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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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Prof. Ricossa,

Thank you for your continued recordings. With each recording, your rhythm is growing closer to my view.

Excellent point on the Baroque. Recently I read a similar discussion on controversy over Bach's intended meaning of the fermata. We cannot discount the possibility that some signs, especially Romanine letters, had different meanings for different scribes. For example, the 'X' means 'expectate' in the St. Gall scripts, but in the Hartker Codex it appears to mean 'breathe' as though it is the Greek letter Chi rather than X.

It seems apparent to me from all these examples that the notators did not treat their notations with today's precision, not merely because notation was immature at the time, but because, for them, the true melody resided not on the page but *in their minds*. Remember that the notation is a description, not a prescription, of a pre-existing melody which was generated by and within an oral tradition.

Alasdair Codona said:

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

Commemoratio Brevis says that "all notes are long or short, always one twice the duration of the other, no more, no less". Guido and Aurelian, however, have a threefold, not twofold, classification of note values:

1. Longa (long)
2. Brevis (short)
3. Tremula or Vinnula (spelled "vinola" in Medieval Latin)

I believe the third category is a catch-all class for non-binary notes of brief, but undefined, duration. These include the observed grace notes, dotted notes, quilismas, light passing notes, implied repercussive auxiliaries, and potentially also the 'compressed' *notes inegales* that we can observe in the aforementioned Gradual Clamaverunt on "eos". Today we think of these as different kinds of ornaments, but it seems Early Medieval cantors understood them as a single general concept.

I believe the vinnula/tremula was perceived not so much as a note *per se* but more as a vocal effect. Since the brevis was the smallest binary unit of *tempus* in rhythm, Guido's words "aut tremula" ("or else trembling") in Micrologus Chapter 15 suggest that the vinnula/tremula was perceived as a special kind of *motus* outside the binary rhythmic system. Its absence in the aforementioned paragraph in Commemoratio Brevis is therefore not surprising.

In practice, I think the written grace note that opens the Gradual Sciant might be just as easily interpreted (or rather re-interpreted) as a short or even as a long. The opening formula of Solemn Tone 7 (Canticle, Introit), [G + CB + CD] --- which is also the figure on "sumite" in Alleluia Exsultate Deo (Triplex, p. 313) --- would sound just as lovely if the G is sung as a grace, a short, a long, or omitted altogether, because the rhythmic ictus still comes into its own on the C. I have observed this kind of variance in other parallel places too.

My observations on the aforementioned examples of notae debiles.

1. Communion Jerusalem (Graduale Triplex, p. 370).

The 'l' in 'Jerusalem' is a small consonant cluster, and moreover a liquid consonant, allowing for the second note of the clivis over 'sa' and the initium debilis on 'lem' to be elided effectively into the same 'note'. The clivis could have been notated liquescently here. Why it wasn't, maybe this has to do with Alasdair's earlier observation of a correlation between liquescents and note-length.

2a. The '-m c-' in "cum cithara" in Alleluia Exsultate (GT p. 312-313) is a heavy consonant cluster, having two consonants produced from different places in the mouth.

  • This could be read as "cum":[2 shorts, the second liquescing on "m"] + "ci":[2 shorts, with the diminutive note being barely heard].
  • Or perhaps as "cum":[1 long on G, slightly cut with a brief schwa following the "m" for the D] + "ci":[2 shots, with the diminutive note being barely heard].
  • It might even be easier to yield to Medieval dialect and pronounce the 'm' as 'n', so that both consonants are alveolar, giving us a chance to shift the "c" (pronounced "tsh" or "ts") back in time slightly, so that the initium debilis may be heard.

2b. However, stepping back from the melody on the page, we see that the melody in the mind expects only a single short-duration note at this point, as in Introit Ad te levavi (GT p. 15), where the D is hit as a terminum debilis by "Ad" in some variants, as an initium debilis by "te" in others, and as both in still others like St. Gall 376. (Compare Graduale Triplex to Graduale Novum.) Wherever an initium debilis follows a terminum debilis (i.e. appended liquescent), and the terminum debilis is indeed part of a two-note syllable (e.g. a liquescent clivis) rather than just a liquid long, I think it wise to look in these cases for an implied meta-note or meta-tone, into which the first diminutive note liquesces, and out of which the second liquesces. If so, then maybe we can speak of liquescence at both the end and the beginning of syllables.

