Gregorian Rhythm Wars

For almost a year, from October 23, 2022, until October 9, 2023, I was a regular contributor to the Catholic website Corpus Christi Watershed, with some 40 contributions in 50 weeks' time: 24 posts to the “Gregorian Rhythm Wars" series, thirteen posts on a range of other topics, plus a chant glossary, a translation requested by Jeff Ostrowski, and a special recording contribution.  At the time of my final CCW post, Ostrowski indicated to me that he intended to end the Gregorian Rhythm Wars exchange and wrote publicly, “it’s been decided to bring that particular series to a close.  As they say: All good things must come to an end," yet he has continued to create more posts with the Gregorian Rhythm Wars tag.  While he is welcome to have the proverbial last word on his website, I reserve the right to continue my response here on my own site, without posting restrictions (hinted at here) from him or anyone else.  One such response, titled The Restoration of Tradition (12/1/23), is now available on this site.  I will respond to other points below, as appropriate.


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2/13/24: Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, and I intend to take a break from Gregorian Rhythm Wars until after Easter, even avoiding drafting replies, assuming I possess the requisite willpower.  It may strike some readers as unfair to challenge my interlocutor to respond and then immediately announce a seven-week pause on my part, but consider that some of my questions from many months ago remain unanswered by him.  Since tomorrow is also St. Valentine's Day, consider also that all is fair in love and war!  I desire this hiatus for my own peace of mind and spiritual wellbeing.  I will continue to work on the revisions of my edition of the Sunday Mass Propers, which are now current through the Third Sunday after Easter.  If you have been following the Rhythm Wars series but have yet to sing from my edition, this Lenten season would be an excellent time to avail yourself of the opportunity to do so.  With 111 updated chants available starting with the First Sunday of Advent, there is plenty for you to explore.  Prayers for all of my readers for a blessed and fruitful Lent!


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2/12/24: Today I added a graphic and explanation to yesterday's update.  In Europe, the printing press was unknown before the mid-fifteenth century.  The first printed Gradual is believed to have been published around 1473.  Any notated chant before that time is a manuscript, and chant manuscripts continue to be written today.  I singled out the Lagal edition of 1984 as a noteworthy modern manuscript.  I have challenged Ostrowski—and I challenge him again here!—to state clearly what his cutoff date is for ancient manuscripts and to explain why.


Although rhythm is my chief area of interest, obviously the melody is of utmost importance.  In Sunday's post, Ostrowski made the claim that “Catholics have been singing this song [the antiphon Juxta vestibulum] on Ash Wednesday—and thanks to Abbat [sic] Pothier, virtually the identical melody—for 1,300 years."  It occurred to me this evening that his claim is preposterous!  He urges his readers to Consider how this same plainsong looked circa 1393ad . . . 1254ad . . . 1230ad . . . 1190ad . . . 1136ad . . ." and I did exactly that.  How many others will bother to examine the manuscripts for themselves?  Yet many will read his articles and accept his claims at face value.  Of the first three manuscripts presented in his article, the second appears to be the most similar to the Vatican edition.  Just how similar is it?  Let's see!


A teacher may apply greater rigor or a greater degree of leniency in grading.  If, for example, there is a neume of nine notes in the manuscript corresponding to a neume of six notes in the Vatican edition, with only four notes in agreement, does that mean that five manuscript notes are incorrect, that two Vatican notes are incorrect, that two manuscript notes are incorrect, or that the Vatican edition has failed to reproduce five notes correctly?  Or should we say that, since there are four notes in agreement plus another five in the manuscript and another two in the Vatican edition, seven notes are not in agreement and, therefore, only four out of eleven notes are “correct"?  That would be a very rigorous standard.  I have “graded" according the moderately lenient standard of the number of notes in agreement divided by the greater number of total notes for each neume in either source.  In the case of four out of six, nine, or eleven notes mentioned above, I divide four by nine.  Dividing by only six would be a very lenient standard when there are in fact five notes in the manuscript that do not agree with the Vatican edition, and dividing by eleven strikes me as overly strict, at least in this context.


