Semiology (Gregorian Chant)

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Semiology, derived from 'Semeion' (Greek "sign") is a branch of Gregorian Chant research. Semiology refers specifically to the study of the neumes as found in the earliest fully notated manuscripts of so called Gregorian Chant, the oldest of which have been dated to the 9th century. The first application of the term 'semiology' (which first appeared in the 1690s) for the study of Latin chant was made by Dom Eugene Cardine(1905–1988), a monk of the Abbey of Solesmes. In this context, 'semiology' is understood as 'the study of musical signs'. Text and neumatic notation, together with significative letters adjoined to the neumes, presents an effective and integrated mnemonic for melody.

History of Gregorian chant semiology

In the 19th century, palaeographical work relating to chant was done in various places in Europe against the background of a performance style based on proportional durational values assigned to various deteriorated forms of chant used in various locales.

The main player in the history of Gregorian chant semiology in the 19th century is the Benedictine community of the Abbey of St Peter in Solesmes, which was established in 1833 by Fr Prosper Guéranger, who wished to create single authoritative editions of chant via paleographical study. This led to the scholarly monks of the abbey, chief among whom was Dom Paul Jausions, spending over half a century finding and copying the most ancient chant manuscripts. Under Guéranger, the monks of Solesmes advocated singing Gregorian chant in a free musical metre giving the majority of sung notes the same durational length. This interpretation was contrary to much contemporary practice elsewhere and at odds with scholars who backed the use of long and short notes related in strict durational proportion as per polyphonic singing.

The publication of Gontiér's Méthode Raisonée de plain-chant (1859) was followed by Dom Pothier's Mélodie Grégorienne d'après la tradition (1880) in which he advocated singing the chant in 'rythme oratoire' (oratorical rhythm), which still involved giving the majority of sung notes the same durational length. In 1889, Dom André Mocquereau initiated the Paleographie Musicale periodicals which saw the publication of facsimiles of most ancient chant manuscripts to make them more accessible to scholars. Dom Pothier disapproved of this initiative.

In his third volume of Études de science musicale, published in 1898, Antoine Dechevrens laid out a comprehensive system of interpreting the neumes of Sankt Gallen style in proportional note lengths. Peter Wagner's Neumenkunde (1905) volume set out the various musical signs of the all the most ancient notational styles historically and paleographically, including Jewish and Byzantine neumes, while providing a number of facsimile illustrations, giving rhythmically proportional values for the musical signs along with a few examples of proportional interpretations of certain chants in modern Western European notation.

The Holy See set up a commission which ran from 1904 till 1913, headed by Pothier, and an editorial team, run by Mocquereau, to create official chant editions for the Vatican. Mocquereau's editorial team only lasted a year: owing to editorial disagreements with Mocquereau, Pothier ended up in charge of the editing which, amongst other things, led to the production of a revised Graduale Romanum in 1908. Mocquereau published Le nombre musical grégorienne ou rhythmique grégorienne (two volumes) in 1908 & 1927, in which he presented his own understanding of Gregorian rhythm, several elements of which have since been generally discredited. Two elements which have not been discredited are the recognition of the existence of note lengthening, and the notion of 'nuancing', ie, altering note durations by very small, non-proportional values. One-note syllables were declared to be normally short in duration, their written length being interpreted as 'graphic licence'.

In 1934, Dom Gregory Murray's anti-proportionalist A Pilgrim's Progress was published. In the same year, a series of articles on the subject of the rhythmic quantities of Gregorian musical signs began to be published, entitled 'La Question Rhythmique Grégorienne' by the Abbé G Delorme. This work concluded that certain notational styles contained two distinct signs for any single note and that this difference must be related to rhythm rather than pitch.

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