Rediscovering the vitality of medieval chant: an interview with Bruno de Labriolle

This interview with Bruno de Labriolle, Gregorian choir leader in Lyon, discusses why historically informed performance of medieval ecclesiastical chant has proved controversial. In this wide-ranging interview, Bruno discusses:

• how very recent changes in chant are wrongly considered to be the way things have always been;
• how and why the work of the Abbey of Solesmes in the 19th century standardised previously diverse, varied and rich traditions of singing;
• the plainness of modern chant compared to the emotional vitality of medieval singing;
• ways to make sense rhythmically of chant written non-mensurally (without signs for rhythm);
• historical evidence for ornamentation in medieval chant.

The article begins with a recording of Bruno and his singers of Saint-Bruno-des-Chartreux, and includes further videos of Lycourgos Angelopoulos leading the Greek Byzantine Choir, Marcel Pérès leading Ensemble Organum, and soundfiles of Bruno demonstrating singing technique.

Click the picture to play the video.
Bruno de Labriolle leads the singers of Saint-Bruno-des-Chartreux. (45 minutes)
This recording is also available on Spotify here.
Click the picture to play the video.
In this second video, Bruno discusses the music of the recording above. French with English subtitles. (14 minutes) 

Bruno’s background

Bruno, what’s your role in the church?

I’m a layperson, and as far as my role in the church is concerned, my story is not uncommon: I was born in a Catholic traditional family, one of nine children. Three of my siblings also lead choirs in their parish. As I reached 16 or 18 and I moved out of my parents’ home, I started asking myself whether there was any point in me still going to church; and, like many people, I had realised that there are many things to be disliked about the Christian legacy. But there was this one thing that was making me come back, every time: it was Gregorian chant, that I had been singing for such a long time. It had developed in me a very intimate spirituality, and I wanted to protect that and work on it. It’s been a few years now that I have dedicated myself to it, conducting a schola [Gregorian choir] in my parish. I want to understand the singular role of the liturgy, trying to restore its prominent place in Christian life — but I try to do it outside of the liturgy wars, those two sides that are very vocal in today’s Catholic world, arguing about whether Mass should either be exclusively in Latin or in French.

The liturgy wars: the politicisation of historical chant

The two sides in the liturgy wars are those who prefer the Tridentine Mass and those who prefer the Novus Ordo Mass for reasons of theology and identity. 

The Tridentine Mass or Latin Mass is the Mass preferred by Catholic traditionalists. It originates from the Council of Trent, which met 1545-63 in Trent or Trento, Italy. The Council of Trent sought to counter the spread of Protestantism in Europe by introducing church reforms to eliminate corruption, by affirming Catholic doctrine, and by establishing a form of the Mass in the entire western Catholic Church which could only be in Latin and from which no local church could deviate.

The Novus Ordo Missae (Ordinary Form Mass) is the Mass preferred by Catholic modernisers. It was also developed as part of church reforms, this time in response to secularism, ecumenism and multi-faith dialogue. In the final year of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), which met in the autumn of each year from 1962 to 1965, the document Sacrosanctum Concilium affirmed Latin as the language of the Mass, but also allowed it to be conducted in the vernacular, incorporating local music and customs. This led in 1969 to the introduction of the Ordinary Form Mass.

This painting below by Nicolò Dorigati, 1711, now in the Museo Diocesano Tridentino, Trento,
depicts the opening session of the Council of Trent in 1545.

When you say the liturgy wars, the thing I think of is the whole debate as to whether Vatican II reforms should even have happened. Is that what you’re thinking of?

Yes, it is. Of course, each argument has been evolving during the past few decades, but I believe we’re never really talking about the liturgy and its slow evolution in two millennia; instead, we’re talking about political identities. Those two sides may differ on a sociological and ideological level, but they agree on one thing: the Mass of the 1950s belongs in a museum. For one side [those who favour the Ordinary Form Mass], it means that it has no place in the church anymore and should be entirely discarded, with its decorum, Latin and chant. For the other side [who favour the Tridentine Mass], it means that we should honour the Mass and never change one iota. They’re focused on ‘the way things have always been done’ in their mind, but actually it has only been this way recently. The Tridentine Mass was issued as a desire for standardisation in 1570, and was not even used in France until the 19th century. In Lyon, where I live, the first Tridentine mass was only celebrated around 1990! Previously, it was the Lyonese rite being celebrated. So all the fuss within the Church doesn’t feel to me like it’s really about liturgy. Otherwise, you’d have people take a closer look at what has been happening for the past two millennia.

