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Rhythm, Meter and Tempo of Gregorian Chant according to Jan van Biezen

Greetings! I have taken an interest in the theory presented by Jan van Biezen, a short summary of which can be found here: http://www.janvanbiezen.nl/gregorian.html

And here also is a link to his book with a detailed review of the theory: https://www.amazon.com/Rhythm-Meter-Tempo-Gregorian-Chant/dp/194541...

I study Byzantine chant and do not practice Gregorian chant, but nonetheless take interest in any new "approaches" to interpreting the Gregorian repertoire besides the famous Solesmes approach. Having found out about Jan van Biezen's approach, I tried to search for audio recordings of chant done according to his method, but found none. Do any such recordings exist? And is there any critique of or consensus on this method by other researchers? Thank you in advance!

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I reproduced that transcription because it was at hand at home.  It is of a soloistic rendering by an extremely skilled singer.  Unskilled singers in a congregation in Egypt can sing in a plainer manner that comes closer to the likes of what we see in, for example, Laon 239.

Currently, at the following Youtube internet address, you can hear the contrast of complexity and simplicity between soloistic singing and communal singing.

In the communal singing, you can clearly hear more skilled singers warbling away and the others singing the plainer tune.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yE3Og5CEYIE    Listen from 1:30

Mr. Cordona, Thank you for your explanation, for which I am grateful. I only desire to point out why I react the way I do. The thread betrays from many of its contributors the sort of disdain for old Solesmes, Cardine, new Solesmes, and semiology that you detect from my remark. I do not argue ad hominem as others do. If the notation is rhythmically ambiguous, the Cardine approach should receive as much respect as van Biezen or his predecessors. Earlier criticisms of nuanced rhythm usually referred to mensuralist theory as if eight 20c. theorists (before Vollaerts and van Biezen) were not mutually contradictory. Willi Apel's conclusion in 1958 was that mensuralism is correct, although he did not choose which mensuralist he meant among the eight. 

Mr. Cordona, Thank you for your explanation, for which I am grateful. I only desire to point out why I react the way I do. The thread betrays from many of its contributors the sort of disdain for old Solesmes, Cardine, new Solesmes, and semiology that you detect from my remark. I do not argue ad hominem as others do. If the notation is rhythmically ambiguous, the Cardine approach should receive as much respect as van Biezen or his predecessors. Earlier criticisms of nuanced rhythm usually referred to mensuralist theory as if eight 20c. theorists (before Vollaerts and van Biezen) were not mutually contradictory. Willi Apel's conclusion in 1958 was that mensuralism is correct, although he did not choose which mensuralist he meant among the eight. 

With regard to (memo)ria(lis) and (ce)lebra(bitis) in the offertory Erit vobis, the idea of a rhythmic weight or stress on the C seems to me to be an assumption coming from a given musical background.  In Scottish vocal slurs, the musical weight or stress is on the slur, not on the note following the slur, and the slur is the moment of any jolting, not afterwards.  This is true regardless of whether one is singing to a theoretically regular beat or singing free of any beat.  If you tip a man's seat forwards suddenly and then tip it backwards gently into its original position, the jolt is felt when the seat is tipped forwards, not backwards.

While I agree that, in the Coptic examples that I reproduced for you, the singer was already well into progress of the musical item, my intention was solely to provide you with examples of a pitch performing the functions of appoggiatura and grace note, where the beat was on a short initial pitch and not on a longer second pitch.  While I can't say I have heard the same phenomenon at the start of a Coptic chant, the Scottish snap occurs at the beginning of musical items before any regular beat has been established (and whether or not any regular beat is to be established) so such a phenomenon is far from being unnatural or impossible as a feature of human song and, concomitantly, at the beginning of a phrase, a short initial pitch is not inevitably sung and heard as not being given the musical weight or stress, whether or not the pitch is essential or inessential to the tune.

