I was delighted to receive in the mail this week a copy of the Fall 2012 issue of Sacred Music. In it, Charles Cole gives an overview of the Old Solesmes editions and associated methodology, and the early semiological movement beginning with Cardine’s Graduel Neumé. The bulk of the article deals with attempts by Cardine and others to reconcile Old Solesmes with elements of the new scholarship, with the 2011 Graduale Novum briefly mentioned as a sort of optional Coda.

However, in my personal Study the Graduale Novum has been the beginning, not the end, of the story of understanding medieval chant practice. This more recent resource reveals that the Old Solesmes notation is entirely incompatible with the 9th and 10th century chant traditions, unless of course one already has the music committed to memory. To suggest that there is some sort of middle ground between the 19th century tradition and medieval practice is to create a Frankenstein chant hybrid* with no historical precedent. A fine illustration of this idea is the interpretation of the horizontal episema in the quadratic (square) notation of the clivis.

The example given in Figure 9 (p. 16) is the communion Tollite hostias, with the argument that the episemata on the words “adorate Dominum” apply to both notes. This is perfectly true, but somewhat misleading. For one, saying that the episema applies to “both” notes of a clivis implies that a clivis always has two pitches, but in the case of a liquescent clivis, it can actually have three (see Cardine’s Table of Neumatic Signs from Gregorian Semiology, pp. 12–13; or Figure 8 in Cole’s article. Example 5 g). But the real fallacy is the suggestion that the Old Solesmes interpretation of the episema ought to apply to both notes.

tollite hostias

The Old Solesmes school teaches that the value of an individual note of a clivis is the same as an undotted punctum, so that the rhythm of the phrase “adorate Dominum” would be short-short-short-long-long-long-short-long-short-long-short-long (where the shorts are of average value and the longs augmented). But an informed reading of the St. Gall notation (above) of the same reveals that the single syllable on the punctum “do” of “adorate” is long. Therefore, the individual notes of the clivis that procede it are each shorter than the punctum, and the individual notes of the clivis that follow it are each the same length as the punctum, or short-short-long-long-long-long-long-long-long-long-long-long (where the longs are of average, not augmented, value). In other words, correcting the interpretation of the clivis with episema is meaningless unless the rhythms of all the other notes of the chant have also been corrected to the proper proportions. Here is my own transcription:

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Further compounding the problem is that St. Gall scribe does not always explicitly write the episema when it is to be understood in context (or sometimes by downright omission). A literal transcription of the St. Gall text would be insufficient for a proper rhythmic interpretation. But the Solesmes notation does not even always transcribe the episema from St. Gall (e.g. on the fourth note of “ejus” in the Tollite hostias example). And if you really want to get detailed, the Laon notation of the same chant gives the rhythm of adorate Dominnum as long clivis with augmentation, long clivis, short clivis with augmentation, short clivis. The effect is one of acceleration, or of decreasing ritardando—a practice that might have been so universal at St. Gall that the scribe didn’t think it necessary to go into that much detail.

My intent is not to frighten anyone away from the study of 9th and 10th century chant traditions. I have personally made recordings with amateur singers that, unbeknownst to me at the time, agree substantially with those of Agostoni. It is possible! I would, however, like to suggest that until one has a thorough grasp of the earlier tradition, they not attempt to mix their discoveries with the tradition of the Old Solesmes method, which is capable of producing its own beautiful and worthy performances in its pure 19th century glory.

*Of course, if someone wants to follow this interpretation because they find it especially beautiful, I would not discourage them. We would not have, for example, the masterful choral works of Maurice Duruflé had he not based his compositional style on what has turned out to be entirely incorrect theories concerning the rhythm of Gregorian chant. It is an entirely different matter to go about peddling this mixed-breed chant as beloning to the pedigree of any 9th or 10th century source.


I must add two additional comments about Cole’s article:

On p. 21 he refers to the letter “r” as standing for “rursum,” meaning “elevate.” This should of course be “s” and “sursum,” as in “sursum corda.” The medival s often looks like an r, numerous examples of which can be found in the above St. Gall notation of Tollite hostias.

Secondly, I’ve noticed a trend in this and other articles using the term “semiology” to refer to the neumes themselves, rather than to the study of the neumatic signs (e.g. p. 23 “If you try to sing everything marked in the semiology…”). I find this confusing, and have not been able to track down a primary source that uses the term semiology in this way. I wonder if it stems from a mistranslation of Cardine’s original French, or if I have personally misread the term to mean “the study of paleographic signs.” Anyone?