Plainchant Thoughts: Medieval and Modern

M and I spent some time yesterday pointing Gospel texts for the Feast of the Ascension. Doing so brought some things to mind I thought I’d mention.

On Gospel Tones
First, plainchant in general and Gospel/Lection tones in particular are often less about music and more about punctuation. Do you remember Victor Borge’s famous “Phonetic Punctuation” skit? In a way, that’s precisely what the Gospel and Lection tones are for. The moevements let you know when a pause in the sense happens, where the end of a sentence occurs, where questions are, and when the reading as a whole is about to end. Very helpful for listeners. I don’t know how many public readings of St Paul make no sense because of readers who don’t correctly articulate the pauses or tone changes necessary in order to comprehend Paul’s clause-laden style; singing them would be quite a help in these cases…

Now, one of the problems that I’ve encountered in pointing texts is that the instructions that I’ve seen say very unhelpful things like: “apply the metrum at a natural sense break…” Hmm. Natural to whom? I’ve tried pointing texts on the fly and let me tell you, deciding when an upcoming comma should be honored with a flex or metrum on the spur of the moment is not always an easy decision… In thinking about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is one of the great benefits of Jerome’s direction to write out the Scriptures per cola et commata. Essentially, this system doesn’t use punctuation but rather line divisions break the sense. (Think this sounds hard? Hah! Try this… [oops–the publically available user and pwd are any and any] No punctuation, no line divisions–no spaces between words…)More on this can be found here. This system uses a lot of space and so–if I recall correctly–tends to be found only in a few deluxe Gospel Books as well as Codex Amiatinus. Anyway…I think it’d be *much* easier to point these on the fly than not; you’d just need to figure out what’s a pause and what’s a full stop and with appropriate colored initials even that wouldn’t be a problem.

On Psalm tones
It’s never a bad idea to know your psalm tones. Memorizing them is easiest with a good strategy. One handed down from my chant teacher is this–memorize each tone by point the following text: Tone [number] begins thus, and here it flexes, and thus it comes to the middle; and this is how it finishes. When you mention each part of the tone, you put the appropriate cadence. I’d say more…but I’m still hoping that my musical betters, bls or Charlotte, will post promised chant intro…

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About Derek Olsen

I'm a layman within the Episcopal Church with a PhD in New Testament and an interest in most things medieval, monastic, and liturgical. My chief job is keeping up with my priestly wife and our two awesome kids. In addition to that, I earn a living, run the St Bede's Breviary, listen to loud goth/industrial music, and do some stuff for the church. I currently serve as Secretary to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music where I'm also co-chair of the Calendar committee and chair of the Digital Publications committee.
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5 Responses to Plainchant Thoughts: Medieval and Modern

  1. LutherPunk says:

    I am just impressed that you guys take the time to point your own chants. Impressed, but not surprised! ­čśë

  2. Derek the ├â┬ćnglican says:

    Well–they’re not done for us, but it’s also a good way to get to know your text…

  3. bls says:

    OK, first: It’s only been about a year and a half since we said we were going to post stuff on chant. What’s the big huge rush?

    Second: A public shaming, eh? Well, that will probably work.

    Third: I found a page on a German website that I think may be the motherlode of chant for Mass and Office – but I can’t open the files, because my version of Acrobat is messed up. Can you look at it and tell me what’s up? This may help me get started. Hint, hint. (BTW, I had found another, different German website awhile ago, so if not this one, then maybe that. Same .pdf issue, though.)

  4. bls says:

    (One more thing: I’ve never heard anyone, ever, use a “flex.” I think this may be a thing of the past at this point, no?

  5. Derek the ├â┬ćnglican says:

    Hot damn!! That is a major site from what I can see of it. The few pages I checked were full pdf files of the Offices and Masses. Although–I did notice some typographical issues; the words and music didn’t always match up well and I only could tell that because I knew what it was supposed to sound like. *However*, this is a great find!

    As for the flex–this is tricky. Remember that chant was essentially dead before the Solmes boys recovered it. That means that there is no continuous living history of it; all of our chant stuff is either based on the reconstruction of medieval sources or reflects current uses of the same. I learned to sing chant with a flex. Of course, my teacher was also working directly off of twelfth century texts. The St Dunstan’s Psalter also includes flexes (in the chant tone appendix, look at the very bottom line of music in each tone). So…it’s a complicated question to ask whether it’s “in use” or not. The best response would be…”in which use?”

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