The suggestion that the Messine curving of an initial note (in a group of three or more notes) indicates a pitching that is not fixed (you mention portamento) is an interesting one but later heightened/staved notations assign this note a pitch position: in one later notation, that may be D, in another it might be E, but the same phenomenon (of later notations not being in agreement with regard to pitch) occurs with other Messine initial notes that are not curved, along with medial and final notes.  It is easy to make such a suggestion: a similar suggestion was made in relation to liquescence markings and meanings were imported into the language of ancient treatises to support that suggestion.  My own stance is that the curving of liquescence suggests that something verbal is happening on a pitch and that the Messine curving of initial notes of groupings of three or more notes suggests that something durational is happening to a pitch, indicated occasionally by the letter C in Swiss notation.  Sometimes the pitch A is reached after both an E and a D have been sung, as at the start of the Alleluia Surrexit Altissimus.  Obviously, there can be no unfixed pitch overtly indicated in those instances, or in the Swiss notation elsewhere.  For me, portamento is to be imported: we would have to read it into the notation.

Whatever was thought by whom you call the authors of Gregorian chant, the ancient treatises do think it to matter very much whether or not syllables were sung to whole beats or half beats so I am not quite sure what you mean when you write that you suspect that the authors did not think it to matter too much.

I find more interesting the suggestion that the Messine curved initial note represents a pitch of no fixed duration.  As to whether it is protyptic or not, I regard the jury as still being out on that one.  I would add that it is interesting that, in Erit vobis, the Swiss notation does not have a punctum and yet otherwise depicts the first three pitches of the stressed syllable in exactly the same way as the Messine notation (barring the letter C in the Messine notation).  Obviously, in theorizing about this music, the rhythm is not necessarily to be interpreted as always running according to pairings of shorts, as per quavers in a bar of 4/4 so it is accordingly not necessary to regard the first pitch of the stressed syllables following the punctum as protyptic in any way at all.
 
Kevin M. Rooney said:

Regarding pre-beat (acciaccatura, portamento, grace) versus on-beat (appoggiatura, 'snap') ...

I find Gregorian chant rhythm (per Jan van Biezen's theory) to be more straightforward and smoother, less 'jolty', less adventurous than those Coptic transcriptions, even with the stylized ornaments removed from the latter. I find after-beat snaps or appoggiaturas to be more 'jolty' and dynamic, whereas Latin chant rhythm, from my studies, is more calm, at least in the notation. On the other hand, that is forgetting the probability that Gregorian was stylized with unwritten turns and ornaments in Italy. I imagine Gregorian chant might have evolved to sound this way by the 1200s, just like Coptic and sticheraric modern Byzantine sound, if the Rhythmic Decay of the tenth and eleventh centuries had not mutated its mode of performance.

Concerning punctum + initium debilis, I would interpret both samples you mentioned with the initium debilis before the beat.

At first glance, Offertory Erit vobis may suggest on "(ce)lebra(bitis" and also on "(memo)ria(lis)" that the Laon scribe (or his prototype) intended the punctum to take half of its beat, while the initium debilis took the other half. This could be the explanation for the punctum + initium debilis on "bene(dicta)" in Offertory Ave Maria. Perhaps contrary to this interpretation is Einsiedeln's absence of the initium debilis in one of these samples, and absence of 'c' for 'celeriter' over the first note.

Let's step back and see the functional purpose of this figure. It is an introductory leap ("aanloopje" in Jan van Biezen) with the C pitch being the target. The double-long on C is a sudden stop to the rapid upward motion from the note below and before it, a jolt in deceleration, which would be felt as a rhythmic weight. You might point out that such jolt is also felt after the beat in the appoggiaturas that you indicated in your Coptic chant samples. But notice here is a difference. In the Coptic samples the 'snaps' are later in the phrases, when the rhythm has already been established, and the cantor's mind has a reference frame for the pulse despite the musical syncopation. In contrast, in these Gregorian samples the movement is at the beginning of a phrase, where the reference frame of the pulse (perhaps) has to be recovered after a pause while the cantor was breathing. In such a case, an on-beat snap, which is meant to be felt as carrying the pulse at the bottom note of that leap, might shift in feeling to a pre-beat performance, since the top note carries more weight.

This same general introductory leap is visible on "Mari(a)" in Ave Maria, as well as countless other places in the neumatic-melismatic repertory. Similar is the common spring from the brief D to the G at the beginnings of phrases in Mode 3 Introits, etc., along with the D-A leap you noted in the Mode 1 Antiphons and Introits.

It might be argued in all these cases that the initium debilis indicates not a particular note but rather a movement of the voice upwards towards the target note. Jan van Biezen made this point in a more general context when he quoted Notker saying that the neums indicate transitions, not particular tones. Therefore, the initium debilis is an indicator of a legato-driven vocal style typical of Mediterranean monody. If we remove that style, namely, remove the initium debilis transition altogether, to see what lies underneath, we have the two basic options: the first syllable is either a short or a long.

