Sunday, 29 June 2014

About the quilisma

The quilisma is one of those enjoyable topics about which nothing is known with certainty, and therefore everyone is entitled not only to have an opinion, but to deride those who differ.

For those who don't know what I'm on about, here is a quilisma: 

In context, it often looks something like this: 

That is to say that it is a little squiggly neum, always found in an ascending scale, in chant.

There are many and varied views on how it should be interpreted.  The Liber Usualis says this: 
5. There is another kind of tremolo note, i. e., the Quilisma, which appears in the chant like a "melodic blossom". It is called "nota volubilis" and "gradata"', a note with a trill and gradually ascending. If one has not learnt how to execute these tremolo or shaken notes, o r , knowing how to render them, has nevertheless to sing with others, he should merely strike the preceding note with a sharper impulse so as to refine the sound of the Quilisma rather than quicken it.
I have to say, I have never knowingly heard the quilisma performed in that way.

The most frequent interpretation, at least in my experience, is to lengthen the preceding note, and sing the quilisma lightly, before moving on to the next note in the scale.

Consider, for example, the Sursum corda at Mass. 

This is typically sung with the first note lengthened (and frequently sat on heavily...) Su- u- ursum and the congregation respond in kind with the Habemus: Ha- be - e- emus...

However, somebody (and I think it was Nick Gale, one-time Director of Music at Southwark Cathedral) told me that a more recent theory (and I don't know if it is just his, or has some other academic provenance) reverses that.  That is, the quilisma should be sung lightly, with the following, rather than the preceding, note being lengthened.

In the phrase Sursum corda, that would seem to make more sense: the music would better convey the lifting of the heart, if the motion of the phrase is taking off towards the top note (Su- u- ursum...), rather than sitting on the first.  

Since hearing that, I have been trying to sing the quilisma like that wherever I come across it, to see how it works musically; and I have to say I am fairly convinced.

Consider the Salve Regina, for example; try to sing the last few phrases with the quilisma interpreted as I've just suggested.  Once you get over the shock, you may find that you prefer it.

Of course, it is difficult to break the habits of a lifetime (and if you wish to get a priest or congregation to change how they sing the Sursum corda, I wish you the joy of it) but it is also strangely rewarding: not least because it makes you think of what (and how) you are singing when it might be easier to be on auto-pilot.

Perhaps my favourite application of this is in the Ave Maris Stella:

I think the phrase on Virgo works much better with the new interpretation.

However, I am well aware that I am basing all this on very little knowledge and would welcome any insights, counter-arguments or (better still) enthusiastic agreement.


Patricius said...

My understanding- and I offer it up for someone better informed to knock it down- is that in chant "all notes are equal but some are more equal than others". The quilisma, as far as I can see is LESS equal than others.

Ben Trovato said...


I tend to agree: both the interpretations I discuss (excluding the Liber's comments) suggest the quilisma be sung lightly.

However, there does also seem to be quite a body of thought that it also affects the rhythmic treatment of one or other of the notes on either side of it.

Marc said...

I've experimented with what you've suggested over the last couple of days, but am afraid my own reproduction of the notes, using either approach, is... very imperfect. Would welcome recordings to illustrate the different styles. :-).

Ben Trovato said...


I'll see what I can do...

Unknown said...

"This illustrates two different interpretations of the Quilisma in Chant"

"See here: for an explanation."

Ben Trovato said...

Thanks, Unknown: I clearly intended to post a link to this and failed to do so. Better late than never!