Saturday, February 09, 2008

How to Sing Dominican Chant II: Rhythm

The most debated and controversial issue in performance of Gregorian Chant since its nineteenth-century revival has been the issue of rhythm. The earliest manuscripts with Gregorian music have no staff and so present grave problems of interpretation for pitch and intervals. But they do have a whole series of other marks that in part seem to indicate phrasing and rhythm. Manuscripts after the eleventh century have a staff with a clef to indicate "do" or "fa" and so solve the interval problem, but they seem to have little or anything to indicate phrasing and rhythm.

The modern science of musical semeiotics has attempted to resolve this problem. The Solesmes marks and system(s) allow an interpretation of both pitch and rhythm. What I am about to describe is how Dominicans have dealt with the problem of rhythm since the 1200s. I do not claim that this system is "better" than any of the modern Solesmes methods, including that of Dom Mocquereau, currently in favor with workshops sponsored by the Church Music Association of America. Those who want to sing Dominican music, however, cannot use that method because it depends on the presence of Solesmes marks, and these do not exist in our books.

Principles of Phrasing

As you read these principles, you can consult the sample image of various bars and neumes from the Processional, pasted here:

1. The most important determination of phrasing is the meaning of the Latin text. Dominicans break the text into what might be called longer phrases, and then break the longer phrases into shorter ones. This is the way we punctuate English. A period or semicolon indicates the end of a major phrase; the comma (or implicit unwritten "comma") indicates a "joint" between the shorter clauses.

2. The punctuation marks of Dominican chant are the double bar (A), the single bar (E), and the half bar (D). The quarter bar (C), which moves up and down, is NOT a punctuation mark. The single bar and double bar are very similar: both indicate a full stop and a point at which a full breath may be taken. The difference is that after a double bar, the other choir takes up the new phrase; the same choir continues to sing after the single bar. In small choirs it is common not to alternate between choirs. In that case, both of these bars are treated the same way--although it is common to make the pause after the double bar a bit longer since it sometimes (as in hymns) indicates a new stanza. The half bar indicates a minor break or joint in the phrase. The pause is shorter and a short breath may be taken.

3. The quarter bar is not a rest or a break; its function is similar to the Solesmes dot. It serves ONLY to lengthen the previous note. No breath is taken at a quarter bar. There is no break in the phrase. Back at choir practice in our Western Dominican House of Studies in Oakland during the 1970s, this was called the "don't breath here bar." Some people even cancelled them out with a pencil and put in a dot instead. Although lazy singers often took a breath at quarter bars (and the lengthening of the previous note tended to cover this), it is very bad form and ruins the phrasing. It is better for people to stagger their gasps for breath at any place other than a quarter bar.

4. Although it is not noted in the music by any mark, singers "take off" (slightly accelerate) as they begin a phrase, and "make a landing" (slowly retard) as they end the phrase. They do this in a more delicate way in the minor phrases ended by half bars. This acceleration and retard is so delicate that it should be hardly noticeable, just as the similar change in velocity is hardly noticeable in ordinary speech.

5. Singers hold the syllable(s) that precede the bar, be it a double, single, half, or quarter bar. This is distinct from the gentle progressive retard of the "landing." The proper way to do this is to slow down, hold, and taper off in volume so as to let the note fade away. Avoid, at all costs, staccato stops.

6. In music with one neume per syllable, the number of syllables held is determined by accented (or virtually accented) syllable.

6A. Lengthen the last syllable before the bar if the word there a monosyllable (e.g., "te").

6B. If the word has more than one syllable (e.g., "nobis"), and the penult (second to last) is accented, lengthen that and the final syllable.

6C. If two syllables follow the accented one (e.g, "Dominus"), lengthen the last syllable only: it is considered "virtually accented."

6D. So, you never lengthen more than two syllables.

7. In melismatic chants, i.e., those with more than one note per syllable, lengthen only the last neume or part of a neume.

7A. If the last syllable of the last word is melismatic and the penult is a simple punctum, you lengthen only the last syllable, even if the penult is accented. Conversely, if the if the last syllable has a punctum and the penult is melismatic, you lengthen only the last syllable, even if the penult is accented.

7B. When the last syllable has or ends with a two-note neume, e.g. a podatus or a clivus ( see B above), lengthen both notes of that neume.

7C. When the last syllable has a meume with three or more notes (see F above), lightly retard but hold only the last note in the neume.

7D. In very melismatic music, such as Alleluias and Responsories, there will be a part of the multi-note neume at the end, usually a clivus, podatus, or torculus. This part of the neume is often detached, as is the case in B and F above. Hold that part of the neume only, using rules 7B amd 7C.

8. Strive to sing all chant legato. This is very important to phrasing. At the end of all phrases avoid staccato stops. Let your voice volume taper off to silence. Do not gasp for breath; if necessary, stagger your breathing.

That's all there is to the system. It may seem more complex than having the Solesmes marks to tell you what to do, but, in fact, it is very natural and intuitive. And it seems, from writers like Jerome, that all thirteenth-century singers of chant sang this way, or in a very similar way. So, now you twentieth-century singers can sing the music in the new Roman liturgical books like the Missal, where there are no Solesmes marks!

My next post will show how these rules are applied to a famous Dominican chant, the solemn
Salve Regina.

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