Orthodox Christians of the Mediterranean use duple time rhythms today when singing
communal chants dated to the first millenium, such as the akathist kontakion Τη Υπερμάχω
Στρατηγώ (to the champion general). Has the modern academic taste for what is musically
Romantic perverted the rhythmical tradition of Roman Catholic chant? Has divine ratio
become prey to the individualistic, the irrational and the expressionistic - the musical ethos of
the 19th and 20th centuries?
Chant scholars in academia have generally come round to the arguments of proportionalists
by acknowledging that the signs of the earliest rhythmic manuscripts generally do divide into
sets of signs for long and short durations. It remains to be seen whether or not the
ecclesiastical tradition of singing chant to strictly duple rhythms, testified to clearly on several
occasions in the historical record, will be restored. Such a restoration does not look
immediately likely, given that academics of the highest calibre are still making statements
such as that by David Hiley given at the start of this article.
Only rarely do we read hints that chant may have been rhythmically differentiated, and
only in two instances are there remarks about the choir singing in strict proportional
rhythms. Sometimes silence may speak volumes, but an argumentum ex silentio is weak
for all that.
Gregorian chant (2009), David Hiley, p185
In this quote, historical references to chant rhythm are described as 'hints', a word which
might imply that there are no overt historical descriptions of long and short notes in chant.
This article has provided evidence that such an implication would not be correct. The quote
also asserts that such so-called 'hints' are rare in musical writings. Writings on music in the
first millenium are themselves rare.
As this article has shown, the historical record provides more than just the two allegedly clear
references to strict proportional rhythms in the Commemoratio brevis and Scolica Enchiriadis
which Hiley cites.
The quote also neglects to mention that rhythmic nuancing is never clearly advocated in the
historical record and is, on the contrary, criticised. Such an omission could easily give the
impression that un-"rhythmically differentiated" singing is some kind of default norm, without
providing sufficient reason to regard it as any kind of norm in the first place. Lack of
unambiguous historical references in support of nuanced rhythm means that there is no
sound justification for assuming such a norm or for creating such an impression; the
argumentum ex silencio is in fact that for rhythmic nuancing, not that for rhythmic
proportionality. Considering the balance of evidence, a more sensible starting position must
be assumed to be related to what is actually evident - that is, the recommendation of 2:1
ratio in the note durations - unless the study of notations can clearly prove (which it cannot)
that the chant was not sung to proportional rhythms.
In actual practice, academics overwhelmingly advocate interpreting chants such as antiphons
within a hermeneutic of rhythmic nuancing. They are generally unwilling to integrate the
historical testimony about ratio into their interpretation of the rhythm of antiphons even as an
option for experimentation. The bias against such experimental integration has no historical
raison d'ètre. To the musically unbiased mind, the texts presented in this article paint the
significant picture of the Latin tradition of communal chant being, from time immemorial, a
continuum of singing in accordance with - as St Augustine and the Commemoratio brevis
would have it - divinely equal duple proportions, not just in melodic interval but also in
Having read this article, the reader may decide to trust the statements of modern academics
(who were not there) or the statements of the likes of Augustine, Remigius, Guido and Aribo
(who were there), and actualise the ancient notations of Latin chant accordingly.