Rhythm, Meter and Tempo in Gregorian Chant

  • Rhythm, Meter and Tempo in Gregorian Chant
  • Rhythm, Meter and Tempo in Gregorian Chant

Rhythm, Meter and Tempo in Gregorian Chant



“Let the sober banquet resound with psalmody. And if your memory be good and your voice pleasant, approach this work according to custom. You give more nourishment to those dearest to you if we hear spiritual things and if religious sweetness delights the ear.”

Saint Cyprian of Carthage (A.D. 190–258), Letter to Donatus

This ancient counsel given to Church Singers speaks to the great spiritual benefit which their ministry can offer to their fellow Christians – the final of St Cyprian’s three caveats being that their sacred work be done “according to custom.” In this present work, Rhythm, Meter and Tempo in Gregorian Chant, authored by the world-renowned Dutch musicologist Jan van Biezen (PhD, Utrecht University 1968), Church Singers may harvest the sweet fruit of that age-old “custom” from Dr. van Biezen’s decades of research of hymnography, most especially in the area of aspects of tempo and rhythm in Byzantine and Latin hymns.

We are greatly indebted to Kevin Rooney, who has translated three of Dr. van Biezen’s preeminent articles from the Dutch-language originals: “Het ritme van de officiumantifonen in relatie tot dat van de Byzantijnse stichera – The rhythm of the Office antiphons in relation to that of the Byzantine stichera,” “Het ritme van het gregoriaans – The rhythm of Gregorian chant,” and “Het ritme van de Latijnse hymnen – The rhythm of the Latin hymns.” These groundbreaking works, of interest and importance to the professional musicologist as well as to the parish Choir Master and other Church Singers, read not as translations but as if they were authored in the English language, exhibiting this rare translating talent possessed by Mr. Rooney and his own love for and understanding of ecclesiastical chant.

It is my prayer that you, beloved reader, may be blessed by this publication, and that it will indeed inspire our Church Singers to accomplish their sacred work “according to custom” to the glory of the Life-giving Trinity, the upbuilding of the Holy Church and the salvation of souls.


Bishop of Wichita and the Diocese of Mid-America


In my review of Fr. Jan Vollaerts' "Rhythmic Proportions in Early Medieval Ecclesiastical Chant", I said that it was "the most important book on Gregorian chant written in the 20th century". Well, now we have in our hands the most important book on Gregorian chant in the 21st!

Jan van Biezen, known for his tremendous contributions to our understanding of Byzantine chant and European folksong, has written three 20-page articles on rhythm in the Latin sacred song. The common premise is simple: Contrary to modern opinion, Gregorian chant in its original form has a beat.

In the first article, the author by simple comparative analysis with Byzantine sticheraric chant discovers a 1:2 relationship between 'long' and 'short' notes in the 10th-century St. Gall dialect of medieval music notation. He draws our attention to a consistent pattern of what appears to be meter in the Antiphons. Some Antiphons bear this meter more regularly than others, but it is clearly present throughout the genre.

In the second article, on neumatic and melismatic chants, Van Biezen deviates from the rigidity of past scholars to make room for such phenomena as ornaments, sliding legato, occasional 'notes inegales', free meter, typographical errors, and scribal laziness, all in conjunction with a fixed rhythmic pulse. These phenomena account for many notational inconsistencies in the manuscripts, and they point to a natural and ornate vocal style comparable to many forms of European folk music and Orthodox chant.

In the third article, the author points out patterns in the structural makeup of Gregorian, Ambrosian, and Office Hymn melodies, and gives simple guidelines to determine the right metrical rhythm of each Hymn in its pristine historical context. Hence it is reasonable to believe that most, if not all, Hymns of the Latin rite in both Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages were meant to have regular time signature, as St. Augustine said in 388. A number of reconstructed examples is given, including "Creator of the Stars of Night", "Ut queant laxis", and the Golden Sequence "Come, Thou Holy Paraclete".

The book's findings fill gaps in Vollaerts' theory of proportions, giving a satisfactory solution to many extant problems of interpretation in the medieval musical signs of St. Gall, Laon, and Nonantola. What's striking is that a "metrical rhythm" interpretation puts Gregorian chant into continuity with tradition of the first-millennium Church. The discovered beat can be equated to 'plausus' in the 9th-10th century Hucbald/Enchiriadis writings, and the three varying degrees of metrical regularity found in the three articles match those discussed by Guido of Arezzo. Coincidentally, these findings happen to address nearly every complaint raised by Dom Eugene Cardine in his 1964 refutation of Vollaerts, "Is Gregorian Chant Measured Music?", and enable us to see that the valid points made in Cardine's "Gregorian Semiology" are actually compatible with a metrical rhythm interpretation.

What's even cooler, the fixed rhythmic pulse and fluid ornamental vocal style open our eyes to the *function* of notes: If a note lands on a downbeat or is long, it must be an important note. If it lands on an upbeat or has a short duration, it may be less important. Hence we can draw parallels between not only individual notes but individual *beats*, between Gregorian, Old Roman, and Ambrosian chant, thereby potentially unlocking an authentic performance practice of these ancient interrelated repertories.

But most astonishing of all is that Jan van Biezen's rhythmic discoveries now make Gregorian chant amazingly easy to sing. Theoretically, Antiphons could be learned by a congregation without ever looking at a page, and choirs could sing melismatic Graduals in unison without conducting. I shiver with excitement!

Despite the small size (60 pages of content) the material is very dense. Musicologists will have no problem with this book, but ordinary musicians may be surprised by unexplained terms like names of neums. Nonetheless, the explanations are succinct and clear. Every point made comes with an example excerpted from a real chant. The examples are well-chosen and straightforward so that you can get a gist of the evidence just from the pictures.