Today’s chant singer researching a performance practice for late medieval chant is faced with many questions. These include questions concerning language and vocal techniques, such as the proper pronunciation of Latin, use of voice and pitch; performance practice issues such as rhythm, metre, tempo and phrasing; contextual considerations such as the number and composition of the ensemble, the place and time of performance; and repertoire matters, such as the transmission of the old repertoire and the making of new repertoire, regional differences within the repertoire itself, the use of simple polyphony, and the interaction of chant and polyphony. It is a frighteningly complex field of investigation. Much work has been done already, although the vast majority of it concerns the repertoire found in the oldest manuscripts. This reflects the initial objective of chant scholars to restore plainsong to its supposed original state, after long centuries of so-called mutilation. Until just a couple of decades ago, relatively few scholars were attracted to the plainsong of later periods. Moreover, those that were usually took a special interest in it primarily because of its related polyphony.
Even in Kelly’s acknowledged Plainsong in the age of polyphony (1992), considered as a major landmark in the study of late medieval chant, little practical performance information can be found. Apart from the contributions of Richard Sherr and John Caldwell (both interested in the interaction between plainchant and polyphony and its implications for chant performance), the essays in Kelly’s book do not represent research into concrete performance practice questions such as tempo and rhythm. For this, we need to turn to Mary Berry’s dissertation (1968) The Performance of Plainsong in the Later Middle Ages and the Sixteenth Century. Her research is of great importance to performers, her main concern throughout being problems of rhythm. The chief sources from which she draws are primary, mainly manuscript and early printed service-books, as well as the writings of theorists. Her conclusions aid and refine our understanding of later plainchant: “The picture that has emerged is complex, and that in itself is important: there were more ways than one of performing chant.”
Exactly this can turn the many performance obstacles faced into opportunities, for “trying to find ways of answering questions not answered by hard evidence is”, to quote Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, “endlessly fascinating, a battle of wits between the lack of evidence and one’s own ingenuity.” (2002:2) The performer will have to fill in the blanks with his or her own colours and textures, and may even be tempted to draw outside the lines, countering any practical or historical constraints in a creative way.
Hendrik Vanden Abeele