The Abbey of Solesmes: the standardisation of chant

I think that probably brings us onto the work of Solesmes, because as you say in one of the videos on your channel [which you can see here – French with English subtitles], there seems to be the impression that chant today is how medieval chant was sung but actually, it’s a recent flattening out of a really various tradition with many regional variations. The Brothers of Solesmes Abbey in France made an effort to standardise medieval chant in a way that isn’t true to what was really happening. As I understand it, what you’re trying to do is go back and say, how was it actually sung, what was really happening?

Yes, this is what I’m aiming for. But first, I want to say this: in my work, I am distancing myself from Solesmes’ work because I was brought up in it, so I felt its shortcomings on a very personal level. However, they did an enormous amount of scientific work from 1850 to 1950, and it is thanks to them that many aspects of the Gregorian chant are understood today – even though they weren’t the only ones walking this path at the time. My biggest issue – and many scholars have said this before me – is that the brothers of Solesmes were looking for the ‘original Gregorian score’ with the brand-new tools of historical science, and it was the wrong framework. For this I am indebted to the amazing book Decadent enchantments by Katherine Bergeron.

Of course, we have to remind ourselves that this was France in the 19th century so, from a political point of view, it truly was a mess. The French Revolution had led to the tumbling down of the social order, you have the first unbaptised and uncatechised generation of people in a long time, you have a succession of empires and republics, the exodus from rural to urban areas, and the Church also was in a dire situation. The Pontifical States had been conquered by the new Italian kingdom, with the pope almost a prisoner in the Vatican. In churches, you could still hear neo-Gallican chant [composed in the 17th and 18th centuries in reaction to the council of Trent] but also opera arias and all sorts of instruments. It makes me quite curious about this period! But with a new generation came a desire to reform the music in churches, as a way to erase – they said ‘solve’ – the recent upheavals of the Church. But they would not go back to the 18th century because that felt like the direct cause of the problems.

In a way, it’s really understandable: think of the aftermath of World War II, when there was a strong consensus on the idea that we should go to every length to prevent it from happening ever again, so anything reminiscent of the days before the catastrophe must be discarded. I guess this was the mood at Solesmes, although their direction was not forward, but backward. With the support of many influential Catholic people in France, they decided to look for the period during which everyone was supposedly Christian: the middle ages. For this, they had to find the original Gregorian score, the one composed by Pope Gregory I in the 6th century, which we now know never existed. [Pope Gregory I, c. 540–604, is credited with 6th century liturgical reforms, but his name was not associated with the chant that bears his name until a biography by John the Deacon in 873.]

But in looking for this original score, they overlooked the sheer diversity of liturgical chant in the first and second millennium. There’s Gallican chant, sung in the old Frank Kingdom until Charlemagne. There’s Old Roman chant, sung in Rome by the papal schola up until the 13th century. We have letters of a prominent Solesmes monk, saying he does not get why those manuscripts look so strange compared to Gregorian manuscripts, and that they should therefore be dismissed! They forgot about Ambrosian chant [used in Milan before Vatican II]; they forgot about Mozarabic chant [used from the 6th century by Arabic-speaking Christians living under Visigoth and then Muslim rule]; they forgot about so many different things that tell us about the richness of the singing tradition in church. There never was only one book for all people.

The vitality of variety

“For one says, ‘Master Trudo taught it to me thus’, another adds, ‘But I learned it this way from
Master Albinus’, and a third, ‘Certainly Master Salomon sings it very differently’. And lest I delay you
with more obscurity, it is rare that three people agree about one chant. For surely so long as everyone
prefers his own master, there are as many variations in singing as there are Masters in the world.”
Johannes Cotto (John Cotton or Johannes Afflighemensis), De musica cum tonario, c. 1100
Picture: The Luttrell Psalter (British Library Add MS 42130), folio 174r, England, 1325–40.

It’s an age-old process, isn’t it? There were medieval writers who were complaining that we want to get back to the one true way of singing, but this teacher sings it this way and this teacher sings it that way. It’s the same thing, isn’t it?

Definitely. Guido d’Arezzo, the monk of the 11th century credited with the invention of the musical staff which allows anyone to sing a previously unknown song, clearly states that he corrected a few pieces of music that did not obey the theoretical rules of his time.

