Our Lady of Fontgombault Abbey

Gregorian chant is eminently possessed of the three characteristic notes of sacred music: holiness, universality and beauty. This chant is directly and uniquely at the service of prayer; that is why the Constitution on the Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council states:

The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as the proper chant of the Roman liturgy; therefore, other things being equal, it should be given the first place in liturgical actions.
     (Sacrosanctum Concilium, § 116)

Although Gregorian chant may give rise to a true scientific and cultural interest, its raison d'être is above all liturgical. Now, there are today very different ways of practising Gregorian chant. In order to understand this, it is necessary to take first a brief look at its history, before explaining the reasons why the monks of Fontgombault, in their interpretation, have chosen to remain faithful to the heritage received from Solesmes in 1948.

History of Gregorian Chant


The origins of Gregorian chant are complex and remain largely obscure. The first Christians naturally inherited the rites, texts and melodies of their original environment. Early liturgical chant was simple in its form: psalmody, acclamations, prayers improvised by the celebrant from defined patterns. The diffusion of Christian worship in countries of various languages around the Mediterranean basin gave rise to the various Eastern rites: Armenian, Chaldean, Syro-Malabar, Maronite, Coptic, etc. In the Western Churches, although each region had its own repertoire for chant, Latin gradually became the reference liturgical language during the fourth century.

Gregorian chant developed on the basis of Latin accentuation: after the stage of a simple vocal impulse on the accent to highlight the word, the text was melodically punctuated with accents and finales, as is still the case in the psalmody and verses sung at Lauds and Vespers. The influence of Jewish and Greek traditions is more perceptible in the modality of these melodies. After the Edict of Milan putting an end to persecutions (313), and the building of the first basilicas, chant grew on a par with liturgy: for example, the processional entrance of the bishop and his clergy began to be accompanied by an antiphon alternating with the verses of a psalm, which we still call today "introit".

Development of Compositions

Between the fifth and eighth centuries, sacred chant underwent a period of composition and repertoire fixation; it was increasingly entrusted to the schola cantorum, a group of specialised clerics capable of performing more and more elaborate pieces.

The golden age of Gregorian chant was between the eighth and tenth centuries. As a result of a political rapprochement between the papacy and the Frankish kingdoms, Pepin the Short adopted the Roman liturgical practices for his kingdom. These events were decisive for the evolution of liturgical chant. Bishops of Gaul, such as St. Chrodegang of Metz or Remedius of Rouen, asked Rome to send books and cantors. Sacred chant was indeed not yet written down, the melodies being entrusted to the memory of the cantors. Charlemagne continued this work, and his zeal for liturgical unity was to have a decisive impact on the evolution of the Roman liturgy.

By receiving the texts of the Roman liturgy, Charlemagne's cantors had to adapt or recompose melodies, giving rise to the "Carolingian" repertoire that was to spread throughout Europe. The organization of this work by St. Gregory the Great (+604), who enjoyed a considerable popularity throughout the Middle Ages, gave it its current name of "Gregorian chant".

These developments were accompanied by the invention of a system for writing melodies, a major event in the history of music. From the ninth century onwards, the first "notated" chant manuscripts appeared. These manuscripts were initially adiastematic, namely, not indicating intervals. The melodic signs (called neums, from the Greek pneuma, breath) only suggest the pitches, which are known by heart. They are very precise in terms of rhythm and movement. With the writing of melodies, the theorization of music also developed. Manuscripts indicating intervals appeared at the end of the eleventh century; but paradoxically, rhythmic precision in notation tended to disappear.

Between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, new styles were born from the Gregorian, such as syllabification (which consists in putting words under the long Gregorian vocalizations, at the rate of one syllable per note, which will give rise to sequences and tropes, very popular in the Middle Ages), and polyphony (which begins with the organum, accompaniment by a second voice at the lower fourth or fifth, then develops with counterpoint and harmony). A side effect of this creativity of the musicians is that art will gradually take precedence over prayer. The sobriety of the Gregorian was at the service of the musician's piety; from now on, the art of the musician will sometimes harm his piety.

