Here’s a recording of Euouae singing that very chant (the offertory Ave Maria) as it appears in the earlier 9th century manuscript Laon 239. Notice this version includes the now standard “Dominus tecum” missing from the St. Gall version above.
Feel free to sing along.
Someone asked me today, “With over 500 choral ensembles in the Bay Area, why should anyone come hear Eh-ooh-oh… whatever it’s called?” Another friend noted “You say you direct a Medieval music group, but your next concert is all Josquin and Obrecht — two Renaissance composers!”
Composers like Obrecht and Josquin generally set only the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, etc.), and only occasionally wrote motets for the Proper (Offertory, Communion, etc.) — Isaac, Lassus, and Palestrina being among the few notable exceptions. To round out their concert programs and recordings, many Renaissance groups necessarily perform Gregorian chant, but they tend to do so according to the style that was in vogue at the end of the 19th century, which is devoid of the great variety of rhythm and nuanced inflection that gives this music its vitality.
One reason for this unfortunate trend is that much of the research in the field of Gregorian chant has been done in the service of the Church, and not for the sake of musicology. The chant books currently in widespread use were edited and compiled to satisfy a 1903 papal decree that Gregorian chant be restored as the sacred music proper to the Roman Church. Not only do these editions place practical considerations above historical accuracy, they are based on scholarship that is over a century old.
Another reason that even early music specialists resort to this outdated performance practice is that when they were in school, many of their music history books taught that the rhythm of Gregorian chant would never be understood, or else that it was a subject of heated debate among scholars (which is only partially true). Foundational texts such as Jeremy Yudkin‘s Music in Medieval Europe present page after page of examples of Gregorian chant rendered in a “non-committal” notation that indicates pitch but not rhythm.
Lastly, until the publication of the Graduale Novum in January of this year, there has not been a critical edition of the chant that provides the necessary information for both the melody and the rhythm of the chant. Even still, most chant experts do not know how to read the notations it contains, and few singers have been trained to render the intricate melodies in performance. This is where Euouae comes in.
Since we are primarily a medieval ensemble, for us for the chant is not a side dish, but the main course. We present new interpretations of the Gregorian melodies that capture something of the ecstatic spontaneity of the ancient chants alongside later polyphonic works. Having premiered over 40 works as a recitalist and during four seasons with the new music ensemble Volti, often in collaboration with the composers, I bring the same approach to the Medieval and Renaissance repertoires, treating them not as museum pieces but as something innovative, modern, and at times shocking. To imagine the experience the original performers had when encountering this polyphonic music for the first time, ensemble members steep themselves in the chant tradition from which it evolved.
Will the result be different than the other 500 choral ensembles? You’ll have to hear for yourself on November 18th at Old First Concerts.
A common criticism of the rhetorical performance of chant is that directors who instruct their choirs to “sing it like you would speak it” really mean to “sing it like I would speak it,” as if the interpretation were up to the whim of the director. This disregards the phonological truth that Latin syllables are of variable length, and have what Columba Kelly refers to as syllabic value.
In his Gregorian Chant and the Role of Rhetoric, Kelly points to the appearance of the uncinus in the Laon manuscript, noting that it is sometimes drawn smaller and sometimes larger, and takes this as evidence for three different rhythmic units: average syllabic value, augmented syllabic value, and diminished syllabic value. His transcriptions use small and large open and closed noteheads to indicate the various values, sometimes even adding an episema for additional rhythmic nuance. The result is a notation that is nearly as unfamiliar to most singers as the manuscripts themselves. Take a look at this selection from one of Columba Kelly’s chant transcriptions.
Although this is a wonderfully accurate analysis of what the scribe of Laon was writing (for the particular needs of his choir), it is not very useful as a performing edition for most choirs accustomed to modern notation. Singers today are used to stretching out and squashing syllables to fit into the rigid rhythms of metered music.
Consider the following two syllable words in Latin: eo, ego, ergo, tergo. Speak each word out loud, paying attention to the duration of each syllable (that is, the amount of time it takes to clearly pronounce the various sounds). Next, speak each word on a single pitch. If we were to try to write the resulting rhythms in modern notation, we would have to use two eighth notes for each word. The scribe of Laon would have used two different types of notes, one set for the first two words, and adding liquescence for those that have a voiced [r]. In reality each word contains a different number of sounds (from 2-5) and could conceivably be notated with four different durations.
Now imagine you are now reading a score that contains the words tempo, templo, and templum. Each one is set to two eighth notes. How would most singers perform them? It would likely be with an exactly equal duration for each eighth. However, as we have discovered, the composer had no choice in our modern system other than equal notes, even if they represent slightly different values.
This is why for my transcriptions I do not use eighths and quarters to show short and long notes, but small and large noteheads. For ease of reading, I do not show the complex variations in the duration of long notes that Kelly includes in his transcriptions. This doesn’t mean “sing it as I would speak it” or “sing it any way you want.” It means to sing “eo” and “templum” (when set with one note per syllable) or the amount of time necessary to pronounce those words.
In a future article, I will discuss the interpretation of syllables set to neumes of 2, 3, and 4 notes.