Before comparing the notes, it was necessary to transpose one or the other source.  I chose to transpose the Vatican edition down a perfect fourth—or up a perfect fifth, whichever way you prefer to think about it.  You'll see that I was also very generous in dealing with neumes that were aligned differently with the text.  I compared only through populo tuo because that's as far as Ostrowski's first example goes.  Note that b=B flat and h=B natural.  Here are the results:

Juxta vestibulum comparison

Only 95 out of 114 notes are in agreement according to a rather lenient standard: 83 percent.  Would you want to hear the two versions sung simultaneously at Mass?  I certainly wouldn't.  Considering that this was the most similar to the Vatican edition of the first three images, is it at all fair to say that the melody has been virtually identical for 1,300 years?  Yet the same kinds of people who make such absurd claims practically lose their minds when adiastematic manuscripts from perhaps eighty years apart differ in less than two percent of their note values!  Study and compare the sources for yourself and don’t take anyone’s word for anything!


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2/11/24: Ostrowski’s terminology again betrays a misunderstanding of the fundamental problem.  The term cantus planus (plainsong or plainchant) seems to be unknown before the thirteenth century, when Elias Salomon wrote, “No plain chant ever allows hurrying in one place more than in another, for that is its nature.  And so it is called plain chant because it requires to be sung with the utmost plainness” (Scientia artis musicae).  Contrast this with Berno of Reichenau in the early eleventh century: “In the neumes it is necessary that you pay close attention where the proportional shorter duration is to be measured and where, on the contrary, the longer duration, lest you execute as quick and short what the authority of the masters has determined should be longer and more extended.  Nor should we heed those who say there is no reason whatsoever for our making now the quicker duration, now the more prolonged one, in a chant with a naturally disposed rhythm” (Musica seu Prologus in Tonarium).

When Ostrowski says that, “99.9% of ancient manuscripts are considered ‘garbage’ or ‘worthless’ or ‘meritless’ when it comes to understanding plainsong rhythm,” he is playing word games.  What exactly does he mean by ancient?  What exactly does he mean by plainsong rhythm?  In fact, the eight first-millennial sources I mentioned by name in my previous response don’t at all help us to understand the rhythm of the chant of the thirteenth or fourteenth century.  Similarly, the manuscripts of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries offer very little to aid our understanding of the ninth- or tenth-century rhythm.  There is no need to beat around the bush about this, and there is nothing enigmatic or embarrassing about reliance on the comparatively few rhythmic manuscripts in preference to the thousands of nonrhythmic ones.  Ostrowski is sowing confusion by placing the rhythmic and nonrhythmic manuscripts on equal footing, while simultaneously urging his readers not to favor those sources which are “more accessible, more beautiful, more legible, more famous, or more complete.”  Some are more famous with good reason.

Ostrowski gives a comparison chart with sources spanning 230 years according to his own dating, but why not broaden that to 600 years or 1100?  Why not include the manuscript Laon 239 from ca. 880 or the Graduale Lagal manuscript from 1984?  In fact, for his three excerpts, the sources used for the triplex editions give the same rhythm as Helmst, Bamberg 6, St. Gall 339, and St. Gall 376.  If there exists some society or order which has handed down the authentic rhythm as a closely guarded secret, shielded from the Church at large, I am unaware of it.  No, there is no evidence for an esoteric chant tradition, only the manuscripts.  When I see that a manuscript from the 1130s contradicts one from the 880s, it comes as no surprise.  When I see that the two oldest sources contradict each other, I pay more attention.

Laon 239
Graduale Novum with proportional rhythm markings added
Einsiedeln​ 121
Bamberg 6
St. Gall 339

Three discrepancies in B circled in red; there is unanimous agreement among L, E, and G except for the final notes of et and al- not explicitly written long in the St. Gall sources (graphical convention).  These serve as a model group whereby the accuracy of later manuscripts may be judged.

Ostrowski says that the significative letters (Romanian signs) were likely nuances intended for individual precentors at individual monasteries during specific periods of time, but those aren’t the only means of lengthening notes, nor even the most usual means.  I already demonstrated the equivalence of the letter t, the episema, and the neumatic break.  In the triplex editions, it is not unusual to encounter chants where the Laon and St. Gall neumes agree at least 98 percent of the time.  On the contrary, it is uncommon to find chants where they agree less than 90 percent of the time.  Sometimes the oldest rhythmic sources are in unanimous agreement.  I ask again: Why look to a manuscript from the thirteenth century to “correct” the first-millennial reading?  Really spell this out for me like I’m an idiot, because I just don’t see any advantage to it whatsoever.

