T WAS A GREAT JOY to take part in the Sacred Music Symposium this past summer. My role there was to lead the rehearsal of the plainchant for Mass and Compline. On the last day of the conference, Friday, we spent the day recording some of the music we had worked on all week. We have been releasing some of these recordings here, here, and here. We also spent some time exploring different ways of singing the same music. This activity has a very practical purpose: we want to consider what you as a director of music at a Catholic parish can do with the music prescribed for particular occasions by the Church.
One of the pieces we looked at in this way is the Easter sequence Victimae paschali laudes. The chant melody is iconic, of course. But included in the voluminous book given to all the participants was a wide variety of different scores and settings in both English and Latin, using both the chant melody and other tunes when such things are desired. There are many options. Even with the chant melody, there are various ways that one can sing it, according the resources at hand and the will of the choir. We recorded the chant twice, with the women singing according to an accentualist method (i.e., the method of Dom Pothier as filtered through his Belgian and German disciples) and the men singing according to the classic Solesmes method of Dom Mocquereau. I think both recordings are quite nice, and I hope you enjoy them. Both represent ways that you might approach this piece in your own parish. Apologies that the word duello is missing an “l” here. I took the scores, from the excellent site Gregobase.
First, the women:
The women were conducted by Alfred Calabrese and accompanied by Richard Clark. They sound really fantastic.
And the men:
I conducted the men for this recording.
Apart from the most obvious difference, namely the presence or absence of organ accompaniment, the two versions take two completely different approaches to text accentuation. A central goal shared by both performance styles is that the singers should sing in a way that conveys the text clearly, which means respecting the natural rhythm and accentuation of the Latin language. The two approaches differ markedly in how to accomplish that aim. In this post, I’d like to look more closely at these two approaches. A lot of this ground has been covered before on this blog, but it never hurts to take another look. What I hope you get out of this is an understanding of both ways of singing, regardless of which you prefer or which you use in your own schola. In fact, I’m only going to look at the very first phrase, which is sufficient to give an understanding of the way the whole chant is put together in these two performances. I’m going to spend a bit more time on the Mocquereau approach, since I think it’s a little more complicated. Here goes.
The Accentualist Approach • What we aim to avoid with this approach is a heavy and wooden performance where all the syllables are of equal weight. Instead, we shape the singing according to the accentuation of the words. Latin is a language where almost every polysyllabic word (there are a few exceptions not worth going into here) has an accent on either the second or the third syllable from the end. Singing according to the accentuation became a central concern of chant practitioners in the nineteenth century, especially in the writings of F.X. Haberl (who favored the Medicean edition) and in the work of the early Solesmes pioneers Dom Guéranger and Dom Pothier (as documented in the book by Canon Gontier). If we respect the accent, this means that is that you never want to sing in a way that makes the weak syllables (like the final syllables of every Latin word) sound like they are stressed more than the accented syllables that precede them.
In this view, one strategy for applying stress to a syllable is to lengthen it. Consider how this works in modern English. When we speak in our everyday lives, we generally make a strong distinction between weak and strong syllables, and this distinction is manifested in how long we spend pronouncing them. Applying this to Latin chant, we see that we want to avoid a situation where a weak syllable is sung longer than an accented syllable, since this tends to misplace the stress. The logical conclusion is that one must occasionally lengthen the accented syllable in order to compensate for this.. To see how this works, consider what happens if we sing the first phrase with exactly even notes.
We are free with these note values to differentiate between accented and unaccented syllables using dynamics. But the Vatican Edition adds a slight wrinkle. We are to apply a lengthening of the last note before each barline, in a hierarchical manner that helps to separate grammatical divisions. This implies that the first phrase goes something like this:
The problem here, from the point of view of the accentualist, is that the length on the final syllable before each barline goes against the accentuation, since it imparts a kind of stress (what we might call durational stress) to the long note, in opposition to the natural stress of the language. Logic dictates that we can counteract this by lengthening the final stressed syllable of each line, restoring the balance of accented and unaccented syllables:
The result of this way of thinking is something like the way the women performed the chant in the symposium recording. This perfectly respects the accentuation of the language.
