This article was written last year, before the Gregorian Rhythm Wars series started, and is formatted according to the style sheet of a journal to which it was submitted. I offer it here in order to reach the widest possible readership.
HE ARCHIVES OF CAECILIA reveal that the ideas of Fr. Jan Vollaerts, S.J. (1901–56), concerning the historical rhythm of Gregorian chant were widely discussed after the posthumous publication of his Rhythmic Proportions in Early Medieval Ecclesiastical Chant. Unfortunately, his contributions have been neglected by most chant scholars in recent decades, with some exceptions, most notably Jan van Biezen (1927–2021). After Vollaerts’ early death, the task of responding to criticism of his work fell to Dom Gregory Murray, O.S.B. (1905–92), who appears to have been his chief disciple and apologist in the ensuing years. As a sad consequence of the general abandonment of Gregorian chant following the implementation of the liturgical reforms of the 1960s, Vollaerts’ work was largely forgotten. Perhaps the time is ripe to reconsider his contributions to Gregorian musicology.
Fr. Jan Vollaerts, S.J. (left) and Dom Gregory Murray, O.S.B.
Vollaerts presented and analyzed the evidence of the adiastematic (staffless) neumes as well as the testimony of medieval writers, who insisted on exact proportional durations; for example, the Commemoratio brevis de tonis et psalmis modulandis from the early tenth century: “All the longs must be equally long, all the shorts of equal brevity. . . . In accordance with the length durations let there be formed short beats, so that they be neither more nor less, but one always twice as long as the other.” And Berno of Reichenau in the early eleventh century: “In the neumes it is necessary that you pay close attention where the proportional shorter duration is to be measured and where, on the contrary, the longer duration, lest you execute as quick and short what the authority of the masters has determined should be longer and more extended. Nor should we heed those who say there is no reason whatsoever for our making now the quicker duration, now the more prolonged one, in a chant with a naturally disposed rhythm.” Among those whose writings about the rhythm of Gregorian chant have survived from the Middle Ages, not a single one of them favored non-proportional lengthening or shortening of note values. Murray states the case clearly: “As we have seen, Dom Mocquereau admits that there were mensuralists during the Gregorian centuries; it would be interesting if clear evidence could be cited to show that during the same period there were some who were not mensuralists.” The burden of proof is upon the opponents of measured or proportional rhythm.
Vollaerts’ transcription of the mode five gradual Tribulationes for the second Sunday in Lent in the traditional Roman rite includes modern notation with hand-copied neumes from eleven adiastematic sources. With the exception of the quilisma, which both he and Murray transcribed as two notes based on the eleventh-century notation of Nonantola, Vollaerts’ interpretation is overwhelmingly vindicated by the ancient manuscripts. The quilisma merits further consideration, and it seems reasonable to begin with the interpretation that is likely familiar to most readers: in the Solesmes method, the quilisma itself is treated as a short note, preceded by a long note and usually followed by a short note. The preface to the Vatican edition, however, describes the quilisma as a trill, tremolo, or shaken note. Dom André Mocquereau (1849–1930) thought that the quilisma represented a portamento: “The quilisma may be looked upon as a kind of ascending portamento. This is a plausible interpretation, for it agrees with the data furnished by the MSS.” Van Biezen likewise advocates the portamento interpretation. Dom Eugène Cardine (1905–88) notes the following: “The question mark was borrowed to represent a vocal phenomenon similar to the ascending modulation of an interrogative phrase: the quilisma.” And elsewhere: “The symbol for the quilisma-pes undoubtedly has its origin in the question mark used by grammarians. The sign was used at the end of interrogative phrases at Corbie (a monastery near Amiens) in the second half of the eighth century. . . . In addition, at the same period, the question mark used in the region around Tours suggests the quilisma-pes from L [the Laon Gradual]. The quilisma-pes from both the St. Gall and Messine schools may thus have a common source.”
In addition to the derivation of neumatic signs from punctuation marks and other grammatical signs, it is generally accepted that the neumes depict conducting gestures: “We have already affirmed and we must now once again emphasize that the St. Gall notation used chironomic signs—signs which fix the gestures of the conductor onto the parchment.” Another theory has been posited that at least some of the Gregorian neumes were borrowed from Byzantine or other Eastern sources. Whatever the historical facts may be, it is unnecessary to regard the three explanations of the origins of the neumes—grammatical signs, chironomic signs, and borrowings from the East—as contradictory or mutually exclusive. In the case of the quilisma, it is possible that the St. Gall notation depicts a gesture that came quite naturally to anyone seeing it. When people “talk with their hands,” they typically turn the palm upward when asking a question. Could the quilisma signify precisely such a manual gesture?
