Sunday, 28 April 2013

Introduction to Chant (iv)

This week, we will look at (and listen to) a piece of chant that is very different to the last one we discussed.

This is the second Alleluia from the Mass for Pentecost, and is in many ways typical of the Alleluia verse in most Masses (and Graduals often are in a similar style, whereas the Tract, when there is one, is likely to be quite different).

Alleluia, alleluia. 
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of thy faithful, and kindle in them the fire of thy love. 

The first thing one notices, perhaps, is the very decorated style.  Whereas in the simple Sanctus which we listened to previously, each syllable had one or (at most) two notes allocated to it, here we have syllables with more than twenty notes.

This style of chant is known as melismatic; a term which simply means singing one syllable to several notes.

The structure of the Alleluia verses lends itself to this: the Alleluia, repeated at the beginning and again at the end is both a joyful and a familiar word, so decorating it is both appropriate for its meaning, and does not risk it being misunderstood.

In fact, the way the structure of the music works, the first time the Alleluia is sung, it is relatively short: it stops where there is an asterisk in the text. This is normally sung by a single cantor as an intonation.  Then it is repeated, by the full schola, or choir, but with the very long decorative phrase added to the final syllable: this is called a jubilus (meaning a cry of joy, or jubilation).

The Cantor then sings the Alleluia verse (marked V) as far as the next asterisk, at which point (normally, though not in the recording I linked to above...) the Schola joins in for the final words (or word, in this case), which are sung to the same tune as the opening alleluia, including its jubilus (sometimes with very minor changes). Then the Alleluia, with jubilus, is sung again. 

The verse, sung as a solo, is also typically melismatic. Here Veni is based on the opening notes of the Alleluia, with slight variation; Spiritus, reple, corda and above all amoris are also very decorated, with many other words having several notes per syllable, making the whole piece melismatic.

As noted in the previous post, sometimes it is the stressed syllable of a word that is decorated (as perhaps we might expect): Véni, Spíritus, Amóris; but at other times, it is an unstressed syllable: réple, córda, accénde, and, of course, Allelúia (though in that latter case, I understand that in Hebrew, it would have been the final syllable that was stressed).

As noted last time, the rhythmic structure of the piece is very different from modern western music, with no regular bars, and each phrase of a different (and to our ears arbitrary) length.

This piece also exemplifies another feature of chant: the decoration of amoris in particular is made up of elements that recur in many other chants, with the pattern repeated with an extended decoration the second time around.  It seems that many chants are in fact built up from stock phrases, as it were: patterns that are used again and again. The sequence of notes on the second syllable of Alleluia is another example of this.

There are a few other things to note.  This piece has a Fa clef (rather than the Do clef we saw last time).  As you’d expect, this indicates the line on which Fa falls; Do is therefore on the bottom space.

Also, this piece is in Mode 2, as indicated by the 2 at the very start of the piece.  According to modal theory (see here) that means the Tenor, or reciting note, is Fa, and the Final is Re.

The second of those is easy to see: the initial short alleluia and the jubilus end on Re, as do every phrase except one: the decorated amoris.  However, the Tenor is less in evidence as an important note, and that may demonstrate the limitations of modal theory, particularly when applied to more melismatic pieces.

The final thing to say is how beautiful this melismatic style is: the phrases seem to rise and fall like the arches of a cathedral, elevating the mind to things eternal, but always rooted in our human experience.  As a piece to precede the proclamation of the Gospel, it is quite wonderful.

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