Gregorian Chant notation and the Semiological work of Dom Cardine – part 1

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 France at the time.


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

Qui Vult Venire

This communio for this Sunday is very special indeed. Its economy is notable. It is a beautiful tune in a very short space, covering a very wide range, and with some interesting modulations and tensions. Most of all what we find here is an unmistakable forward motion that befits the text: If a man wish to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow.

As a first mode chant, its tonal center is RE but other than the first phrase, the chant doesn’t dwell in this resting place. It always seems to be headed somewhere else. Notice its midpoint on MI, which creates a musical question of what is to follow. We move up a fourth to the LA to sing about the cross, again with moving force.

We arrive at the last phrase, which is the most intriguing. In three words, we reach from the highest point in this chant to it lowest, nearly an entire octave. But notice the last musical phrase. Instead of going RE ME RE, as we might expect in a communion chant, it dips down to DO. It is a vocally interesting passage because we don’t often encounter this sound at the end of a chant.

We might say that this musical turn it is unexpected. A surprise. We have traveled a direction that we might not have anticipated. The singer even notices a near loss of breath. It is a subtle but powerful effect. If we follow Christ we must be prepared to go places that are unusual, places that do not fit in with our plans, places that are unfamiliar. But they always end in our true home.

A Choral Revolution in the North of England

Ben Saunders, the Director of Music at Leeds Cathedral in the North of England said, after he was appointed a number of years ago, that if if inner-city children were not going to come to him, then he was going to send a choral director to them. He was fortunate enough to have a supportive Cathedral Dean and Bishop behind him, so he did just that! Initial funding was arranged and a number of singers were sent into the local schools to encourage singing and form new choirs.

Now the Cathedral has a full-time music department, one of only three in Catholic cathedrals in England, and a whole host of professional choral directors who travel about the Diocese teaching children to sing and forming new choirs in the schools around Leeds and Huddersfield. There is now no longer just one cathedral choir but a whole legion of singers forming a vast number of choirs who sing the daily services in the Cathedral and who frequently broadcast on the BBC and the independent UK broadcasters.

Ben and his assistant, the supremely gifted and talented Chris McElroy, have launched this new venture and created a 21st Century, inner-city choral foundation. It has transformed music and liturgy at the Cathedral, and in the City of Leeds, beyond all recognition. Children living in working-class areas, deprived for so many years of music and, in particular, singing in schools, are once more raising their voices to God. With over 26 native languages spoken in the Cathedral parish alone, the common language is now Latin! Even the local state primary schools are amalgamating to create the UK‘s first non-fee-paying Cathedral Choir School, an initiative blessed by the former Secretary of State for Education. The children are taught Gregorian Chant, polyphony, classical masses and new, quality works composed by 20th Century and contemporary composers, proving beyond a shadow of doubt that children appreciate and rise to a challenge.

The final jewel in the crown of this musical renaissance is perhaps the newly rebuilt organ – Orgelbau Klais of Bonn has recently reinstalled the completely rebuilt Cathedral Organ, which has been silent for over 30 years. The blessing and formal inauguration of the new organ took place on the 16 May 2010. Further details of the Leeds project can be found at www.dioceseofleedsmusic.org.uk.

The work undertaken by Ben, Chris and their dedicated, talented team of singers and choral directors is a lesson to us all and other cathedral musical directors would do well to follow their example!

Nuns, an island, a new organ and spectacular chanting

It has been my great privilege to pay a number of recent visits to the Abbey of St Cecilia in Ryde on the Isle of Wight, just off the south coast of England. My first visit was to give a talk to the community as part of my then role as Director of Music to the UK based Panel of Monastic Musicians. The second visit, prompted by the first, was a Chant Day I organised through the Academy of St Cecilia, when Professor John Caldwell of Oxford University gave an excellent history of Chant and we enjoyed several master classes from the Monastic Choirmistress, as well as taking part in the Divine Office.