A striking instance is that of the Cistercian reform which happened in the 12th century. The Cistercian order started as a monastic reform movement out of the omnipresent and wealthy Benedictine order, and they then aimed at musical reform. One of the first abbots sent monks to Metz, France, to make copies of the singing books they would find there, because Metz was the place where a few centuries ago the papal singers had met the Frankish singers, and where the crossing of their two traditions had given birth to Gregorian chant. For three or four decades, the Cistercians used those copies until a new abbot, the famous Bernard of Clairvaux, stated that the Metz books were not originals, they had obviously been corrupted, and so he ordered that the copies be corrected, according to the theoretical rules that you could find in the works of Greek late antiquity writers such as Boethius. Those corrections gave birth to entirely new pieces that were not indebted to the authority of Metz, but to the ratios of music theory.

You find this in the great book of Claire Maître, La Réforme cistercienne du plain-chant. For instance, the vocal range of the pieces was to be limited, the perfect consonances of fifths and fourths preferred, the first mode paramount, ornamentation became suspicious. [For consonance, dissonance and modes, see Performing medieval music. Part 2/3: Turning monophony into polyphony.]

So yes, an age-old process as you say, because in the 12th century we already have this example of a crisis in the Church, leading to the desire by a new monastic order to go back to some pure starting point, and the result is a liturgical book with pieces that, actually, have never been sung before. And they went to great lengths with it. They also had theoretical ideas about church architecture, building churches that are now famous for their extremely long reverb: Le Thoronet, in France, 15 seconds of reverb! When you have such ideas about church acoustics, it means that you’re not after the virtuosity of ornamentation and melismata [one syllable sung over several notes] and the rest, but after the ability to create perfect consonances with the frequencies being sung and the ones being reverberated. It’s an aesthetic stance that makes a lot of sense in their situation and in their churches. But why should it be the same everywhere?

If we have this idea of chant never moving, always being exactly the same, it really is a song of robots. It’s exactly the same idea with free will. This is how we have been created: you have men singing and women singing, how do you make this work? Immediately you have parallel octaves. We are created different. Why should we sing as robots, as if it was the Christian way for everybody to take out what is singular about them?

In my mind, this brings us to the whole feel of it. I have to be honest, usually when I hear ecclesiastical chant, it’s not interesting …  

Yes, it can be so boring.

… it all sounds the same. Obviously, it’s written in a non-mensural way [without written rhythm], and there are various modern theories about rhythm, none of which are evident in the medieval period, and all these modern theories produce a very uninteresting result. [For more, see Performing medieval music. Part 3/3: The medieval style] And then I hear recordings like yours and my eyes are getting watery because it’s beautiful and it’s so full of emotion. Surely that’s exactly how it was described in the medieval period when monks were writing about the emotion of singing chant, how it fills their heart and they’re full of remorse, joy or sorrow because of the power of the singing.

Stowe Breviary (Stowe 12, folio 195), 1322-1325, British Library.

Isidore of Seville, 7th century bishop in Spain, Etymologiae, book 3, chapter 17: “Music moves the affections and provokes the senses to a different state. In battle the harmony of the trumpets arouses the fighters, and the stronger the sound, the braver are their minds for the battle. And inasmuch as rowers are encouraged by song to tolerate their labours, music soothes the soul and the modulation of voices provides comfort from the fatigue of individual labours. Music calms excited souls, as is read about David, who freed Saul from an unclean spirit with the art of modulation. Similarly, music stimulates beast, serpents, birds, and dolphins to listen to its modulations. But to whatever extent we speak or are moved by the intrinsic pulsing of our veins, it is proven to be linked by musical rhythms to the power of harmony.”

Grimlaic, cantor (soloist) of the Abbey of Saint Arnulf, Metz, France, wrote A Rule for Solitaries in the 9th century, a guide to the monastic life. Grimlaic wrote: “Childish games and laughter do not delight us, but holy readings and the spiritual music of melody instead. However hard-hearted we are, and unable to produce tears, our hearts are turned to compunction when we hear the sweetness of chant. There are many who are moved by the sweetness of chant to bewail their sins and readily brought to tears by the sweet sounds of a singer.” 

The anonymous author of Summa musice, c. 1200, wrote that sad and lamenting chants should be set to “low-lying and ponderous modes”, and for this reason the Tracts of the Mass, part of the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist sung during penitential seasons such as Lent, should be sung to the second “dark and profound” mode (hypodorian) or to the eighth mode (hypomyxolydian).

Lotario de Segni (1160/61–1216), who became Pope Innocent III, was especially interested in the hermeneutical function of chant, its use in influencing emotion through vocal tones. Thus Lotario stated that the Tract should be sung with a “bitter voice”.