Mocquereau I: The Nature of Word Accent • The goal here is very much the same as with the accentualist apporach: a rhetorical performance that respects the natural rhythm and accentuation of the language. But the understanding of how that works is different. In Mocquereau’s reading of the classical and medieval sources, length is not associated with the accented syllable of Latin but rather with the final syllable of the word. The sources for this idea are in the music theorists (Guido, Aribo, and the Enchiriadis treatises) who discuss adding time to the last syllable of a phrase in order to distinguish it from what follows in terms of sense and among Latin grammarians of the first Christian millenium, who speak of the accent as a matter of (primarily) pitch and (secondarily) intensity rather than length. In this idea of dismissing the need to lengthen the accented syllable, Mocquereau is well within the Solesmes tradition inherited from Pothier and Guéranger. Perhaps more could be said about that another time.
For Mocquereau, the Gregorian composers mirrored the pitch accent (also known as the tonic accent) in the way they set the liturgical texts to music. In this view, each word has a natural shape, with a gradual rise toward the accented syllable (the syllable that unites the whole word and gives it life and meaning) and a fall away from it. The first six words of the sequence have a natural setting that looks something like this:
I urge you to sing each of these examples as though you were speaking the word. Feel how the high note on each accented syllable unifies the word. According to Mocquereau and his medieval sources, the accent is the soul of the voice. By using this sort of natural, inherent melody to pronounce the words, you take some dead, inert syllables (pa-, -scha-, -li) and you turn them into a word that has meaning and life.
Mocquereau II: From Word Accent to Gregorian Melody • So much for the natural melody of language. In Mocquereau’s way of thinking, the Gregorian composers took this natural word melody and created the Gregorian repertoire out of it. They did this by reshaping the natural melody of the words according to the dictates of music and of the larger sense of the words. In the first two words, Victimae Paschali, we are introduced to the central figure of the Easter mystery, Christ the Passover victim. The composer chose to make Paschali more prominent than Victimae. The adjective, conjuring up central feasts in both the Christian and Jewish religions, becomes more prominent than the noun, so it is sung higher. We could think of it as something like this:
Notice here that the natural word accent is respected; each word has its natural tonic accent, and the two words are related to each other hierarchically in pitch. But that the resulting melody is quite awkward. Indeed, it only takes changing one note, at the end of victimae, to create a smooth melody that maintains most of this beautiful, natural word-melody.
As performers in this way of chanting, we strive to bring out and heighten the natural rhythm embedded in the melody. We might speed up and increase our volume as we approach the accent of Paschali and do the opposite afterwards. And the accent of Paschali is not as high as that of immolent, so the shape we make with timing and dynamics moves in two waves in this phrase, and the two waves are related to each other hierarchically. This is a lot to take in, but committing to something like this is committing to faith in the inherent beauty of the chant. We can go further, if we like, and say that the shape of the melodies is a kind of exegesis on the sacred text, bringing out the relationships between the words and the concepts discussed therein. If we were to go down that path, it is easy to see how it might become the worthy study of a lifetime, as it has been for many people over the last century and more.
Mocquereau III: Accent and Beat • I have avoided talking about beat here, because it is the part of Mocquereau’s theory that is most often rejected. I think it’s probably better to get a sense of his aesthetic goals by looking at the way words are shaped first. Read on if you want to understand how this works with the thorny notion of the beat.