Most vocal ornaments involve one or several notes, but a portamento is a slide through several notes rather than a distinct note. If the portamento interpretation of the quilisma is indeed correct, then it might explain the Nonantola notation. Xaver Kainzbauer has argued that the quilisma is simply a cautionary sign before an ascending skip, neither a note nor a portamento indication. In my transcription (figure 1), I have used the standard modern notation symbol for a portamento or glissando. It is worth noting that the jagged diagonal line bears more than a slight resemblance to the serrated note used in Gregorian notation. I have set the chant at a suitable pitch for unison singing by an ensemble including both tenor and bass or soprano and alto voices, with a key signature of four flats and a one-octave range from and to D-flat; do is A-flat; the starting pitch, la, is F; and the final, fa, is D-flat. The letters M and R above the staff indicate melodic and rhythmic corrections of the Vollaerts transcription. I have retained the line breaks from his edition. Melodic corrections follow the AISCGre recommendations and conform to the Graduale Novum. The same chant in Gregorian notation with proportional rhythmic markings is available on the cantatorium.com website.
Figure 1. Cantatorium.com edition transcribed in modern notation with melodic and rhythmic corrections marked.
Performance note: All grace notes should be sung before the beat and take their value from the preceding note, or they may be omitted at the choirmaster or cantor’s discretion. Half notes are editorial and could be notated as quarter notes with a fermata instead.
Translation: The troubles of my heart are multiplied: rescue me from my necessities, O Lord. See my abjection and my labor: and forgive all my sins. (Ps. 24/25:17–18)
Besides the quilisma, of which there are six instances, the other rhythmic corrections are as follows: two instances of a subbipunctis resupinus figure at the end of “meis” and “Domine,” transcribed in the style of Van Biezen with a dotted quarter and two sixteenths, which he regards as analogous to an ornamental figure of Byzantine chant; two initio debiles figures at “laborem,” transcribed as grace notes; the long pressus major at the end of “omnia”; and the tenth note from the end of the verse, marked with an episema in St. Gall 374. This last correction and the initio debiles notes prevent syncopation. The binary nature of the rhythm becomes apparent: as a rule, short notes occur in pairs.
The reader is reminded that from the point of view of musical-aesthetics, Gregorian rhythm is characterised by a balancing of ‘pairs’: two ‘shorts’ balancing two ‘shorts’, two ‘shorts’ alternating with one ‘long’. . . . This poise and balance is so outstanding that a short clivis ending with a short note before a new syllable is not surprising, the ordinary porrectus and torculus ending with a ‘long’. . . as a rule there are duplets and not triplets. . . . These duplets and quadruplets maintain a finely balanced equilibrium throughout a melody, but it is not the Author’s intention to contend that this balance be maintained so rigorously as to exclude any possibility of break caused by iambic or trochaic metre.
With this fundamentally binary rhythm, the chant has a steady beat or tactus, contrary to what nearly everyone in our era has been taught.
Among the melodic corrections, only the ornamental notes at “eripe” deserve special mention. Here it is most instructive to refer to the adiastematic neumes. The St. Gall manuscripts each give six notes for this word, where the other sources write only four. An ornamental beginning note, so weak that it was not universally notated, seems to be the most plausible explanation for this discrepancy. It could reflect a mannerism of a particular cantor of the St. Gall school at a dramatic point in the text (“rescue me”). Although not labeled as melodic or rhythmic corrections, I have incorporated what I consider to be two additional improvements in the modern notation: an upper auxiliary grace note before the oriscus (cf. footnote 22) and a tied cue-size note for the augmentative cephalicus. Upon comparing my revision of the Vollaerts edition to the Solesmes edition, note that the latter lacks many horizontal episemata and inserts a number of ictus marks that do not actually coincide with the correct placement of the beat. In both editions, bar lines and most augmentation dots (puncta morae) are editorial. Unfortunately, the Solesmes monks under the direction of Mocquereau had already solidiﬁed their editorial principles before the rediscovery of the Laon Gradual, which is more precise than any of the St. Gall codices and probably older than all but one of them.
