I was recently criticized for suggesting that through knowledge of 9th century notational practices and familiarity with the chant repertoire one could arrive at the proper interpretation of the St. Gall and Laon manuscripts.  While I admit “proper” is a loaded word, I don’t think it’s fair to call my research “guess work.”  While performing chant from medieval manuscripts might require a little more effort than simply reading from a performing edition of a Bach keyboard work (where the editor has already made choices from several divergent manuscripts in Bach’s own hand), the result is no less verifiable.

Here are two examples from the offertory Illumina as it appears in the St. Gall notation of Einsiedeln 121:


Look at the words “dicat” and “inimicus” [third line of text, first and second words]. The last syllable of each has a bivirga followed by a climacus. These are both the same musical figure, although they are written differently. The first one cautions “l(evate),” i.e. “the second note is higher than you think.” For the second figure, the copyist adds an “e(galiter)” to remind the singer that the first note of the climacus is the same pitch as the bivirga. The fact that the second bivirga has episemata does not imply that it is to be treated as a double long or that the previous bivirga is short.

If one encountered either of these figures in isolation, they would not be able to arrive at the “proper” interpretation because each case presents only some of the necessary information. But with an understanding of the notational practice (that not all signs are to be interpreted literally) and familiarity with the repertoire (being able to compare other notated examples of the same melodic figure) one can arrive at the “proper” interpretation: that is to say, the one intended by the copyist.

For another example in the same chant, look at the cadence on “morte” [N.B. the neumes extend over the next word] and on “eum.” They each have a double climacus just before the final syllable. In the second instance, the first climacus shows the third note as long, while in the first instance all three are written as short. Was the first an oversight? Or was the second a slip of the pen?

First of all, we know these figures are identical, even though differently notated. Comparison to the Laon manuscript of the same chant confirms this. It also confirms the “short-short-long, long-short-short” reading in both cases with its more explicit notation. Again, while the one manuscript did not provide the necessary information, comparison to another source reveals the explicit meaning of an implicit notational system.

So, what do you think—does this sound like a guessing game? or like science?

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