Performance practice of the Gregorian chant

by Mirko Rechnitzer

Performance practice of the Gregorian chant

by Mirko Rechnitzer

On the history and range of performance practice of the Gregorian chant

The unison, unaccompanied Gregorian chant can seem a little boring at first: even then, when I began to study this music in more depth, the impression of dryness remained now and then. But the more attention one pays to the melodic subtleties and expressive shadings of this music, the more it captivates and can transport us to states that need by no means be merely “meditative”.

But contrary to popular opinion, it is not at all certain that polyphony and the use of instruments are alien to Gregorian chant: some medieval images of liturgical chant show monks with stringed instruments, and the oldest finds of polyphonic arrangements are as old as the oldest chant books with neumes. Both instrumental accompaniment and singing with recumbent drones or in fifths or fourths possibly go back to very early times of chorale cultivation, even before it was written down.

But not only the circle of what may have been added to the voice seems very wide; but also what happened in the individual singing voice holds exciting questions. The development of Gregorian chant, and especially of the ancient Roman chant from which it had split, occurred at a time when Western Europe was still much more influenced by Byzantine as well as ancient Roman and Greek culture. To a certain extent, this will also have been reflected in the way he sang. But unfortunately there are no recordings and few reports.

The historical performance practice of Gregorian chant in different centuries is a difficult field to research. In many respects we are groping in the dark. Especially the experiments with other chant techniques are under criticism because of the inferences drawn from practices of existing folkloric music. In contrast, the historical evidence for polyphony in choral singing is more solid, but here too the relationship of practice to theory remains an unknown factor. Nevertheless, the question of the performance practice of Gregorian chant is an exciting topic, and so this article will offer a brief tour of theoretical discourses as well as various ensembles.

What evidence is there within Western Europe of how Gregorian chant was sung? The difficulties in reconstructing historical singing practices for the chorale correspond to the general problems in the field of research into historical singing techniques: No information can be drawn from iconographies with the unambiguity as in the case of instruments: For in this case, instrument makers increasingly succeeded in building instruments from historical drawings. The resulting piece of physical time machine allows the other kind of important historical source, namely descriptions, to be interpreted with greater certainty and clarity.

In contrast, the possibilities of analysing visual representations of singing people and trying them out on the basis of such evidence yield less clear-cut results. The singing angels, for example, which van Eyck created for the Ghent altar (ca. 1432), have been controversially discussed. As one can see from an overview in Reidemeister’s “Historische Aufführungspraxis”, views fluctuated back and forth. Sometimes it was claimed that from the facial features one could clearly infer nasal, pressed and “oriental” singing; then there was another author who explained that this mouth position did not necessarily result in nasal singing, but only in a finer, more agile sound.

It is certain that such facial features produce sounds that are different from “classical” singing; however, these sounds can be very different. With regard to the performance of madrigals and other chamber music, authors such as Vicentino and Zarlino mention features such as the slightly open mouth or the tongue at the base of the mouth. The aim is to support a delicate and supple sound with a clear transparency for the articulation of the text.

The Ghent Altarpiece: panel The Singing Angels, Jan Van Eyck; © Art in Flanders (www.artinflanders.be); Collection: Sint-Baafskathedraal Gent; Photographer: Hugo Maertens; CC4.0; Link zum Bild

The fact that in this case there are no “oriental” effects associated with the facial expression seems all the more probable as such images still exist in paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, i.e. a good century later, when the traces of eastern influences on singing technique in Western Europe must have already ebbed away.

But what about Gregorian chant, which was practised centuries earlier? Should a sound also have been produced here which, according to Zarlino, is to be used specifically for chambers and small rooms, but not for churches? As already mentioned, quite different sounds can be produced with the appropriate head position. During the tutorials I give at the university in musical palaeography, I met a young woman who had grown up in Georgia as the child of German parents. In her childhood and youth there, she became acquainted with vocal and instrumental music from different regions. Under her guidance, I was also able to gain some practical experience in Georgian singing.

When we looked together at the depiction of singers in the Codex Chantilly (14th century), she remarked that this looked quite natural to her. In this way, singing in Georgia is done with the mouth slightly open, and the muscles around the eyes are used to modulate the sound. This makes it possible to produce a wide spectrum without any tension, from delicate but colourful to very pithy yet balanced. Even a dynamic to fill large spaces is not a problem – unlike what researchers claim about the singing technique for chamber music in Renaissance Italy.

from the Codex Chantilly; work is in the public domain

The following recordings bear witness to the richness of facets that different Georgian singers can produce.