For the gradual Tribulationes, if the horizontal episema is allowed not only to lengthen but actually to double the note value, then it can be said that the Solesmes monks interpreted 173 out of 266 note values correctly: 65%. In fact, the Solesmes method interprets the episema as a nuanced lengthening, not a proportional doubling. Even when the notes marked with the horizontal episema are doubled in practice, the theoretical conception of the rhythm remains gravely ﬂawed. The Solesmes rhythm erroneously incorporates thirty ternary (three-note) rhythmic groupings. This chant has a total 197 beats, not including half-note (two-beat) values at the ends of phrases, which are purely editorial, or the silent beat at the quarter rest before the double bar line. In figure 2, I have marked the ictus at the beginning of every compound beat in the Solesmes edition and used white/hollow notes to indicate the rhythmic errors. The remaining black notes constitute 66 beats: only one-third of the chant—an unimpressive score.
Figure 2. Solesmes edition with every ictus marked and rhythmic errors indicated with white/hollow notes.
Besides the special case involving initio debiles notes at “eripe,” there are thirteen rhythmically ambiguous notes in this chant, all of them marked long in my revision of the Vollaerts edition, but where a short interpretation could be justified by one good manuscript or another. The notes in question are the third through sixth notes of the last syllable of “tribulationes,” the fourth through seventh notes of the last syllable of “mei,” the twelfth and thirteenth notes of the second syllable of “laborem,” the first two notes of the pressus major at the end of “omnia,” and the tenth note from the end of the verse. Taking into account these rhythmic ambiguities, the Solesmes monks may be given credit for interpreting 73 out of 191 beats correctly: 38%. Although their edition has only 134.5 beats, 73 out of 134.5 remains a failing grade of 54%.
Other than the examples at “tribulationes,” “mei,” and the thirteenth note of “-bo-,” all of the other notes of ambiguous value are short in the Vollaerts transcription, which is reproduced below (figure 4). Judging his edition by the same standards applied to Solesmes above and disregarding the ornamental interpretation of the two subbipunctis resupinus figures, he identified 192 of his own 201 beats correctly: 96%. Despite six redundant beats because of his faulty quilisma interpretation, Vollaerts actually identified 192 out of 196 beats correctly: 98%, which is remarkably better than the most lenient evaluation of the Solesmes rhythm.
Although mainstream scholarship has mostly discredited Mocquereau’s ictus placement theory, the semiologists of Cardine’s school inexplicably retain Mocquereau’s theory of rhythmic nuances, in opposition to mensuralism or proportional rhythm. The outdated nuance theory needs to be reassessed and overhauled in light of subsequent scholarship based on the oldest extant sources and the clear testimony of the medieval writers. Vollaerts’ work is a key to a modern understanding of both early medieval music theory and the adiastematic neumes themselves, as demonstrated in his edition of this gradual chant. Tribulationes is a rather straightforward example. Many rhythmic difficulties and outright contradictions among the various manuscripts will be encountered over the course of the liturgical year, yet the diligent choirmaster, cantor, or scholar should not be discouraged from seeking the authentic rhythm.
Proportionalists (mensuralists) and semiologists generally agree upon which notes are long and short, and that the Solesmes editions neglect many of the long notes of the rhythmic manuscripts. The main point of contention is whether the long notes of the manuscripts represent actual doubling of the short note values or nuanced lengthening. All schools of interpretation acknowledge that some chants are intended for congregational singing, others for a schola cantorum or choir of trained singers, others for highly skilled soloists, and others for the clergy. All would agree that the latter category of chants, along with the psalmody of the Divine Office, are essentially liturgical recitative—a style of singing that follows the inherent rhythm of the Latin text. Those who identify as accentualists or adherents of the rhetorical or oratorical approach (many of whom also regard themselves as semiologists) apply the same understanding of “sung speech” to nearly all types of Gregorian chant and often prefer editions without any rhythmic markings whatsoever. And of course, Mocquereau’s Solesmes method still has many devoted followers.
With so many styles of interpretation, the question of “who’s right?” is unavoidable. Vollaerts was not the first to arrive at the conclusion of proportional rhythm, but he offered a more consistent and accurate interpretation than the earlier mensuralists of the modern era. Murray presented Vollaerts’ theories in a more systematic way. Meanwhile, Cardine steered the Solesmes monks away from Mocquereau’s ictus placement theory, with its frequently arbitrary binary and ternary groupings, toward greater fidelity to the oldest extant sources. Van Biezen contributed to a fruitful synthesis of the proportionalist and semiological approaches, which had previously seemed to be at odds with one another, especially through his interpretation of weak beginning (initio debiles) notes and his fair, well-articulated critique of certain aspects of the nuance theory. To answer the question: all of them are right to some extent, including Mocquereau, but the most exacting test of the accuracy of a given rendition is to work backward and attempt to reconstruct the adiastematic neumes from a recording of the performance itself.