The scribes and copyists weren’t infallible, but what some of them left us is as close to the authentic traditional rhythm as we can get with some certainty and without conjecture.  It’s impossible to follow two contradictory readings simultaneously.  An editor must make choices, which Weaver explains well in his latest post.  As it turns out, the system of proportional rhythm as a whole is much more controversial than any particular editorial choices of mine.  It is the 90+ percent of the rhythm in perfect agreement in the oldest sources that people need to be convinced about, not the relatively few discrepancies, but that’s only half the battle.  The rest is getting them to sing it.  Some are already convinced in theory but reluctant in practice, if not downright obstinate.  We have our work cut out for us.


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2/2/24: Ostrowski has summarized his arguments as follows: “I believe Dom Mocquereau’s rhythmic modifications: (1) distort and disfigure the melodic line; (2) are needlessly esoteric and confusing for those trying to pray by singing; (3) were condemned explicitly over and over again, including by Pope Saint Pius X; (4) contradict the official rhythm in thousands of instances, adding confusion; (5) ignore the evidence from thousands of important ancient manuscripts; (6) misinterpret what the ancient manuscripts say.”  To engage momentarily in his own style of response, let me begin by saying that I don't dispute that Ostrowski really and truly believes those points exactly as he claims.  We are of course discussing a matter of opinion, not something connected to the theological virtue of faith.  Throughout the Gregorian Rhythm Wars series, I presented evidence from the oldest extant manuscripts to support my position and encouraged readers to examine it for themselves.  Ostrowski has failed to present evidence from the same manuscripts supporting the rhythm of the Vatican edition, and so would anyone else who tried.  Here again he writes of the ancient manuscripts, but what does he mean by ancient?  I mean the first-millennial manuscripts when I refer to the oldest extant sourcesThere are nowhere near “thousands” of such sources.

If we wish to deal with extant more or less complete sources for the Proper of the Mass that differentiate between long and short note values, they are only four in number!  Those manuscripts, namely 1) Laon 239, 2) Einsiedeln 121, 3) Bamberg 6, and 4) St. Gall 399, may be supplemented by 5) St. Gall 359, which contains only graduals, alleluias, and tracts, 6) Chartres 47, which is inextant, 7) the Mont Renaud gradual, which on the whole is less rhythmically precise, and various fragments, the most important of which are a few pages from 8) Nonantola.  Ostrowski refers to half of these eight sources as Moc’s Fantastic Four.  Together with Laon and Chartres, no serious scholar to my knowledge questions their importance.  Ostrowski previously cited sources from the thirteenth century, apparently placing a codex from 1275 on an equality with one from around 880.  His only justification for such sloppy pseudo-scholarship is that the Vatican edition is a cento, ergo all manuscripts are equally important regardless of age.  I call upon Ostrowski to define precisely what he means by ancient manuscripts.  If we have a collection of eight sources from the first millennium, seven of which agree with each other, why would we look to a manuscript from 1275 to “correct” this first-millennial reading?  It makes no sense.  This suffices to address points 5 and 6.


Points 1 and 2 aren't self-evident.  Ostrowski's opinion that “Mocquereau’s rhythmic modifications distort and disfigure the melodic line” apparently refers to the melodic line of the Vatican edition.  Does Ostrowski also mean to claim that “Mocquereau’s rhythmic modifications distort and disfigure the melodic line” of the oldest extant sources?  This requires clarification on his part.  His opinion that “Mocquereau’s rhythmic modifications are needlessly esoteric and confusing for those trying to pray by singing” would carry no weight at all with most died-in-the-wool Solesmes method adherents, who praise their method precisely because it is “prayerful.”  I'm not especially interested is comparing the prayerfulness of various styles of chanting, which would quickly degenerate into total subjectivity.  The rhythm of the oldest extant sources was prayerful enough at the time they were written, which makes it prayerful enough for me today.  On this point I will also challenge Ostrowski to state another opinion unambiguously: Does he consider the rhythmic indications of the oldest sources (as opposed to Mocquereau's incomplete use of them), which he previously characterized as “slight nuances, probably intended for individual cantors,” also to be an obstacle to prayer?