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In this Musica enchiriadis, a 9th century treatise, is an explanation of the practice of polyphonic singing with examples. Voices can run parallel in the consonances fourth, fifth, octave, but sustaining tones can also occur. For a long time, polyphony was hardly notated because it was a practice that singers could produce to the given chant. Before the 13th century, polyphonic versions were rarely notated. For example, when new chants were introduced for a new saint’s feast, they were sometimes notated for several voices. Statements by medieval authors, however, indicate that polyphony was regarded as an addition to the chant, not as an integral part of it.

In the following centuries, more complex improvisation techniques developed, which are noted in liturgical books or in the appendix of the Codex Calixtinus. In these, an upper voice flourishes over the chorale, which is performed in stretched notes by the lower voice. We also find arrangements of this kind in the Magnus Liber Organi from Paris around 1200. With this kind of so-called organum, however, the actual polyphonic chorale performance has already been transcended: The chorale here becomes more and more an accompaniment, the basis for a new invention that moves into the limelight.

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Let’s now take a look at various recordings by different ensembles and start with the year 1930: a historical recording lets us hear the singing of the monks of Solesmes. The singing is quite powerful, and the intention seems to be to let the voices blend together. The timbre is rather even, dynamic contrasts are strongly marked, whereby basically the rise of pitch is associated with loudness. The passage “Venite et audite” sounds remarkably brute, at least in the recording. (1:53) All notes are sung for the same length, repeated notes are interpreted as a stretching of a tone.

In the following video we hear, in contrast, a later recording from Solesmes. Here, the aesthetic of a bright, clear voice is more sought after. It is not sung with the whole voice, and the voices prove to be more mobile. One may well be reminded of the descriptions of Zarlino and others. The range of tonal shadings is wider than in the first video, but in general the sound is not particularly pithy. Repeated notes seem to be added up to one here too, but it seems to me that there is always a little dynamic differentiation, or a slight tremor.

The next sound sample comes from the “Ensemble Binchois” under the direction of Dominique Vellard. The French tenor and conductor seems to have tried out various things. The first video offers, from 0:54, a polyphonic, rather gritty performance of the introit “Gaudeamus” in the version for the Assumption. The bass is limited to a moving drone. The overall character of the performances in this video is dignified and measured. It is interesting that chants such as the readings were also included in the interpretation (20:10). The album in the second video presents a more sweeping and ornate interpretation in contrast to the one described earlier. At 20:05, for example, we can hear this performed by female voices for once.

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The Ensemble Organum became better known under the direction of Marcel Pérès. The musicologist and church musician draws his approaches, among other things, from his preoccupation with Orthodox church music and Corsican chant (cf. the third and fourth of the following videos). The ensemble’s interpretations stand out from semiologically oriented ensembles through microtonal ornamentation. What stands out above other groups presented in this article, however, is their very colourful, almost chorus-like use of voices. The ensemble also experiments with unusual intonation systems. One concertgoer, for example, reported hearing them sing in the fourth mode with an “oriental third”, i.e. a third between the equal-tempered minor and major. To my ears, they are more convincing in their performance of other chorale styles before and besides Gregorian; this is also their focus.

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A Belgian singer who presents the repertoire with notes on the YouTube channel “Chant grégorien” wants to take a middle course between “orientalisation” and “romanticisation”. He sings with very pronounced loops in the voice, and a very strong vibrato. I find the ornamentation interesting, but share the criticism of the excessive vibrato. Not only was vibrato frowned upon in European classical music right into the 20th century, as Richard Bethell pointed out, but it also hardly occurs in traditions such as in India. The singers of Indian classical music use a plethora of microtonal movements, and yet only one type of ornamentation found in South India comes remotely close to vibrato.

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As further examples of the diversity of Gregorian interpetation, I would like to conclude with recordings by the “Egidius Kwartet & College”, the “Schola Nativitatis”, the “Ensemble Discantus”, the Youtuber “Brother Goodcraft”, the choir of Abbé Damien Poisblaud, the “Ensemble Peregrina”, the group “Anonymous four” and the “Ensemble Diabolus”. On some of these recordings a reconstructed Franco-Flemish pronunciation is used. I am very pleased to have introduced the richness of Gregorian interpretations with this article, and to have drawn attention to the exciting nature of this subject.

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Literature used

Peter Reidemeister: Historische Aufführungspraxis, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft Darmstadt, 1988, S. 82-84.

Richard Bethell: Vocal Traditions in Conflict, Peacock Press, 2019.

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