Tuesday 9 April 2013

Modality of Chant

One of the many interesting things I learned about during the weekend's chant workshop was the modality of chant.

I had always (or at least, for as long as I can remember) known that there are 8 modes in chant, and that the Gloria Patri for the Introit was chosen based on the mode of the Introit.

I had even known that the modes were identifiable based on the final note of the piece and one or two other clues (but primarily, by the number printed at the start of each piece, for practical purposes).

But these had been isolated bits of knowledge, with little understanding and therefore of little use.

What Christopher Hodkinson (of the Cambridge Schola Gregoriana) made clear was the connection between pieces in the same mode; and more particularly, pieces of the same liturgical use (Introit, Gradual, etc) in the same mode.  He referred to these as family groups.

Thus, if one is faced with learning a new Introit, for example, a valuable starting point is to note which mode it is in, and then, using the index in one's Liber, look at other Introits in the same mode (which is why, I now realise, the index of the Liber is arranged in that way: all the Introits together first, and each preceded by the number indicating which mode it is in.)

Flicking through these, one can normally find one that is similar to, or at least has similar phrases to, the new Introit one is endeavouring to learn.  If one has sung it before, that makes the new one much easier; it also makes the whole task of learning a repertoire much more conceivable: rather than learning all the hundreds of Introits in the Liber individually, one can learn a few typical mode 1 Introits, and so on.

To see (and better, hear) this in practice, compare the two mode 2 Graduals below. Justus ut palma florebit is an archetypal mode 2 Gradual; if you recognise it, without ever having heard it before, it may be because, like me, you are more familiar with the Gradual from the Requiem Mass, Requiem aeternam.

Justus ut palma florebit

Requiem aeternam

For the record, here is the scheme for classsifying Chant into Modes:

Mode 1: Final: Re,  Tenor (Reciting note): La
Mode 2: Final: Re, Tenor: Fa
Mode 3: Final: Mi, Tenor: Do
Mode 4: Final: Mi, Tenor: La
Mode 5: Final: Fa, Tenor: Do
Mode 6: Final Fa, Tenor: La
Mode 7: Final Sol, Tenor: Re
Mode 8: Final Sol, Tenor: Do

The odd numbered modes tend to have a range mainly above the Final, and are known as authentic; the even numbered modes tend to have a range both above and below the Final, and are known as plagal: hence the different reciting notes.


Parate Viam Domini said...

Interesting post Ben, thanks.

If struggling to 'tune-in' to the modality, I more than often quickly chant the relevant Gloria Patri from the front of the Liber. It particulalry helps in an emergency - even if you sing it in your head!

In the Parish where I sing (I am the choir(!)) I always use the Graduale for the Introit and Communion and sometimes the Offertory but more often than not I use the Graduale Simplex for the Offertory chant with a couple of verses of the relevant Psalm.

I find a lot of the Offertories are either too long or too difficult for me and for some reason I also really struggle with Mode IV (which quite a lot seem to be written in). I think I developed a complex because the late, great Dr Mary Berry once told me that it was the most difficult mode to sing.

I should clarify (before any rubricians accost me viciously) it is the Ordinary Form of Mass and not the EF. If singing for an EF Mass and the Offertory is too difficult then I'm afraid I resort to using Rossini and his psalm tones! Sorry!

I just wish more people would develop an interest in the Chant. I applaud parishes like St MM in Brighton and OLotR Blackfen but they do have a more ready, willing and able base to draw singers from, being nearer to the Capital. I'm afraid here in the wiles of the Liverpool Archdiocese - that 'nada' interest! So we have to stick with Masses VIII and XVIII.

Ben Trovato said...


Thanks for your comment. I agree that singing the appropriate Gloria Patri (and also of course, the relevant Psalm tone, also found early in the Liber) is valuable.

However, finding similar chants is even more so. For example, i am just starting to learn the chant for the Introit of 5th Sunday after Easter (which I will be singing in a few weeks) and using this approach have found it is very similar indeed to the 10th Sunday after Pentecost (iirc - Liber not in front of me as I type). Clearly, once one knows one, learning the other is very much easier indeed.