The Abbey has an interesting history in that the nuns were originally members of the community of the Abbaye Sainte- Cécile de Solesmes. The French anti religious laws of the early 20th century forced the whole community into exile in England, to the forerunner of the present St Cecilia’s Abbey. After several years of exile the French community was at last able to return to Solesmes in 1921, but a number of the sisters remained and formed the community we now know today.
The sisters sing the entire Office and Mass to Gregorian Chant every day of the year. A visiting monk from Quarr Abbey, a few miles away on the same island, makes a daily trip to celebrate the Mass (Novus Ordo in Latin) and the Monastic Choir, under the direction of Sr Bernadette, a true disciple of Dom Cardine, trains the sisters on a regular basis in the Chants of the Office and the Mass, using Cardine’s Semiological approach. This, coupled with the use of Dom Saulnier’s new Antiphonale Monasticum, now fully in use in the Abbey, makes for the most vibrant, fluid and prayerful performance of the Chant I have heard in the UK.

The Abbey also boats a new Kenneth Tickell organ in the West End of the Monastic Choir – details of which, for all organ enthusiasts, can be seen at www.tickell­organs.co.uk/specInfo/opus54.htm. The Community can be visited at any time and has an excellent website – www.stceciliasabbey.org.uk – and I urge those of you who live in or are visiting the south of England to make a short trip across the Solent by hovercraft, ferry or catamaran, to hear the mesmeric singing of this wonderful, young, thriving, growing community of nuns.
Nick Gale, June 2010

An ordinary parish with an ordinary priest!

There has been a great deal of talk lately of the dismal state of music in the average parish, not just in the UK and the USA, but all over the Catholic world. Chant and polyphony, rather than being the staple diet, as VII stipulates, are the exception rather than the rule, as is the use of Latin. Choirs are rare, ‘folk’ music groups are the norm. The organ is the exception, the guitar is the norm.
When I make suggestions to clergy and parish musicians as to how they might go about improving music, such as using simple chants from the CMAA’s fantastic Parish Book of Chant, introducing a Gregorian Ordinary etc, even if it is De Angelis, the general response is “Oh that’s all gone now”, “That’s old hat now”, That’s too difficult for the people”, “The children won’t like it”, “We can’t worship in a language people don’t understand”, “We can’t do all that – we’re just an ordinary parish”.
Apparently, ordinary people are too stupid to learn a chant ordinary – they need a Gloria with a refrain, maybe the odd burst of clapping to keep the children amused, something tuneful that they can enjoy when they go to Mass, something they can hum. Am I alone in thinking that this is patronising to the People of God, that this is an insult to the intelligence of children, and indeed their parents? Am I also alone in thinking that the music we use in the Liturgy should be an offering to God, not chosen to suit the tastes of the people? Do children really enjoy clapping at Mass? Is that really to be regarded as the only way to keep them happy during the liturgy and enjoying Mass more? This is an insult to our youth – give them more credit! And as for understanding the texts we sing, does anybody actually know what Kum bay ya actually means?! Whenever I have seen and heard this musical, poetic and theological travesty of a hymn in use in a parish, I’ve never seen a parallel translation of the text!

I’d like to tell you about an ordinary parish in an ordinary town with an ordinary priest and an ordinary congregation. The Church in question is Our Layde and St Michael, Abergavenny. Abergavenny is a small market town in rural Wales, near the border with England. It has a population of around 14,500 and its Catholic Church is Grade II Listed (a British system of ensuring buildings of note are preserved and not tampered with). The town, which has a Catholic minority, is served by a monk of Belmont, Dom Thomas Regan, a Welshman, and the Church has a digital organ, a self-trained organist and an amateur choir drawn from the local population. Sounds remarkably ordinary doesn’t it?
However, this ordinary priest is actually a visionary man. Wherever Dom Thomas has served as a priest, he has left behind a legacy; of increased Mass attendance, of brand new churches built, of new church centres and halls funded and constructed, of schemes for local youth and for the elderly, of a deeper understanding of the faith, of excellent catechesis, of happier faithful and of excellent liturgy.

