I N MY SCHOLA, the month of November is known colloquially as “deprofundistide,” since in most years we spend most of the month singing the same propers designated for the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost. As a result, these are some of the most familiar melodies to liturgical singers of Gregorian chant, often some of the first ones that can be sung from memory. The beautiful communion antiphon is also practically a perfect example of the idea that Gregorian melody is influenced by the tonic accent. Especially if, like me, you’ve been singing this melody for several weeks, I’d like to draw your attention to this aspect before the season after Pentecost 2023 ends.
I’ve covered this topic before, so if you’d like a thorough introduction to the issue, please read my previous article on the subject. Like so much else about Gregorian chant, the idea has been somewhat controversial, and it even played a marginal role in the recent Gregorian Rhythm Wars series. I’d like to avoid any sort of debate on the question of rhythm for now, so that I can focus on this particular feature of melody. For obvious reasons, it’s really hard to disentangle melody and rhythm in Gregorian chant (it’s a little bit like disentangling body and soul), but it’s worth attempting. Why? Because the tonic accent is a thread that runs through the entire Solesmes tradition of chant authors, from Gontier to Guilmard. Indeed, Dom Pothier and Dom Mocquereau were in almost perfect agreement on the question, as attested by their published writings. I’m strongly interested in finding points of agreement between these authors, because I have a ton of respect for the work of both of them and because I hold Solesmes in very high regard for its work in the field of liturgy, right down to the present.
Very briefly, the idea is that the pronunciation of a spoken Latin word should involve an emphasis of pitch (called the tonic accent, in the sense of “tone”) on the accented syllable. Accent and emphasis in language are a little difficult to quantify, but there are a lot of ways we might single out the accented syllable: pitch, vowel quality, volume (stress), length, etc. The theory of the Latin tonic accent, which is based on readings of historical grammarians, suggests that the Latin accent was primarily a tonic accent, so that the accented syllable, rather than being lengthened or stressed in these other ways, was primarily distinguished by being pronounced with a higher pitch. The Solesmes authors, including Pothier and Mocquereau, have tended to believe that Gregorian melody is generally constructed on this model. In an individual word, the accented syllable is placed on a high note. This is fully laid out in Pothier’s Les mélodies grégoriennes of 1880. This is the way the modern tones used for liturgical recitation (orations, readings, psalms) are organized. In the later theory of Mocquereau, phrases and larger melodic structures are also built in a way that the high notes form the points of emphasis, on the model of the individual word.
Both writers make a great deal of this feature of the chant. In Pothier’s telling, each individual word takes on a significance far beyond the way we might treat it when we unthinkingly sing through a melody. Instead, Pothier thinks of the word as having a particular energy and directed shape. For both Pothier and Mocquereau, the word has an arsis or a rise that reaches its climax on the accented syllable (always either the second or third from the end) and then a thesis or a fall on the last syllable, which is accompanied with a certain amount of extra length, which the Solesmes writers identify with Guido’s mora ultimae vocis or “drawing out of the last sound.” And a large percentage of the time, the individual words in Gregorian chant are set with a melodic shape that naturally follows this contour of energy.
The communion antiphon for the last Sunday of the liturgical year is an almost perfect example of this idea. The words are the Lord’s, instructing the disciples that whatever they ask for in praying will be granted to them. The chant has eleven words of more than one syllable, and in ten of them, the highest note of the melody is on the accented syllable, as can be seen in this table:
All of the recent chant editions are helpful in marking the accented syllable of each word. Note that in a two-syllable word, there is no mark because the accent always falls on the first syllable.
If you want to grasp the heart of the Solesmes tradition (as expressed by both Dom Pothier and Dom Mocquereau), you should sing through these words with some attention to how the melodic shape of high and low notes reflects the idea of a high point of energy on the accented syllable and a point of repose or rest afterwards. As an aside, the intimate connection between the melody and the Latin accentuation is one reason why translating Gregorian chant into modern languages is usually so unsatisfactory.
The single exception in this chant to the agreement of the melody with the tonic accent is the first word, “Amen.” This melodic formula begins many chants. Perhaps the first to come to mind are “Rorate caeli” and “Gaudeamus.” In those cases, the accented syllable is on the part of the figure with the ascending fifth. It is quite natural to emphasize this large leap musically, of course. It seems that rather than a melody that is in opposition to the accent, that the melodic setting reflects an unusual (for Latin) pronunciation of the word with the accent on the final syllable. As Dom Johner points out in this case, this is how the word “Amen” is accentuated in Ancient Greek. Dom Guilmard makes a similar point in his recent book, suggesting that “Amén” belongs to a class of Hebrew borrowings that have the accent on the final syllable in Latin. The second word of the introit Laetare Jerusalem comes to mind in that connection as well.
Pothier’s identification of the tonic accent in Gregorian melody was a stroke of genius. One beautiful aspect of Dom Mocquereau’s slightly later theory of Gregorian melody is the way he extends the idea of the tonic accent to encompass entire phrases. If you are someone who doesn’t like Mocquereau’s rhythmic method, you still might get something out of exploring his theory of accent in this regard. The idea is that the melodies are shaped to bring out individual words by the way they are set melodically. In a sense, this provides a tool for getting more out of the melody than we otherwise might at first glance: a tool for a sort of musical exegesis. To continue with our present example, the high point of this whole chant is the third word, “vobis.” Indeed, this is approached from the lowest note of the melody, which happens to be the first note. We never get back down to the D that is the final of the mode until the very end (considered from a static point of view, that is). How does this melody change your reading of the passage, if it begins, “Amen I say unto you?” To me, this melody suggests that the Lord (through the Church and her melodies) is speaking directly to me (and to you) through this melody, rather than just to the disciples two thousand years ago. With this accentuation, the melody does a beautiful job bringing the Lord’s instruction directly into my realm. In the prayer that is the chant, then, I am drawn closer in, in a personal way, by this melodic setting.