The Restoration of Tradition

What many Catholics think of as the “traditional” style of Gregorian chant interpretation is anything but.  The monks of Solesmes Abbey embraced no fewer than half a dozen interpretations in just over a century.  Among these should be counted a sort of not-so-methodical accentualism (rhetorical/oratorical approach), followed by Pothier’s method, Moquereau’s so-called classic Solesmes method, a revision of that method under Gajard, Cardine’s semiology, and a more mature version of semiology by the early 1980s.  Some of their more recent publications have included few rhythmic markings or none whatsoever, which suggests a return to Pothier and pre-Pothier practice.  I’ve been unable to confirm rumors that the monks have returned to the classic Solesmes rhythmic editions for actual liturgical use.  Regardless, they seem to be cycling through interpretive approaches, and one that was in general use for only a few decades can hardly be considered a tradition!

What is the common thread uniting all of the Solesmes approaches as well as the strict equalism of the “pure” Vatican edition?  Let us name it: antimensuralism.  Free speech rhythm, nuanced rhythm, and equalism alike stand in opposition to the proportional rhythm of the first millennium.  Enough with compromises!  Let us return to the oldest extant sources.  They are trustworthy, and they reveal a chant composed of discrete long and short note values rather than a limitless range of agogic nuances open to a limitless range of interpretive rhythmic nuances.  Traditionalists, and many conservatives too, are zealous to defend the liturgical use of chant as a matter of principle, but how many of them actually appreciate it as music beyond a limited selection of Ordinaries, Marian chants, strophic hymns, litanies, and other repetitive melodies?  Many Catholics dislike chant or are indifferent to it, but how many Catholic musicians have even considered the possibility that the lukewarm reception of chant might have something to do neither with inadequate catechesis nor with poor or mediocre performance per se, but rather with a faulty interpretation, i.e., a wrong idea about its fundamental musical characteristics?

The first generation of Catholics who were subjected to the Solesmes method as schoolchildren were the very ones who later rejected Gregorian chant altogether.  That fact, of course, is no argument against the method in and of itself, but it should give us pause nonetheless.  Perhaps even with the most polished rendition possible, there was something amiss with the edition, which is tantamount to saying that there was something wrong with the chant itself rather than its performance or reception.  Even within the roughly six decades when the classic Solesmes method was widespread, there was Mocquereau’s method, then revisions by Gajard, then additions by Cardine and others that may be considered a type of proto-semiology.  A couple of examples of changes to the method include the counting of rests at full bar lines (“always a silent ictus at the full bar”) and neumatic disaggregation, where an initial punctum isolated from the following notes is lengthened, which is not exactly the same as the melismatic mora vocis of the Vatican edition.  Some colleagues are quick to point out that Cardine insisted he was not giving a new method, but that is beside the point, and I have been careful to refer to various interpretive approaches rather than methods at any rate.

The desire for the liturgy and everything connected to it to be always and everywhere the same is absolutely understandable, but the historical reality is otherwise.  We have incontrovertible evidence of significant changes to the way chant was sung over the centuries.  Anyone today can view the primary sources in high resolution with a few clicks.  The enemies of mensuralism love to claim that there is very little or even nothing at all about first-millennial performance practice that we can know with any degree of certainty.  That simply isn’t true.  There is a great deal that is crystal clear in the best manuscripts, and the contemporaneous writers reinforce all of it.  On the contrary, nobody can produce a shred of evidence in favor of a limitless range of agogic nuances, and all of the antimensuralists continue to accept and defend the theory of rhythmic nuances on the basis of the Solesmes “tradition,” whether they realize it themselves or not.  Do they wish for the Catholic Church to freeze this or that edition, so that outdated scholarship becomes permanently attached to the Roman liturgy?  It would be far better to remain open to current musicological scholarship just as much for chant as for the music of Palestrina or Handel.

It would make things much easier if we had a style of chant performance that had been passed down unchanged from the time of Charlemagne, but we know that isn’t the reality.  We do, however, have extant sources from the Carolingian era, only a few generations removed from the reign of Pope Adrian I, and those sources, not the theories of Pothier, Mocquereau, or Gajard, ought to be the starting point for our interpretation.  The ninth and tenth centuries have more of value to teach us about authentic performance practice than the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  I have become convinced that the oft-repeated dating of Laon 239 to “around 930” is based on conjecture, if not outright fabrication, and that the codex in question dates to the ninth century.  It is possible that St. Gall 359 is also several decades older than the range of “between 922 and 926” commonly assumed.  Regardless, these manuscripts, probably from some 300+ miles apart, provide a reliable reading of the text, melodic contour, and rhythm alike.  If some confusion regarding the rhythm already crept in by the time they were written, it is negligible in comparison with the later alterations and mis-restorations.

When Jeff Ostrowski claims that “the Graduale Triplex was a blameworthy initiative because it superimposed adiastematic notation from a handful of manuscripts above the musical notation of the Editio Vaticana” and that “it is reprehensible to superimpose a particular manuscript above a cento,” he unwittingly underscores the need for the melodic restorations of the Graduale Novum.  Most regrettably, I can point to many examples of a professional ensemble ostensibly singing from the Graduale Triplex but making up their own arbitrary rhythm instead of following either set of adiastematic neumes, the Solesmes markings, or the Vatican edition pure and simple.  Perhaps they’ll prefer Mr. Ostrowski’s edition when it’s available in print.  Let them steer clear of mine until they’re ready to observe the rhythmic proportions more or less strictly.  We’ve had more than our fill of “free rhythm” so indefinite that the performers feel at liberty to hold any note they like, to add rests of five or six counts at bar lines, with or without punctuation in the text, and to disregard even the repercussions required by the Solesmes method.  It is impossible to transcribe the adiastematic neumes accurately from such renditions.  Again I say: Enough with compromises!  Let us return to the oldest extant sources.  They are trustworthy.

Patrick Williams, December 2023