1)  If the first syllable is a short, then, with the portamento indicated by the initium debilis, the punctum on A (or G) is in principle an eighth note, enduring for only half a beat after the pause, but in reality for slightly less than that, since the initium debilis has non-zero duration. Or, equivalently, the punctum is a dotted sixteenth note, and the initium debilis a thirty-second note.

2)  If the first syllable is a long, then it endures in principle for a whole beat, but in reality for half or 2/3 or 3/4 of a beat, with the initium debilis taking the rest of the beat's duration.  This option would suggest that the Messine cantors depicted the two notes as a punctum and initium debilis for the reason that in practice they tended to give a larger slice of time to the transition than the Swiss cantors did.

For other reasons worth discussing later, I suspect the authors of Gregorian chant did not think it to matter too much whether that first syllable was sung to a whole beat or half beat (the Alleluias give support to this), just as they also seem to be imprecise in their choices of which pitch it should be. Is it a G or an A? The same leap elsewhere is found on both pitches. Just like the D to A in Gregorian Mode 1 is E to A in some Ambrosian antiphons, and also the G to D is alternatively A to D in some chants of Mode 7.

Wherever the lower note of that introductory leap at the beginning of a phrase in general has variability in its notation as well as its pitch, in my opinion it is safe to conclude that the note carries no rhythmic structure, that its functional purpose is merely as a prelude to the next note, and that its execution is largely up to the cantor. The punctum + initium debilis shape in Laon is then an example, not a prescription, of how it might be sung.

As a side note, the fact that we call the term "initio debilis" is a striking coincidence. In the Early Middle Ages this note would have been called a "tremula", which has a similar meaning to "debilis". More on that later.

Fr Weber,

I am grateful to you in turn for gracing my response with a reply.  I hope you can understand why mensuralists react they way they do too.  On one occasion, a supporter of a Solesmes approach claimed to welcome engagement and critique but then actually blocked it and ignored it, saying that the debate had already been had and that there was no consensus.  What such people are actually doing is making sure that their interpretation predominates by shutting down public debate online and thus controlling the dialogue.  The website that we are communicating on now is one of the few websites where that does not happen: it actually has a section for mensuralists.

The binary nature of representing a note in the earliest notations indicates either durational differentiation or dynamic differentiation.  An intellectual position on the matter cannot (and should not) be belittled on the basis of disagreements of whatever kind between proponents of one view or the other.  I see no virtue in pointing out either that Pothier and Mocquereau had differences in their understanding of these notations, nor that Dechevrens and Wagner had theirs, as if somehow the mere existence of a difference disqualifies any overall principle such as whether the signs indicate durational differentiation or not.

I am Scottish and am used to singing songs to a regular beat and without a beat but we have a particular proclivity for not singing to a beat; the Irish even more so.  Nevertheless, when I was first exposed to the evidence of the earliest notations, I saw sequences notated in two ways, neither of which ways related significantly to the stresses or rhythm of speech.  Having rejected the notion that such notations indicated dynamic differentiations, I looked at the office antiphons.  You can imagine where that led my thinking.  I find the opposition to mensuralist interpretations of chant difficult to support.


Jerome F. Weber said:

Mr. Cordona, Thank you for your explanation, for which I am grateful. I only desire to point out why I react the way I do. The thread betrays from many of its contributors the sort of disdain for old Solesmes, Cardine, new Solesmes, and semiology that you detect from my remark. I do not argue ad hominem as others do. If the notation is rhythmically ambiguous, the Cardine approach should receive as much respect as van Biezen or his predecessors. Earlier criticisms of nuanced rhythm usually referred to mensuralist theory as if eight 20c. theorists (before Vollaerts and van Biezen) were not mutually contradictory. Willi Apel's conclusion in 1958 was that mensuralism is correct, although he did not choose which mensuralist he meant among the eight. 

I agree 100%

Alasdair Codona said:

Fr Weber,

I am grateful to you in turn for gracing my response with a reply.  I hope you can understand why mensuralists react they way they do too.  On one occasion, a supporter of a Solesmes approach claimed to welcome engagement and critique but then actually blocked it and ignored it, saying that the debate had already been had and that there was no consensus.  What such people are actually doing is making sure that their interpretation predominates by shutting down public debate online and thus controlling the dialogue.  The website that we are communicating on now is one of the few websites where that does not happen: it actually has a section for mensuralists.

