Learning the Rhythm of Gregorian Chant
  • This is for people who can learn by listening to music, or inductively from experience. I am not that kind of person. I have to go back and forth between explanations and practice. Some people just learn by picking it up. The fruit of my labors has recently been helpful to someone who learns by listening, so I thought I would pass it along.

    About a year ago, I listened to the newly reinvigorated Vatican Choir singing Te Principium for Christmas, and followed along in the Liber Usualis. I quickly realized that I had no idea what the choir was doing, and asked on this list. That was when many helpful people led me to understand something about the different ways to interpret the rhythm of chant.

    I went to classes with Frs. Kelly, Ruff, and Funk, read books, and listened to recordings. It all became useful when I asked a recent graduate of my university if he needed help with his schola. As he had no basses, and certainly not a Bass 2, he responded "YES!!." He had been asking me about more flowing recordings of chant he had heard, but he hadn't had time to study much. He also didn't seem to grasp things if I tried to explain them. I finally figured out he doesn't learn orally, he learns aurally.

    So I applied myself diligently to the books, wrote notes for the chants we were singing, and linked him to an invaluable resource, the demonstration videos on YouTube from the Chicago Benedictines, lead by Fr. Peter Funk.

    You need to understand one basic distinction: there are two basic approaches to interpreting the rhythm of chant. One, which can be described "equalism," will be familiar to you from some recent popular recordings of chant: each note is assigned more or less the same value, with lengthening provided by lines (epismas) or dots.

    The other, called rhythmic notation or St. Gall/Laon--and by nearly everyone, "the chicken scratches"--was the first system, and it made no use of notes or staffs with lines. If you look in a book called the Graduale Triplex, the notes from St. Gall are at the bottom in red, and from Laon up top in black. These were essentially notes to preserve how the chant was sung, as the melodies were passed on from singer to singer. St. Gall is clearly conductor's notes, and so is more intuitive. There is a new scholarly edition of the Graduale Romanum, called the Graduale Novum, and it uses a simplified form of St. Gall in addition to the square notes as a guide. (I have not compared in detail, but it seems they have eliminated all melodic markings, which are no longer necessary, and kept simply the rhythmic ones.) Here is a page saying what I just said: http://www.saintmeinrad.edu/the-monastery/liturgical-music/history-of-chant/

    I attach here the page for this week from the Graduale Novum and Fr. Funk's excellent demonstration video. My suggestion: let yourself go, and trace the rhythmic markings in the air with your finger while listening to the chant. ALL the information you need is in the way he conducts this particular chant. That's usually true, but for reasons he explains I think he really exerted himself to make it clear.

    Here is the Graduale Novum. Look on page two for this week's introit:


    And here is Fr. Funk:


    For the very simplest introduction, look at the word "eos" in the chant "Dominus Secus Mare." The horseshoe with the line (a clivis with episma) means both those notes are slow. Then the next five notes are marked "c," celeriter, for quickly. then the last two notes, the fifth note of the quick run and the very last note (the two fa's), are slow, for the simple reason that the last two notes of any phrase are almost always slow. I have pointed out that if chant is sung speech, then it is worth knowing that the last two syllables of any Italian sentence are always slower.

    For those of you who just can't "let yourself go," and have to have every detail explained (which would be me), then get cracking.

    Start with Fr. Kelly's chant manuals:


    http://www.saintmeinrad.edu/media/156116/Singing chant(LatinEnglish)2nded.pdf


    And then go study with Fr. Kelly:


    Fr. Anthony Ruff covers the same material in equally excellent seminars, but they are given less regularly and you would have to contact him through St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, MN.

    Anyone else know of any seminars that cover this material?

    Apparently, a teacher handed out a guide to the St. Gall notation at the most wonderful sacred music event of all, the CMAA Sacred Music Colloquium, but it has changed so much since I went to it that I don't know.

    But for you all you aural types, the first part of this post should be enough to get you going. Fr. Funk has some 80 videos. If he is covering all the introits and communios, what most local parishes do, he is perhaps 2/3 of the way through the Church Year, but I have not matched them all up. (I didn't see the communio for this week.)


  • Kenneth - thanks for pulling together this material and presenting your thoughts. I am deeply skeptical that the semiological endeavour will produce any lasting results, but it is great that people are enthusiastic about looking at the old notation and manuscripts.
  • I am not skeptical but assured that semiological study will unlock that secrets necessary to produce effective English chants.
  • Learning the rhythm of Gregorian chant.

    Learning one rhythm of Gregorian chant (among others).
  • Do we get to take a vote?
  • well, I include both, and will say that the schola I most frequently hear that I am not involved with does equalist interpretations, and they sound beautiful, as do the several recent hit records. Putting two much emphasis on the word "the" there.

    Thanked by 1noel jones, aago
  • I think Ralph hits on the most important point, and that is that the equalist approach really doesn't have much to say to a composer in English. I think we are entering a time like the 16th Century, when each parish music director wrote his own stuff. My young schola director is a very accomplished composer, and has tired of the standard, atonal, academic style. He was taken with rhythmic interpretations of Chant. While it took a while for him to get the idea--he still wanted 1,2,3,4, or in modern terms 1, 87/3,4/9, and .07---but after some false starts his conducting this week was very expressive. That way lies the key to writing in English.

    Thanked by 1noel jones, aago