THINGS HAVE BEEN HEATING UP again in our series on Gregorian rhythm. I have found the recent posts to be very engaging. Admittedly, this is one of my favorite things to think and read about, but I hope that others have found the variety of opinions on offer as interesting and even inspiring as I have. The main course of the conversation has followed a disagreement about the interpretation of the signs with apparent rhythmic meaning in neumatic notations from Chartres, Laon, and St. Gall. Two opposing positions have been amply laid out in recent posts by both Jeff and Patrick. I don’t have anything to add to that discussion at this time.
At the same time, Patrick and I have been engaged in a second disagreement regarding the testimony of medieval music theorists. On many other issues discussed in those two posts, I think we are mostly either in agreement or have said enough to stake out very clear positions. I will have more to add at another time about the spiritual and aesthetic values that remain in the Solesmes tradition. For now, on to our medieval writers. I want to revisit two texts mentioned in my last post, Scholica enchiriadis and Guido’s Micrologus.
A Note of Caution • We should be very careful in how we approach, read, and quote from medieval writers. In particular, I try never to assume that the meaning of anything in these texts is obvious. Patrick recently wrote with a contrasting view:
Charles acknowledged that Guido’s meaning is sometimes obscure, which is a common complaint about many of the medieval theorists. But as Alasdair Codona has pointed out elsewhere, they use unambiguous terms such as unus, duo, and ratio. There is no good reason to think that a 1:2 ratio means anything besides what the words literally mean.
I agree, in principle, that we can accept such terms more or less at face value, but even here I find these terms to be charged with mystery (unity, duality, and ratio are each things I find supremely mysterious!) and possibly subject to differences of understanding between people from different time periods. This particular example is striking, as it reminds me forcefully of a passage from Augustine’s Confessions:
Does not my soul most truly confess unto Thee, that I do measure times? Do I then measure, O my God, and know not what I measure? I measure the motion of a body in time; and the time itself do I not measure? Or could I indeed measure the motion of a body how long it were, and in how long space it could come from this place to that, without measuring the time in which it is moved? This same time then, how do I measure? do we by a shorter time measure a longer, as by the space of a cubit, the space of a rood? for so indeed we seem by the space of a short syllable, to measure the space of a long syllable, and to say that this is double the other. Thus measure we the spaces of stanzas, by the spaces of the verses, and the spaces of the verses, by the spaces of the feet, and the spaces of the feet, by the spaces of the syllables, and the spaces of long, by the space of short syllables; not measuring by pages (for then we measure spaces, not times); but when we utter the words and they pass by, and we say “it is a long stanza, because composed of so many verses; long verses, because consisting of so many feet; long feet, because prolonged by so many syllables; a long syllable because double to a short one. But neither do we this way obtain any certain measure of time; because it may be, that a shorter verse, pronounced more fully, may take up more time than a longer, pronounced hurriedly. And so for a verse, a foot, a syllable. Whence it seemed to me, that time is nothing else than protraction; but of what, I know not; and I marvel, if it be not of the mind itself? For what, I beseech Thee, O my God, do I measure, when I say, either indefinitely “this is a longer time than that,” or definitely “this is double that”? That I measure time, I know; and yet I measure not time to come, for it is not yet; nor present, because it is not protracted by any space; nor past, because it now is not. What then do I measure? Times passing, not past? for so I said.
This passage gives clear evidence that a long syllable lasts for twice as long as a short syllable in ancient rhythmics. I do not dispute that. It is proven even more vehemently in the first two books of Augustine’s treatise on music. But in this case, that evidence, so central to the ancient conception of rhythm, is embedded within a very sophisticated investigation of the nature of time that repays a lot of thought and reflection. Much the same ground is covered in the sixth book of the treatise on music, where the order produced by proportional numbers take on a cosmic significance. But how different is Augustine’s conception of time from our usual way of talking about it! This is not Newton’s or Einstein’s conception of time but something different. Augustine uses the example of long and short syllables as a way to discuss timespans, but without recourse to any kind of objective standard. We can take what he says at face value: we know that long syllables last twice as long as short in classical poetry, but our way of thinking about it is different from Augustine’s. We have recourse to powerful tools for measuring time. Our understanding of musical time and indeed our experience of the passage of time is informed very much by the present ubiquity of metronomes and mechanical clocks. I suggest that in a very subtle way this might color our understanding of Augustine’s use of these terms. I concur wholeheartedly that long syllables are twice as long in duration as short syllables, but we should resist the temptation to use mechanical means to calibrate that judgment, and we should not presume that we understand timespans in a way perfectly the same as Augustine. Similar issues may apply with pretty much any ancient writer, and musicologists are not immune to misunderstanding. And so I like to proceed with caution in reading old writings, even with things as plain as simple ratios between durations. Feel free to ignore my scruples!
