HE USUAL ASSUMPTION about dissertations is that they won’t be read, except, if one is lucky, by the thesis advisor. I certainly have no reason to hope for more, except that the topic may be of some interest to readers of these pages, especially those interested in the performance of Gregorian chant and the history of its restoration. As the final project of my graduate studies in music theory, I wrote a thesis on Dom Mocquereau’s theory of Gregorian rhythm. The thesis is now available for download through my university’s website here. You may also download it directly from the server of Corpus Christi Watershed:
* PDF • André Mocquereau’s Theory of Rhythm (282 pages)
—Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Charles Weaver of Juilliard.
For my own part, I’ve been reading what Jeff has to say on the subject of Gregorian rhythm here for many years, and my keen interest in the subject has always been fed by the interesting things I’ve read on Corpus Christi Watershed. But what does this have to do with music theory?
Theory and Practice • We often think of theory in opposition to practice. I’ve been a practical musician for my entire adult life, and much of that practice has been carried out in parish jobs, just like most everyone else reading this. Theory, in this way of thinking, can seem secondary to actually having the skills of a working musician. It is certainly helpful for choir directors to know some things about harmony and counterpoint, but only as far as they serve as aids to performance, composition, arranging, and improvisation.
When I was first contemplating going to graduate school to study music, I assumed that I would go into the field of musicology, which focuses on the history of music. This seemed like a natural progression, given that most of my practical work in music has focused on music from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (and before), which always involves some study of historical sources. That all changed when I met a really great professor of music theory, who showed me the value of digging into the structure of music, to figure out how it was composed and how it makes us as listeners react the way we do. This wasn’t just skill acquisition or labeling of chords but a rather intense form of contemplation. Further, this kind of contemplation can often incorporate all of our historical study. Listening to this professor speak, I was hearing a true musician (a musicus, to use the Boethian term) reveal something deep and almost ineffable about the nature of music. I knew that I wanted to attempt to reach that kind of understanding and, indeed, wisdom.
Magnetic North • When I started the program, I assumed that I would research something about the history of harmony, perhaps dealing with the work of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764), whom I’ve always admired both as a composer and as a theorist.
There is an old saying about adjusting to the amount of reading you do in graduate school that it is like drinking from a firehose. I certainly found this to be the case in my first year. During this time, I first learned of the ideas of Hugo Riemann (1849–1919), which intrigued me greatly. Riemann may not be a household name now, but it is no exaggeration to call him one of the giants of nineteenth-century musicology and music theory.
In the field of harmony, Riemann believed that the minor and major modes should be conceived of as mirrors of each other (for instance, going up by a major third and a minor third from C yields the major chord C-E-G, while going down by the same intervals yields the minor chord C-A-flat-F). This kind of thing can be extended so that every harmonic function can be seen as coming in pairs: overtones/undertones, overchords/underchords, dominant/subdominant, etc. This is all very speculative and not usually the kind of thing that practical musicians are interested in. But I was enjoying learning about it. Riemann, interestingly, also professed a totally upbeat (end-accented) way of thinking about musical meter (for instance, all of the beats in the bar are oriented toward the following downbeat, so that it is more sensible to think of a measure of 4/4 as being organized 2-3-4-1 rather than 1-2-3-4). I also found these ideas stimulating. You might enjoy puzzling over this image from the eighteenth-century Swiss theorist Jean-Adam Serre.
If you have an interest in reading and thinking about such things, go to graduate school for music theory, where a large part of your job is to do just that.
True North • When Covid hit, I was still in the middle of taking classes. We all just lived through it, so I don’t need to recount the enormity of the situation with the lockdowns and other impacts. Suffice it to say that all of my practice of music went away abruptly. Incredibly, we were actually compelled to miss a couple of Sunday Masses. When my church started up again in that Holy Week of 2020, it was with only the priest and a server in the Sanctuary, with myself and one other singer providing the music for a live stream for the faithful to watch at home. We used the pre-1955 version, with only chant. The experience was indescribable in its combination of desolation with deep groundedness. I was convinced, as I had never been before, that Gregorian chant was the most perfect form of melody and perhaps the finest music ever writen. I had always sort of passed over such rhetoric (frequent among turn-of-the-twentieth-century chant writers) with mild embarrassment, but now, faced with the reality and nobility of having no real music in one’s life but this, I saw that it was true. My enthusiasm for the history of harmonic theory remained undimmed, but if my calling was indeed to be a researcher on music, I knew that I should really apply my energy first and foremost to this most wonderful and life-giving Gregorian music.
