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85-10 GREGORIAN CHANT: I GOT RHYTHM
The oldest living tradition of music in our culture is Gregorian Chant. To most people it is a vast undifferentiated body of works which have been used to celebrate the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church since St. Gregory composed them some time in the dim distant past. In fact, there is great variety among chants, depending on their use within the liturgy and the importance of the day they are intended to be sung, among other things. Also, it is unlikely that St. Gregory ever heard more than a few, if any, of the thousands of melodies we describe as Gregorian, even though he may have been important in their evolution.
Over the last century, scholars have been revitalizing Gregorian Chant, which had suffered from numerous so-called reforms. In the process, they have gradually been shedding more light on the origin of the repertory. But while they have apparently been successful in restoring the earliest recoverable melodies, they have uncovered new interpretative questions which remain to be resolved.
There is little doubt that the chant of the early Christian Church grew out of the Jewish tradition of chanting psalms during services. With the rise of the monastic orders in the 6th century under St. Benedict, the various Christian services became more clearly structured, and so it was the lot of the great administrator, Pope Gregory I, around 600, to sort out the musical requirements of the various services and standardize the use of music in the liturgy. Even so, the Mass, as the most important of the services, continued to undergo structural changes over the following four centuries, up to the official acceptance of the Credo by the Roman Church in 1014.
The melodies which Gregory knew are lost to us now. They may have been related to the repertory of so-called "Old Roman" chants, which survive in manuscripts of the 11th to the 13th centuries, and which some scholars maintain reflect a tradition older than the Gregorian. Others believe the Old Roman tradition to be a later corruption of the Gregorian, since it seems more formulaic and less purposeful.
At any rate, medieval witnesses point to the pontificate of Vitalian (fifty years after Gregory) as a time when the melodies of the chants then in use began to be reshaped. Most of the melodies we possess, however, seem to originate after around 800, through the interaction of the Roman liturgy with the cultural vigor of the northern Frankish Empire of Charlemagne. It is to the ingenuity of the scribes of the Carolingian Renaissance that we owe the preservation of the earliest Gregorian melodies, and, indeed, the first documented melodies in nearly a millennium of Christianity.
[MUSIC: "Dominus Dixit ad me," the Introit to the Midnight Mass for Christmas, performed by the Monks of Solesmes under Dom Joseph Gajard]
The Solesmes monks have established a tradition of chant singing in this century which has been most influential. Their dedication has resulted in performances which are stylistically unified, near-perfect in ensemble precision, and transcendent in their ability to elevate the listener's thoughts out of worldly concerns. This is recognized by most experts in the field, and yet those same experts acknowledge problems with aspects of the Solesmes interpretations of the earliest chant sources, such as those from the Frankish monasteries at St. Gall, Metz, and Einsiedeln. Here is Dr. William Mahrt, Professor of Music at Stanford University and for many years now the director of one of the few choirs in the country performing Gregorian Chant at weekly services, the choir of St. Ann's Chapel in Palo Alto.
MAHRT: There are problems historically with what Solesmes does. They have kind of half-way made use of the rhythmic signs that we have from the manuscripts: the earliest chants exist in versions that give rhythmic indications. It is quite controversial just how these indications are to be read, but I think there are two clear possible readings of them. One is that a sign for lengthening of a note simply indicates that in a context of notes that are otherwise somewhat equal, that note is just a bit longer. It is given an inflection and an emphasis that makes it a bit longer. The other is that that note takes its place as a long note in a system of notes which includes long and short notes, and the long notes are precisely twice as long as the short notes. Solesmes has opted for the first reading, that is, the long notes are the notes that are just somewhat lengthened for inflection but they have done so in a very peculiar way: they have only taken those notes that are marked long in all the sources, not all the sources which mark length at all. So in fact, in any given piece, if you look at a manuscript with rhythmic signs in the manuscript, they are taking maybe half of the long notes that they ought to take.
DUFFIN: There are those who are taking this rhythmicization further than the Solesmes and following usually individual manuscript sources. I wonder if you have a comment on some of those people. I think in the first instance of the choir of the monastery of Einsiedeln.