Clapping While Chanting • A perfect example of proceeding without caution into a potential misunderstanding is the opening of Patrick’s most recent article:
In his latest reply, Charles Weaver conveniently left out the sentence immediately before the quoted text from the Scolica enchiriadis, which says, “Come, let us sing for exercise; I will stamp my feet in anticipation, and you will imitate in following” (Age canamus exercitii usu; plaudam pedes ego in praecinendo, tu sequendo imitabere). In the context of discussing metrical feet, someone else might translate the second clause as, “I will clap the feet.” Either way, are we to believe that teacher and pupil stamped their feet or clapped their hands in free oratorical rhythm, with agogic nuances instead of a steady beat?
In my previous post, I had introduced this music example from the treatise, while remarking that the effect of singing it this way is basically indistinguishable from singing chant according to the various Solesmes methods.
Patrick suggests that I left a sentence out in order to hide some clear but inconvenient (for me) evidence of a steady beat in this chant. I assure you that this was not my intention; in the post, I don’t deny the elements of the treatise that favor a mensuralist interpretation. Nevertheless, the missing sentence hardly provides clear evidence of a steady beat! There are a lot of ways of interpreting this instruction, including the way Patrick interprets it, and I want to explore several of them.
In what follows, then, we will examine ways one might sing according to both of Patrick’s two proposed translations of plaudam pedes ego. I will say at the outset, however, that the first translation (“I will stamp my feet”) seems improbable to me. This section of the dialogue is discussing rhythm in a very specific way, drawing on an ancient tradition that was primarily transmitted to the Carolingian writers by way of Augustine. The “feet” (“pedes”) in this sentence are almost certainly the metric feet, rather than the ones at the ends of the teacher’s legs, as Patrick suggests as a possible alternative.
A metric foot in poetry is a rhythmic unit made up of syllables, and these feet combine to form verses. In other words, the teacher is indicating some kind of rhythmic grouping, and you can think of these groups as being feet, just as the rhythm of the chant is being considered according to the way one might analyze the rhythm of a poetic verse. But what about clapping? Is this pair clapping some kind of steady, isochronous beat? This also seems unlikely to me, but my skepticism does not mean that I think they are “clapping” some kind of agogic nuance, which would indeed be absurd. My skepticism is based on the fact that I think we are in danger of misreading the word translated here as “stamp” or “clap.”
Augustine Explains the Sound of One Hand Clapping • To understand what “plaudere” means in this context, we need to turn to Augustine again, who discusses the topic in many places in his treatise on music. Here is one such place, with my own translation (although the one linked to above is quite good too!):
Attend therefore with the ear on the sound and with the eyes on the beat, for the action of the beating (lit. “clapping”) hand is meant to be seen but not heard. And pay close attention to how much duration of time is spent on the arsis and how much on the thesis.
Intende ergo et aurem in sonum, et in plausum oculos: non enim audiri, sed videri opus est plaudentem manum, et animadverti acriter quanta temporis mora in levatione, quanta in positiones.
To put it plainly, to “clap the feet” means to make a silent gesture with the hand of a rise (arsis) and fall (thesis) that marks the time. Indeed, perhaps “marking the time” would be a good translation. “Beating time,” like what Alice describes at the tea party, would also be fine, except that this also has definitive connotations of a steady beat that is not necessarily in the original concept of marking the arsis and thesis.
My hypothesis of the specific, Augustinian meaning of “feet” and “marking time” is reinforced by the way the illustration is shown in some of the sources of the treatise. A couple of the manuscripts of the treatise show prosody symbols (long and short) above the text of this example; especially noteworthy is A copy of the treatise in Munich:
There has also been some controversy regarding which syllables are actually marked long in this source, although this is not important for our purposes. (The text is quite clear on this point.) There are also some fainter prosody signs in another source of the treatise, which is considerably older.
Notice that the prosody symbols are referring to the length of the musical sounds rather than by the actual syllables. For instance, the “ve-“ of “veritas” is a long syllable in classical Latin, but it is marked short in this chant. Conversely, the “-a” of “via” is a short syllable in classical Latin, but it marked is long in this chant. We are dealing with a musical rhythm of long and short sounds rather than of long and short syllables.
Plaudamus pedes • Now, let’s arrange these syllables into feet. The treatise does not give us any specific guidelines for doing so, which means that anything we do in this regard will be somewhat conjectural. I’m going to give three possible ways of doing this. I believe each is a good faith effort to understand the meaning of the text and to sing the example accordingly. I also think all three are possible interpretations.
Method 1: Guido’s Way • First, let’s try to get a little more clarity about how musical notes can be grouped into feet by listening to what Guido says on the subject in his famous chapter 15. I linked to the Latin above, or you can see my earlier post on the subject of why interpreting this chapter is difficult. Here I will paraphrase a bit, but I’m not trying to read anything into the treatise that is not there.
For Guido, a melody is made up of sounds (think of these as the individual notes), which are grouped into little melodic gestures called syllables, which are grouped into things called neumes or parts (he uses these terms interchangeably and does not distinguish between them), which are themselves grouped into phrases (distinctions).
Having begun with this comparison, Guido continues by saying that the melodic gestures (syllables) are like metric syllables, the neumes/parts are like metric feet, and the distinctions are like verses. We ought to mark time in chant as we do in verse.
