EW THINGS ARE easier to detect than jealousy. Vladimir Horowitz was one of the greatest pianists while in his prime (circa 1930-1950). Some of his recordings from those years are peerless; e.g. the Danse Macabre transcription (Saint-Saëns) or the Wedding March and Variations (Mendelssohn-Liszt-Horowitz) or the live recording with Sir John Barbirolli of Rachmaninov’s 3rd Concerto. But later on—partially due to his addiction to narcotics—Horowitz’s playing deteriorated and became (in the words of HAROLD C. SCHONBERG) “neurotic and mannered.” He became filled with bitterness and jealousy. To give one example, Horowitz said that MORIZ ROSENTHAL (d. 1946) “had dexterity but no real technique, and I don’t think he really knew how to play the piano.” Regardless of what anyone thinks of Rosenthal, his playing was admired by titans like Franz Liszt, Josef Hofmann, and Charles Rosen. To say Rosenthal “didn’t know how to play the piano” is beyond absurd.1
Keep Your Secrets • Horowitz was trying to diminish Rosenthal—but his jealous attack had the opposite effect: it diminished Horowitz! It’s usually better to refrain from saying something negative. For instance, I hate certain composers. But those composers are respected by outstanding artists and colleagues more famous than I’ll ever be. Therefore, it’s best to keep my ‘secrets’ to myself. Furthermore, with the passage of time tastes can change. When I was young, I didn’t care for the music of CLAUDE DEBUSSY (d. 1918), who wrote the titles for his preludes at the end of the piece (instead of at the beginning). In my immaturity, I used to joke: “That’s because they sound just as good backwards as they do forwards.” However, I later developed an appreciation—and even a love—for the music of Debussy.
Must We Love Plainsong? • Many years ago in Texas, Dom Eugène Cardine’s former boss visited my wife and me for about a week in order to make recordings of CARMEN GREGORIANUM (Gregorian Chant). At one point, I nervously confessed to this person—perhaps the greatest living authority on plainsong—that I didn’t particularly care for certain chants, especially some of the OFFERTORY chants. I was filled with relief when he said something to the effect of: “That’s okay; you don’t have to love every last bit.” Needless to say, I absolutely love much Gregorian Chant, especially the Alleluias. Indeed, I frequently find plainsong melodies running through my head: e.g. ALLELUIA “Assúmpta Est María.”
Struggling (1 of 2) • On ASH WEDNESDAY during the distribution of ashes, a piece called “Juxta Vestíbulum” is sung. You may not know it by heart, but you’ve probably heard of “Parce, Dómine, parce populo tuo”—which seems to have come from the 2nd half of this song, just as the Lenten song “Atténde Dómine” seems to have come from the 2nd half of “Emendémus In Mélius” (also sung during the distribution of ashes). I have been struggling to love this piece. [Some will say it’s because I’m a bad musician and a terrible singer. That’s possible, but I hope it’s not the case.] It seems to endlessly hover around the same two notes:
In an effort to like it better, I made this recording:
Struggling (2 of 2) • In spite of several efforts, I was still struggling to love this piece. It seemed somber and dark and … uninteresting. Therefore, I looked up the organ accompaniment by the LEMMENSINSTITUUT:
I attempted to “accompany myself” on the pipe organ, and here’s how that sounded:
I wondered if this chant might be similar to GLORIA XV, which looks incredibly boring on the page, yet is stunning when sung well by a men’s Schola Cantorum.
The Solution • Then something struck me in a powerful way. It ultimately doesn’t matter if we have a personal or emotional love for “every last bit” of CARMEN GREGORIANUM. The sacred liturgy is about giving honor and glory to God. And I remember something Father Adrian Fortescue (d. 1923) wrote:
“There is not and there is never likely to be any religious poetry in the world worthy to be compared with the hymns of the Latin office. […] Our old Latin hymns are immeasurably more beautiful than any others ever composed. Other religious bodies take all their best hymns in translations from us. It would be a disgrace if we Catholics were the only people who did not appreciate what is our property. And, from every point of view, we of the old Church cannot do better than sing to God as our fathers sang to him during all the long ages behind us. Nor shall we find a better expression of Catholic piety than these words, hallowed by centuries of Catholic use, fragrant with the memory of the saints who wrote them in that golden age when practically all Christendom was Catholic.”
Consider how this same plainsong looked circa 1393AD:
Consider how this same plainsong looked circa 1254AD:
Consider how this same plainsong looked circa 1230AD:
Consider how this same plainsong looked circa 1190AD:
Consider how this same plainsong looked circa 1136AD:
Consider how this same plainsong looked circa 1077AD:
Consider how this same plainsong looked circa 1040AD:
It helps me to know that Catholics have been singing this song on Ash Wednesday—and thanks to Abbat Pothier, virtually the identical melody—for 1,300 years.
