ONE DRAWBACK of living in the internet age is that we have new and often unreasonable demands placed on our attention. I have heard from my friends who are on social media that there is a certain pressure to offer opinions on any number of topics. In this environment, silence (which may be simply the result of a person being busy, not logging in, or just not having much to say) is sometimes construed in entirely the wrong way, as evidence that the silent one harbors a particular (presumably bad) opinion. Even within the very narrow confines of the Corpus Christi Watershed online debate about Gregorian rhythm, it seems that this attitude has taken hold.
My indefatigable colleague Patrick concludes his latest post in this way:
I did not intend to post in the Rhythm Wars Series again so soon, but I saw no need to delay replying to Jeff’s latest post. I hope he will extend to me the same courtesy of not unduly delaying his reply to the two new questions from my previous post. He has already unreasonably delayed his reply to my other seven questions, some of which were first asked back in November of last year. It seems that no shots are now being fired by my opponents, only blanks. I haven’t suffered a single blow in the combat, but I’m nevertheless ready to wrap things up. I think our readers and I have been patient enough already. If Jeff wishes to extend my participation in this war into a second year, I admonish him that if any of my ten questions from September 16 remain unanswered by All Saints’ Day (November 1, 2023), I will consider it equivalent to an unconditional surrender on his part.
I don’t know if I number among Patrick’s “opponents.” The main argument, such as it is, seems to be between Jeff and Patrick, although I have repeatedly staked out a position in favor of viewing the classic Solesmes method developed by Dom Mocquereau as neither illicit (as Jeff would have it) nor a waste of time based on outdated scholarship (as Patrick would have it). At the same time, I have often praised Patrick’s work and have encouraged everyone to study the theory and history behind mensuralism for themselves. I don’t know if I am included in Patrick’s ultimatum, therefore, but lest my silence be interpreted as capitulation, I would like to sketch out some answers here. I write in some haste, as I find a free moment here on an idyllic Sunday afternoon, so I may be briefer than I would otherwise like.
Mocq in the Dock • One reason it is difficult to write a pithy post that answers these particular questions is that the questions, which have recurred several times now, are usually embedded in a much longer and more complex post with many other things to respond to. Indeed, I hardly ever get beyond simply defending Dom Mocquereau. Both Patrick and Jeff have written a great deal about Dom Mocquereau, and I feel somewhat called upon to defend the great Benedictine scholar. As far as I can recall, I have never on this blog advocated the methods of Dom Mocquereau as being the right way to sing chant, the best way to sing chant, or even as a historically informed performance practice of Carolingian monophony. Yet I have stated repeatedly that the Solesmes method retains some value and is worthy of study.
Allow me to state now my position on Dom Mocquereau. At this point, I have read, I think, most of what Mocquereau published on Gregorian chant over the course of his scholarly career, and I’ve even read many of his unpublished letters. I hold him in very high regard as a musical thinker and theorist. I also find the results of the Solesmes method, in the choirs that I have been a part of and also in various Benedictine recordings, to be very beautiful. Indeed, more than that, I credit my reversion to the Catholic Church very much to the singing of Gregorian Chant according to this system. When Covid happened, chant took on an even greater importance in my life, and now you might say I’m all in on Gregorian chant. I love it very much, and the love I have for thinking about other music or making other music flows directly from the way I chant. That does not mean that I defend absolutely every decision of Dom Mocquereau or that I think every aspect of the classic Solesmes method is to be retained in some fixed and rigid way. If you read Mocquereau carefully, you can see that he would probably have advocated, at various points in his career, a more semiological approach than what we now know as the classic Solesmes method. What we have of that method is the result of debate and compromise between the Vatican edition, paleographic study, and French Benedictine tradition going back to Dom Guéranger. To the extent that I seem to be standing in for Mocquereau within this Gregorian rhythm series, I would like to present my role in these terms: I do not wish to set forth Mocquereau’s method as perfect. At the same time, I do strongly believe it is worth studying Mocquereau’s writings, at least to the point of getting into some of his original and beautiful aesthetic and theoretical ideas. One could even pursue this while learning other ways of singing chant. This course has born great spiritual fruit in my life. Your mileage may vary.
Lightning Round • Well, I’ve now spent much of my post on yet another stemwinder about how much I love singing in the classic Solesmes way. It is, after all, Sunday afternoon here, and I had a very nice morning full of neumatic disaggregations, off-ictic accents, and conformity to the tonic accent. To the point, then. Let me consolidate Patrick’s questions here (in red), and I will do my best to give a quick and reasonable answer (in black):
Jeff, how are your additions licit according to the same criteria by which you pass judgment on Mocquereau? I don’t want to speak out of turn for Jeff, but since he is a friend and since I know what he would say, here goes. Mocquereau’s alterations are sometimes okay with Jeff (for instance, the usual dot that happens at the end of every phrase and piece), since they conform to singing the Vatican edition without the Solesmes markings and just following what the Vatican preface says about the mora vocis. Jeff’s alterations are also of this type. What Jeff objects to is that many of Mocquereau’s other signs, especially the horizontal episema, add length where there would be none following just the Vatican preface. Furthermore, Mocquereau often does not put a dot where a mora vocis is indicated by the white space. In other words, Mocquereau’s rhythm is not the official Vatican rhythm, but Jeff’s is. I don’t agree with Jeff’s interpretation of this matter, as you can read about in my first two posts in the series (1) and (2).