3. These liquescents may also have more to do with the melody transmission itself than simply being the effect of a long or short consonant cluster between the syllables. In Communion In Salutari (Graduale Triplex p. 350), "verbum tuum" is a common pre-cadential figure in neumatic Mode 6, and it usually has that liquid note. Off the top of my head, I can't think of an example where the initium debilis is lacking (it would be helpful to find one). So we may have to refine our examination to figure-by-figure scrutiny, since the initium debilis appears to be more optional in some figures than in others. I suspect the same is true for the terminum debilis.

4. Alleluia Exsultate Deo (again, Triplex p. 313)

"cum ci(thara)" is parallel to "sumite" in the line just above it. The figure on "sumite" is [G + (G)CB + CD], which is the incipit of Solemn Tone 7, as I mentioned before. Parallel analysis with Simple Tone 7 (Psalm Tone 7) reveals the C, not the G, to carry the beat. More on Psalm Tone rhythm later.

Jerome F. Weber said:

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 am grateful to Solesmes for its efforts, to the early mensuralists for theirs, to Vollaerts for his, and to the semiologists for theirs, but I find Jan van Biezen's metered-rhythm theory to surpass them all in scientific accuracy and promising benefit. Namely because it provides a strikingly elegant solution to nearly all of the problems of 'mensuralism' that ties it into not only the notation, but also the words of the fathers, the customs of the East, and modern musicological knowledge on oral transmission.

Semiology, on the other hand, relies on sola notatio. One cannot interpret the notation without guidance anymore than one can interpret the Bible without guidance.

Ornaments (Vinnola=Pressus maior/minor; Tremula=Quilisma, etc...) were not perceived as precise notes. The proof in the Montpellier Tonaire, where the ornaments are repeated above the letter-notation, signifying that they cannot be represented by precise places on the monochord.

Quelques initio debilis par ci et par là https://youtu.be/GNsN8cR4mtw

My own reading of the Commemoratio brevis does not regard it as presenting the tremula as a brief note.  I will present the passage and an English translation in order to refer to it clearly.

Tenor uero id est ultimae uocis mora.  qui in sillaba quantuluscumque est. amplior in parte. diutissimus uero in distinctione. signum in his diuisionis existit. Sicque opus est. ut quasi metricis pedibus cantilena plaudatur. et aliae uoces ab aliis morulam duplo longiorem uel duplo breuiorem. aut tremulam habeant. id est uarium tenorem. quem longum aliquotiens apposita litterae uirgula plana significat.

A/the hold, that is, a/the delay of a/the last note - which however small it is in a syllable is larger in a part and longest in a distinction - is a sign of division in these, and so it is necessary that a little song should be clapped as if with metrical feet and that some notes should have a duration twice as long or twice as short compared with others, or a/the shake, that is, a /the varying hold, which is sometimes shown to be long by a plain virgula added to a letter.

Guido at least describes the tenor as the (or a) mora ('delay') of the last note.  He at least describes the tremula as the (or a) uarium tenorem (varying hold).  I don't regard the concept of 'hold or delay of last note' as applicable to the first note of the Sciant neume.



Kevin M. Rooney said:

Alasdair Codona said:

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

Commemoratio Brevis says that "all notes are long or short, always one twice the duration of the other, no more, no less". Guido and Aurelian, however, have a threefold, not twofold, classification of note values:

1. Longa (long)
2. Brevis (short)
3. Tremula or Vinnula (spelled "vinola" in Medieval Latin)

I believe the third category is a catch-all class for non-binary notes of brief, but undefined, duration. These include the observed grace notes, dotted notes, quilismas, light passing notes, implied repercussive auxiliaries, and potentially also the 'compressed' *notes inegales* that we can observe in the aforementioned Gradual Clamaverunt on "eos". Today we think of these as different kinds of ornaments, but it seems Early Medieval cantors understood them as a single general concept.

I believe the vinnula/tremula was perceived not so much as a note *per se* but more as a vocal effect. Since the brevis was the smallest binary unit of *tempus* in rhythm, Guido's words "aut tremula" ("or else trembling") in Micrologus Chapter 15 suggest that the vinnula/tremula was perceived as a special kind of *motus* outside the binary rhythmic system. Its absence in the aforementioned paragraph in Commemoratio Brevis is therefore not surprising.

