N HIS INTRIGUING article of 25 November 2023, Dr. Charles Weaver wrote about what he describes as “a perfect example of the idea that Gregorian melody is influenced by the tonic accent.” Dr. Weaver is a full professor at the famous JUILLIARD SCHOOL OF MUSIC in New York City, where Josef Lhévinne (d. 1944) taught and where Charles Welles Rosen (d. 2012) enrolled when he was just six years old. [Rosen later left to study with Moriz Rosenthal, one of Liszt’s most celebrated pupils.] In the past, my colleague has discussed the chant theories of Abbat Joseph Pothier, appointed by Pope Saint Pius X as president of the Vatican Commission on Gregorian Chant. A few years ago, Dr. Weaver even provided a PPP recording (that is, sung according to “President Pothier’s Principles”). But I’d like to highlight something I haven’t explained sufficiently in the past. In my view, we cannot always assume people’s musical principles remained unchanged their entire life. Obviously, sometimes that is the case. For example, one can listen to certain etudes by Chopin as recorded by Alfred Cortot early in his career. Listening to the same etudes recorded in the 1960s by the elderly Cortot, one discovers his basic conception did not change. But when it comes to plainsong principles unfurled by Pothier during the 1870s and 1880s, can we really assume those were his “final” thoughts on interpretation? Consider the following quote by Dom Prosper Guéranger, written in 1855:
“A comparison of all the manuscripts of the Middle Ages with the Gothic editions of plainchant leads us to the conclusion that in earlier times there was no concern at all for short syllables in ecclesiastical chant, and that there was no problem whatsoever about elaborating them with several notes, often a great number. A fortunate change, which has the force of law today, has modified this usage of the weak penultimates, and it would be a barbarous archaism to adopt this ancient custom in our time.”
I share such quotations to show that people can change their minds! I believe Abbat Guéranger later embraced wholeheartedly the so-called “misplaced melismata.” (Readers probably know that certain editions—e.g. Nivers and the MEDICAEA—brutally truncated Gregorian melismata.) Is it fair to forever bind Dom Guéranger to what he wrote about “barbarous archaisms” in 1855? Similarly, I don’t think it makes sense to assume everything Dom Pothier wrote about interpretation in the 1870s necessarily applies to the EDITIO VATICANA (published 1905-1912).
A Challenge For Dr. Weaver
In his article, my colleague says the PROPRIA MISSAE for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost illustrate perfectly “the idea that Gregorian melody is influenced by the tonic accent.” I agree 100% that the PROPRIA (for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost) demonstrate what he claims. My “issue” or “problem” or “question” has to do with the thousands of examples which demonstrate the opposite. Consider the OFFERTORY for the third Sunday of Lent:
I could easily cite thousands more examples like that.
Gregorian composers didn’t have “one way only.” Rather—as century after century rolled on—numerous approaches were adopted. Moreover, the Gregorian composers often looked beyond the accent of each single word to concentrate upon the phrase as a whole.
Jeff’s Chant Conundrum
In his article, Dr. Weaver also says: “The intimate connection between the melody and the Latin accentuation is one reason why translating Gregorian chant into modern languages is usually so unsatisfactory.” If every piece of Gregorian Chant were like the propers for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, I think Dr. Weaver’s assertion vis-à-vis vernacular plainsong would be unassailable. However, as I’ve already explained, the repertoire of Cantus Gregorianus contains thousands of examples—too many to count!—which do the opposite of the examples cited by Dr. Weaver. One cannot thumb through the pages of the GRADUALE ROMANUM without running into a billion examples like this one, from the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost:
There are many instances where the EDITIO VATICANA has melismata of twenty or thirty notes on “unimportant” words like ET, DE, A, IN, CUM, or PRO.
Chant Conundrum • That being said, I have a confession to make. I cannot accept “sloppy” or “unnatural” or “clumsy” adaptations of plainsong into English. In my experience, some of the worst adaptations are done by Anglicans. Consider the following example, taken from the 24th Sunday after Pentecost. Specifically, consider the grotesque emphasis on the word “the” in this 1965 Anglican adaptation:
Jeff’s Preoccupation • I know readers probably think I’ve developed a preoccupation for the official rhythm (i.e. “singing the official edition the way it was intended to be sung by its creators”). Nonetheless, I must point out that the Anglicans who created the PLAINCHANT GRADUAL in English were totally ignorant (!) of the MMV (“melismatic mora vocis”). How can such a thing be? They admit the pitches and notation of their edition are based upon the EDITIO VATICANA, which they refer to as “the typical edition of the Chant of the Latin rite” and “the current official edition of the Latin Graduale.” Yet, throughout their 700+ pages, they demonstrate over and over again they are clueless when it comes to the morae vocis. Notice how they don’t add enough blank space (pink highlights) where the elongations are supposed to be (yellow highlights):
Addendum • Dom Eugène Cardine’s former boss 1 once told me: “In neumatic composition, as in all melismatic pieces, the ancient plain-chant composers often ignored the tonic accent when they were concentrating upon the musical line of the phrase as a whole.” Indeed, Dom Joseph Gajard, writing in the 1950 volume of REVUE GRÉGORIENNE said: “One does not compose in order to set every word to music, but in order to translate into music a single idea expressed in a number of words.” In a musical phrase “each element is a part of the whole and must take its own place in that whole, for instance the word coeli in the SANCTUS of Mass IX, or the word Dómini in the BENEDICTUS of Mass XI, and so forth. Here, the melodic line must be given first place, according to the ancient adage: Musica non subjacet regulis Donati. […] If the function of Gregorian music is to enhance the expressive power of the holy words and even to go further, it becomes clear that it will be under no obligation to be perpetually moulded by them.” How can anyone who has carefully examined plainsong disagree what Dom Gajard has written?
1 For the record, this particular scholar of plainsong was extremely skeptical of the various theories Dom Cardine came up with. Subsequent decades of scholarship seem to have vindicated his concerns—although I suspect some of my colleagues would disagree passionately with my assertion!