Mocquereau’s conception of the beat is based on his view of the tonic accent. If you want to understand his views, it is helpful to forget, for a moment, the way we talk about beats in modern music, and think instead about things like motion and word accent. Go back to the example of the word laudes:
We have already remarked on the natural melody that comes from the accent. Now trace that same melodic shape with your hand as you sing: you raise the hand up to sing lau- and you bring it down for -des. In fact, you might bring your hand to rest on the table in front of you on –des. I believe it was Dom Pothier who first formulated this way of thinking about the Latin word in chant, when he said that the accent is on the arsis (we can call it the upbeat, since it is when the hand is in the air) and the final syllable is on the thesis (read downbeat). Mocquereau extended this idea, inventing his whole system of chironomy and a rather complex system but without really changing anything about Pothier’s core idea: accent-arsis and final-thesis. If you aren’t familiar with this way of thinking, go ahead and sing the word a few times, lifting up your hand for the accent, and bringing it down for the final syllable, making sure to mirror the descent with a simultaneous slowing down and diminuendo.
In a word like paschali, we will likewise start from the bottom, go up to a high upbeat for the accent, and come back down to rest for the final. In this case, there are downbeats on both pa- and -li. These are the natural rhythms of the words for Mocquereau, and they go along with the natural melody. If we string these two words together, we get a series of three downbeats alternating with upbeats, where the downbeats fall on pa-, -li, and -des. We can notate it this way:
Here, the little lines indicate the places where our hand touches the table, or the book, or whatever happens to be in front of us. These are the downbeats, also known as the ictus, which just means “beat.” Note well that in the way we have put this together, these are not strong beats and they are not necessarily accented. The accentuation of the phrase follows the melodic shape. If you talk about Mocquereau’s ideas enough, you find yourself repeating over and over again that the downbeats are not strong beats, which is why I’m saying it again here. The downbeats are just the places where the natural rhythm (rise and fall) happens to be on the second part of the motion (the fall), which usually corresponds to the end of a Latin word. The motion from up to down generally parallels the motion from accented syllable to weak final syllable. Sing this little example a few times, touching a surface on the downbeats. Whatever you think of Mocquereau’s ideas, I hope you can feel the sense of lightness and flexibility that comes with this way of singing.
The first word presents a different case. Here the accent is on the first syllable of the three, and the natural rhythm in such words has a touch (ictus) on the accented syllable, followed by a second touch on the final syllable. The natural rhythm of the word, then, is:
Now we see the flexibility of Mocquereau’s theory. While this is the natural rhythm of this word, the natural rhythm gets subsumed into the larger rhythm of the phrase, just as the natural melody of this word was adjusted to make way for the sense of the phrase. Because paschali is the more central word in this reading, the natural rhythm of Victimae gets turned around just a little bit as a way of propelling the motion of the phrase forward toward the more emphasized word.
Now, you may not like this resulting rhythm, and you don’t have to like Mocquereau’s ideas. Like it or not, if you really want to understand it, try singing this little snippet a few times, lightly touching (without accent!) on a surface on the notes marked as downbeats while springing up for the upbeats. At the same time, speed up and increase the volume toward the high note. If you do this right, I think it’s possible to see how Mocquereau’s way of chanting creates a certain beautiful effect.
Two Approaches Compared • Let’s return to our two ways of singing this phrase. I don’t know how Alfred conducted this phrase, because I wasn’t watching, but if we were to transcribe the recording, I think we would get something like this (obviously, I’m just keeping this in the written key of the chant books for simplicity’s sake):
This makes a lot of sense. It is intuitive and it is very easy to accentuate the words well when singing in this way. If we were to analyze what we are hearing, I would say that the length at the ends of the lines draws our attention there. It seems that we are emphasizing praise in the first line (Victimae paschali laudes) and Christians in the second line (immolent Christiani).
By contrast, here is how I conducted the men:
I think we can all agree that the relationship between the conducted beat and the accented syllables is a little more complicated here. If we were to emphasize the downbeats, like we do when we teach beginners to read musical meter, there is a real risk that we will mispronounce the words by misplacing the accent. On the other hand, with the proper understanding, we end up with a rather light and rather attractive phrase, centered around the accents on the high notes. We end up emphasizing the Paschal mystery in the first line (Victimae paschali laudes) and the offering/sacrifice in the second (immolent Christiani).
I hope that this post has been informative, giving you a little insight into two different ways of singing the same melody. More importantly, I hope that this information empowers you to make some performance decisions with your own choir.