Who claims that there was a sudden change to the chant rhythm? This is really a matter of semantics. I find Patrick’s outline of the relevant history somewhat plausible, but I can also see Jeff’s point. Indeed there is a basic freedom of rhythm evident in the square notes, and this freedom allows for various degrees of equalism, mensuralism, and much else besides, including the kind of free-rhetorical approach hinted at in Guido, Elias Salomonis, and Tinctoris and reaching its full flower in Guéranger, Gontier, Pothier, and Mocquereau. In light of these nine centuries at least of rhythmic freedom, a switch between the Carolingian era and the eleventh century can be read as “sudden.”
Is it helpful to know that a given manuscript is from the tenth century, before the change, even if the exact year can’t be pinpointed? This depends on what you want to do. If your entire goal is to recapture tenth-century performance practice, then yes, this is probably worthwhile (Patrick’s position). Whether it will actually bear fruit toward that goal is debatable. If on the other hand you don’t have any particular chronological bias toward earlier sources (Jeff’s position), then it really doesn’t matter all that much in practice. I find the whole process of dating manuscripts and looking at watermarks and other such details to be rather mystifying. This is a very old way of practicing musicology, and I don’t see it much in evidence among my musicologist friends and colleagues, especially of the younger set. Perhaps it is a dying art.
Again, assuming such a change took place, would it be reasonable to expect a manuscript from the end of the eleventh century to show the same rhythm as the one from the tenth? No, it would make sense for there to be some documented change, as indeed we have. However, there is a problem with this line of argument in that there is not much certainty or agreement about what that rhythm is. What exactly the tenth century manuscript shows with regard to rhythm is a matter of some dispute. There is hardly a consensus among chant scholars in favor of mensuralism. This does not mean that mensuralism is wrong, but it does make the point of this line of argument a little unclear to me. It skips some steps; we would first have to see that the earlier manuscripts really did encode the rhythmic interpretation offered by Patrick. I don’t think he has yet shown that.
Do you believe that there was a sudden change of the Protestant chorales and psalm tunes, from rhythmic to isometric? Honestly, I have no interest in Protestant hymns as sacred music. See my thoughts above about chant. I’ve never much liked this line of argument from Patrick precisely because the original rhythm of the chorales is so clear. There is no ambiguity there. That is obviously not the case with Gregorian chant, so I’m not sure this is a good parallel. Anyway, I take the point that it is kind of interesting over time how some rhythmic differentiation can disappear over time with repeated singing. Did such a thing happen with Gregorian chant? Perhaps, but it is far from evident.
Why or why not? Again, the paper trail here is much, much easier to follow than with chant.
Is it “miraculous” that Old Hundredth is sung with the same melody today as in 1551? No. Music notation is an amazing technology but not miraculous! However, I also see Jeff’s point, and I do find the preservation of the chant melodies to be somewhat of a miracle. Or at least a clear sign of God’s providence and the harmony of the universe.
Are the 1791 or 1854 versions of Old Hundredth adequate to reconstruct the rhythm of the the 1565 version? Imagine there are two people who are engaged in an online debate called “Protestant Hymn Rhythm Wars.” The two debaters are a specialist in sixteenth-century performance practice and a hymn editor who draws on sources from several different centuries and whose hero is a famous pioneering nineteenth-century hymn editor. Now, these two do not agree on the correct rhythm of Old Hundredth. The first thinks the only right way to sing the tune is with the rhythm it had in 1565. The second points out, quite rightly, that these things have varied over time and in different geographic areas, and that we ought to sing the tune however it is given in a certain hymnal. Of course these two are never going to come to an agreement!
But we can carry this hypothetical further: imagine now that the 1565 version is not so clear with regard to the rhythm. Instead, it uses its own system to show duration that is not the same as modern music notation. And within the broad community of Protestant-hymn scholars, nobody can agree about what the rhythmic notation from 1565 means. This makes the first debater’s position even more tenuous. He has to rely on a treatise from the middle of the sixteenth century that states that hymns should be sung in such and such a way. It is possible, with some squinting, to see this interpretation represented by the notation. This is evidence, to be sure, but it hardly means that the second debater is wrong. If I were to be interested in Protestant hymnody, I would probably learn the arguments of both sides and treat the question with some caution. Anyway, enough of this silly hypothetical; let’s get back to chant!
Is there any evidence for “nuanced” rhythm, totally outside the 1:2 proportion, from before the year 1100? Yes. First, let me state my basic skepticism of the premise. Much of the emphasis on the 1:2 proportion is drawn from books whose authors are quick to appeal to the authority of St. Augustine. This is all well and good, but it relies on an idealization. When we hear poetry being read, we aren’t measuring lengths with a chronometer. Instead, we take in the data, and in our mind we sort it out into longs and shorts. This does not mean that every reading of every poem conforms exactly to the ideal. Indeed, some people may have read poetry with unequal lengths not in proportion. Augustine admits as much in Book 6, Chapter 10 of his book on music.
