IN MY LAST POST, I proposed a way of studying Gregorian rhythm where the student learns several different theories about how that rhythm works. My rationale for taking multiple approaches to the question is that the historical information we have on the rhythmic performance of chant is vast, complicated, ambiguous, and open to many interpretations. By learning multiple approaches, the student gets a better sense of the choices and assumptions behind various ways of performing.
This week, the blog also features an article by Patrick Williams for the Chant Rhythm Wars series, in response to some of my other work explaining some features of Dom Mocquereau’s method. As usual, my indefatigable colleague covers a lot of ground with his post. There are some direct questions about topics like the prayerfulness of free rhythm. I would like to make a separate post about that soon. For now, I want to address this specific question:
I have no doubt that many cling to outdated scholarship and an anachronistic aesthetic, invariably described in spiritualized prose, in good faith, with the utmost sincerity, but that doesn’t change the bare fact that it’s outdated scholarship and an anachronistic aesthetic.
I ask Charles and Jeff both: What is to be gained from outdated scholarship and an anachronistic aesthetic that cannot be better accomplished by a return to the oldest sources?
This really gets to the heart of the matter of my adaptability proposal. Why would a student bother studying methods of chant rhythm based on outdated scholarship? What, indeed, is to be gained? Shouldn’t we just study semiology and mensuralism?
The Value of Free Rhythm • On the contrary, I believe there is continuing value in learning the Pothier and Mocquereau methods. Specifically, there is spiritual value, musical value, and scholarly value. I would like to address the spiritual value another time; I will only say now that Gajard and Mocquereau (and Huysmans) are very edifying writers whose spiritual insights have been formative for me, even as these insights are deeply tied to a certain performance tradition of Gregorian chant.
The Pothier and Mocquereau traditions have ongoing musical value. In part this has to do with a performance tradition. In my own case, there is a straight line running backwards Weaver–Mills–Marier–Gajard–Mocquereau–Pothier–Guéranger. This means an awful lot to me and has shaped a lot of my music making in other fields, far outside of the realm of chant. But there are also still liturgical performances according to the Mocquereau tradition of very high musical value; I’m thinking of the recordings of Fontgombault, Clear Creek, the Institute of Christ the King. All of these were made after their theoretical foundations were supposedly superseded by the rise of semiology. And yet, they undoubtedly retain their aesthetic value. In addition, through Laus in Ecclesia and other avenues, the tradition continues to be passed on, especially to young people. Patrick depicts that performance tradition differently:
I question why a style of singing, which was used by a particular congregation of Benedictines from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, should be idealized as the best interpretation for universal use in the Latin rite today. The Solesmes method was in more general use only for about six decades, and even during that time, it wasn’t used everywhere. In fact, it’s no longer used where it started.
What Patrick says here is mostly correct but incomplete. There is still plenty of interest in learning this style of singing; Patrick knows this very well, since this is the style of singing he uses part of the time at his own church. Plenty of people still own the Liber usualis; at the very least the Mocquereau method retains its value as a way to learn to make beautiful liturgical music out of the notation in the Liber.
Mocquereau is a Music Theorist • This brings us to the question of whether Mocquereau’s works have ongoing scholarly value. Let me make a crucial distinction here. In North America, we customarily divide musical scholarship into the fields of historical musicology, music theory, and ethnomusicology. In historical musicology, the claim of something being outdated means that new data has emerged that has changed former assumptions or claims about historical facts, viz., the biography of a composer or the provenance of a manuscript. In music theory, it just doesn’t work that way. The writings of Zarlino, Rameau, Riemann, Schoenberg, and Schenker, to name a few, may discuss different topics, enter into discourse within a particular historical context, or have ways of thinking about music that are colored by historical events. Some of these authors’ claims may be incorrect; for instance, most of these authors would assume that music can only be organized around functional tonality, but, viewed as a whole, their works do not represent “outdated scholarship.” We still read all of them in school when we study music theory, with good reason!
Where am I going with this? When we consider Mocquereau as a scholar, I believe we should think of him more as a music theorist and less as a historical musicologist. Certainly some of his particular claims have been superseded by subsequent research. For instance, Mocquereau’s idea of lengthening on the penultimate note of the salicus, which was based on his semiological research—as laid out in Le nombre, volume 1—has been superseded by more comprehensive and convincing research by Cardine. On the other hand, some of the broader theoretical claims—for instance, the theory of chant and the tonic accent—are based on pure theory and continue, in my opinion, to describe the repertoire pretty well.
