Saturday, 20 April 2013

An introduction to chant (iii)

I have been reflecting on how best to approach this, and am changing tack. Instead of launching into notation and all that, as I said I would in my last post, I think I will build on the idea of this being primarily an aural tradition, and get you listening to some chant.

That also allows me to start to explore why chant sounds so alien to our ears, and some of its peculiar qualities.

In broad terms, chant sounds strange for three reasons. One is the rhythmic structure, the second is the melodic structure, and the third is the monophonic quality of chant.

In terms of rhythm and melody, it is also true to say that there is great variation within the chant tradition.

To start to explore these points, listen to this piece of chant: the Sanctus from the Requiem Mass (and Mass 18).  This dates from at least the 13th Century, (earliest manuscript) but may be, and I suspect is, of much greater antiquity:

(It seems my embedded link was not working, so please click here to listen).

In terms of rhythm, there are a few things to notice.

Compared with modern Western music, there is no regular beat.  We are used to music that is constructed in bars of a regular number of beats, with an emphasis on the first beat of the bar: typically three (eg waltzes) or four (eg marches). Likewise, we expect musical phrases made up of (typically) four bar segments.

But chant does not take such an approach at all.  There is no regular beat, and the length of a phrase is dependent principally on the words.

In this piece, there are two approaches taken to the rhythm. At the start and the end, there is a little rhythmic interest placed on important words: Sanctus, Hosanna, and excelsis.  That is done by having additional notes for certain syllables.  On the word Sanctus, it is interesting to note that it is the unstressed syllable that is decorated; if sung well, the first syllable takes the weight, and the second syllable is lighter and decorated, making a nice counterpoint.  That is often done in chant: the decoration of unstressed syllables.

However, that is by no means a universal rule, as we see later in this piece, where it is the stressed syllable of Hosanna which is decorated, and both the stressed and an unstressed syllable of excelsis.

Another point of interest rhythmically, is that the musical phrases are all of different lengths, determined by the words.

That is related to a third point: that the majority of this chant is treated almost as a recitative; the rhythmic value of notes which are notated identically is not identical.  It depends on the length of the syllable being sung.  That is because, in this style of chant, the music is there entirely at the service of the words.

In terms of melody, there are also a number of things to notice that make this very different from modern music.

The first is that we are used to music being in a key, with a tonic note and an expectation of how other notes will relate to that (typically major or minor tonality).  But in this piece, the note that we would characterise as Do (ie the note above which a scale proceeds in the pattern of a major scale) is on the third line of the staff (indicated by the Do cleff on that line at the start of the piece):

However, the piece starts on the note below this, Ti (if we are thinking in terms of Do, Re, Mi), and this is also the most prominent note in the piece, as it is the reciting note.  The Do is also an important note, as it is the highest note of the piece, but it is used only twice, to lend prominence to the stressed syllables of the words gloria and nomine; it is clearly not the key note.

Moreover, the piece ends on La, the note below the most prominent note: something that is very surprising to modern ears.

Interestingly, this doesn't fit the modality theory and this piece is not assigned to a mode in the Liber Usualis (one of the reasons I think it is of great antiquity).

The melody is very simple, with most intervals being either a single step or two steps on the scale, and that too is typical of a certain style of chant.

The other significant difference from modern music is the monophonic quality: that is there is only one note being sung at a time.  That means there are no harmonies or counterpoint, so climaxes and cadences are not created by harmonic means, but purely by rhythm and melodic line.

There is much more to say about both rhythm and melody, but that seems like enough for one post.  Next time we will look at something that is very different in style, by way of contrast.

But the conclusion I would draw at this stage is that we have to re-learn how we listen, in order to appreciate chant melodies; and in particular listen to the melodic line as a phrase, attached to the words that it supports; and the way to do that, is to listen to lots of chant.

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