It is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device. Thus, to cite some instances, one would be straying from the straight path were he to wish the altar restored to its primitive table form; were he to want black excluded as a color for the liturgical vestments; were he to forbid the use of sacred images and statues in churches; were he to order the crucifix so designed that the divine Redeemer's body shows no trace of His cruel sufferings; and lastly were he to disdain and reject polyphonic music or singing in parts, even where it conforms to regulations issued by the Holy See. . . . obviously unwise and mistaken is the zeal of one who in matters liturgical would go back to the rites and usage of antiquity, discarding the new patterns introduced by disposition of divine Providence to meet the changes of circumstances and situation. (Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 62–63)
The word tradition denotes something that is handed over or passed down. Some readers may be surprised to learn that traitor and betrayal are cognates of tradition—again, a handing over. St. Gregory the Great is often depicted with a dove perched atop his shoulder, signifying the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. This portrayal is not entirely unknown even in the East. (Among the Byzantines, he is better known as St. Gregory the Dialogist.) We cannot say with certainly that the chants of the Proper of the Mass in their present form date back to St. Gregory (†604), despite bearing his name, but there is a scholarly consensus that they were in fairly widespread use at the time of Charlemagne, around 800. Our oldest sources of musical notation for these chants are from the tenth century—which is not to say that there were no musical manuscripts before that, only that they have not survived or yet been discovered. On the other hand, it is possible that the oldest extant manuscripts were deliberately preserved precisely because they were the oldest (although a colleague of mine called this proposition preposterous). The simple fact is that we do not know when the chants reached their present form or when they were first written down. What we can say with certainty is that they were notated in at least two places in the first half of the tenth century.
It is well documented that the authentic traditional rhythm had been lost by the end of the eleventh century and that the tempo had slowed down with the introduction of parallel organum. I have attempted parallel organum in proportional rhythm with my choir and must say that my men and I found it very difficult to sing well. I can see the advantage to a slow equalist interpretation. Slow equalist plainchant persisted up to the early twentieth century in some places, and it is reasonable to say that it is the historically correct rhythm for the beautifully illuminated manuscripts of the late Middle Ages. By the Renaissance period, mensural editions—the so-called Medicean editions—were in use alongside plainchant. Accompaniment books published in the nineteenth century give a clear idea of how the note values were interpreted. We should note here that the Medicean editions also included melodic alterations, sometimes rather drastic ones, which were considered “corrections" according to the theorists of that era.
Serious study of the oldest extant manuscripts recommenced in the nineteenth century with the Jesuit Louis Lambillotte. Various theories concerning the correct interpretation of the rhythm were advanced, which were summarized by Rayburn. St. Pius X entrusted the Benedictines of Solesmes with the restoration of chant according to the oldest sources. Much could be written about that project, but I only wish to mention three points: 1. it was rushed; the Holy Father wanted about 50 years of work compressed into only five; 2. from the outset, the monks did not have all of the manuscripts at their disposal that we now have, or that they themselves would have a couple of years into the project; unfortunately, their editorial principals had already been solidified; and 3. they similarly had only incomplete or defective copies of the medieval theoretical writings available to them. The rhythmic theories of Dom Mocquereau, based mostly on a faulty interpretation of the St. Gall neumes, were incorporated into the Solesmes editions; the pure Vatican edition contains no rhythmic markings except for the bar lines, which are strictly editorial. Although Dom Cardine's theories were in some ways very opposed to those of Fr. Vollaerts and Dom Murray, all three of them undertook painstaking study of the oldest sources. Many of Cardine's disciples have published important works, most notably Fr. Agustoni and Dom Göschl. With the brief but dense articles of the late Jan van Biezen in recent years, we finally have an interpretation that reconciles the contradictory approaches of the semiologists (e.g. Cardine, Agustoni, Göschl) and mensuralists (e.g. Vollaerts, Murray, Van Biezen) with the interpretation than I have used as the basis of my editions.
Given all of this history, how can we say what is really traditional? Once something has been tampered with, it is an alteration and no longer truly representative of tradition in its fullness. The Medicean editions are now generally recognized as an alteration or mutilation of the traditional Gregorian chant (which is not necessarily to say that the intentions of those responsible for them were wrong or misguided). What are we to make of the still-official 1908 Vatican edition ordered by the Pope? It is a restoration—imperfect, but a definite improvement. The Graduale Novum and other restored editions, corrected according to the oldest sources, are also improvements, but a common criticism of Gregorian chant sung according to a semiological, rhetorical, oratorical, or accentualist interpretation is that “they all sound different," even though each of the ensembles may be singing from the same edition and claim to use the same style, based to a greater or lesser extent on the ideas of Dom Cardine. Proportional rhythm offers less wiggle room for the idiosyncrasies of particular directors, singers, or ensembles.
Now to the topic! I have given a history lesson in four paragraphs and reserved the actual point of this little essay for the beginning and end. I opened with a quote from Pius XII's encyclical Mediator Dei. Are we guilty of antiquarianism, i.e. discarding more recent and legitimate developments in favor of restoring a primitive usage? I answer in the negative. Although we are indeed attempting to restore a style of singing from at least eleven centuries ago, we are no more guilty of antiquarianism than St. Pius X or the Solesmes monks of the early twentieth century. This edition is another step in restoring the chants “in their integrity and purity according to the testimony of the oldest manuscripts," according to the desire expressed by that same Pontiff. Here and elsewhere, I use the phrase authentic traditional rhythm. I am not unaware that I may appear to have contradicted myself! No one would claim that the rhythm presented here is representative of how Gregorian chant has been sung for 900+ years. Then how can it be called traditional? It is traditional in the sense that it is a restoration of the authentic tradition, in light of the best scholarship. And how does this differ from antiquarianism? With chant, we are not dealing with a liturgical art form that more or less died out, but rather one that lost its original rhythmic vitality and was eventually altered intentionally. We could trace many elements in Gregorian chant that were indeed handed down without interruption even in the Medicean editions, therefore we cannot say that the tradition as a whole was ever lost. Let us do our part to sing “according to the testimony of the oldest manuscripts." St. Gregory the Great, pray for us! St. Pius X, pray for us!
Patrick Williams, November 2021