THERE IS A REHEARSAL TECHNIQUE we often use as conductors, especially in pedagogical settings, to encourage a particular interpretation that we want from our ensembles. We demonstrate two ways of performing a passage. First we show what we don’t want, such as a stiff and wooden performance lacking in energy and dynamic contrast. Then we show the beautifully shaped and crafted performance we want. The implication is that the first way is what the ensemble did on the previous time through the passage, and if only they would watch and follow us, we can get the group to do the thing we want.
I’ve been on both the giving and the receiving end of this technique, and I think it’s mostly a pretty lousy trick. If overused, it can be pretty demoralizing for the performers, especially in a professional setting. When we give the exaggerated, negative portrayal of the performance we don’t want, it often comes across as an ill-mannered caricature of our ensemble members. So even though it often gets results, it should probably not be overused.
Something similar can happen when it comes to debates over the interpretation of Gregorian chant. It’s very easy to paint the people with whom we disagree with the broad brush of “lack of musicality.” You can see this all through the last century and a half in countless articles and books from pretty much every point of view. I think we ought to move away from this approach, because, by adopting it, we limit our own artistic range as singers and conductors.
As an alternative, I want to propose that anyone interested in these questions ought to learn to display some adaptability. An excellent example of this is Patrick Williams’s recent video introducing mensuralism. Here Patrick’s method is not to make his opponents seem unreasonable but to present several contrasting ways of singing the same melody. This is a good way of going about it! I don’t agree with every performance choice Patrick makes in this video, but I commend him for presenting so many different ways convincingly. The principle of charity dictates that we present our opponents’ arguments in the best possible light; this is precisely, for instance, how St. Thomas approaches topics in his Summa.
I’ve been thinking about this question a lot for numerous reasons. First, a dispassionate description of multiple interpretive approaches to plainchant was a major part of my dissertation, which I recently defended successfully. This dissertation will be publicly available soon, and I hope this portion of it can become the basis for a future book, a sort of field manual for various interpretive styles. Second, I was deeply moved by a recent podcast episode, from Square Notes, about the life and work of Mary Berry. In particular, I learned that this great scholar and promoter of chant was perfectly happy to follow the Solesmes/Ward method in some contexts and Cardine’s semiology in others, in addition to her early work on Renaissance performance practice. Third, I just wrapped up teaching a course on Gregorian rhythm at the newly established Catholic Institute of Sacred Music in Menlo Park, CA. Each day I presented a different approach to rhythm: Haberl/Medicean; Pothier/Vatican; Mocquereau/Solesmes; Cardine/Guilmard; and Mensuralism/Vollaerts. I did my best to “steel-man” the arguments for each of these. At the end I had students present the same melody using two different performance methods of their choice and discuss the arguments for each. I was very inspired by what they came up with.
Now, a note of caution is in order here. Isn’t there a risk of becoming a jack of all trades and a master of none? Perhaps. And within a religious community or even within a parish choir, it is probably best to limit the interpretive range that we use for singing and instruction, at the risk of confusing singers or damaging the cohesiveness of the ensemble. Still, as singers and conductors of chant who seriously want to understand the issues, I believe we can only improve our own musical skills if we show a bit of adaptability. I am convinced that my chironomy and my Mocquereau-type singing is better for having spent a long time taking Cardine, Ostrowski, Williams, Vollaerts, et. al. seriously. If I were a committed practitioner of mensuralism, I imagine some engagement with, say, Mocquereau’s ideas about the phrase construction and form would be useful, even if it would mean engaging in an interpretation of the historical evidence and the tradition that I disagreed with. If there are any readers on here who think that everything depends on a precise, Mocquereau-inspired ictus placement and chironomy, then try a course in semiology! If there is anyone who is offended by mensuralism in chant, try a course in mensuralism! And so on and so forth. You don’t have to bring what you learn into your own schola, but it may well help you get some perspective on the decisions you do make as a chanter or conductor.
This kind of comparative approach was also the basis for some of the chant recordings we made on the last day of our recent Sacred Music Symposium. I am very grateful for the participants and colleagues who have facilitated such charitable and, I believe, profitable discussions. My hope for all the people who took part is that we made their practice of chant just a little better. Sursum corda!