A Progressive Decadence

The Gregorian repertoire survived until the fourteenth century amid new creations, if not in its execution, altered by the imitation of polyphony, at least in its melodic line and its writing. But the Renaissance was to deal it a fatal blow. On the initiative of Gregory XIII (+1585), a new edition of the chant books was prepared in accordance with the liturgical reform of the Council of Trent, which led to a complete upheaval of the melodies and the subjugation of the rhythm to the straitjacket of the measure. Other later editions will further complete the modernization of the Gregorian, namely, make it unrecognizable. The Medici edition of 1614-1615, tolerated but not approved by Pope Paul V, served as a model for the plainchant books that followed, which only aggravated the decadence of sacred chant. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, all the available editions were unreliable.

The Restoration

Dom Guéranger, the restorer of Benedictine life in France in the nineteenth century, understood that in order to sing the Office with dignity, his monks had to rediscover the purity of Gregorian melodies. The chant of the Church could not but be beautiful; it was necessary to rediscover this beauty by going back to the sources, beyond all the previous centuries' distortions. This is how the monks of Solesmes began their search for Gregorian chant manuscripts throughout Europe. This work led to the birth of the workshop of musical paleography, as well as to the publication of a number of liturgical books, with the approval of the Holy See, through many vicissitudes. The names of Dom Joseph Pothier, Dom André Mocquereau and Dom Joseph Gajard, then those of Dom Eugène Cardine and Dom Jean Claire, should be remembered here.

Gregorian Interpretation at Fontgombault

Rhythm and Choral Unity

The various works of restoration of Gregorian chant could not agree on how to understand Gregorian rhythm. The practice of Fontgombault remains faithful to the teaching of Dom Mocquereau and Dom Gajard, for a very simple reason: the raison d'être of chant, in a monastic community, beyond any scientific or historical concern, is the praise of God. This choral praise, collective by nature, supposes that a principle ensures the unity of voices, and this principle can only be rhythm, in particular in the case of ornamented pieces. This is why Dom Mocquereau and Dom Gajard took great care to rediscover the rhythm of Gregorian chant.

Dom Mocquereau developed a theory that was marvelous in its clarity and logic, so simple, indeed, that little children could understand it and sing the praises of God with devotion. Not only was Gregorian chant revealed by it, but music in general profited from the light cast on the domain of rhythm by this monk of genius.
     Justine Ward, music teacher (1879-1975)

Faithfulness to the Manuscripts

Some specialists in Gregorian semiology criticize Dom Mocquereau's rhythmic doctrine for being an a priori construction, with no basis in the Gregorian chant manuscripts. The rhythmic signs contained in the manuscripts would even contradict the theory expounded by the monk in A Study of Gregorian Musical Rhythm (Le nombre musical grégorien).

However, there is no doubt that Dom Mocquereau drew his doctrine from the manuscripts themselves:

If we had only the manuscripts, we could reconstruct everything from them.
     Dom André Mocquereau, Letter.

It is there, in these neumatic notations of such variety, in these books of such different compositions, that we must go and seek the light on all that concerns Gregorian art.
     Dom André Mocquereau, La paléographie musicale, vol. XI, p. 19.

[The manuscripts] in themselves contain everything we wish to know about the version, the modality, the rhythm and the notation of Gregorian melodies. They are not an exposition of the principles of chant, but substantially they contain both its theory and its practice... They are the translation in writing of what the ancient masters taught and performed, and therefore, for those who know how to read and understand this writing, they are the most perfect expression of liturgical chant.
     Dom André Mocquereau, La paléographie musicale, vol. I, p. 23.

To understand how Dom Mocquereau was able to draw from the manuscripts what some specialists today can no longer find there, it is necessary to reflect on the way we look at them. A first step in deciphering them is certainly to look there for positive rhythmic elements, that is to say, graphic elements giving indications on the rhythm. This is the work of semiology (the study of the meaning of neumatic graphics, that is to say, of the musical signs in Gregorian chant manuscripts), an indispensable task in which discoveries are constantly being made.

But the signs present in the manuscripts refer to more than an accumulation of technical information: they are the notation of a chant. Therefore, in order for this work of semiology to lead to a true knowledge of Gregorian chant, we cannot stop at these signs and refuse to reach the musical reality itself. To be faithful to the intention of those who wrote these manuscripts, we must find behind the multiplicity of signs a chant unified by the principles of natural rhythm. That was Dom Mocquereau's intuition and the meaning of his work.

