We just received this interesting comment on a performance of Leonin’s “Assumpta est Maria” from our 2010 debut concert:
Even though I’m a feminist, I am sexist if it comes to early music. And I do prefer male voices over female voices. Nevertheless, this is a stunning performance.
Listen for yourself
Well, this is very exciting. I just found a recording of Luigi Agustoni, who literally wrote the book on the semiological performance of chant, directing the Nova Schola Gregoriana in their interpretation of the introit Spiritus Domini. I happen to have recorded this chant myself during a live concert a while back, not with the professional singers of Euouae, but with my volunteer church choir.
This was my first attempt at using this approach with amateur singers, and it was before the publication of the Graduale Novum. I had never heard Agustoni direct, let alone his performance of this particular chant. Yet I can’t help but think our readings of the chant are very similar. What do you think?
Here they are, side by side, along with the St Gall notation from Einsiedeln 121 that I used as a source (and which accounts for the few melodic differences in our performances).
Note: this one is not for the workshop. Those recordings begin below with “Gustate.”
The idea for this came to me by accident. I made three separate single track recordings of the same chant and was comparing them side by side to see which was the best. I was shocked with how little variation there was from take to take and decided to lay them on top of each other, fading in and out to create solos, duets, and trios.
My point is there is no way you could achieve this kind of precision when reading from a printed score, with or without a conductor. In order to capture a feeling of improvisatory spontaneity, this music must be absolutely memorized.
Apparently, the men’s schola at the 17th International Gregorian Chant Seminar in Italy are as confused about chant as I am! Because, without even consulting me or reading about my crazy mensuralist theories, they seem to have come up with an interpretation of the offertory chant Laudate Dominum that is remarkably similar to my own.
Here is my single-take home recording, after about five minutes of study:
For comparison, here is the Seminar choir after working with one of the founding members of the International Society for the Study of Gregorian Chant (AISCGre, the group that edited and produced the Graduale Novum). As you listen, you may wish to look at the notation in the Laon manuscript (p. 74, beginning on the bottom left hand side) or else risk a case of motion sickness from the, shall we say, less than ideal camerawork in this video:
This is perhaps the most important post to date here on Euouae dot com, because if you believe that these two renditions are similar, that is evidence that my forthcoming chant method is in fact a practical way to sing chants from the Graduale Novum the way the editors of that volume intend for it to be used.
As always, your comments are most welcome.
Here we have two recordings of today’s Communion chant, Laetabimur. The first, from St. Benedict’s in Sao Paolo, Brazil uses the organ to provide a harmonic accompaniment:
When we performed this chant today at the French National Church in San Francisco, I decided to use an organ drone:
Neither of these practices is justified by the notation itself, so I cannot make an argument for or against their “historical authenticity” based on manuscript evidence. But I will ask, does the addition of the organ help to bring rhythmic vitality to the chant, or does it stifle the suppleness of the Gregorian composition?
For those interested in chant accompaniment, there’s no better online resource than the Leland Library of Rare Books, which also hosts a number of treatises on the subject. If nothing else, these collections provide valuable insight into various rhythmic theories that have been in practice in the previous two centuries.
When what we now call Gregorian chant was first written down around the 10th century, scribes used symbols called neumes to notate the ornate melodies. The earliest manuscripts do not give precise indications of pitch, since the notation served only as a memory aid for notes that were already committed to memory. The great variety of symbols must therefore represent a diversity of rhythm. This is the foundation of the field of study known as Gregorian Semiology.
We come to our conclusions about the rhythm of 10th century chant not by mere speculation (as skeptics of the most recent research would have you believe), but by comparing numerous manuscripts and methodically decoding the meaning of the various neumes. In some cases, however, a particular chant might only appear in only one manuscript. How, then, are we to be certain of its interpretation? Take a look at this excerpt from the mode VII gradual Audi filia sung by members of Euouae according to the notation found in the Cantatorium of St. Gall:
Since this chant does not appear in the Laon manuscript, you might think it was impossible to confirm our rhythmic reading. However, substantial portions of this melody also appear in another mode VII gradual: Salvum fac populum tuum, sung here by our friends in Lisbon, Portugal according to the three-line notation in the Graduale Novum.
Here’s another phrase that is common to both chants:
While the stylistic interpretations of the two ensembles are quite different, the rhythmic readings are actually remarkably similar. (And I think if you asked either director, we’d probably admit that these single-take live recordings do not necessarily reflect our absolute ideal performances). The fact that we independently arrived at near identical readings (in terms of rhythm) leads me to believe that a practical method for performing chant according to the 10th century practice can be taught with as much consistency as the wide-spread Solesmes method. It is not, after all, rocket science:
Or that’s what some of the folks over at the New Liturgical Movement would have you think. The responses to a repost of my side-by-side comparison of the Solesmes method v. the Rhetorical approach range from the politely skeptical (“I doubt whether the second recording is fully representative for the semiological method”) to the vitriolic (a now-deleted comment that said something to the effect of “if this is what chant sounded like in the Medieval period, no one would want to restore it now”).
In response to one reader who commented that I was “clearly not interpreting the St. Gall semiology [sic]” (I think they mean “paleography”), I decided to challenge myself:
1) find a chant in the Graduale Novum that contains only St. Gall neumes, and not Laon notation.
2) record Solesmes and rhetorical versions of that chant
3) compare the result to pre-existing recordings in the Solesmes and semiologically-informed methods.
Well, the perfect chant presented itself — Dicit Dominus: Implete, from the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time. I can hardly call this a “rhetorical” performance in that I didn’t spend a long time practicing or trying to really get the feeling for “how it goes.” I am simply giving an honest reading, pretty much at sight, of the rhythm of the St. Gall notation using the pitches from the Graduale Novum. Again, for comparison, I have included the version from the Solesmes edition.
As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. Is my reading, as one reader commented on my previous post, “just an idosyncratic interpretation, and not one that actually renders neumes consistently”? Let’s see how it compares to Turco’s reading of the same chant:
Now, let’s hope that Turco’s group spent more than two minutes studying this chant before they decided to record it for a commercial release. And let’s lay aside the fact that it is given a nuanced performance, with an ensemble (not a solo voice), and in a lovely acoustic. Also, it’s clear that Turco is working with a different source for the pitches than the Graduale Novum version. Looking only at the rhythms, i.e. the long and short notes, you will find that they are largely in the same place as in my reading. The fact that the two of us came to such similar readings independently of one another leads me to think that my performance is not capricious.
The ways in which they disagree are the last note of the cursive torculus (which I treat as a long before a new syllable, by convention) and the first note of what I had instinctively guessed might be a torculus initio debilis (which is difficult to confirm without the more explicit Laon notation to compare). I admit I might not be reading these two in the same way they were performed in the 10th century, but I am an confident that in the absence of another manuscript with which to compare, this is at the very least a plausible interpretation.
Oh, and if you want to double check my Solesmes method singing, you can compare it to the version at jogueschant.org.
Well, at least in Portugal. It turns out that’s more of a Brazilian thing, I guess. But I just found something on the intertubes that literally made me jump up off the couch, do a back flip, kick someone in the head, and then land in split:
For those who think following the semiological method is license to sing chant according to your own personal whims and fancy, I have to say this reading is very close to my own (if I had to rely on the St. Gall neumes alone). Now, my actual performance might differ slightly — that’s the interpretation part — but as far as short and long notes go, and the overall rhetoric of the piece, this is pretty much dead-on with my understanding of the text.
I don’t know who these people are, but bravo!