I agree so much, and this is why I was so struck when I discovered your website. Ecclesiastical singing in the years that I’ve been alive can feel so unimportant and shallow. There’s this saying by a Syrian priest that Marcel Pérès met, he said, “The Orthodox sing Mass, the Catholics sing during Mass”. Honestly, I think I spent 18 years being bored while singing.

My biggest turning point was the discovery of Corsican singing. In this small island off the south coast of France, many people have kept their singing traditions alive, not only profane songs, but also liturgical, sacred songs. And when you listen to them, my God, it really feels like it brings them joy.

I recently heard from an old monk who is the choirmaster in his monastery in France, a pretty big one. I actually went there several times to spend a few quiet days. But when he heard about what we’re doing here in Lyon, he wrote, “I regret that you’re doing this, because it doesn’t help shape unity in the Church.” It really made me sad and angry, because this argument is just so wrong, and I know it is because I’ve lived it. In this mindset, ‘unity’ is only achieved through the putting aside of all the people who are passionate about it. As soon as you try and sing Gregorian chant with your own voice, you are suspected of trying to put the spotlight on yourself, instead of the altar or something. You become suspected of pride, of vainglory. But I’m not trying to be proud; I just want to sing for real. I’m a trained singer, I’m well-versed in medieval music, I’m a believer myself, but in many places, as soon as I offer something, it just creates tension. But then when you go to Mass on any Sunday and you have a schola who’s singing quite badly, just not in a very interesting way, nobody suspects them of anything. It’s a situation that you witness all too often: if the singing is bad it obviously shows that there’s no trace of pride!

The reason why it feels so wrong to me is because medieval people were creating new things all the time. You just have to look at organums, this polyphonic corpus that was primarily sung by the canons [priests who are part of a cathedral chapter, a body which advises a bishop, or a member of a collegiate church, a non-monastic community of clergy] of Notre-Dame de Paris in the 13th century, for the big feasts. It’s incredible music, and you do have people at the time writing that it shouldn’t be sung, because apparently it made the singers go crazy, clawing at their faces. But all the same, they were canons, people whose job it was to sing in church, and they were just so proficient in music improvisation, in poetic improvisation, to the point that their technique became extremely popular in Europe. And it did help set foundations for the continuing evolution of music. All the time, new music was being invented, those canons loved it, and they were so good at it. Why should we be less creative than they were, for this purpose of fake unity? Why should we lower our standards?

Bruno de Labriolle and the schola of Saint-Bruno-des-Chartreux.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

I’m so sad to hear that you had that response. It reminds me of the Soviets who thought that everybody was only allowed to be Soviet. Local, regional, geographical identities were not allowed. They had to be flattened, wiped out. Everybody had to be the same: you were Soviet and nothing else. It’s like an ecclesiastical version of that. It’s dehumanising, surely.

It definitely is, because singing comes from such an intimate place. It also means that when you’re leading a choir, you have to be very careful about the feedback you’re giving to singers, what to say, when to say it. There’s this quotation of Saint Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon in the 2nd century, that I really love. He wrote, “The glory of God is humans fully alive.”

This is why I’m really grateful for your work on the Cantigas of Santa Maria, where you try to show all the different ways they can be sung, and you compare the singing of non-mensural music with the musical manner of Martin Carthy. [Bruno is referring to this article.] I find it very compelling to say that there’s no right way of doing it because in the end, this music is open. The people writing it down only want to give testimony to what they were doing, like an artisan’s pride, but they are leaving it open for future generations: it is always open to a new singer who will just do something incredible with it.

Concerning Gregorian chant, as a corpus that has been existing for about thirteen centuries, it is fair to say that any piece has been sung in any possible way, depending on the rite, the region, the people, the fashion. You have evidence of free rhythm, of declamatory rhythm, of measured rhythm. The text remains generally the same: everybody sings Puer Natus on the morning of Christmas, but the way they sing it varies. There’s this music treatise by a Dominican monk in the 13th century, Hieronymus de Moravia [Jerome of Moravia], and he writes about ten or twelve different ways of singing plainchant in a measured way, and all of them were being practiced at his time [Tractatus de Musica, c. 1280].

But today we’ve gone much further in this desire for standardisation. In the comments I receive on YouTube, some people even use the words of disease, like our singing could be contagious. Those words have a deep ideological history, of course, and here they convey the idea that the church is always on the brink of extinction. But you have to give room to people, let them work their way in this tradition.

Locally in Lyon, what has the response been to your way of singing chants?