Very much the same thing happens in music. Try having a bunch of musicians take dictation (from an actual musical performance, not in a controlled classroom environment). In my experience, most musicians do not agree with each other about the nature of musical rhythm and often do not hear it the same way. Style and timing are notoriously tricky things. All attempts to notate music in simple form, to package it within a notational system at all, is to gloss over certain details at best, and to risk losing something essential at worst. Computer transcriptions of actual audio input are remarkably bad.
Even if there were some certainty that the theorists describing proportionality, as in Commemoratio brevis, were describing an actual practice, it does not follow that the practice was universal. Indeed, if a theorist remarks or insists on something, we may just as well take it as evidence that the opposite was occurring. Consider a similar example from modern music theory. Many textbooks will give a rule that one should not double the third of a triad in four-part writing. This rule is absurd and baffling. The only such case where this is really true is where the third is the leading tone. Now, should we take this rule as evidence that composers never double the third in the common-practice era? That would be absurd; one could find many examples disproving this. We have to read theorists from the past with some caution, just as we do with their modern successors!
So much for skepticism; now on to actual evidence. I have already covered Guido’s striking example of the horse slowing down, and I have nothing more to add, other than to say that I attest in good faith that I am not convinced that Guido was a mensuralist. I gather that some of my mensuralist colleagues disagree with me.
Let’s turn to the music itself. Singing today’s communion in the ordinary form, I was struck by the various sizes of notes given in the Laon notation (the top row of neumes) of the Graduale Triplex. (I had just read Patrick’s article before the Mass.) Let’s just look at the first line (a fine example of Mocquereau’s tonic-accent theory, by the way), since it’s getting late here.
Look at the single notes, on tu, -sti, -ta, and cu-. This shape is called an uncinus. There is a remarkable variation in size; in this matter Marie-Claire Billecocq, the person responsible for drawing the neumes from the Laon book into the triplex edition, took great pains, although one could also check her work by consulting the original, where it seems that –a, for instance, should be differentiated from tu. For even smaller examples, consider the first note of -da- in mandasti and the first note of tu- in tua (the very small uncinus at the end of tu- is not easily visible in the manuscript, but one can see this figure elsewhere with strophic neumes). The uncinus in composition seems to be smaller than the standalone one, and perhaps with multiple different sizes. Indeed, some scholars think that it is better to think of the punctum element in this script as a tiny uncinus. Even among the standalone examples, -sti is not the same as -a. I see at least three different sizes of uncinus in this line. Compare the original here, if you’d like to confirm for yourself:
In Patrick’s interpretation of this passage, these differences are ironed out or explained away. He insists (based on some theorists who were not scribes of Lotharingian neumes) that the note lengths on notes signified by the uncinus must be equal to each other. The evidence of the score says otherwise. Here, a follower of Cardine would note that we are singing words and not notes, and that these syllables do not need to be of exactly the same time value. They are signs that express in some way the natural word rhythm that comes from pronouncing these words while singing. Now consider the first note of tu- in tua. This is a smaller uncinus in L than the first note of the chant, perhaps because it is in composition with the other notes in the syllable. But the virga in E (that is, the second row, written in St. Gall notation) gets an episema, while the first note of the chant did not have one. What are we to make of this? Patrick’s system makes the two notes in L identical in length, and the two notes in E identical in length. We must conclude, in this way of thinking, that the episema is only a reminder to sing a long note of equal length to the other long notes rather than being a sign with any other particular meaning. Perhaps, but is this self-evident? Hardly. While I admire much of Patrick’s work, I do not subscribe to his views on this subject. I see no reason from the evidence on hand (the shape of the neumes and the testimony of medieval music theory) to believe that every note in the earliest sources of Gregorian chant needs to have one of two values. At one of my Masses this morning, I sang this antiphon while following a Cardine-type approach. I took great satisfaction in pronouncing those words and syllables differently, and meditating on the way the neumes interacted with the accentuation and grammar of the phrase. I find this a very rewarding way to pray, hardly going against the grain of medieval evidence. This is a matter of interpretation of the evidence at hand, and the evidence of the neumes is not all on one side in this question, as Patrick would have it.
Why do you hold the opinion that the long marks of the oldest manuscripts were nothing more than “slight nuances, probably intended for individual cantors,” which agree with each other only by accident? I do not hold this opinion, so I won’t comment on this. I wouldn’t put it the same way as Jeff. I agree in principle that it is difficult to argue from a few local examples for a widespread and even universal practice.
Looking back at this post, I probably have not made any really sufficient progress here. I would want to spend more time on my evidence for nuance, which I’m sure Patrick will find wanting. But it’s time for me to cook dinner for my family. Happy Sunday!
Update Monday: today I went back and added the original image from L and expanded my discussion of the neumes.