MAHRT: That is right. Einsiedeln is one that I find very interesting. It is making use precisely of the markings in one manuscript. Their premise is that every manuscript represents an accurate notation of the rhythm as it was done in one place, and they are opting also for the theory that the marks of slower and faster notes are essentially inflections, some slight speeding up or slowing down of basically even-flowing notes. What I like about theirs is that it makes sense, aurally. As you listen to it, actually, the notes that are emphasized are the main notes in the melodies and the notes that are auxiliary are ornamental notes in the melody, and so what their interpretation does, in fact, is clarify the melodic structure of the piece and also it gives it a kind of color, and it is a style that has a certain liveliness and at the same time a certain sense of repose.
[MUSIC: "Dominus dixit," the same Introit we heard earlier performed by the Solesmes monks, here performed by the Choir of the Swiss Monastery of Maria Einsiedeln under Pater Roman Bannwart]
DUFFIN: There is another Swiss group which has been experimenting with rhythmicized chant, the Choir of the Schola Cantorum in Basel under Christopher Schmidt. I asked Professor Mahrt what he thought about their work.
MAHRT: Well, I found those unsuccessful myself. One could make detailed criticisms, I suppose, but the basic impression that they give me is somebody who is trying to do more with the rhythm than needs to be done. It gives the impression of someone who is doing a piece for a particular occasion, but is not accustomed to singing chant regularly. They are too self-conscious, and there is too much of a sense of needing to exaggerate each element. I think plainsong is not something whose musical style needs to be exaggerated. It is ideally, and in its proper environment, something that you are going to be singing--say, if you are a monk--you are going to be singing it eight hours a day. You are going to get pretty tired of any too overt rhythmic expression in the process of singing it year in and year out. It is going to settle down and it is going to smooth out, and many of those things which appear at first, in the Basel version, to be rather dramatic, turn out to be rather histrionic.
[MUSIC: The Offertory and Communion chants for the Easter Mass, performed by the Choir of the Schola Cantorum in Basel under Christopher Schmidt.]
DUFFIN: For the sake of comparison, we’ll listen to the same chant sung by the Choir of the Monastery of Maria Einsiedeln, under Roman Bannwart.
[MUSIC]
DUFFIN: l asked Professor Mahrt if he thought the performances of John Blackley's New York-based Schola Antiqua had similar problems to those of the Basel group.
MAHRT: I think that those suffer from a different phenomenon and that is, I think, that the melody and the musicality of the melody has been kind of overlooked for the moment, for the sake of realizing a rhythmic system. Their reading of the rhythm is that the notes are proportionate: long notes are twice as long as short notes, and there are lots of long notes. It is, in fact, an even number of short notes, and yet when you hear the performance you say, "Oh, yes, they are doing long and short notes," and that is about all you get from the performance, so that I fear that those performances suffer from being the subject of an experiment. The experiment has been in a certain sense a success: they have demonstrated how you might do the rhythm if you do this proportional system of rhythm, and yet the patient dies because the piece does not survive. It does not make good musical sense as one hears it, and it may well be just that in the process of doing all of this experimentation, they simply overlooked matters of phrasing and nuance and that sort of thing. They are relatively unnuanced performances, though they are kind of documentary evidence that it can be done this way.
DUFFIN: Before we listen to a sample of the Schola Antiqua's work, I should warn you that besides the strong rhythmicization, they have been experimenting with the performance of certain ornamental figures. The presence of these ornaments is not disputed by anyone, but the Schola Antiqua's unique realization using microtones (intervals smaller than a semitone) has not found universal favor. There is no arguing with the freshness and vigor of this performance of the joyful Easter Alleluia, but if you' re standing, you may wish to sit.