The binary nature of representing a note in the earliest notations indicates either durational differentiation or dynamic differentiation.  An intellectual position on the matter cannot (and should not) be belittled on the basis of disagreements of whatever kind between proponents of one view or the other.  I see no virtue in pointing out either that Pothier and Mocquereau had differences in their understanding of these notations, nor that Dechevrens and Wagner had theirs, as if somehow the mere existence of a difference disqualifies any overall principle such as whether the signs indicate durational differentiation or not.

I am Scottish and am used to singing songs to a regular beat and without a beat but we have a particular proclivity for not singing to a beat; the Irish even more so.  Nevertheless, when I was first exposed to the evidence of the earliest notations, I saw sequences notated in two ways, neither of which ways related significantly to the stresses or rhythm of speech.  Having rejected the notion that such notations indicated dynamic differentiations, I looked at the office antiphons.  You can imagine where that led my thinking.  I find the opposition to mensuralist interpretations of chant difficult to support.


Jerome F. Weber said:

Mr. Cordona, Thank you for your explanation, for which I am grateful. I only desire to point out why I react the way I do. The thread betrays from many of its contributors the sort of disdain for old Solesmes, Cardine, new Solesmes, and semiology that you detect from my remark. I do not argue ad hominem as others do. If the notation is rhythmically ambiguous, the Cardine approach should receive as much respect as van Biezen or his predecessors. Earlier criticisms of nuanced rhythm usually referred to mensuralist theory as if eight 20c. theorists (before Vollaerts and van Biezen) were not mutually contradictory. Willi Apel's conclusion in 1958 was that mensuralism is correct, although he did not choose which mensuralist he meant among the eight. 


Quick recordings, secundum Laon: 

https://yadi.sk/a/s4f1XekM3ZzmwT


Alasdair Codona said:

OF Confortamini p26 et iam

OF Tui sunt p49 et tu(a)

CO Lavabo p129 circu(ibo)

AL Exsultate Deo p313 cum ci(thara)

CO In salutari tuo p350 (ver)bum tu(um)

CO Ierusalem p370

The first word of the tract Deus, Deus meus (p144)

I would be interested to see how you interpret the Commemoratio brevis with regard to the neume at the start of Sciant gentes.

Sgr Ricossa,

Rapprochement between Solesmes and mensural approaches can be very difficult to achieve and discussion unnecessarily fraught.  If the Solesmes advocates cannot even agree that the notation is rhythmically unclear and ambiguous, it is expecting the other side to have to prove that the ambiguity - the very origin of the disagreement - even exists in the first place.  I have been made well aware of the attitude that these notations are rhythmically adequately clear to Solesmes advocates and that, if I find them unclear, it is because I lack the sufficient knowledge and expertise that Solesmes advocates have to interpret them as they do.  Whatever the case in regard to my lacking sufficient know-what and know-how, the same case could not be made against Peter Wagner in his day and cannot be made against Jan van Biezen today.  If these notations weren't ambiguous, Solesmes would not have produced two different approaches.

Thank you for your snippet recordings which highlight some of that ambiguity.  I particularly valued hearing the durations you gave to the curved notes in Deus, Deus meus.


Ricossa said:

I agree 100%

Alasdair Codona said:

Fr Weber,

I am grateful to you in turn for gracing my response with a reply.  I hope you can understand why mensuralists react they way they do too.  On one occasion, a supporter of a Solesmes approach claimed to welcome engagement and critique but then actually blocked it and ignored it, saying that the debate had already been had and that there was no consensus.  What such people are actually doing is making sure that their interpretation predominates by shutting down public debate online and thus controlling the dialogue.  The website that we are communicating on now is one of the few websites where that does not happen: it actually has a section for mensuralists.

The binary nature of representing a note in the earliest notations indicates either durational differentiation or dynamic differentiation.  An intellectual position on the matter cannot (and should not) be belittled on the basis of disagreements of whatever kind between proponents of one view or the other.  I see no virtue in pointing out either that Pothier and Mocquereau had differences in their understanding of these notations, nor that Dechevrens and Wagner had theirs, as if somehow the mere existence of a difference disqualifies any overall principle such as whether the signs indicate durational differentiation or not.