T WAS DOM POTHIER who—by meticulously compiling comparative tables—proved once and for all the one-to-one correlation between the “diastematic” manuscripts and the “adiastematic” manuscripts. It is doubtful the world of musicology will ever produce a scholar capable of challenging Dom Pothier’s mastery when it comes to the in campo aperto (“adiastematic”) repertoire. He must have had a photographic memory. However, in those early years (circa 1900), not many manuscripts were available. Scholars who had the financial ability to study CARMEN GREGORIANUM had to spend months traveling to different monasteries and libraries all over Europe. Owing to this paucity of manuscript evidence, many strange theories arose in those days, especially vis-à-vis plainsong rhythm.
Internet Age • With the invention of the WORLD WIDE WEB, libraries and monasteries all over the world have been making ancient manuscripts available to everyone. In light of this development, it’s difficult for me to understand how some still have the boldness to offer courses in the “old musicology.” Even more tragic is when certain parties to try to intimidate others by enigmatic language and references to “the earliest manuscript tradition”—while spouting utter nonsense. When I’m present for such conversations, I interject: “Just to be clear, you’re only talking about one specific manuscript, right?” This tactic enrages certain parties, but such clarifications are necessary. After all, it sounds so impressive when somebody references “palaeofrankish witnesses” or speaks of “proto-aquitainian scripts” or sings the praises of “nonantolan neumatic notation.” But when somebody points out they are—as a matter of fact—referencing one or two manuscripts (while ignoring close to 10,000) the effect is rather spoiled.
I would like to say a few words about this:
Getting Specific (1 of 3) • One theory—developed in the days when almost nobody had access to ancient Gregorian manuscripts—had to do with what Dom Gajard called the “rhythmic manuscripts.” By that term, he was referencing a handful of ancient manuscripts which (perhaps) were slightly older than others, although that can’t be proven one way or the other even today. The basic idea was that this “minute body of comparative evidence” (as Dr. Katharine Ellis of Cambridge put it) contained the “true” or “authentic” or “primitive” rhythm of plainsong. Adherents of this theory claim this “authentic” rhythm was, in a very short span of time, “lost” or “forgotten” or “abandoned.” According to this theory, 99.9% of ancient manuscripts are considered “garbage” or “worthless” or “meritless” when it comes to understanding plainsong rhythm. This theory has always been difficult for me to accept.
Getting Specific (2 of 3) • For one thing, if every Catholic in the world decided to abandon the “authentic” rhythm—yet somehow keep all the pitches the same (!)—how was such a thing accomplished? In those days, email didn’t exist. Nor did the telephone. Nor did the telegraph. Travel in those days was arduous and dangerous. Therefore, assuming there was an effort to universally abandon the “authentic” rhythm—let’s say around the year 1,000AD—how could such a message be spread? Even if we pretend the telephone had been invented 1,000 years ago, does it make sense to believe everyone would willingly agree to abandon the “authentic” rhythm? I know human nature, and I can guarantee some would have resisted.
Getting Specific (3 of 3) • With each passing day, more and more ancient manuscripts are made available for download. This isn’t a happy development for those who cling to the “authentic rhythm theory.” Now that so many ancient manuscripts are being placed online, people can see the evidence with their own eyes. In just a moment, we’ll look at the same chant mentioned earlier: Juxta vestibulum. Circa 1970, Dom Eugène Cardine published a book which only took into consideration a handful of ancient manuscripts. In it, Dom Cardine put forward various “hypotheses” or “guesses” or “conjecture” about what the symbols in certain manuscripts may have signified.
Consider the following chart, wherein I quickly assembled examples of adiastematic manuscripts available on the internet. This is hardly an exhaustive chart, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to notice the manuscript are not an agreement:
Dom Cardine published his book more than half a century ago. Were he alive today, I strongly suspect he’d abandon his “authentic rhythm” theory—especially if I could sit with him for a few hours in front of a computer with internet access!
Conclusions (1 of 3) • I have urged potential plainsong scholars to take into consideration the entire manuscript tradition, not just a handful of manuscripts which might be more accessible, more beautiful, more legible, more famous, or more complete.
Conclusions (2 of 3) • What’s not up for debate is the one-to-one correlation Dom Pothier proved between “adiastematic” and “diastematic” manuscripts. In terms of the ROMANIAN SIGNS, because of the inconsistency and contradiction we find in the most ancient manuscripts, it seems likely these were nuances intended for individual precentors at individual monasteries during specific periods of time. For myself, I find it impossible to believe the “authentic” rhythm was universally abandoned (virtually overnight). Had such a thing occurred, I’m absolutely convinced there would be little “remnants” or “hints” or “leftovers” or “clues” in the thousands of ancient manuscripts we have. In 25 years of examining ancient manuscripts, I’ve seen none.
Conclusions (3 of 3) • As someone who adhered to Dom Mocquereau’s rhythmic theories for 20+ years, I have no dog in this fight. Our blog has solicited—and published—numerous articles from people who have different perspectives. We will continue to do so. Scholars from all over the world (including seminary professors) have said they will send us articles which “push back” on certain claims I’ve made. In many cases, they haven’t followed through with what they promised—but only time will tell where all this will lead.
1 The elderly Horowitz made similar comments about legends like Josef Hofmann and Glenn Gould. But when he was much younger, Vladimir Horowitz found himself in the famous Steinway basement in which a manager pointed out Josef Hofmann’s piano. Horowitz begged: “Please, may I just touch it?”