[MUSIC: The Alleluta "Pascha Nostrum," the Easter Alleluia, sung by the women of John Blackley's Schola Antiqua]
DUFFIN: Here again is Professor Mahrt:
MAHRT: Anyone who looks at the history of the performance of plainsong realizes that, at a given time or place, there were different aspects of how it was performed. And if you could capture that one rare place, say, St. Gall, in the 10th century, when they were still performing those chants with whatever those rhythmic signs are communicating, you would probably have a very beautiful and a very highly inflected manner of singing the rhythm. And yet, we know, by their own evidence, that within a generation or two the rhythmic tradition was being lost, and over its history, it seems to have fallen more to being what we call plainsong, that is, essentially even notes that are yet possibly inflected in one way or another.
DUFFIN: So you are saying that this controversy on rhythm really centers on a practice which is fairly isolated in time through the history of plainchant?
MAHRT: Well, that is possible. The fact is that some of the earliest manuscripts notate what seems to be a fairly sophisticated system of rhythm. Whether this is the end stage of a long tradition, or whether this is just how one group of people were doing it, is pretty hard to say.
DUFFIN: We close, as we began, with a performance in the Solesmes tradition. People are sometimes surprised to hear women singing chant (as in the last performance and the next), perhaps remembering St. Paul's dictum: mulier in ecclesia tacet (a woman is silent in church). But women were only silent in the company of men. Convents have always had a strong though separate tradition of chant singing. Here is the Alleluia for the Feast of St. Michael.
[MUSIC: The Alleluia for the Feast of St. Michael, sung in the Solesmes style by the Choir of Nuns of the Abbey of Notre Dame d'Argentan, directed by Dom Joseph Gajard]
I would like to thank my guest today, scholar and chant-choir director, Dr. William Mahrt. You have been listening to a program exploring the rhythmic aspects of the performance of Gregorian Chant.
Series
Micrologus
Episode
Gregorian Chant: I Got Rhythm
Producing Organization
CWRU
Contributing Organization
Ross W. Duffin (Pasadena, California)
AAPB ID
cpb-aacip-df6a4b44c11
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Description
Episode Description
The oldest living tradition of music in our culture is Gregorian Chant. To most people it is a vast undifferentiated body of works which have been used to celebrate the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church since St. Gregory composed them some time in the dim distant past. In fact, there is great variety among chants, depending on their use within the liturgy and the importance of the day they are intended to be sung, among other things. Also, it is unlikely that St. Gregory ever heard more than a few, if any, of the thousands of melodies we describe as Gregorian, even though he may have been important in their evolution.
Segment Description
"Dominus dixit ad me (Introit)" by Anonymous (Peters Int'l. PLE 016) | "Dominus dixit ad me (Introit)" by Anonymous (Archiv 2533 131) | "Terra Tremuit (Offertory)" by Anonymous (German Harmonia Mundi IC 165-99 925/6) | "Pascha nostrum (Communion)" by Anonymous (German Harmonia Mundi IC 165-99 925/6) | "Terra tremuit (Offertory)" by Anonymous (Archiv 2533 131) | "Pascha nostrum (Communion)" by Anonymous (Archiv 2533 131) | "Alleluia Pascha nostrum" by Anonymous (Nonesuch H-71348) | "Alleluia Sancte Michael" by Anonymous (Peters Int'l. PLE 006)
Created Date
1985
Asset type
Episode
Genres
Talk Show
Topics
History
Music
Media type
Sound
Duration
00:28:03.192
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Credits
:
Guest: Mahrt, William
Host: Duffin, Ross
Producing Organization: CWRU
AAPB Contributor Holdings
Ross W. Duffin
Identifier: cpb-aacip-2eaa038e70c (Filename)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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Citations
Chicago: “Micrologus; Gregorian Chant: I Got Rhythm,” 1985, Ross W. Duffin, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed July 20, 2024, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-df6a4b44c11.
MLA: “Micrologus; Gregorian Chant: I Got Rhythm.” 1985. Ross W. Duffin, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. July 20, 2024. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-df6a4b44c11>.
APA: Micrologus; Gregorian Chant: I Got Rhythm. Boston, MA: Ross W. Duffin, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-df6a4b44c11