Point 3 is not a matter of belief or opinion.  Here he seems to confuse officiality with liceity and exaggerates the notion of what may be preferred to the exclusion of whatever else may be permissible or at least tolerated.  There simply is no One and Only True Official Way to Sing Gregorian Chant.  If there were, why wouldn't it be used at the Vatican instead of any other method or interpretive approach?  Point 4 is his only strong argument, but here again, I challenge him to clarify his position: Do Mocquereau’s rhythmic modifications contradict only the official rhythm, or do they also contradict the authentic rhythm in thousands of instances?  He knows my position on this by now, but let me restate it here for convenience: Mocquereau didn't add enough rhythmic indications from the ancient manuscripts, he misinterpreted the ones he did add as slight agogic nuances instead of doubling, and he butchered beat (ictus) placement because of an anachronistic understanding of the nature of the Latin word accent.


Ostrowski closed by asking Weaver rhetorically, “If half the singers used the edition by Dom Mocquereau, and the other half used the edition by Abbat Bourigaud, can we really say the rhythmic symbols are insignificant?  Can you imagine how horrible that would sound?,” as though he were making an original point.  Did I not already write seven months ago that “it would be impossible to sing the different rhythmic versions simultaneously without cacophony ensuing”?  Of course the rhythmic indications are not insignificant!  That's the whole point that he continues to miss because of his haphazard egalitarian approach to the manuscripts and his obsession with the idea of One and Only True Official Way to Sing Gregorian Chant.  Ostrowski, get your nose out of obsolete decrees and get back to the sources already, for crying out loud!


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12/30/23: Ostrowski makes perhaps his boldest and most incredible claim yet: “Having examined the ancient manuscripts for more than twenty years, I haven’t been able to find any evidence supporting the rhythmic claims of Dom Mocquereau—or, for that matter, his disciple, Dom Eugène Cardine.”  I, too, have lamented the lack of evidence in support of some of their claims, especially the antimensuralism of the nuance theory, but I'm quite sure Ostrowski isn't referring to that.  He has discredited himself repeatedly by demonstrating that he is incapable of interpreting the Messine and St. Gall neumes printed in the triplex editions (which he nearly admitted here).  The “ancient manuscripts” to which he refers, and which he places on an equality with the first-millennial sources, may date as late as the fifteenth century—and when called out on that matter, he invariably replies with something along the lines of “we don't really know.”  Hogwash!  As for Dr. Katherine Ellis, she rightly claims that Mocquereau elaborates an aesthetically based theory of interpretation,” and I could hardly agree more.  When it comes to Gregorian chant, aesthetically based theories continue to stand in the way of evidence-based theories.  If you're really interested in evidence, then put the rendition to the test!  If you can't transcribe it accurately with the adiastematic neumes, there's no way it's a faithful representation of how chant was sung in the first millennium.


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12/18/23: Ostrowski continues his ongoing diatribe against the elongations supposedly “invented” by Mocquereau.  His arguments can be summarized as follows:


I already rebutted most of Ostrowski's arguments in my article titled “Mocquereau on Trial and elsewhere in the series.  He furnishes an example from the Schwann edition of the alleluia Ave Maria, showing three neumatic breaks highlighted in blue.  The Solesmes editions reproduce the note spacing there exactly.  So, his argument is not that they omitted anything at all, rather that they failed to add rhythmic marks, which he also claims are the invention of Mocquereau.  Ostrowski simultaneously laments the addition of rhythmic marks and the omission of the same marks.  He has stated more than once that it is permissible to sing from an ancient manuscript in the context of the liturgy, even if the notes differ from the Vatican edition.  His actual position appears to be that it is lawful to follow the notes of an ancient manuscript but unlawful to follow the rhythm of an ancient manuscript; he seems to think that all notes must have the same value except where they would be lengthened in the Vatican edition.


I would need specific examples in order to address point 5.  Regarding point 6, virtually the entire Gregorian manuscript tradition from the twelfth century onward is unreliable for determining the original rhythm.  Regarding point 7, there is all manner of content on the Internet that “most people” don’t care anything about accessing.  So what?  People who really wanted to study Gregorian manuscripts a century ago could order a volume of the Paléographie musicale or study it at a library; difficult access is not the same as no access.  Ostrowski expends a lot of words attacking Mocquereau’s reliance on what he has nicknamed the Fantastic Four, but does he ever explain what’s wrong with those four manuscripts or why much later manuscripts ought to be preferred to them?  As he says, “beating around the bush must come to an end.”  State your objections clearly.  If you cannot accept silence, why should your readers?