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Evolution of the Roman Gradual

Author: Mr. Jean-Pierre Exter

At the end of the eightteenth century a new movement was born that would have a long lasting influence on literature and especially music: Romanticism. Romanticism was in part a reaction against the Age of Enlightenment that had lasted for centuries and expressed itself arrogantly with respect to the dark Middle Ages.

The nineteenth century was a period of changing on all levels in society. In the Catholic Church too some prelates thought Gregorian Chant could be sung in another way than that of the Editio Medicea dating from the beginning of the seventeenth century.

Dom Guéranger and Dom Pothier

Solesmes AbbeyIn 1831 priest Prosper Guéranger buys a ruinous priory that was destined to be torn down. He settles in with a few monks. Not much later the priory gains recognition as an abbey with the name l'abbaye Bénédictine de Saint Pierre de Solesmes (abbey of Saint Peter of Solesmes).

Dom Guéranger, O.S.B., too judged the Gregorian Chant in Editio Medicea to be substandard and went looking for the authentic singing mode of Gregorian Chant in those dark Middle Ages. Joseph Pothier who is a seasoned musician comes to the abbey in 1858 and together with some other monks he is ordered to go looking for old Gregorian manuscripts in order to restore the authenticity of Gregorian Chant.

He must certainly have known pseudo-gregorian chants like the Missa de Angelis, Credo III, Marian Antiphons as Salve Regina, Regina caeli, etcetera. Luckily until Renaissance older manuscripts were preserved too. They could start their work and Dom Pothier, O.S.B., and his companions went to abbeys, public and private libraries, churches and all kinds of places to look for old manuscripts whether or not with staffs (some had just one line above the semitone), whether or not with neums.

What they found was of course not chronologically ordered. It was often separated over centuries, a puzzle to get a headache of. Because photography had technologically improved they could take pictures of all documents and that made their work easier. What Dom Pothier and his companions have accomplished is phenomenal and qualifies as scientific research of that time. They laid the foundation of all we know now about Gregorian Chant.

Priceless sources

The most important finds were:

  • Codex H.159 from l'Ecole de médicine at Montpellier: for the first time characters are added above the neums, in particular the first fifteen characters of the Roman alphabet that indicate the pitch. Not a Gradual strictly speaking but rather an exercise song book for a schola. Eleventh century.
  • the Saint-Gall Cantatorium: contains all scores for cantor and is probably the most complete and exact of all adiastematic manuscripts. These are manuscripts without pitch indication. Beginning of tenth century.
  • the Antiphonary of Corbie: The church modes for the Introits and Communions are mentioned in the margin. Eight modes were known. Ninth - tenth century.

Detail from codex H.159 at Montpellier

Searching, comparing and studying all manuscripts took twenty years. The research resulted in a big amount of palaeographic study works with eventually the publication of the Liber Gradualis in 1883. It is the first very complete Gregorian Chant book and is in fact the fundament of the Roman Gradual.

The Liber Gradualis was intended to use in the Benedictine abbeys. Use in parochial calebrations became desirable and in 1896 the very first version of the Liber Usualis appeared, which was however printed in 1927 only. Thanks to pope Pius X both books became more and more used. Also Dom Pothier was the first specialist to take the following stand: the Gregorian melody exists solely to support the words and give them expression and rhythm and not the other way around. Gregorian Chant is a liturgical message that is sung indeed!

Dom Mocquereau

The "Editio Vaticana" (= Roman Gradual) appears in 1908, it is a song book for all of the liturgical year. The design is done by Dom Pothier and André Mocquereau, based on the Liber Gradualis and the old manuscripts. Dom Mocquereau had advanced musical training and he applied that knowledge to Gregorian Chant.

In between he creates palaeography as a science. [Palaeography = study of ancient and historical handwriting. Ed.] That way after extended research he rediscovers the so called old-Roman (Papal) manuscripts that would have been condemned to oblivion without his work. Only five copies remain!

On the other hand the application of his classcial musical education to Gregorian Chant causes contradictions. This is the case in particular for the dots (prolongations) and ictus (vertical dashes). They are non-gregorian and often contradict the manuscripts. Dom Mocquereau wanted the difficult Gregorian Chant to be musically attractive, so that everyone could sing along. This was however a well-meant initiative.

Dom Cardine and the critical edition

At the end of the nineteenth century a critical edition of the Gregorian song books is wanted. This gains momentum only when priest Hinigio Anglés becomes head of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in 1947.

Dom CardineIn 1928 a slender and somewhat fragile young man arrives at the gate of the Solesmes abbey. He wants to join the order and Solesmes will never regret this. His name is Eugène Cardine. Because he has very extensive knowledge of Gregorian Chant at that moment already he almost immediately becomes head of the Palaeography division.

Hinigio Anglés visits the Solesmes abbey in 1948 and asks Dom Cardine to undertake the creation of that critical edition. Dom Cardine starts consistently looking for the Gregorian manuscripts of the first generation in the tenth century. So a new science is created: semiology, the interpretation of melodic signs lacking an exact pitch indication but supporting the words with expression and rhythm.

After some resistance his opinions are accepted and based on his personal Roman Gradual in which he had added the neums of Saint-Gall, his Graduel Neumé is printed in 1966. This resulted in the Graduale Triplex in 1979, in which Dom Cardine had the exact neums of Laon and Saint-Gall added by two experts.

The critical edition of the original Editio Vaticana was a fact, taking into account the fact that nothing was to be changed in the Roman Gradual. Dit was a canonical obligation and is still in effect now.

Having become older Dom Cardine realized that semiology could not be searched, interpreted and teached by one single person. At his instigation his brightest pupils constituted a team of researchers, the AISCGre, Associazione Internazionale Studi di Canto Gregoriano. They still come together on a regular base and they discuss and compare the findings of their research projects of authentical Gregorian manuscripts. The result of this international group is the publication of the Graduale Novum I, for Sundays and Feasts and the Graduale Novum II, for the proper of the Saints and weekdays.

Roman Gradual

But the Roman Gradual of 1908 too is updated regularly according to the litugical modifications that occurred in the course of time. After the Second Vatican Council the current version of the Roman Gradual appears in 1974. It is story of almost a century! The original edition of 1908 can no longer be compared to the present-day version.

Dom Pothier, Dom Mocquereau and Dom Cardine collected critisism often, even nowadays, but thanks to them we can sing the Gregorian Chant in a refined way.

In summary: Liber Gradualis > Liber  Usualis > Editio Vaticana or Graduale Romanum > Graduel Neumi > Graduale Triplex > Editio Vaticana Critica or Graduale Novum I and II.

Summer 2019

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Our commentators:

  Mr. Jean-Pierre Exter
  Mrs. Myriam Van Lerberghe-Thibaut

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