We have a good number of people who are faithful to what we do, who say it helps them be present. We’re very lucky that the first of them is our parish priest, who comes from Sicily, which is a place where music is pretty important. But some people just can’t wrap their head around the fact that we sing the Vatican II Mass but in Latin, which is a rare occurrence, although explicitly desired by the Council texts. I’m all in favour of an informed evolution of liturgy, but we are still attached to Latin for the singing, as it is a sacred language. Almost all religions use a sacred language.

Methods of discerning rhythm

Can we talk technically? Chant is written in a non-mensural way [without rhythm]. How do you translate what’s on the page to the performance? Do you have a method, or what’s your approach?

The main book that we use is the Graduale Triplex, which was published by Solesmes in the 1970s, where you can find the pieces for each day of the liturgical year. The music is written in two forms, the first is a reconstructed medieval square notation, and next to it you have the neumes of two authoritative 10th century manuscripts.

A page from the Graduale Triplex, showing the chant in medieval square notation
on the stave, which gives precise pitch but not mensuration (time values).
Above it in black and below it in red are the 10th century neumes of Laon and Saint Gall
respectively, which give pitch movement but not precise pitch or mensuration.

The people that are used to this square notation often say that all the notes are the same, hence they should all last the same. I believe somebody who isn’t used to it would actually notice that it isn’t the case, many notes aren’t written in the same manner, some have a stroke, some don’t, some are attached to others, some are isolated, some are diamond-shaped. But the most important thing is that you don’t have just the staff by itself: above the initial letter, you have a small abbreviation, which refers to the genre of the piece: it is an introit [an entrance piece], or a gradual [soloist piece between the Scripture readings], etc., and you have a number in roman numerals which gives you the mode. The mode tells you the scale that is being used, but also the hierarchy between the degrees of that scale; each mode has recurrent formulas, melodic and rhythmic motifs that come back throughout the pieces in this mode; and each mode conveys a specific ethos or emotional colour.

And of course, the main thing that is written down on the score is the text. Nowadays in France, it seems like the age-old pronunciation of Latin has been forgotten, because French language commands a very different rhetoric. Latin, like English and so many other languages, is an accented language, which means that each word has a tonic syllable. [A tonic syllable gives the strongest stress, e.g. walking or trumpet.] Of course, since you’re an English speaker, it’s much more obvious to you, you would never say for instance ‘music’ but rather ‘music’. But the French would instead say ‘musique’, without any stressed syllable. With one exception: if it’s the final word of the sentence, in which case they say ‘musique’, but that counts as a rhetorical accent, and not a tonic one.

So what I mean is that when you look at this square notation, the French are more inclined to see square, square, square, square and longer at the finish, because this is how we speak. But if you try and understand the interior rhythm of the Latin language, you will know that on the tonic syllable, even though you see a square, you must make the note a little longer, a little more intense – you just can’t help it. The words carry the power.

Let’s look at the piece: Exaudi Domine vocem meam qua clamavi ad teHear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice.

So this is why our method is that we first look at the text, we sing it as if it were psalmody, just on one note: [sings] Exaudi Domine vocem meam qua clamavi ad te, hallelujah. So you just do this. So immediately you start by what is important. And then you try and pay attention to the mode, so this gives you the architecture. And then you go to the score notation. So this is the basic approach.

To hear the above paragraph with Bruno singing, click the soundfile below.


As for rhythm, the first question is the number of people with whom you’ll be singing. If you sing with 100 people, the rhythm has to be very clear. Many Gregorian pieces are to be sung with the congregation – Kyrie eleison, Gloria in excelsis, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, etc. – although in medieval times they were not big on congregation singing. For those pieces, either a certain rhythm already exists, or we try and find one that makes sense and helps everybody sing together. You can sing the same melody for several Sundays in a row. Then, other pieces are sung by the 4 to 10 singers of the schola: the Introitus, the Communion, and they change every Sunday. They are antiphons, which means that you alternate them with verses of Psalms, usually during a procession. And then you have pieces for a soloist and, when you’re singing by yourself, the rhythm is entirely free.

I’ve not come across that approach before, discerning rhythm by understanding syllable stresses. Is that something that you learned from somebody else, or is that your own approach?