Gregorian chant was probably handed down as an oral tradition for more than a century before being notated and was learned by ear and by rote, which is how people who do not read music still learn the congregational chants today. Rote learning, however, is not an efficient or practical way to master the propers. The cantors normally prepare five different chants for nearly every Sung Mass throughout the year, and they must be in agreement about the interpretation of the rhythm if they are to sing well together as an ensemble. Some choirmasters teach the rhythm by making their schola count twos and threes. Others tell them to watch carefully as they meticulously conduct every desired nuance. Some tell their singers to follow the rhythm of the text, even when a long melisma occurs on a weak syllable. Still others treat the rhythm of chant more like that of other types of music.
John Blackley (b. 1936) has made the bold claim that “the non-acceptance of proportional rhythm was the only thing that was keeping the entire corpus of chant from being used in the liturgy in every country, because of the perfect translatability of chant understood in this rhythm.” While his statement is an oversimplification of a multifaceted problem, besides having a solid basis in the oldest manuscripts and theoretical writings, proportional rhythm liberates the chant from Mocquereau’s ictus and nuance theories, makes it less susceptible to the conductor’s idiosyncrasies, and simplifies the learning process. Gregorian chant is itself a liturgical offering to almighty God, capable of moving its hearers to deeper prayer and devotion when sung well. With the keys to historically informed performance practice now readily available, in the words of St. Paul, let us “sing with the spirit and also with the understanding.”
Figure 3. Vollaerts’ edition transcribed in Gregorian notation, uncorrected.
Figure 4. Vollaerts’ edition.
Patrick Williams maintains the cantatorium.com website and serves as organist and choirmaster at Mater Misericordiae Parish and St. Edward the Confessor Catholic Church in Phoenix, Arizona, apostolates of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. He previously held positions at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Birmingham, Alabama, and the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Jan W. A. Vollaerts, Rhythmic Proportions in Early Medieval Ecclesiastical Chant, 2nd ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1960). References are given according to the 1960 edition, not the first edition of 1958.
Jan van Biezen, “Het ritme van het gregoriaans” (The Rhythm of Gregorian Chant), Tijdschrift voor Gregoriaans, vol. 30 (2005), tr. Kevin M. Rooney in Rhythm, Meter and Tempo in Gregorian Chant (Glendale, CO: Andrewes, 2016). See also Dirk van Kampen, “The Rhythm of Gregorian Chant: An Empirical Investigation,” Journal of Music Research Online, vol. 8 (2017), and R. John Blackley, Rhythm in Western Sacred Music before the Mid-Twelfth Century and the Historical Importance of Proportional-Rhythm Chant (Lexington, VA: Schola Antiqua, 2008).
Martin Gerbert, Scriptores ecclesiastici de musica sacra potissimum (St. Blasien: St. Blaise, 1784), vol. 1, p. 227: “Verum omnia longa aequaliter longa, brevium sit par brevitas . . . & secundum moras longitudinis momenta formentur brevia, ut nec majore, nec minore, sed semper unum alterum duplo superet.” English translation from Gregory Murray, “Gregorian Rhythm in the Gregorian Centuries: The Literary Evidence,” Downside Review, vol. 75, no. 241 (1957), p. 247.
Ibid., vol. 2, p. 77: “Etiam pervigili observandum est cura, uti attendas in neumis ubi ratae sonorum morulae breviores, ubi vero sint metiendae productiores, ne raptim & minime diu proferas, quod diutius & productius praecinere statuit magisterialis auctoritas. Neque audiendi sunt, qui dicunt sine ratione omnino consistere, quod in cantu aptae numerositatis moram nunc velociorem, nunc vero facimus productiorem.” English translation from Murray, ibid., pp. 248–49.
Ibid., p. 235.
In both the old and new rites, this chant is appointed for the preceding Wednesday, which is an ember day in the old rite.
Gregory Murray, Gregorian Chant according to the Manuscripts (London: Cary, 1963), p. 38. Murray’s text arguably offers a more eloquent and accessible introduction to Gregorian paleography than the writings of either Vollaerts or Cardine.