A typical Mass at Abergavenny involves a small-scale choral liturgy (the choir will sing a motet or a simple SATB Kyrie), Gregorian Chant, good, stable, quality hymnody in English, Latin (and Welsh!), fine vestments, a beautifully looked-after church, attention to every possible detail. Dom Thomas celebrates a Low Mass in the Usus Antiquior every Friday evening, and a regular Missa Cantata or even a Solemn High Mass on a frequent basis. Every so often the main Sunday Mass (Novus Ordo English/Latin) is replaced by a Solemn High Mass in the Usus Antiquior, with all propers provided by the amateur choir and all parts of the Ordinary sung by the faithful with a gusto that only the Welsh can deliver! The people don’t just accept this, they adore it! The Church is full, the faithful are happy and supportive, safe in the knowledge that they have a priest and musicians who serve them in the best possible way. The Sacred Liturgy is performed and prayed in the most solemn, dignified and prayerful way, and the choir is the envy of every ordinary parish in the UK, thanks to Dom Thomas, his faithful, dedicated and enthusiastic organist, Gwyn, and the loyal members of the Choir.

When I visit this beautiful town to see Thomas (who received me into the Church at Belmont Abbey when I was 18), I am always struck by how good everything is. I am also slightly saddened, and ask the question “If they can achieve all this here, then why not everywhere?” This is indeed an ordinary parish in an ordinary town, but what has been achieved is (sadly in many ways) extraordinary. I hope and pray that what happens in Abergavenny will become the norm in every ordinary parish the whole world over.
Nick Gale, June 2010

Pittsburgh and Chant

I’m writing from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a town I’m just getting to know, and I’m wild about the place. What strikes me immediately is the remarkable range of architecture, materials, and styles used to make this place, all created over a very long period of time, all delightfully lacking in evidence of central coordination but somehow all cohering in a spontaneous order. It is huge, industrial, complicated, and beautiful in its way – highly suggestive of history with technology from all times currently in operation, an impressive demonstration of intratemporal and intergenerational life that is all working together. The unifying theme is the working together of design and function.

It might at first seem to be an implausible home for the holding of the CMAA Chant Intensive and Colloquium. The setting is not monastic. It is not a city of gardens and natural beauty so much as a city in which the work of human hands is everywhere in evidence. But in the same way that chant, with all its transcendent and divine qualities, must ultimately be rendered by human voices singing in places built and maintained by human hands, it strikes me as a perfect place for these programs to be held. 

Like Pittsburgh the city, the chant which was similarly born across many generations. No one sat down one day and wrote the chants and codified them. They grew up alongside and integral with the Roman Rite, becoming ever more embedded in the ritual through trial and error and achieving stability and universality through use and function. We look at the entire body of chant and we are in awe of its sheer size. Sometimes we are intimidated by its scope. We know that we can never get to know it in a lifetime and yet we experience joy exploring every bit of it.

It is the same with a great city. The whole can be awesome and intimidating. Yet as we explore it and get to know small pieces of it each day, our appreciation intensifies for the whole. It seems ever friendlier by the day. We can move faster through it. We get to know the tricks of transportation, and learn where to shop and where to live. Eventually, if we live there long enough, we become natives, which means that it seems truly like home. It doesn’t happen all at once. No great city is immediately accessible. A great city is something that we get to know slowly, one fascination at a time.

Like a great city, chant is also something that will outlast our lifetimes. We have but a short time to participate in its living aspects, aware that we are surrounded by the ghosts of the previous generations that experienced it and knowing too that how we handle our period of domesticity will have some measure of influence on our future generations will experience it. Both chant and Pittsburgh are filled with millions upon millions of stories, each one fascinating in its own way. Our voices and lives become part of story if we take on the challenge.