I have learned many things from a master, Marcel Pérès, who is the founder and leader of Ensemble Organum. This ensemble has, I believe, revolutionised the understanding of plainchant in the past 40 years. Their starting point was Old Roman chant, the chant of Rome that dates back to the 6th century. We only have four or five manuscripts for this music, written in the 11th century. It seems like the rest of them were burned in the 13th century when it was replaced with Gregorian chant, so it had long been an interpretative puzzle. The intuition of Marcel was that the southern part of Italy at the time was part of the Greek world, and there are indeed Greek-language songs in Old Roman chant. He decided to show the manuscripts to the leader of the Greek Byzantine Choir of Athens, Lycourgos [or Lykourgos] Angelopoulos, who was extremely respected in his field, and Lycourgos said, ‘Oh yes, we know this piece, this is how we sing it.’ And it was mind-blowing. To understand the proximity between Byzantine music and Old Roman music opened up a whole world. Because then you have to say, ‘What’s the extent of that proximity? What are the unwritten self-evident habits that they might share?’ The few discs that they made together are amazing. Oral transmission cannot be replaced.

Click on the picture to play the video.
Lycourgos Angelopoulos (1941–2014) leads the Greek Byzantine Choir.   
Click on the picture to play the video.
Marcel Pérès directs Ensemble Organum in singing Kyrie
from the Messe de Notre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300–77).

But although Marcel Pérès has inspired countless people and many ensembles, he also received strong pushback from the Church – if you earn your living by singing sacred music, you are suspected of giving in to fashion – and from academics, who criticised the fact that he is working on the basis of intuition. I don’t disagree with this last criticism, because it is true that Marcel approaches this music as a musician, rather than as an academic. But to me, this is why his approach is so seminal: I think that when you require unequivocal evidence and enjoy unquestionable interpretations, you cannot go very far. You should listen to him improvise counterpoint, or even poetry: at the end of a concert of the Messe de Notre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut, I witnessed him improvising a 5 minute thanks to Machaut and Mary, in Latin. I mean, the guy is not on the wrong track.

Marcel Pérès has also worked with Corsican singers. I think it was essential for him to work with European traditional singers, with their own vocal technique and understanding of harmony. Most Corsican singers I know cannot read music, they either sing by heart or read numbers written above the text – 1 being the fundamental, 8 the octave, etc. But when you hear them sing a perfect fifth in real life, it feels like you’ve never heard one before. It’s just so powerful, so intense and so physical. So they worked on medieval music together, and once again, the result is amazing. So yes, I owe him a lot.

Rhythm and rhythmic modes

The rhythmic modes of the Notre Dame school were six underlying pulses used in chant. Below, we hear these pulses or rhythmic modes; then we see them as they would appear in modern notation; then as they appeared in medieval modal notation.


The rhythmic modes as they appear in neume notation.
All examples are taken from the Florence Manuscript of Notre Dame, c. 1250
(Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana, Florence, Pluteo 29.1, folios 13v, 44v, 15r, 9v).
1st mode: 3 – 2 – 2 (3 note ligature, 2 note ligature, 2 note ligature).
2nd mode: 2 – 2 – 3
3rd mode: 1 – 3 – 3
5th mode: 1 – 1 – 1 – 1 – 1 – 1 or 3 – 3 – 3

Which raises a question for me. It would be logical if the six rhythmic modes of the Notre Dame school were there to help the singers follow the stress of Latin syllables. Is that how they work?

Until the 13th century, the most authoritative source for musical rhythm was the De Musica of Saint Augustine [written 387-391], that linked poetic meter to musical meter. It has been said that the six rhythmic modes of Notre Dame follow those six main poetic feet: trochee, iamb, dactyl, anapest, molossus and tribarch, and I agree with this: in most of the music that predates the 13th-14th century, the rhythm of music is the rhythm of the words.

It goes even further. When you look at the common musical ornaments they resemble poetic ornaments. For instance, you find chiasmus, the ABBA rhyme scheme, both in poetry and in music. It is the work of Anna Maria Busse Berger [Professor of Music at University of California, Davis] that made this very clear to me, how the written source is just a mnemotechnic device for the triggering of memory in service of improvisation based on poetic techniques.

It reminds me of the Messe de Notre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut: it’s set for four voices, and one of them is called motetus [from the French mot, meaning word] because the person singing this voice was supposed to improvise a poem to the Virgin Mary. But of course, you’re never truly inventing out of nothing, you just have so many formulas, all the Marian adjectives, etc. But still, you’re creating something that will only ever exist in that moment.

Naturally, it seems impossible to us, but what a great enterprise! So when somebody comes to me and says that everybody across Europe, Africa, Asia, America, should be singing the same piece in the same manner for centuries to come, it sounds sad.