We also ought to treat each phrase (distinction) like the motion of a horse, so that as we approach the ending of the phrase, we slow down (singing the notes farther apart in time) to make an elegant arrival. And all of this advice should be treated with moderation and good taste.
With that testimony in mind, it is not clear how we ought to apply these lengths to the sections of this antiphon. One plausible way would be to think of each section as a neume. Sing the example while making a rise and fall with your hand three times. The ending of each motion would correspond to the long note at the end of each section. As you do so, make sure to round off the ending with a gradual slowing down.
Method 2: Mocquereau’s Way • At the risk of being somewhat provocative and tendentious, I will offer another conjectural way that we might divide this melody into “feet,” each of which has an arsis and thesis. This is the way that Mocquereau would proceed. I’m not being exact here or following ancient procedure, since, again, we aren’t basing the scansion on the actual quantity of the syllables. In other words, the “feet” won’t really be true feet in the sense of known rhythms that appear in classical meter. Instead, I’m dividing the melody into timespans of four to six short values, which has the advantage that it mostly corresponds to the words. Some words are too short to make a foot (“sum” and “et”), so let’s conjecturally combine them rhythmically with another word, so we can treat “ego sum” as one foot and “veritas et” as one foot, etc.
Sing the melody while your hand traces, in the air, something like the curves here, which show the rise and the fall of each “foot.” As with method 1, make sure that you treat the endings of the phrases with a gradual slowing down.
Now this is not quite the classic Solesmes method, but it is suggestive. I had to fudge the feet a little bit at the end. More likely, Mocquereau would divide the ending differently and also make the second syllable from the end a quarter note. In fact, that change would allow us to continue in a steady duple division. We will return to this last point later.
Method 3: Vollaerts’s Way • Patrick has offered the following information about the durations of this melody:
Vollaerts notes that an eleventh-century manuscript from the archives of St. John Lateran gives the melody of the Ego sum via antiphon in St. Gall neumes with episemata, which means we’re actually dealing with long and double-long notes, in 1:2 proportion, sped up to equal ordinary short and long notes.
Incidentally, I don’t know what this Lateran source is, and Vollaerts does not provide the neumes. There is no information about it in the usual databases. But there are a couple of adiastematic-neume sources for this chant, neither of which tells us anything about rhythmic differentiation.
There is a version in a book in Leipzig:
And there is a version in the Mont-Renaud Antiphoner:
Let’s accept for the moment that each of the pitches sung in this antiphon the basic (long) value that one finds most prevalently in the repertoire. First, sing the melody again, while stamping your foot on each note. (Maybe don’t do this if you are reading this article on the subway.) You can choose whatever tempo is convenient for you, but make sure to keep a steady beat, as Vollaerts suggests that the two-to-one proportion is the most important thing being taught here.
Interestingly, this steady beat lends itself well to exploring the double proportion, as the dialogue goes on to suggest. With only a couple of small tweaks, one can sing the melody twice as fast while keeping the same steady tactus:
Common Ground? • If we compare the three methods, what features do they share? The first two are clearly very similar, but the hand motions of the second are a bit easier to figure out. They seem a little more intuitive to me. I hope you agree with me that these are very closely related (a fact that I would relate to my idea of a continuous Solesmes tradition of free rhythm)! The Pothier method of chant, favored by Jeff and embodied in the Vatican Edition without the Solesmes rhythmic signs, is somewhere between method 1 and method 2. These are connected not only to each other but to certain striking features of both this music example and the work of Guido. In particular, the indication of length is reserved for the ending of grammatical units. This became a defining feature of the style, the famous mora ultimae vocis. As Guido says, one would add a little bit of time to the ends of the “syllables,” a bit more time to the ends of the neumes or parts, and rather more time to the ends of the distinctions. All of this can be incorporated into the quite free rhythmic shapes of method 1, as in Pothier, or in the more clearly defined smaller shapes of method 2.
Lastly, I would like to note a clear resemblance between methods 2 and 3. Especially my hypothetical faster version of method 3 is, for all intents and purposes, identical with how a Mocquereau-steeped conductor would approach the chant. One might even resort to tapping out the ictus when conducting a group of rank beginners (in the slow form at first and then later the fast form). The only real divergence is that the Mocquereau-style chanter would go on to get rid of the strict, steady beat (Guido’s horse again) as the student got to know the chant better, introducing a delivery focused more on the beautiful settings of the tonic accent.
Steel Men • I have done my best in this post and elsewhere on this blog to present the strongest possible versions of the arguments of my interlocutors. I promise to strive never to make a caricature of their positions, at least in the context of serious arguments. In the Catholic context, we might think of this as the principle of charity. This way of proceeding is the most striking feature of St. Thomas’s method in his Summa; I think this should be a model for all of us. In that spirit, I encourage you, if you are free to do so, to sing each of the three methods described and try to make the best and most sensible performance out of them that you can.
Gregorian Rhythm Wars contains all previous installments of our series.