I am Scottish and am used to singing songs to a regular beat and without a beat but we have a particular proclivity for not singing to a beat; the Irish even more so.  Nevertheless, when I was first exposed to the evidence of the earliest notations, I saw sequences notated in two ways, neither of which ways related significantly to the stresses or rhythm of speech.  Having rejected the notion that such notations indicated dynamic differentiations, I looked at the office antiphons.  You can imagine where that led my thinking.  I find the opposition to mensuralist interpretations of chant difficult to support.


Jerome F. Weber said:

Mr. Cordona, Thank you for your explanation, for which I am grateful. I only desire to point out why I react the way I do. The thread betrays from many of its contributors the sort of disdain for old Solesmes, Cardine, new Solesmes, and semiology that you detect from my remark. I do not argue ad hominem as others do. If the notation is rhythmically ambiguous, the Cardine approach should receive as much respect as van Biezen or his predecessors. Earlier criticisms of nuanced rhythm usually referred to mensuralist theory as if eight 20c. theorists (before Vollaerts and van Biezen) were not mutually contradictory. Willi Apel's conclusion in 1958 was that mensuralism is correct, although he did not choose which mensuralist he meant among the eight. 

J'ajoute que les notations en soi (St Gall & Laon) ne sont pas ambiguës, mais elles sont utilisées de manière ambiguë.

Pour elles vaut la règle que j'ai inventée : un signe signifie, pas de signe ne signifie pas.

C'est-à-dire que ces notations n'écrivent pas tout. Telle clinis indiquée comme celeriter, telle autre comme épisémée, mais d'autres sont notées avec le signe de base, qui n'exprime pas la valeur rythmique. Et ainsi de suite, pour une virga qui n'a pas l'épisème qu'elle devrait avoir et mille autres cas.

La situation est connue dans les notation baroques, ou même encore pour certains compositeurs du XIXe siècle, qui n'écrivent pas tout (pensez aux inégalités rythmiques, ou à certains ornements)

I wouldn't say that the ambiguity is restricted to usage, though.  Taking as an example his qui tribulato in the verse Juxta est of the gradual Clamaverunt justi (p346 in the Graduale Novum), yes, there may be a significance to the absence of a marking on St Gallen 359's virga jacens at -bu- but can we be sure of what that significance is?  The two virgae in St Gallen 359 are marked long and the third virga between them is marked c so we assume it to be celeriter but how long are the virgae marked celeriter and the virga jacens unmarked by celeriter?  For the first long and the assumed celeriter, the ratio is ambiguous: for example, 2:1, 3:1 or 4:1.  And for the second long and the virga jacens, the ratio could be interpreted as a long to (unmarked) short 2:1, 3:1 or 4:1 or a longer to long 3:2 or 4:2 or even as a long to long 2:2?

We could imagine the scribe of St Gallen 359 simply not bothering to mark the virga jacens as celeriter and to regard these four syllables as either a rhythmical variation on what would otherwise normally be a simple longa, longa, longa, longa rhythm (so 2 2 2 2 becomes 3 1 3 1) or a straightforward representation of long short long short (2 1 2 1) but that may do the scribe discredit.  If the note of -la- in Laon 239 is proptyptic in nature, then its absence in St Gallen 359 means that the virga jacens would not be eaten into and made short: it would be left long.

Not quite at the stage of making rules yet myself, the question I would ask in such circumstances is how long is long, if proportions are to be applied to these notations?  This is the kind of thing I mean when I refer to the notation being rhythmically ambiguous.

If we see two basic notes in Swiss notation on one syllable, clearly representing a higher and lower pitch (the statistics of the comparative analysis make that clear), nevertheless, without an additional marking, the durations of the pitches are ambiguous and that ambiguity can be laid at the door of usage, as you say, that is, the scribe writing the notes without adding other functional information for duration.  However, the example of his qui tribulato shows that, even with information about duration, we are still left with ambiguity with regard to the rhythm and therefore to the rhythmic feel of the music, that is, how foursquare or unfoursquare the pattern is here.

Clearly, StG didn't bother to write the celeriter. I interpret this notation as dotted quarters followed by a eight note (the dot is not a virga). OTOH, StG and Laon are not always absolutely identical, cf the third note on tribulaTO (same place)

Alasdair,

Great video of the Coptic Trisagion. Thanks for sharing. The Gregorian Alleluias and prose-less Sequences strike me as a similar kind of chant.

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