Melismata, resonance and rhetoric

Which raises another question because in the Notre Dame School and later, you have these melismata [one syllable sung over many notes]. Of course, when you’re singing like that, the cantus underneath might be following the rhythm of speech, but the melisma isn’t. How do you approach melismata rhythmically?

In the context of Notre Dame school, melismata are sung over a cantus that amounts to a bourdon [a holding note, such as the continuous drone of the bagpipe, or the drone bourdon string of a vielle, harp, psaltery, or portative organ, or a drone voice]. So the main idea is that melismata are not about their own fine melodic line, but about resonance. It’s about laying the emphasis on those perfect consonances that link us with the natural order of the cosmos. How enjoyable it is to sing a seventh before reaching the octave! How long should you stay there? It depends on the musical phrase, it depends on the people singing with you and the energy they’re giving you, it depends on the acoustics of the church, it depends on the moment of the celebration, and ultimately it depends on your own feeling.

Which means that next year, when the time comes again to sing this specific piece, I will surely sing it a little differently, because I will be a different person, as will be the people around me, and something new will happen once again. This is important because this act of singing is about the offering of breath. God gave us the breath of life and, as in every sacrifice and libation, I offer it back. No matter how deep the tradition, something new always comes into existence.

When I hear you speak in that way, it just brings to the fore so much for me what a different world we live in to the world of medieval and renaissance people, because to be able to do that one needs to be musically very highly skilled, in a way that was expected and normal, that’s not expected and normal now.


How do you approach ornamentation? Do you have a particular rules? Is it as you feel in the moment, or is it to do with the words?

I learned ornamentation through imitation. I imitated the singers whose ornaments I liked, that felt meaningful to me. That’s what made me comfortable doing it, and doing it in a liturgical setting, because I received it through oral transmission, which can be quite far from what happens in institutional environments. But it means that it took me a long time to conceptualise it, to understand why it felt right in given circumstances. I’m always anxious when trying to give rules, because I’m afraid it would make some people go at it the wrong way.

We are always receiving a very strong pushback on this. For many people, it’s their main complaint with our music, this ornamentation in sacred music. And this is so crazy when you realise how omnipresent ornamentation is, even in sacred settings: in architecture, in clothing, ornamentation is like the individual watermark, it marks the presence of a human being. You can’t marvel at a Cluny capital and disapprove of an appoggiatura.   

A capital is the decorated head of a column in church architecture. Above are two of eight capitals
in the church of Cluny Abbey, representing the eight Gregorian modes. They are dated 1115–20.

So, on a more concrete level, to my mind, most ornamentation amounts to contrary motion. Contrary motion is fundamental in the music, thinking, and theology of the medieval period. [To read about the use of contrary motion, click here.] To give an example, you could think of the pervasiveness of apophatic theology, made famous by the prominent 13th mystic Meister Eckhart [Eckhart von Hochheim, c. 1260–c. 1328]. They say that when you hold two contrary things together, this is where the truth happens. The truth doesn’t come out when you say A is A, but when you say both A and non-A.

I would never have thought of that connection. It’s Thomas Aquinas’s method, isn’t it? [Thomas Aquinas, 1225–74, Dominican friar, priest, theologian, author of the immensely influential Summa Theologica.] Here’s the one view, here’s the opposite view, and then here’s a conclusion, which is neither of those views but a synthesis of the two. I’ve never thought of contrary motion as having that connection. That’s wonderful.

Yes, isn’t it! It claims a strong theological foundation: the idea of kenosis, that Christ had to die to be alive. It’s not because he’s alive that he’s alive: he’s alive because he died. This is why it felt to them to be such a powerful motion. When two voices go from the fifth to the major third and then unison, something powerful happens that is connected with the music of the spheres, that is the natural order of creation.

We have contrary motion before a longa, most of all before the final longa, so you have to sing just the opposite: a quick vibration of the voice [against a plainly sung note]. So, two opposite things happen: the ornamentation and the final ripple.

We hear an example of ornamentation in the final cadence before the concluding longa in Cantique de l’Apocalypse, part of the recording which begins this article. That final cadence can be heard by clicking the soundfile below. 


There is also descending motion – this is something that we find in many traditions – that when you’re in a descending motion you’re ornamenting this descending motion. It’s never like [sings descending motion plainly], it’s like [sings descending motion ornamented].

To hear the above paragraph with Bruno singing, click the soundfile below.


From a singing perspective, ornamentation happens in the back of the throat. You can even visualise that you’re singing in the teeth and ornamentation happens back there, because if ornamentation still happens in the front, it’s not ornamentation. So it’s not like, [sings from the front of the mouth]. This is not ornamentation, this is just a very quick movement that is quite raw. [Sings with ornamentation.] See, it really is happening back there, so it really makes the difference in timbre.