In practice, I think the written grace note that opens the Gradual Sciant might be just as easily interpreted (or rather re-interpreted) as a short or even as a long. The opening formula of Solemn Tone 7 (Canticle, Introit), [G + CB + CD] --- which is also the figure on "sumite" in Alleluia Exsultate Deo (Triplex, p. 313) --- would sound just as lovely if the G is sung as a grace, a short, a long, or omitted altogether, because the rhythmic ictus still comes into its own on the C. I have observed this kind of variance in other parallel places too.

l'initio debilis n'es pas un problème si on le considère simplement comme un effet vocal très répandu, qui s'appelle portamento. Ici un exemple par Vaccai :

I am grateful to everyone for engaging in public discussion in this way.  I think this point is very important to discuss publicly.  My own culture makes much use of epenthetic vowels in speech alone and, ever since starting to examine the subject, I have been somewhat bemused by certain opinions I have read about liquescence in Latin ecclesiastical chant.

In order to deal with one issue at a time, I will ignore the question of the emphatic production of an epenthetic vowel  in singing, and will also ignore the question of the emphatic production of long sounded connnnnnnnnnsonants, and focus on the matter of liquescence of apparently short duration on sounding consonants only.

It should be superfluous to say that a sounded consonant must carry a pitch and therefore cannot do other than liquesce, whether to a lesser or to a greater duration of time.  On a monotone, short liquescence is inevitable on every sounded consonant (no matter how long or short the duration) and on whatever epenthetic vowel one makes).  When writing music down, it would be needlessly laborious and pointless to note down every occurrence of such liquescence on a monotone because it is impossible not to do such liquescence on a monotone.

For the most part, it is only therefore worthwhile noting liquescence when the sounded consonant is assigned a pitch that is i) different to the last pitch on the preceding vowel but similar to the first pitch on the following vowel, or ii) different to both the last pitch on the preceding vowel and to the first pitch on the following vowel.

I regard the above as the reasons why, in Montpellier 159, virtually every liquescence mark is accompanied by its own alphabetical pitch indication, and why that pitch is different to the last pitch of the vowel preceding the liquesced consonant.

In the case of letter L of the communion antiphon Jerusalem, quae aedificatur, I correspondingly regard this consonant as having to be liquesced whether or not it is marked in the ancient sources as having to be liquesced.  I regard it so for the reasons given above.  However, at (Jerus)ale(m), there is no change in pitch between the last note of the preceding vowel and the first note of the following vowel and there is no indication that the consonant has been assigned its own discrete higher or lower intervening pitch.  It is therefore pointless to notate any liquescence.

If one takes the view that the first short note on the following vowel E is tantamount to a liquescent mark, that opens the door to every single first short note on a vowel being viewed as tantamount to a liquescent mark.  I regard there as being no liquescent marks here because neither of the two conditions that would make noting liquescence worthwhile are seen to apply: we see merely the rhythmic pattern of the second and third syllables of the word extending to the fourth syllable of the word upon which there is a terminal flourish of notes.

In my own singing culture, the first pitch of a syllable is, as a rule, not protyptic.  In Scotland, we would happily stress the first pitches here in both Messine and Swiss notations without the word ‘jolt’ entering our minds.

Why, objectively, would one regard one instance of a first short pitch of a vowel as protyptic and as not being like any another instance of a first short pitch?  No beat stress (for either the first pitch or the second) is overtly marked in the notation.  Why would one decide not to regard the first note as taking the normal stress?  Even reference to Vaccia cannot answer this question for me because he explains his own portamento as existing in two forms, the first proptyptic and the second not.

When learning a tune from an instrumentalist, another instrumentalist could, in a given case, so easily confuse a slur with a dotted rhythm because he does not have the sound of a change of verbal syllable to clarify to his ear that the short note takes the rhythmic stress in that case, rather than the following long note. 

As evidence, comparative analysis of the ancient sources of course is better than Vaccia and the Scottish song tradition with regard to this question, which is the only area of Jan van Biezen’s analysis that I find weak.  While there are very good reasons for regarding the first note of the Sciant neume as ametrical and thus possibly proptypic, it is perhaps harder to make an argument for plain short notes (particularly in the Messine notation) being seen as playing the same role as in the Sciant neume.

The Al(lelu)ia in the Alleluia Jubilate Deo in page 222 of the Graduale Novum is a case in point.  It shows Laon 239 as having one short pitch G followed by one long pitch B but both these pitches are long in St Gallen 359.  Additionally, it shows Laon 239 as having one short pitch D followed by one potentially long pitch G but both these pitches are again long in St Gallen 359.  St Gallen 359 is highly unlikely not to have stressed the first pitches of each syllable.