What are the sources for Mocquereau’s theory? I see Mocquereau’s theory as a combination of ideas drawn from various sources: Aristoxenus (by way of various classical scholars like Westphal and Gevaert); Mocquereau’s correspondence with contemporary theorists like d’Indy and Riemann; and Mocquereau’s own intuition as a performer, first as a cellist and later with the schola at Solesmes. There is a more recent attitude that says that all theoretical claims about a particular kind of music must be drawn from specifically relevant historical data from the same period and place as the music in question. This attitude is heavily influenced by some of the pioneers of the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) movement. Nowadays, after some sharp polemical takedowns by the late Richard Taruskin, most HIP writers are a little more circumspect about such claims. We humans are just a little too, well, human, to really be capable of such mental compartmentalization as to ignore everything we learn from modern traditions and culture when we approach historical music.
If we dismiss the entirety of Mocquereau’s theory because it is not based on historical sources, we are committing a category error. Some of what Mocquereau writes is historical in nature, as with the dating of particular manuscripts, and some of it is more like the music theory of a Rameau or a Riemann. We have to distinguish between different types of claims—theoretical, paleographic, semiological—to see whether they have continuing scholarly currency.
The real problem with a dismissive view that discusses “outdated” scholarship in the rhythm of chant is that the timeline is wrong. There is no linear and progressive history of the understanding of Gregorian rhythm. A mensuralist interpretation of the St. Gall neumes, along the lines of Vollaerts, Murray, etc., is actually older than the Solesmes method, as attested by the writings of Lambillotte. Has there been a wealth of data emerging that Mocquereau and his contemporaries were unaware of that definitively prove that chant was originally mensuralist?
If that were true, there would be many more mensuralists than there are in the world of chant scholarship. The only alternative would be to assume that the many non-mensuralist musicologists currently working on the sources of chant are just willfully ignoring evidence. In reality, the majority of scholars have looked at the evidence marshaled by Vollaerts and the other proportionalists and found it insufficient to prove that the chant was, always and everywhere, originally mensuralist. A more sober assessment of the historical evidence—the testimony of medieval theorists and the neumatic signs themselves—would have to be full of qualification, caution, and nuance. Susan Rankin’s recent Writing Sounds in Carolingian Europe is a perfect example of this kind of cautious paleographic scholarship.
To be honest, such careful scholarship is not really sufficient to craft a musical performance or a musical style when approaching the chant melodies. We are left with a gap—a lack of information on how the rhythm of Gregorian chant works—which is precisely the problem to begin with. This is why I have proposed that we study and learn multiple approaches, to improve our own performance by confronting several angles on each question.
Is the Evidence from Medieval Theorists Definitively Mensuralist? • I have stated above that some scholars don’t find the evidence for mensuralism sufficient. I have said before that I am mensural-curious and willing to follow the arguments of Vollaerts and others, and in my last post I even suggested that students ought to study mensuralism. Why do I not just go ahead and agree with Patrick about the “authentic” rhythm? Because my judgment of the matter is different from Patrick’s; I do not think the evidence is as overwhelming or conclusive as he thinks it is, even as I think it is often interesting.
In order to show you what I mean, I would like to consider passages from two writers often cited for their support of mensuralism. In what follows, I do not intend to prove that mensuralism is wrong. I only hope to convince you, my reader, that reasonable people might disagree about the interpretation of the historical data presented by the testimony of the theorists. In other words, what are the historical theoretical sources behind the Pothier and Mocquereau traditions? We will see that they rely on the same writers as the mensuralists!
Scolica enchiriadis is a ninth-century treatise that discusses Gregorian chant. It specifically advocates “singing rhythmically,” with “longer and shorter durations,” and beating time in a song “in the manner of metrical feet.” (The translations are those of Raymond Erickson). All of this seems to suggest a kind of mensuralism. Interestingly, there is a musical example that accompanies this discussion. The example is given in a different form of music notation that does not use neumes, but I will transcribe it into square notes here.
Now, the dialogue divides this passage into three shorter sections: “Only the last [syllable] in [each of] the phrases is long; the remaining [syllables] are short.” I have shown this with the dots and barlines. The dialogue moves on to a very clear discussion of proportion, but it has to do with the passage as a whole rather than the relationship in time value between any two notes. The dialogue states that if one should sing this melody faster or slower, one should do it with exactly half or double the tempo, keeping the pace steady in either case.
I do not dispute that the treatise can be read in favor of mensuralism. One can make that case, and many have. What I want to point out here is that it is also possible to read this music example and the accompanying text and arrive at a way of singing more like the free-rhetorical rhythm of the Vatican edition, or at least like the kind of equalism promoted by Jeff. Set aside for the moment what you know about neumes or semiology. Let’s just think about the facts at hand in this one source: there are long and short notes here, and the predominant value is the short one. When notes are made designated as long, this happens only at the end of groups of words in order to create clear grammatical distinctions. Sing the example again. Now sing it twice as slow. Do you agree with me that it is difficult to sing this example and not experience something like the Pothier/Mocquereau approach?
