Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Chant from the....musicologist?

I've been reading a lot of blogs lately singing praises to chant well more specifically the chant of the Church. I have no problem with chant. Love it. But I think people get the wrong idea about it. They think it's a bunch of monks singing. Okay...not true. So sit back and let me give you Medieval Music 101. (well, I'm about - - close to having a master's in it after all).

People learned to speak way before they wrote books. The same is true about music. Music has probably been around since the birth of mankind. We developed music notation very slowly. It didn't always look like the stuff in our song books today. And just like language, music notation is still developing to keep up with the new technological advances of electronic music etc. But that's Twentieth Century Music 101.

Chant, for the record, is not classical music. Mozart and Beethoven are. But Brahms, Bach, and Chant are not. Classical music is a reference to a time period of music so chant is Medieval music. Okay. Other point to establish...a song is music, but not all music is song. You can't listen to a Mozart Piano Concerto and call it a song. It's called an instrumental piece or piece for short because there is no singing. A piece of music can't be called a song unless it involves singing (and yes, I correct people all the time about that).

Most strictly instrumental pieces were not notated until the Renaissance period, but that isn't to say that there weren't any in Medieval times. I'm betting there was a lot of improvisation (improv for short) during Mass much like there is today. So you can say that there were instruments along with chant.

Okay...chant, it is hypothesized by scholars, is not monophonic. Monophonic basically means singing with one voice or only one pitch with multiple people singing it. It's believed that chant has always had multiple harmonies. I'll say that again Chant has, as far as anyone can tell been song with harmony.

The problem with chant is that when they did start writing it down (around 900), the monks (who incidentally did not identify themselves out of piety) would write down the main melody and pass it on to another church who would either remember the harmony or come up with their own. So chant started out as a single line or bit of a song with maybe a couple of words. But that didn't mean that that was all the song.

As more chant was developed music notation developed to help the monks to remember the songs. That's where polyphony, or multiple melodies all at once, and homophony or harmony +melody was being written down.

And then we're in the Renaissance era.

Okay...let me go back. Now that we've established that there is indeed more to chant then one priest saying a few words. Let's talk about the other parts of music: speed, rhythm, volume, and pausing (or rests for those of you who do know music).

In early chant notation, they didn't have symbols for speed, rhythm, volume, or rests. They didn't even have symbols for phrasing or how to shape the music much like a sentence. In other words, modern singers of chant have a lot of lee way as to how they want to interpret the chant. Was it fast or slow? Do you pause and breathe here or here? Is it loud here or soft? No one knows so interpretation is entirely up the performer.

And what about those instruments? I mentioned that they probably did have instrumental interludes during Mass. But did I mention that the instrumentalists probably played with the singers? Yep. Instrumental parts along with chant were eventually written down during the Renaissance (which is the period of music following the Medieval period). So it stands to reason that they also played along with the singers during the Medieval period too.

And what were the instruments? Organ. Yes, probably a very small organ with manual pumping by choir boys. But anyone who could play an instrument and lived in that town/parish, would play too. So you could have an combination of instruments: flutes, sackbuts (early form of trombone), drums, shawm (early form of oboe), lute (a string instrument similar to a guitar), etc.

So you see where I'm going with this? Maybe not. Chant is beautiful because of it's diversity and flexibility. There are numerous interpretations of it beyond the ethereal monk cds. And it's not altogether different from the modern rock bands that people hate listening to at Mass (lute anyone?). That's why I think Chant is a treasure, but we shouldn't overlook other forms of music at Mass either. Chant is at the root of a very big tree. Nor should we box chant in and not include modern instruments or period instruments during performances at Mass. So unfortunately, Papa Benedict, I disagree with you about what is proper performance of chant. Sorry. It doesn't hold water from an historical point of view.

Below is a Chant with a little bit of an Arabic flair to it, to give you an idea of interpretations. The 1st half is in Latin and last in Arabic. This is a chant in the Mozarabic style. It was written by Spanish Christians under Moorish rule which is why there is some Arabic (although there aren't any Christian chants in Arabic so I'm guessing this was the performers idea or the poster is wrong about the Arabic) and why the performers choose to perform the piece in this style. Enjoy!


  1. Eeeek I was with you until the end! There are Christian chants in Arabic because there are Arab Christians and because there are Eastern Catholic Churches that grew in the ME. I hear it all the time... most Sundays in fact. Our Liturgy is a mix of English (because we're here), Arabic and Aramaic.

    I can't wait to listen to the one you posted (Dh is asleep or I'd play it now).

    Btw we use Chant alot in our Liturgy and its always accompanied by the organ :-) I love it.

  2. Are you talking about modern renditions or ancient ones of chant? I know that the modern versions of chant do use English, Arabic, etc. The ancient chants typically use Latin or Greek (in the case of a Kyrie).

    Also religious chants and secular chants are different. Secular chants do use the vernacular language. Religious ones don't.

    And you could be looking at Renaissance chants which are more secular in nature and use vernacular language too.

    But then again I'm not all that familiar with the languages used in the Eastern church chants (although from what I understand they too are in Latin or Greek). My specialty is actually late 19th-early 20th century music. I also study mostly female composers. But if you want, I can find out. I'll have to dig out some of my old text books.

    And I dabble into studying popular music too. I have a great post in my head about how religion plays a part in popular music for bad or good.

  3. Honestly I'd have to look more into it too. I know chant is a major part of our Liturgy, I don't see that being very recent lol. As for languages, it really depends on which Rite the Church is and stuff. I'm Maronite and our Liturgical language is Aramaic. I'm not sure when Arabic was introduced into it... but seeing as the Church grew in Lebanon (decended from Syria.. think Acts)... Eh I'd have to look into it. I'll let ya know what I found out :-)


I love to read your thoughts. Thanks for sharing!