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Saturday morning quotes 3.36: Chant and lute

January 18, 2014

Mignarda’s IndieGoGo Campaign

What we call Gregorian Chant is a rare and precious link to our remote past, but as the embodiment of Christian liturgical practice, is also a living, breathing form of worship still in use today.  An enormous body of work, chant both describes the outline and fills in the minute details of the cycle of the liturgical year from Advent through Pentacost.

While we know that nearly every musician of note from medieval times forward began his musical training in liturgical music, sadly, most lute players we hear on recordings today are definitely not steeped in this important historical tradition.  A grounding in solfege and plainchant and active participation in vocal polyphony is fundamental to understanding the sounds our ancestors were aiming for, particularly when it comes to playing old music on plucked strings.  To informed ears, we hear many technicians grind through the mechanics of playing contrapuntal music on the truly unruly lute, but very few produce a singing musical line with a balanced sense of airy interplay among the parts.  Too often today we hear players who should know better striking unshaped phrases with repeated treble notes that plink, plink, plink over moving basses or against inner parts, sounding like tiny gremlins perched upon the roof banging menacingly on the water pipes with minature hammers.  This is simply because lute players of today are so caught up in other challenging aspects of the instrument that they seldom bother to sing.

Of course, there are exceptions.  Nigel North’s CD, John Dowland Lute Music Volume 1 “Fancyes, Dreams & Spirits” (Naxos – 8.557586), includes Dowland’s “Farewell: In Nomine” (Poulton N. 4). North introduces the piece by playing through the Gloria tibi Trinitas plainsong tune, quoted in the Benedictus section of John Taverner’s Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas a 6. You can hear Nigel North’s recording on his website here.

Interpretation of Gregorian chant is a much-discussed and at times very divisive issue among those who have taken an interest in this ancient form of worship, and must be embraced with a certain amount of speculation and informed by an understanding of the many ways liturgical music was adapted for use in different historical eras.  A great number of melodies and Latin texts were altered after the Council(s) of Trent (1545 – 1563), and practically all of the Advent hymns were revised to truncate melismas and impose “modal purity” under the auspices of Pope Urban VIII in 1632.  As for musical phrasing and note values, interpretation must be based on the nature of the text and its liturgical use.  But we are informed by important clues waiting there for the more observant to see.  For instance, we take a hint from 15th- and 16th-century cantus firmus masses, or settings of chant hymns that were sung with alternating polyphonic verses.

For those interested in learning more about chant, a hard-bound copy of the Liber Usualis can still be obtained from St. Bonaventure Publications .  A brilliant source of historical, contextual, and practical information for those with a more scholarly bent is Western Plainchant: A Handbook, David Hiley, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1993. There are many sources of information accessible and available on the web; one particularly clear, concise and thoroughly charming source is Gregorian Chant for Church and School,  Sr. Mary Antonine Goodchild,  Ginn & Co, Boston, 1944, from which we quote:

“To be beautiful the chant must be beautifully sung. The voices should be kept light. That does not mean suppressed or lifeless, but clear and mellow. There must be no harsh or forced tones, or all beauty disappears. The chant must not be sung too rapidly, but neither should it be sung too slowly.”

The Global Chant Database is an excellent online reference for searching plainchant melodies in both original sources and new editions.  One can peruse the Musica Sacra site for at times informative discussion of sources and interpretation.

The video above describes and gives examples from our CD of Donna Stewart singing solo chant hymns and antiphons, scheduled (hopefully) to be released late Spring 2014.  Our IndieGoGo campaign to raise the funds for this and our other two projects is down to its last two weeks – ending on February 1st.  If you like our blog, and you would like to see us continue in the coming year, we’d be grateful for any support our readers can offer. Thanks.

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