Saturday, 6 October 2012

Campaign for real chant

I thought I had seen the last of having to sing chant written in modern notation on a five line stave. My previous choir leader was at first convinced that I was just trying to make a nuisance of myself by complaining. But then she went on a course at Solemnes and came back converted to the four-line/square note system.

Having moved recently, I have been confronted again with having to sing Gregorian chant that has been re-written in modern notation. Why anyone should go to the trouble of doing this I have no idea. I assume that it happens because people with some kind of formal musical training have got involved in making decisions. They even suggest that beginners should start with the modern notation then move on to the "more difficult" four line scores. But for beginners and others who cannot read music anyway, using modern notation for Gregorian chant just adds confusion. It also makes life difficult for those in charge of choirs. four-line scores.

The traditional notation was invented by Guido d'Arezzo in the eleventh century for the specific purpose of writing down the chant, so that people could sing it consistently. Before then, the texts were annotated with curved marks, which were a good guide to the rhythm but gave no indication of pitch. The notation is tailored to the chant. The groups of notes are shown diagramatically, indicating how they should sound. These are known as neums, and give the relative pitch, length and dynamic in a compact and concise way. Each neume is placed directly above the syllable it refers to. The text is spread out just enough to allow space for the neums above, which makes it easy to read and get a sense of the words, which is important since the successful performance of the chant depends on giving precedence to the words, not the music.

The system of notation does not indicate absolute pitch, this being left for the singers to decide for themselves. It is particularly advantageous since the chant is modal ie not written in a major or minor key. It can, however, cause difficulties for accompanists who may find themselves having to transpose, but this is not a serious problem since Gregorian chant can perfectly well be sung unaccompanied.

So what is wrong with modern notation?
Several things. Five lines are obviously more difficult to read than four. The words are all spread out, which does not help with reading and singing it as a text, which is the primary purpose of the chant, as an embellished form of text reading rather than a musical performance. Modern notation also ties the singers to a key, which may not be the one they would like to sing in, since it might be too high or too low for their voices. And there are many subtleties in the chant which are easily shown in the original notation but which cannot easily, if at all, be portrayed in modern notation. The music suffers and the refinements get lost. Ultimately, modern notation destroys the chant.

Hear the difference!
People say that this is as important as arguing over whether to crack an egg at the pointed end or the blunt end. It is an ignorant comment. You can hear the difference. When Gregorian chant is sung from a score with modern notation, the entire sense of dynamic rhythm is usually lost. A good choir leader will try to recover the situation by getting the members of the choir to mark up their scores, but if they had been singing from a proper Gregorian score in the first place, this would not have been necessary.

How do we know what the chant should sound like?
There are many "right" ways of singing the chant. From the late nineteenth century the Benedictine monks of Solemnes have been studying ancient manuscripts from the period before the present Gregorian notation was invented. A comparison of the different documents with other early scores has shed useful light on how the chant should be sung, with subtle emphases, lengthenings and pauses. These early notations are shown in a special edition of the Graduale Romanum known as the Graduale Triplex. Everyone in charge of a choir singing Gregorian music should have one. Bringing this knowledge to a performance emparts an additional liveliness to the music.

So is traditional notation difficult for beginners?
Gregorian chant is graded. A single note is shown as a little black square. It is as simple as that. The groups of notes are best learnt a few at a time, starting with the two-note neumes and then going on to the three- and four-note neumes. It is useful, though not essential, to learn the names of the different groups. If you are a novice, do not be scared, just start at the beginning with the simple stuff. If you are teaching, please don't bamboozle your pupils with chant written in modern notation.

How to read chant from a score