Dom Mocquereau and Music Theory • The way into a dissertation topic that would fulfill that goal was through a term paper I wrote for a class on the history of music theory. For the paper, I had summarized the theoretical ideas of the composer and pedagogue Vincent d’Indy (1851–1931). D’Indy had some ideas in common with Riemann on the subjects of both harmony and rhythm, and I found these pretty interesting to work on. D’Indy became embroiled in French politics and antisemitism, and his writing is constantly marred by reference to these topics, so he is rather seldom studied these days. I was interested in the fact that he believed all composers should start their course of musical study with plainchant. Indeed, it turns out that while d’Indy was writing his book, he was exchanging letters with Dom Mocquereau. All of this is laid out in a wonderful and interesting article by Daniel Walden.
In the article, Walden briefly mentions that Solesmes has some correspondence between Mocquereau and Riemann on the subject of Gregorian rhythm. It struck me that Mocquereau’s correspondence with these men shows that he was interested in elevating the vexed (or perhaps even intractable) problem of Gregorian rhythm to the level of music-theoretical discourse, using all the analytical tools that the late nineteenth century had to offer. In short, it was time to consider the Mocquereau rhythmic method not as a practical way to sing Gregorian chant but as a theory of rhythm, where it could be considered in relation to the writings of other theorists.
Two Questions • What’s in my dissertation? In order to put this research into the form of a thesis, I had to formulate two broad questions that my writing would try to answer. First, what is the problem of Gregorian rhythm and how does the Mocquereau method relate to other approaches? This is the subject of my first two chapters. In chapter 1, I survey the history of the problem, tracing the discussion from the late middle ages up to the late twentieth century, when the musicological study of chant became more secularized and less attached to practical questions of performance. In chapter 2, I present the Mocquereau method alongside those of Pothier, Cardine, and Vollaerts. I hope to turn this first half of the dissertation into a book about the performance practice questions related to chant rhythm and the various ways that the problem has been approached throughout the centuries.
Turning to the second question, how do Mocquereau’s ideas function as a theory of rhythm and how does this theory relate to other music-theoretical writings by his contemporaries? In chapter 3, there a lot of information in there about Mocquereau’s theory of accent that has never been put into satisfactory form in English. The whole second volume of Le nombre musical grégorien has never been translated. In chapter 4, I publish, for the first time, several of the letters between Mocquereau and Riemann, which I had the great privilege of being able to read when I visited Solesmes in the summer of 2022, thanks to the generous hospitality of the monks and especially of Dom Patrick Hala. Riemann was a mensuralist when it came to chant, but he was extremely supportive of Mocquereau’s theory. An interesting episode occurred when, Mocquereau was being attacked in print by another writer, T.A. Burge, who cited Riemann against Mocquereau. This led to a really wonderful and frank exchange in which the two men express both their disagreement about the interpretation of Gregorian rhythm as well as their mutual respect and accord on fundamental musical principles.
The Search for Truth, Understanding, and Wisdom • I do not know if any Watershed readers will find what I wrote about Gregorian rhythm interesting. I certainly learned a lot while writing it. Of course, many imperfections remain. In fact, I have discovered two typographical errors since I submitted the final version in August. I’m sure there are many more. Nothing makes me more appreciative of the skill and working methods of writers like Pothier, Mocquereau, and Riemann than my own shortcomings as a typist, even with all the modern resources I have to hand.
D’Indy outlived Mocquereau by about a year. On the occasion of Mocquereau’s death, d’Indy wrote the following lines to Dom Gajard:
His erudition, the ardent and always interesting way in which he expounded his ideas—and he was one of those who had ideas—placed him at the forefront of the defenders of our beautiful Gregorian musical art. If sometimes our own way of seeing, as far as the performance of this chant is concerned, was not always in conformity with his, he remains, in our eyes, a great scholar who has, all his life, searched in good faith for the Truth.
D’Indy was staunchly against the Solesmes rhythm signs and in favor of the older Solesmes style of Dom Pothier. He was often quite vehement about this in the press. It is touching to consider how in the face of the old age and death of these scholars, all these disputes pale in the face of their shared search for the Truth. I sincerely hope that my thesis will bring some understanding to those who are interested in thinking further about these very interesting questions.