations of words of two, three and four syllables thus create lines of duple rhythm in Laudes Salvatori voce.
Flores segetes redivivo fructu vernant
▬ ▬ | ● ● ▬ | ● ● ▬ ▬ | ▬ ▬ | ▬ ▬
Tellus herbida resurgenti plaudit Christo
▬ ▬ | ● ● ▬ | ● ● ▬ ▬ | ▬ ▬ | ▬ ▬
Sometimes a four syllable word is replaced in the repeat line with two words of only two syllables. In Laudes Salvatori voce, the rhythm for the four syllable word is seen applied to the two words in the repeat line.
Fugit persequentum lapides
▬ ▬ | ● ● ▬ ▬ | ● ● ▬
Deus homo summus humilis
▬ ▬ | ● ● | ▬ ▬ | ● ● ▬
Words of one syllable are either long or short and can be treated in a similar way.
Favent igitur resurgenti Christo cuncta gaudiis
▬ ▬ | ● ● ▬ | ● ● ▬ ▬ | ▬ ▬ | ▬ ▬ | ● ● ▬
Lucent clarius sol et luna morte Christo turbida
▬ ▬ | ● ● ▬ | ● | ● | ▬ ▬ | ▬ ▬ | ▬ ▬ | ● ● ▬
Et volucres gelu tristi terso dulce iubilant
▬ | ● ● ▬ | ● ● | ▬ ▬ | ▬ ▬ | ▬ ▬ | ● ● ▬
Quae tremula eius morte se casuram minitat
▬ | ● ● ▬ | ● ● | ▬ ▬ | ▬ | ▬ ▬ ▬ | ● ● ▬
The question of how it is known that these notational duple time patterns exist is well answered by MS Lit 5 of the Staatsbibliothek in Bamberg. In that document, the tune for Laudes Salvatori voce, called Frigdola, is notated twice: firstly with the individual musical notes written above the relevant syllable of the main text of the sequence, and secondly with the musical phrases written in the margin as an extended jubilus on the word Alleluia.
Bamberg Staatsbibliothek Msc Lit 5 f84r
Fauent igitur – se casuram minitat
Above the syllables of the main text, the short notes are indicated with a simple acute or a point; lengthening is indicated by adding a mark to the right end of the acute or point.
Bamberg Lit 5 f82v
The rhythm of the notation in the margin for the Alleluia does not always match that for Laudes Salvatori voce, but there is a large amount of clear correspondence. For example, an unmarked clivis in the margin is seen matched with two unmarked signs above the main text, whereas a marked clivis in the margin is matched with two marked signs above the main text. The use of the letters C (probably meaning ‘fast’) and T (probably meaning ‘hold’) in the margin confirm that the marks on the acutes and points above the main text are length marks.
Bamberg Lit 5 p168/f82v
Et devotis plus melisma
Bamberg Lit 5 p168/f82v
Qui se ipsum plus melisma
This evidence that both notes of the clivis are long, adds to all the other evidence that contradicts the stilted view that the second note of a marked clivis in such German notation is short.
There is a happy side to this hitherto sad tale of the shy and reclusive dactyl, though. The long short short dactylic rhythm can be observed often enough hiding away as a functioning part of long melismas; it might be hard to identify securely but it is there. More appropriately though (for a foot of metrical poetry), the dactyl often appears spread across syllables in texts which do not restrict themselves to having one note per syllable. In the Proper of the Mass, in words of three syllables which only use the equivalent of one or two long notes per syllable, the dactyl is the most common rhythm observed. Instances of this include the setting of the words manibus et pedibus in the Lenten communion antiphon Videns Dominus, and of the words Caritas and cordibus in the Pentecost introit antiphon Caritas Dei.
Paléographie musicale Series 1 No. 11 Chartres Codex 47 p46
manibus et pedibus
Chartres 47 p72
The first syllable shows two long notes.
Chartres 47 p72
The first two notes of the first syllable are likely to be short, and the last long.
We can reasonably conclude from all the above that there exists in Roman chant, on the one hand, a hesitancy to use a fast dactyl (composed of short and long pitches) spread across the single pitch syllables of tropes, proses and sequences; and, on the other hand, a readiness to use a slow dactyl (composed of long and doubly long pitches) spread across the syllables of the Proper and other compositions with pitch rich syllables.
Without an understanding and acceptance that the ancient notations indicate long and short notes, however, no one can make subtle distinctions like this between parts of the repertoire. Only a recognition of a notational difference between short short long and long short short could reveal such features. Otherwise, three notes are just three notes, one after the other, with just a dash of nuance to taste, as if a man with no understanding of Morse code were frantically sending an OOO or complete gibberish instead of a clear and meaningful SOS, while spurning the attempts of whoever tried to put him right.
Diciadain 12 Giblean 2023
(Glasgow, Wednesday 12 April 2023)