To be sure, this has nothing to do with the interpretation of neumatic notations. Let’s look at another example where we can compare the theoretical example to some other rhythmic approaches to the same chant. We have already had occasion in this series to hear from the eleventh-century writer Aribo, when he laments the former practice of “singing proportionally,” which had “died out long ago” by the time Aribo was writing (in the 1070s). The text in question (chapter 89) is pretty obscure. (Scroll down to number 49 here if you’d like to take a crack at the Latin). A mensuralist interpretation is plausible, as described out by Vollaerts. Indeed, in one sentence of this chapter in particular, I concur; I see something that might be equivalent to modern mensuralism. Perhaps we can return to this passage another time.
But in addition to this passage and its possible endorsement of mensuralism, Aribo also gives witness to an approach that seems considerably less mensuralist. Let’s dive into two passages. The text I want to look at is the one known as the Sententiae, which consists of a couple of short extra chapters attached to the end of Aribo’s treatise. The text is cribbed almost entirely from an earlier anonymous commentary on the fifteenth chapter of Guido’s Micrologus, a difficult text in its own right that we have discussed on the blog before. The sententiae begin with the following heading: “A useful explanation of the obscure sentence of Guido.” Apparently I am not the first person to find Guido’s meaning sometimes obscure!
Here is the first passage, on the holding of notes. I am reproducing the Latin text from the 2015 edition by T.J.H. McCarthy, but the translations are my own.
De quo tenore uel protensione domnus Guido dicit: Tenor uero, id est mora ultimę uocis qui in syllaba quantuluscumque est amplior in parte, diutissimus uero in distinctione. Dixit dominus mulieri chananeę. Illam unam distinctionem Dixit habeatis syllabum, Dixit dominus partem. Dixit dominus mulieri chananeę distinctionem. In Dixit, finalis xit protendatur aliquantulum. In Dixit dominus, finalis nus producatur amplius. In Dixit dominus mulieri chananeę, finalis extendatur diutissime.
Of this tenor or hold, master Guido says, “The tenor, that is, the mora ultimae vocis, which on the syllable is the smallest, larger on the part, and longest of all on the distinction [phrase].” Dixit dominus mulieri chananeae. In that distinction, let “dixit” be the syllable, “dixit dominus” the part, and “dixit dominus mulieri chananeae” the distinction. In “dixit” the final syllable “-xit” is prolonged a little bit. In “dixit dominus,” the final syllable “-nus” is prolonged more. In “dixit dominus mulieri chananeae,” the final syllable is extended for the longest time.
Here is the phrase in question; I have appended the neumes (from Hartker) above the modern notes.
Now according to Patrick’s method, I believe that every note here would be sung as a long note, with the exception of the two notes on “Cha-” of “Chananeae.” These two notes would be half the length of the other notes. But this is not how the commentator approaches this passage. Instead, we have this doctrine of the hold (tenor), which means that we add time: a little bit of time at the end of a word (“dixit”), a little more time at the end of a sense unit (“dixit Dominus”); and a longer time at the end of the phrase. The discussion of length has to do with the words (long final syllables for the mora vocis) rather than the neume forms. Admittedly, this discussion, from the eleventh century, is already certainly from the post-Mensuralist era, if the chant was originally mensuralist. But it is, to me, quite suggestive of the Solesmes free rhythm, especially when juxtaposed with the earlier example from Scolica enchiriadis.
Let’s go on and see what else the authors say about the rhythm of the phrase:
Vt in modum currentis equi rarius uoces ad locum respirationis accedant. Spissim autem et raro prout oportet notę compositę huius rei poterunt indicium dare. Equus dum currit crebrius ungulas figit, dum cessare cogitat rarius uestigia collocat; ita iuxta finem distinctionum ut rariores, id est tardiores uoces succedant est procurandum.
[Guido:] As with the way a horse runs, so should the tones [when sung] be more spaced-out as the approach the place of breathing. Spacing the notes [on the page] more widely can give an indication of this fact. [Commentator:] The horse, when it gallops, puts its hooves down more frequently, but when it intends to stop it makes its steps less often. Likewise, near the end of the phrase, a wider spacing of the tones is called for, that is, the notes succeed each other more slowly.
Are Guido and his commentator talking only about the last notes of the phrase when they are referring to flexibility of length? Clearly not. The horse does not run straight on at the same pace, but comes to a gradual halt, slowing to a trot and a walk and so forth. Likewise, as the phrase approaches its ending the notes become more spaced out from each other. The only place in the treatise where the time between individual notes is addressed, it is in the context of describing a gradual slowing down to give the phrase the effect of a horse slowing from a run to a walk and eventually stopping. Do we not see here a perfect refutation of the idea of metronomic performance of chant? The beat, such as it is described here, is not the steady beat of measuring out long and short syllables but rather the flexible organic beat of a horse in motion. Is this not a startling image? More importantly, do you see here something of the thread of continuity in style that led to the creation of the various kinds of free rhythm promoted at Solesmes from its early days in the 1830s until the present day?