Optima Musica

Last week my wife and I took the opportunity to meet with a couple of dear friends from CMAA who are also Directors of Music in their parishes; two of us in OF parishes, and one of us at an EF parish. We afforded ourselves as much time as possible to reminisce and share our experiences, offer each other encouragement and advice, and more importantly, celebrated the reality that our jobs afforded us opportunities to know and embrace so many virtues. A lot of “gaudete” was going on, and it was no mere “lattice of coincidence” that produced our optimism. (I’ll give a bottle of Mondavi Reserve Cabernet to the soul who first correctly cites the cinematic reference to that last quote!)

One fact we celebrated was the providence the Holy Spirit gifted the Church when the conclave elected Benedict XVI. For me, this pope exemplifies (with his predecessor) the true humility and joy within the organic optimism that we call Christian faith. But he also manifests a lifelong emblematic assertion of the axiom “lex orandi, lex credendi.” John Paul II turned the lenses of the Church unflinchingly towards the world, and, as with the nine days he walked his motherland among his fellow Poles as the Holy Father, our world was overturned virtually on a widow’s penny and the dignity of humanity had its champion. We could only move forward. Could it be said that Benedict has now refocused the Church’s vision, turning it inward by calling into question the meaning of “lex orandi, lex credendi” as the pre-eminent model for evangelizing our own faithful as well as the world to witness for Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord? “Theology as expressed on our knees in worship,” to paraphrase Baltasar.

Save the Liturgy, save the world” means many different things to many different people. The cliché’s coining seemed to correspond to the pithy television series “Heroes” and its catchphrase slogan, “Save the cheerleader, save the world.” But Benedict’s legacy just may be that of a heroic priest/professor who, during a hellish and horrific decade among many within and outside of the Church, has invigorated the Church to reconciliation by nudging us back to the real “center of our lives,” the rich traditions of our ritual forms and elements that demand our adherence to the Real Presence of Christ among us at the Altar of Sacrifice, including the clear exhortations to re-orient ourselves, in the language that is chant and polyphony, towards the Eucharistic worship of God, and not an abstract celebration of ourselves as a community of believers.
It was Liturgy that called me to the Church forty years ago this year. It is Liturgy that has been the best and only suitable expression of a naïve child’s innate knowledge that God has, is and always will be “here, there and everywhere.” It is Liturgy that has humbled me so that I may taste and see the existential optimism of salvation and union with my Maker.

Here in blogdom, the culture of pessimism is well nurtured. How could it not flourish here when in real time we’re enduring the omnipresent assault of our reason and senses through the “miracle of media?” But I believe that what erodes the moral certitude of our Holy Fathers current and of recent memory isn’t pessimism but cynicism. The egocentric and narcissistic trademarks of our post-modern societal norms find their power magnified by the evolution of social networking that is inorganic and intoxicating. Cynicism can appear overtly and benignly. When it’s confrontational, which I find more common within the internet venues, there is no real community. There can only be facsimiles of community or communion. When it’s benign, we can sometime find it couched in the manners and niceties of “do they like me?” or “do they like what we’re singing at Mass” or worse, “do they like what we sing at church?”

My prayer for this new blog endeavor is that cynicism never finds lodging here. I also pray that we musicians at service to the Church’s worship and in that ideal charity of serving the Faithful, consider emulating the optimism of our current Holy Father, who has always answered “yes” to the Lord, even if that answer was to a question that he did not anticipate ever hearing addressed to him.

Musicians, consider saying “yes” to a particular parish calling and, being immersed in optimism and steadfast of spirit and perseverance, stay as long as you can within that parish to infuse your talent, knowledge and your own faith in the “mind of the Church” so as to take root through many seasons and years.

Let us, indeed, join our voices with choirs of angels and saints in an unending hymn of praise that, really, in our hearts we know to be not only in concert with our patrimony, but also we know are truly sacred, beautiful and universal.