I seem to have sparked quite a debate over at the Musica Sacra Forum about the Horizontal Episema over the Clivis in the Solesmes edition. Cardine, in his Beginning Studies in Gregorian Chant, points out a flaw in the notation of the Solesmes edition of the Roman Gradual: namely, the placement of the horizontal episema on only the first note of the clivis. Cardine is quite correct to assert that the episema applies to both notes of the clivis, as supported by evidence in the Laon and St. Gall manuscripts.

My objection is that Cardine appears to be trying to reconcile the early scholarship of Solesmes (and their subsequent rhythmic editions of the chant) with the rhythmic traditions of the earliest manuscripts by means of a few minor modifications. Further study of the 9th and 10th century manuscripts, however, reveals that the Solesmes notation is entirely inadequate for giving a satisfactory performance according to the 9th and 10th century tradition.

The problem is one of determining the primary rhythmic unit. The Solesmes method treats the basic note as short (which always occurs within a group of two or three short pulses), and a few notes modified with dots or episemata as long [for the sake of our argument. Some would call the dotted notes “long” and the notes with episema “expressive.” But that’s not what Cardine was getting at when he said the episema should apply to both notes of the clivis]. In contrast, the earliest recorded tradition—that of the St. Gall and Laon manuscripts—assigns the primary unit of length to the single syllable (represented by a virga or tractulus), which is considered long. Ornamental notes are by comparison considered short. [The concept that not all longs are equally long is beyond the scope of this article and is covered in other blog entries].

Take for example the communion chant Lutum fecit, as it appears here in St. Gall notation:

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 4.09.57 PMThe Solesmes notation lengthens the last note of each phrase as well as the first note of the clivis with episema. All the other notes are given equal length. Here is a transcription of the traditional Soelsmes reading with long notes indicated by large note heads and short notes with cue-sized note heads:

Lutum fecit SolesmesCardine’s statement about the clivis with episema has caused some would-be scholars to apply the traditional Solesmes interpretation to both notes, resulting in the following reading:

Lutum fecit Cardine

While this has successfully restored both notes of the clivis to their proper full syllabic value, it has now created an incorrect relationship between the first syllable of the word “vidi” and the the monosyllable “et” that precedes and follows it. It is folly to think that this small modification substantially approaches a reading of the St. Gall manuscript that represents the original intentions of the scribe:

Lutum fecit St Gall

In this reading we can see that the primary unit of length (that of the syllable) is long, and that the ornamental notes are comparatively short. The second syllable of “fecit,” for example, is made up of two short notes, which highlights the importants of the accented first syllable and, near the beginning of the phrase, keeps the energy of the melodic line moving forward. The two notes of the clivis with episema on the first syllable of “vidi” are comparatively not short. They serve to emphasize the weight of that syllable as well as to create a ritardando at the end of the phrase:

My usual disclaimer: I don’t object to any technique that gets the chant sung regularly in the liturgy, nor do I fault directors for making choices that they find beautiful. I do have to point out errors of interpretation that result from taking one piece of information out of context, running with it to the exclusion of more recent scholarship, and then declaring it “correct.” I hope if there are scholars out there further along in their study who find a silly mistake that I’ve made in my own readings, that they will share that experience with me.

Postscript: If there was any question how the letter “x” was pronounced at St. Gall, notice that the scribe write “ex sputo” as “exputo.” My conclusion is that the x is pronounced [ks], which is why the scribe misheard it. There are several examples of this descriptive (rather than prescriptive) type of writing in the manuscripts. Food for thought. Until next time.

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