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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.

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