These three terms are used in the English edition of the Liber Usualis to translate the Latin nota tremulae vocis and nota volubilis. Timid is another possible translation; cf. the English adjective tremulous.
André Mocquereau, “Le nombre musical grégorien,” A Study of Gregorian Musical Rhythm, vol. 1, part 1, tr. Aileen Tone (Paris: Desclée, 1932), p. 420.
Op. cit., pp. 27–28 of the English edition.
Ibid., p. 199.
Ibid., p. 79. At least one scholar has called this view into question; see Helmet Hucke, “Toward a New Historical View of Gregorian Chant,” Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 33, no. 3 (1980), p. 449: “Fleischer’s theory concerning the origin of neumatic notation from ‘cheironomy’ is almost universally accepted today. But there is not a shred of evidence for any connection between the neumes and conducting movements.”
Furthermore, classically trained singers will not confuse it with a mordent or trill sign.
Franco Ackermans et al., “Vorschläge zur Restitution von Melodien des Graduale Romanum,” Beiträge zur Gregorianik, vol. 54 (2012), p. 25. Beiträge zur Gregorianik (Contributions to Gregorian Chant) is the journal of the German-speaking section of the International Society for Studies of Gregorian Chant (AISCGre).
Graduale Novum de Dominicis et Festis (Regensburg: ConBrio, 2011) and Graduale Novum de Feriis et Sanctis (ConBrio, 2018). The Graduale Novum is a response to the Second Vatican Council’s call for the preparation of a more critical edition of the chant books (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, ¶117).
Ὑπορροή (hyporrhoē or iporoi); op. cit., p. 39.
Debiles is plural; the singular form is initio debilis.
Auxiliary notes in Gregorian chant should take their value from the preceding note, not the following note. To suggest this rendition, a sixteenth-note acciaccatura is used for the transcription instead of an eighth-note appoggiatura. In order to avoid any ambiguity about the proposed interpretation, let it be stated another way: the ornamental upper auxiliary note comes before the beat or half beat, not on the beat or half beat. At the beginning of a neume, this approach involves anticipation of the syllable (anticipazione della sillaba); cf. Van Biezen, op. cit., p. 20.
Vollaerts, op. cit., p. 89.
See the section on the special torculus in Cardine, op. cit., pp. 50–58, and note 10, p. 232; Murray (1963), op. cit., pp. 71 and 79; and pp. 17 and 20 of Murray’s musical supplement.
Mocquereau dates “the discovery of the rhythmic notation of Metz” to 1906—at least two years into the preparation of the Vatican edition—even though Pothier had copied part of the manuscript in 1869; cf. André Mocquereau and Joseph Gajard, The Rhythmic Tradition in the Manuscripts, tr. Laurence Bevenot (Paris: Desclée, 1952), p. 21, and Mocquereau, Paléographie musicale, vol. 10 (Tournai: Desclée et Cie., 1909), p. 18.
This is not merely the expression of a personal opinion; cf. Van Biezen, op. cit., p. 26; Cardine, op. cit., p. 10; Murray (1963), op. cit., p. 13; and Vollaerts, op. cit., pp. 10 and 44–45.
Moreover, many of the foremost proponents of the Solesmes method disregard some of the horizontal episemata of the Solesmes editions, e.g., the third and even the second notes of the torculus and the pes subtripunctis resupinus, which is actually a torculus subbipunctis resupinus in many of the adiastematic manuscripts.
Vollaerts, op. cit., p. 229: “These sounds of longer duration have become, everywhere in the world (in all monasteries, churches, and even on gramophone records of perfect performances) sounds of absolute double duration collated with the ordinary short sounds of the cantus planus. (Footnote: An exception may be made for the long torculus and some other neum of four shaded sounds.) On the other hand, these same prolongations are often neglected altogether, resulting in the hearing of either longae of double duration, or of breves of single duration. . . . The singers, when adding some duration-nuance, immediately fall into a duration equalling two short sounds. Many choirs have been heard to treat these shaded tones often as sounds of even three short durations.”
If there are 197 beats in the corrected edition and six redundant beats in that of Vollaerts, it would be reasonable to expect 203 beats in the latter edition, but the count is reduced by two because of his short interpretation of the first two notes of the pressus major and the tenth note from the end of the verse.
I am grateful to Prof. Luca Ricossa for this insight.
Cf. Murray (1963), op. cit., pp. 5–6.
Op. cit., p. 98.
1 Cor. 14:15.
Vollaerts, op. cit., plate III, pp. 147–50.