By the 11th Century the basic corpus of Gregorian Chants as we now have them, with the exception of chants for more recent feasts, was complete. At that time there was no system of musical notation and the chants were committed to memory – an enormous task, given the entire body of Chant exceeds in length the entire works of Wagner!
However, in certain manuscripts we find quasi-musical markings above the Latin (and Greek) texts which indicate the rise and fall of the melody – these symbols resemble, at their most basic level, the grave and acute accents in French. They also give us considerable information regarding the rhythm of the chants. The study of these signs and symbols is known as Semiology. It is from these symbols that the modern system of Western musical notation grew, thanks to the Benedictine Monk Guido d’ Arezzo (c990 – 1050). It is he who invented staff notation, initially by grouping neumes around a single line, which he then increased to four. He also assigned each ‘pitch’ a name – Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La – having noticed that the first note of each phrase of the hymn to St John the Baptist (Ut queant laxis) begins on a note one step higher in pitch than the last.
He used the first syllable of each phrase to name the pitches. It is from this system that we get the Tonic Sol Fa system – the Ut was replaced by Do, and Si or Ti was added later (Ut, a deer, a female deer doesn’t sound quite right!)
However, whilst there were considerable advantages to Guido’s system of notation – that of precisely indicating relative, if not absolute, pitch for the first time – the simplification of the neumatic symbols that accompanied the new system meant that the rhythmic nuances contained within the original unheighted neumes was lost and the new system became an indicator of pitch alone. A glance at the following scan from the Graduale Triplex will suffice to confirm this – observe the careful detail of the unheighted neumes as opposed to the rather lumpy, square notation with which we are more familiar, and which lacks the ability to express rhythmic subtlety in any way.
Various theories have been proposed regarding the rhythm of the Chant over the past 100 or so years, the old Solesmes Method having dominated almost all performances of the Chant for the past 80 years and is still reigning supreme. However, the ground-breaking work of Dom Eugene Cardine, a monk of Solesmes, in trying to unlock the rhythmic significance of the original neumes, has raised new questions about the way in which we perform the Chant, and has taken us back to Dom Guéranger’s original assertion, that the text must come first.
In his monumental study Gregorian Semiology, Cardine explains the function of unheighted neumes in terms of the information they impart regarding approximate pitch. However, through extensive study of different manuscripts and the different neumatic symbols of various notational traditions, he attempts to unlock the rhythmic significance of the neumes, and his theories, whilst still theories and not facts, are nonetheless extremely convincing, and are supported by evidence contained within the various notations used in
at the time. France
The result, perhaps most clearly seen in Dom Saulnier’s new Antiphonale Monasticum, is the removal of editorial rhythmic symbols associated with the old Solesmes Method, including the lengthening dots and most episemas, and the creation of ‘new’ neumes based on old unheighted neumes, intended to convey some subtle rhythmic nuance which the current quadratic notation cannot convey. The theories regarding the episema, the quilisma and the salicus etc have the effect of liberating the Chant from a dogged, overly-metrical style of performance and allowing the words, once more, to take precedence. As Cardinal Garonne reminds us, in the Chant “the words almost give forth the music they already possess”, a point understood only too well by Guéranger, Cardine and his successor, Saulnier.
Over the coming weeks I will present a series of short articles on the main notational symbols used in the Chant, and attempt to outline in simple fashion Dom Cardine’s theories of rhythmic performance based on his study of the earliest manuscripts of unheighted neumatic notation. However, for those of you who wish to undertake a more detailed study, I recommend Cardine’s Book Gregorian Semiology and, of course, the Graduale Triplex, an indispensable volume for the true Gregorian enthusiast! I should point out, as I close this introductory piece, that the theories outlined above are just that – theories. It is easy to be dogmatic about such things and, whilst I am a disciple of Cardine and his theories, others are not. I merely offer these thoughts as one of many possible interpretations of the Chant we know and love.
Nick Gale, June 2010