Friday, February 08, 2008

How to Sing Dominican Chant I: Notation

At the request of "Pes" a regular commentator here at the New Liturgical Movement, I have prepared a three-part series on how to read Dominican chant notation. This is the first installment.

Those who know Gregorian music, especially with the so-called Solesmes marks, are often surprised when they first encounter printed versions (or on-line manuscript) versions of Dominican chant. The first thing they notice is the complete absence of the Solesmes marks: epistema, dot, ictus, etc. The next thing they notice is that there is no quilisma. The so-called "expressive neumes" are totally absent. Then there is that funny Dominican quarter bar: it is not on the top line of the staff, but moves up and down to the height of the note it follows. And the double bar appears where in the Roman books one expects an asterisk. Finally they notice that the liquescents often appear on diphthongs and liquid consonants where they are lacking in Roman music.

Modern Dominican books reproduce the shape of the neumes in the medieval manuscripts of our music, which were based on the Humbert of Roman Codex exemplar of 1254, which still exists as MS 1 in the Domincan Archives in Rome. In order to sing our music properly, cantors need to know the system of interpretation explained in the treatises of Jerome of Moravia (d. after 1271. probably Scottish), a Dominican musicologist, who codified traditional practice. An image of his treatise De Musica, copied at the beginning of every medieval Dominican Antiphonal, is at the top of this post. It is from the fourteenth-century Poissy Antiphonal.

His system for rhythm is presented in an accessible, albeit Latin, form in the Dominican Processionarium of 1949. The Dominican system of adapting psalm tones to the psalms found in that book was suppressed in 1965 with the publication of the post-Vatican II Regulae Cantus in favor of the Benedictine method, although the Dominican melodies of the tones were left unchanged. But for all other chants, the thirteenth-century system continues in use today, in continuity with the living tradition of chant extending in an unbroken line back to the earliest days of the Order. The most important section of the Regulae Cantus for interpreting the chant is Section III, "De pausis et earum signis et proportione." I have adapted that section for use by choirs, and will present it in another post, but first singers need to know certain things.

1. Dominican and Gregorian neumes mean the same thing as to relative pitch on the staff as indicated by the clef. Those who do not know how to read neumes and what their names are, should consult the many books and on-line aids that explain this before reading any further.

2. In our chant, the two liquescents (the Ephiphonus and the Cephalicus) normally indicate a diphthong or liquid consonant. Since, in normal speech, the two sounds of the diphthong slur into a single vowel and the liquid is a semi-vowel merging into the following or preceding vowel, the two notes in these neumes do not get equal length. In these neumes the small note in each is given about half the length of the larger. The same is done for liquescents even when they do not indicate a diphthong or liquid. A careful student will notice that we regularly use liquescents where Benedictine and Roman music has the two sounds of a diphthong sung on two distinct puncta, e.g., the separation of the "e" and "i" of the "ei" in Eleison.

3. The double bar in our system has two uses. They are very different and have some variations. Here they are:

3A. Most commonly, the double bar indicates the end of a major phrase, at which one side of the choir stops singing, and the other side takes over, following the traditional system (not only Dominican) of "antiphonal singing." This meaning is especially common in Kyries where the last Kyrie is sung by one choir, then the other, then both together. This shift is indicated in Roman books by asterisk and double asterisk. We use double bars. This use of the double bar also indicates a lengthening of the last syllable(s) of the phrase according to a system I will explain later.

3B. The double bar also appears at the beginning of a chant, after the first word or couple of words: there it indicates where the choir comes in to join the cantor who has intoned the piece. It functions like the asterisk in Roman chant. In this case, it does NOT indicate any lengthening of the previous notes.

3C. An interesting variant of this is found in Dominican books for the Gloria. There is one double bar to indicate the end of the priest's intonation phrase: "Gloria in excelsis Deo." But then there is another double bar at the end of "et in terra pax," an odd place to put it. This phrase belongs to the cantor. The choir comes in after that second double bar on the word "hominibus." Why? Many priests cannot sing for beans. They will foul up the intonation, but in the old rite they had to do it. So, the choir ignored what the priest sang and waited to hear the correct pitch and melody from the first cantor. Many priests simply recto-toned their intonation. The Gloria is the only place where this system is used.

4. Expressive neumes and quilisma do not exist in Dominican music. They did not exist as far as I know in any thirteenth-century chant manuscript. The expressive neumes are the product of Solesmes theorists. The quilisma is founded on the appearance, at certain places in the pre-staff notation, of a kind of fuzzy squiggle. There have been long debates over what it meant. My personal opinion is that it originally indicated the half-step and had no phrasing significance. Prof. William Mahrt of the CMAA, with whom I have discussed this, says that is very possible I am right, although he thinks it indicated a light vibrato. Good news! None of this matters for those singing Dominican chant because we don't have any of these flourishes.

That pretty much covers the oddities of notation that one needs to know to sing Dominican music. I will treat its phrasing and rhythm itself in the next post.

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