What the "Method of Solesmes", as it has been called, thus brings to light, is what is unwritten. For Dom Mocquereau, it was not a matter of tacking an abstract and pre-existing musical theory onto Gregorian chant, but of rediscovering, thanks to positive rhythmic theory and the study of ancient authors, and above all the observation of facts, the laws of natural rhythmic theory. It is clear that the accusation of a priori brought against this work could easily be turned against those who formulate it: behind the bias of reading nothing else in the manuscripts than a strict collection of punctual indications, without considering the chant itself and the rhythmic that it supposes, there is another a priori, a philosophical one: that of the irremediably subjective character of human knowledge, reduced to the simple knowledge of phenomena, incapable of reaching the substance of things — in the present case, the music to which the various manuscript notations refer as to the reality they describe. A merely phenomenological reading of the manuscripts was certainly not that of Dom Mocquereau, for whom the knowledge of Gregorian chant has to end with the musical reality that has given rise to it.

A child learns to read through the ABCs: recognizing letters, then grouping them into syllables, then forming words. But in order to make meaningful sentences out of them, he needs to put these elements together with an idea that gives them a purpose.

Excessive attention to a thousand details stifles spontaneity and naturalness: one feels that the voice is restrained by the fear of not doing well enough! By dint of pushing the analysis, shall we miss the synthesis?
   Dom Eugène Cardine, Testament, 11th April, 1984

If the graphic signs of a score refer to the unity of a complete musical reality, it is because behind these signs there is something that gives them life, puts them in relation to each other and ensures their unity. This necessarily underlying principle of synthesis must be simple and fundamental, sufficiently natural for the authors of our manuscripts to have been able to consider it largely as implied. It must therefore be a vital movement that unites these notes, a set of relations from impulse to rest dictated by the text and largely modelled on the dynamics of the words themselves, rooted in the natural physiological rhythms of breathing or walking.

The Gregorian notators have transmitted to us, with infinite care, the nuances of the positive rhythmic, which we would not have been able to discover without them; while, most of the time, they gave no indication on the natural rhythmic, being certain that anyone would make up for it without difficulty.
   Dom Jean Claire (Revue Grégorienne 1959, p. 204)

The choir books editions authorized by the Holy See have without difficulty introduced logical punctuation marks to indicate the major divisions of the phrasing. They are the different bars of a modern Gregorian staff. These bars were not indicated in the manuscripts. This feature can be compared to the introduction of punctuation in the edition of an old text, in order to facilitate its reading today. In the same spirit, Dom Mocquereau introduced a rhythmic sign to indicate the smallest divisions of the phrasing, the vertical episema or ictus:

Although the vertical episemas do not appear as such in the writing of the manuscripts, they are based on the very nature of that which is contained in the manuscripts. They are the graphic expression and the punctuation, new but objective, of the different rhythms contained in the melodies from all times. [...] Just as the most important rhythms have been limited by means of vertical bars of varying length, invented for this purpose, so we designate the limit of elementary rhythms by an even smaller vertical bar: this is the vertical episema... All the degrees of the rhythm are thus represented with precision, from the largest to the smallest.
     Dom André Mocquereau (Paléographie musicale, vol. X, p. 100)

The presence and role of vertical episemas have sometimes been misunderstood and perceived as a source of rigidity or materiality in the execution. As a matter of fact, the ictus is present much more for the intelligence than for the voice, as Dom Gajard explained after Dom Pothier:

The musical ictus is the exact equivalent of a word ending. This simple observation, brought to light, as we have seen, by Dom Pothier, is sufficient to dissipate all ambiguity. The ictus does not compromise the great phraseological line any more than the end of each word in the language compromises the statement and the development of the thought! And, consequently, the vertical episema, which graphically marks the end of the musical movement or sound rhythm, has nothing more subversive than the white space, which, in writing, graphically marks the end of each word or verbal rhythm. [...] The same holds for musical writing.
   Dom Joseph Gajard, Revue Grégorienne 1924, p. 141 ff.

The Sources of Dom Mocquereau's Rhythmic Theory

It should be pointed out that the designation of rhythmic touches is not arbitrary, but is carried out according to the positive rhythmics data: signs of lengthening, since a longer duration attracts rest in the natural rhythm, but also modality, the rhythm of words, etc. When there seems to be a contradiction with the signs contained in the manuscripts, the difficulty must be solved by reappraising the interpretation of these signs, or by deepening the study of the laws of rhythmics. In other words, we must sometimes laboriously rediscover what the composers instinctively felt. This work alone can allow all the choristers to unite in the same rhythmic pulse, otherwise the singers will not be able to achieve with ensemble the nuances of the manuscripts.