This is only one of many, many instances of one tradition recording two long notes at the very start of a syllable and another tradition recording them as one short followed by one long.  As a Scotsman, with this kind of evidence I would need real contrary evidence to persuade me that it is possible that the first note in those many instances did not receive the primary stress normally assigned to first notes of multiple note groupings on a syllable.



Kevin M. Rooney said:

My observations on the aforementioned examples of notae debiles.

1. Communion Jerusalem (Graduale Triplex, p. 370).

The 'l' in 'Jerusalem' is a small consonant cluster, and moreover a liquid consonant, allowing for the second note of the clivis over 'sa' and the initium debilis on 'lem' to be elided effectively into the same 'note'. The clivis could have been notated liquescently here. Why it wasn't, maybe this has to do with Alasdair's earlier observation of a correlation between liquescents and note-length.

Point 2a is a good analysis and I would only add that N can produce a schwa as well.

With regard to point 2b, I would note that liquescence is a linguistically determined feature and that the stress of verbal syllables never falls on the consonant but on the subsequent vowel not just in speech but in all European traditional song and traditional ecclesiastical chant that I have heard.  As for verbal stress, evidence of normal verbal stress being mismatched under the influence of melo-rhythmic stress needs to be substantial (like the examples we in Erit vobis) and where there is no liquescence mark, there is no evidence of any pitch occluding liquescence that requires marking.

Comparison of sources shows countless instances of single longs being varied by division into two shorts without any indication of any kind of meta tone or liquescence.  In Scotland and Ireland, the instrumentalists do this all the time in reels and there is no liquescence on a fiddle or pipe.

I have never thought of liquescence as being particularly connected either with melody transmission or consonant clusters, as you mention in point3.  There are too many examples of liquescence that do not connect with either of those features and liquescence does not occur for those reasons in my own tradition either.

The argument you make in point 4 would be unsuccessful if applied to my culture.  There are plenty of instances in Scottish music of melo-rhythmic stress on what is only a slur preceding a main note so I could not make such an assumption about melo-rhythmic stress purely on that argument.



Kevin M. Rooney said:

2a. The '-m c-' in "cum cithara" in Alleluia Exsultate (GT p. 312-313) is a heavy consonant cluster, having two consonants produced from different places in the mouth.

  • This could be read as "cum":[2 shorts, the second liquescing on "m"] + "ci":[2 shorts, with the diminutive note being barely heard].
  • Or perhaps as "cum":[1 long on G, slightly cut with a brief schwa following the "m" for the D] + "ci":[2 shots, with the diminutive note being barely heard].
  • It might even be easier to yield to Medieval dialect and pronounce the 'm' as 'n', so that both consonants are alveolar, giving us a chance to shift the "c" (pronounced "tsh" or "ts") back in time slightly, so that the initium debilis may be heard.

2b. However, stepping back from the melody on the page, we see that the melody in the mind expects only a single short-duration note at this point, as in Introit Ad te levavi (GT p. 15), where the D is hit as a terminum debilis by "Ad" in some variants, as an initium debilis by "te" in others, and as both in still others like St. Gall 376. (Compare Graduale Triplex to Graduale Novum.) Wherever an initium debilis follows a terminum debilis (i.e. appended liquescent), and the terminum debilis is indeed part of a two-note syllable (e.g. a liquescent clivis) rather than just a liquid long, I think it wise to look in these cases for an implied meta-note or meta-tone, into which the first diminutive note liquesces, and out of which the second liquesces. If so, then maybe we can speak of liquescence at both the end and the beginning of syllables.

3. These liquescents may also have more to do with the melody transmission itself than simply being the effect of a long or short consonant cluster between the syllables. In Communion In Salutari (Graduale Triplex p. 350), "verbum tuum" is a common pre-cadential figure in neumatic Mode 6, and it usually has that liquid note. Off the top of my head, I can't think of an example where the initium debilis is lacking (it would be helpful to find one). So we may have to refine our examination to figure-by-figure scrutiny, since the initium debilis appears to be more optional in some figures than in others. I suspect the same is true for the terminum debilis.

4. Alleluia Exsultate Deo (again, Triplex p. 313)

"cum ci(thara)" is parallel to "sumite" in the line just above it. The figure on "sumite" is [G + (G)CB + CD], which is the incipit of Solemn Tone 7, as I mentioned before. Parallel analysis with Simple Tone 7 (Psalm Tone 7) reveals the C, not the G, to carry the beat. More on Psalm Tone rhythm later.

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