To hear the above paragraph with singing, click the soundfile below.


As for medieval sources, so many things have been written about ornamentation.

Of course, Hieronymus de Moravia [Jerome of Moravia] is the first that comes to mind with this flos harmonicus [harmonic flower], and the reverberatio also, doing this appoggiatura when you go to, for instance, on a fifth, like this often frequent movement in first mode that is D A Bb A [sings]. And very often in this kind of movement, you have this adding a little note just before the beat, in a way. It’s like [sings]. This reverberatio, it was a pretty common.

To hear the above paragraph with singing, click the soundfile below.


An older source is Isidore of Seville, the 7th century Spanish bishop. In his famous Etymologiae, he writes about the different kinds of voices or sounds, and he dwells for a minute on the vinnola voice. Vinnola is a word that comes from ‘a lock of hair’, and so this voice is extremely agile, flexible, it is both sweet and lively. A few scholars believe this writing refers to ornaments.

Another early source is Old Roman chant, because the ornaments look like they’re written down: the notation resembles a ductus, that is the movement of the hand through the movement of the quill. When the line stops, the voice stops; when it is unbroken, the voice carries on; when it grows larger, the voice slows down, etc.

We now know that the monks of Solesmes were completely aware of ornamentation, first as described in texts – Dom Pothier, the leader of their work, talks at length about it in his book, Mélodies Grégoriennes – and second as practiced by actual cantors in their time. But they decided to overlook it, for reasons that I disagree with. And now, it leaves us with angry comments about ornaments. Oh well.

I wonder how much of it is because ‘I’m hearing something which is unfamiliar, and I like the familiar, the familiar is comfortable, and therefore I don’t like this.’ It’s probably as basic as that, because we can’t expect most people to understand the whole question of historical precedence and evidence, going back and finding sources. Most people don’t even want to understand that.

Yes, it’s probably the case. In a way, it’s understandable, because I’m not only singing for myself, I’m invested with the task of carrying their prayer, so if they are shocked or distracted, I’m not fulfilling the task. But then I read somebody saying, “I prefer Solesmes because thanks to their singing method, I can travel 1,000 kilometres, enter another church and hear music that I’m familiar with”, and I’m like, ‘Do you think this is McDonald’s?’ [laughs] This is just so far from the purpose of singing.

But once again, I am not saying that everybody in every church should sing like we do. We’re just trying to make a space for ourselves, and anyone who is interested. There is now a place to go to. When I was younger and I didn’t have that kind of place, I almost gave up, because the rest of it was not that interesting to me. So now a place exists, and a certain amount of people are grateful for it, and all is well.


Referenced works

Bergeron, Katherine (1998) Decadent Enchantments. The Revival of Gregorian Chant at Solesmes. California: University of California Press.

Maître, Claire (1995) La Reforme cistercienne du plain-chant: etude d’un traite theorique. Brecht, Belgium: Abdij Nazareth.

Monks of Solesmes (1974) Graduale Triplex. Orleans, MA: Paraclete Press.

Pittaway, Ian (2018) Performing medieval music. Part 2/3: Turning monophony into polyphony. [Available online by clicking here.]

Pittaway, Ian (2018) Performing medieval music. Part 3/3: The medieval style. [Available online by clicking here.]

Pothier, Dom (1880) Les Mélodies Grégoriennes d’après la tradition. Tournay: Imprimerie liturgique de Saint Jean L’évangéliste. [Available online by clicking here.]

Sosa, Michele Gama (2022) The History Of The Catholic Mass Controversy Explained. Available online by clicking here.

Weber, Laura (2009) Intellectual Currents in Thirteenth Century Paris: A Translation and Commentary on Jerome of Moravia’s Tractatus de musica. A dissertation presented to the faculty of the graduate school of Yale University in candidacy for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.

2 thoughts on “Rediscovering the vitality of medieval chant: an interview with Bruno de Labriolle

  • 21st June 2023 at 4:32 pm

    Thanks so much Ian for a very enjoyable conversation, I’m very grateful for the curiosity you showed for my work. Your website has become a reference to me. Best wishes!

    • 21st June 2023 at 4:37 pm

      And thank you so much, Bruno. Speaking with you was an absolute delight, and I learned much from you about the history of ecclesiastical singing. Thank you for the invaluable work you are doing.

      With my very best wishes.



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