To reconstruct the Gregorian rhythm, Dom Mocquereau started from the observation of natural rhythms and the musical theories of antiquity, as the most reliable sources of what underlies the manuscript. According to Plato, rhythm is the ordering of movement, that is, a synthesis of all the elements that make up the piece. The rhythm links each of these elements by hierarchizing them. The smallest ryhtmic unit is thus constituted by an element on the rise related to an element on the rest. The qualities of sound, duration, intensity, pitch and timbre, are not necessary for the perception of rhythm. Just one of them, or even the text alone, can suffice to order the movement. Rhythm is a matter of relationship: it is therefore perceived first by the intelligence. In Gregorian chant, the rhythmic pulse, which results from the relationship of the sounds, is free and flexible. There is no isochronous (at regular intervals) measure, but a real precision of values. If this precision is required by the order established by the rhythm (one cannot establish relations between ill-defined realities), it cannot be reduced to a kind of mathematical rigour:

A Beethoven sonata, with its precise and measured rhythm, does not have the build of a military march: in it, precision is combined with flexibility. All the more so in free rhythm.
Being a musician is enough to make one feel it...
   Dom Joseph Gajard

Elements of the Rhythmic Synthesis

In concrete terms, Dom Gajard summarized Dom Mocquereau's rhythmic synthesis, which is the basis of what has been called the "Solesmes Method", as follows:

The ictus, which is the moment of the fall of the rhythm and which is going to link the stitches between them, does not of itself depend on the length as well as on the intensity of the sound. As the end of a rhythm, it often coincides with the endings of words, which makes musical rhythm and verbal rhythm go on a same step.

It is frequently objected to Dom Mocquereau's synthesis, sometimes with some animosity, that the introduction of a system of binary and ternary composite pulses would unnecessarily shackle the singing and harm the freedom of the melodic line. This criticism is justified only insofar as it concerns a crude and material interpretation of elementary rhythms.

The composite pulses, binary and ternary, so unfortunately incriminated, are not the whole of the rhythmic synthesis: they are only the indispensable links in the weft with which it is woven. They do not exist by themselves, nor for themselves: strictly speaking, they exist only with a view to the composite rhythm, to which they are ordered, and which, moreover, is the only one to give them existence, by carrying them along in its vital impetus.
     Dom Joseph Gajard

In the same way, by analogy, we can point out that heartbeat or breathing movements are essential to life, but that life itself cannot be reduced to these phenomena.


As in all matters of historical restitution, the debate could be protracted for a long time; but it is the end we pursue by such a work of restitution which will allow us to make choices. If what is at stake is to arrive at an exact reconstitution of the ancient way of singing in early times, we shall always be left to a succession of hypotheses and conjectures. If, on the other hand, it is to re-discover the roots of an art that is still alive and called upon to serve the prayer of the Church, then the principles that guided Dom Mocquereau and Dom Gajard in their work remain fully valid today, including in terms of Gregorian authenticity:

What remains certain is that free rhythm, whether oratorical (Ciceronian prose) or musical (Gregorian chant), included very detailed rhythmic subdivisions.

Even if the mediaeval author had not spoken of them, it would remain to be proved that in practice they did not make use of them, and that they thus threw off an essential natural rhythmic law, common to all languages, to all poetry, to all music, which is impossible to suppose and to prove.

To those who deny this truth falls the burden of proving how Gregorian melody could exist by ignoring one of the fundamental laws of rhythm.

     Dom André Mocquereau, Le nombre musical grégorien, Introduction, vol. I, p. 11.

Concerning its value for the daily singing of God's praises by a monastic choir, Dom Édouard Roux, the first Abbot of the restoration of Fontgombault by the monks of Solesmes, was intimately convinced of it, as these lines he wrote to Dom Joseph Gajard show:

It is quite true that I have always loved, approved, encouraged, in all simplicity and candour, your way of interpreting Gregorian chant, because basically I see true prayer in it.
   Dom Édouard Roux, Letter to Dom Gajard, 5th September 1939