An Experiment in Rhythmic Chant Notation
  • This posting is for those interested in finding ways to modify our modern chant notation in order to convey the rhythmic nuances expressed by the staffless notation of the early mediaeval manuscripts (St. Gall and Laon).

    For some time I tried to accomplish this by marking up our Schola's scores with lots of extra episemas. For example, when the staffless notation indicated a lengthening of a note by means of a neumatic break -- and when this rhythmic feature was not otherwise indicated in the Vatican edition -- into my performance edition would go an episema on that note.

    It seemed to me, however, that the episema was in the end a rather blunt instrument for indicating rhythmic nuance -- and that in two senses. First, the episema only comes in one size. And singers like simple rules like "count two beats for an episema." Yet the intended lengthening of the note is variable, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer, depending on the context of the melodic situation. This kind of subtlety is everywhere on display in the staffless manuscripts. Second, many singers erroneously attach to the episema not only the idea of lengthening but also accent, so that any melodic passage modified by an episema becomes heavy and slow.

    So I wondered if it might be possible to accomplish the purpose without using the episema. Whereas the St. Gall MSS attach the episema, for example, to the virga or the clivis to indicate lengthening, the Laon MS uses other methods. It seems to me that there are at least three ways the Laon notation conveys rhythmic value that could be applied to modern staff notation:

    1. The neumatic break. Multiple notes on the same syllable graphically linked indicate a flowing rhythm; a break in the chain of notes indicates a lengthening of the note before the break.

    2. A corollary of the neumatic break: graphic space between notes indicates rhythmic expansion, so more or less space between notes indicates a slower or quicker approach between notes or groups of notes.

    3. The note shapes themselves have rhythmic value. Ranged in value from shortest to longest are the punctum, tractulus, uncinus, and virga. The oriscus falls somewhere between the uncinus and virga, depending on context. In Laon the tractulus frequently occurs as the third element of the tristropha, so for it I used the larger rhombus and for the punctum the smaller diamond-shaped note -- in Gregorio code e.g. (F) and (fs), respectively.

    Below are the propers for the fourth Sunday of Advent, illustrating how I applied the principles of Laon notation to the modern staff. The melodies of the chants are those of the Graduale Novum. The advantage of this approach, borne out by experience with our Schola, is that it is quite intuitive. Once the three graphic principles are understood, the singers have no difficulty anticipating the ebb and flow of my chironomy.