How the Evidence Contributes to Editorial Method • Here we have a couple of medieval theoretical sources that provide, perhaps, some support for a way of singing chant based on the words, with the use of the mora vocis to clarify the sense of the words. This is the heart of the non-mensuralist tradition in chant. How does a singer or a scholar operating within this tradition approach the various rhythmic indications in some of the early neumes? As I wrote recently, “The sign is something that Mocquereau consults, but then his editorial practice subordinates to that information to his broader editorial and interpretive program, based on his principles of rhythm.” Williams has rejected this view quite forcefully:
As for the why, subordinating clear evidence to contradictory a priori principles strikes me as a greater cause for concern than subordinating the same evidence to personal preference pure and simple—however egregious the latter may be. We ought to know better more than a century later.
I admit that I don’t see the progress of musical scholarship in the same way as Patrick. I will say that Mocquereau finds a certain reading of the theorists that supports his view of rhetorical rhythm and adapts his reading of the signs accordingly. Let me also say that Vollaerts finds a certain reading of the theorists that supports his view of proportionality between time values and adapts his reading of the signs accordingly. From my vantage point here, the difference in approach is not in this reading but in the relative weight that each gives to the information from the signs.
Nothing in the signs themselves demands the proportionalist interpretation that Vollaerts gives them. It is just not that clear cut! Indeed, proportionalism is often forced to ignore apparent differentiation between signs, as between the various sizes of virga and uncinus in Laon, because the signs do not fit the theoretical notion that every note must hold one of two values. I do, however, freely admit that Vollaerts and Murray generally give more weight to the signs, in creating chant editions, than Mocquereau does. This fact just does not bother me as much as it bothers Patrick. It certainly is not enough to lead me to dismiss every one of Mocquereau’s theoretical claims, let alone an entire tradition of performance on the basis of “anachronistic aesthetic.” That is just not how scholarship in something as difficult and ambiguous as the rhythm of Gregorian chant works.
In Praise of Adaptability, Again • As students of the subject, we ought to be careful to disentangle the various claims of scholars like Mocquereau and Vollaerts and evaluate them individually in light of the evidence. This often involves figuring out what motivations and assumptions lie behind those claims. As performers, our task is a little easier, as we sing from a particular score that digests a lot of the theoretical difficulty for us.
There is no escaping from human frailty, though; it’s a fallen world. Take up your book and sing. You can be sure that whoever edited the score of the chant you are singing was working with an ambiguous, confusing, and imperfect set of inputs. This editor, presumably in good faith, made a series of decisions based on some combination of historical sources, musical intuition, and theoretical convictions. You as the singer or conductor bring each of these things (knowledge, intuition, conviction) to bear on your own performance decisions as well. You and the editor may well weigh certain inputs more than others, even perhaps to the point of copying out some of the lovely and information-rich neumes onto the page from which you are singing. But I urge you to resist the notion that anything you or the editor did in this process is the perfect and unambiguous solution of the various questions and contradictions raised by the historical sources. That notion is an illusion.
As a final thought, let us also set aside the idea of correctness in performance as the ultimate musical value. If I write “a correct performance” as a comment on a jury evaluation, this is hardly a positive assessment. I think most performers probably agree with me about this. Let us strive to perform historical music in a way that conforms to the historical data, sure. But let us also perform in a way that is beautiful. There is no shame in subordinating historical data to aesthetic judgment.
How much more important this is in liturgical performance! In church, we sing foremost to the glory of God, but we also have a terrible responsibility to those assisting at the Mass where we are singing. We don’t know what every person in the congregation is going through; perhaps a person in the pews is facing some spiritual crisis, personal tragedy, or immense decision, even as you are gearing up to sing a piece of chant. The chant can certainly be a channel for grace for this person. As St. John Chrysostom put it, “Nothing so arouses the soul, gives it wing, sets it free from the earth, releases it from the prison of the body, teaches it to love wisdom, and to condemn all the things of this life, as concordant melody and sacred song composed in rhythm” (tr. Susan Rankin). But with what devotion we must approach that awful and mysterious responsibility, compounded by the all-important question of rhythm! In light of this responsibility, I have no doubt that prayerfulness, holiness, and purity of heart are to be held even above correctness as musical values in liturgical performance, regardless of which rhythmic system you choose to follow.
Gregorian Rhythm Wars contains all previous installments of our series.