Sunday 27 January 2013

Without rhythm

Howard Goodall charts the development of the oldest music that has come down to us from the ancient world intact, the 'Gregorian' chant. It started with a handful of monks singing the same tune in unison, without rhythm, without harmony. Over several centuries, with developments coming at a snail's pace, medieval musicians painstakingly put together the basics of what we now call harmony and added rhythm. These are the building blocks of the music.

I'd quibble with the without rhythm bit. Even if every note sung was the same length, the piece is not without rhythm. Chant might be unmetred, that is not in bars in the modern sense, but it is not without rhythm. Music is an art form that exists in time. We divide the time up by having notes of particular durations. The durations may be in some relationship with each other. Usually in Western music these relationships are based on divisions into 2s or 3s. Or the music may ebb and flow more subtly, as in chant and maybe the pitches move more quickly on melismas etc.

Also, if you care to glance at Christopher Page's big tome on the first thousand years of Christian music, he points out that we don't have all that much documentary evidence for all that time. People were not doing nothing. (Or maybe they did just sit around for the odd hundred years here and there for the first millennium, doing nothing. Nah, can't be bothered to sing anything. New stuff? Whatever.) There is a pretty big repertoire of chant for us to get to grips with.

The monotonic thing. We don't sing monotonic chant because we haven't the wit to cope with more twiddly stuff. It's monotonic for a reason. We can do fancy stuff too. Gabrieli anyone? (That's both of them for the pedantic reader.)

If polyphony is tied up with Notre Dame and huge Gothic Cathedrals, then it's perhaps a response to architectural developments, rather than just people inventing the idea of two different pitches at the same time. I just don't believe no-one had ever sung a chord til then. I bet folks played chords with groups of Egyptian trumpets or Jewish shofars way back. Folks must have twanged more than one note on a harp in Biblical times. Surely?

So all in all, if you go for the, 'Thank God for the Reformation,' slant on music history and let's face it all examination boards do because apart from one reference to Gregorian Chant from the old OCR GCSE syllabus, nothing pre-1540 is ever mentioned, then yup, everything was really dreary before Lutheran chorales.

I wouldn't call medieval music basic in the harmony department either. I wonder which composers he means.

Did rhythm come in a little bottle they tipped in? I bought some cruets yesterday. Maybe I'll put some rhythm in one and sprinkle on next Sunday's lunch. It will save my brother putting ketchup on my delicious sausages in cider casserole as he did today. Yes, I did notice. Huh! Pearls before swine, etc.

'Handful of monks.' Is that the usual collective noun? Where was this handful and when?

I meanwhile teach a different slant. I say, you may not be able to hear every single word that easily in a polyphonic ordinary, BUT, you can't honestly say that people didn't know this was the Agnus Dei? I mean the same text at exactly the same point at every Mass and you still don't know? Does putting it into the vernacular actually make everything that bit clearer?

Back to monophony. If you have to match your voice to a group of other people, breathing with them and staying exactly together, whilst singing the entire psalter every week at all hours of the day and night, is this not going to have an effect on you? You can't go off and do your special tune, you have to fit into the whole.

So there we are. This description makes chant sound crude and a bit rubbish and written by unsophisticated thickies.

And we know that's just not true.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Patricius said...

Thanks for sharing your interesting observations of this programme which I missed. I enjoyed Howard Goodall's Channel 4 "Big Bangs" series a few years ago- in particular one about Guido of Arezzo by comparison with which the present effort sounds disappointing. But should one really expect any great musical insight/depth from the composer of the theme for "The Vicar of Dibley"?

leutgeb said...

It's worth watching these things. It's just that they come with an inherent Anglocentric Anglican bias.

Mater mari said...

I do a tasty sausages in cider casserole too and if anyone asked for ketchup I would probably implode! Fascinating article - thank you.

leutgeb said...

He just got up and splogged it on.

Ben Trovato said...

I am still mystified, when I look at a Graduale Triplex, for example, how one can say anything categorical about Chant...

But 'without rhythm' is plainly absurd - indeed I defy anyone to compose or perform any piece of music without rhythm.

As for ketchup on sausages in cider...