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Noah Brandmark is a jazz saxophonist of extraordinary natural abilities who is
primarily self-taught, with the exception of the few years he studied with the then New
York-based multi-reedman, the late Bill Shiner. He and I spend many an afternoons
listening to and discussing music, everything from Johann Sebastian Bach to Charlie
“Bird” Parker. We are always eager to expose one another to our latest musical
“discoveries.” Noah has an intrinsic ability to listen deeply to things and often times he
points out things one may have ignored. Recently I became interested in the music of the
Middle Ages and Renaissance. Listening to the works of Machaut, Leonin, Perotin, and
others, it was as if this music was brand new, and repeated listening did not diminish the
initial appeal. The charm of it is in its simplicity. Having reveled in the music of the likes
of Claude Debussy, Béla Bartók, Györgi Ligeti and other more modern, harmonically
complex composers, this early music was different; this was uncluttered, consonant
music, much of it homophonic, often with the melody not covering more then an octave. I
was perplexed by my attraction to it. What I did know however was that I had to share
this music with my friend Noah.
The following weekend Noah and I got together. I had called him and told him I
had some “new” music I had recently found and I wanted him to “check it out.” I
selected a CD of music by Hildegard von Bingen (Ensemble Für Frühe Musik Augsburg
1990) and started my stereo. The piece I chose was Ave, Generosa, Gloriosa. Once the
music began to play Noah took on an expression of rapt concentration; I could tell he
liked it and was certainly curious about what he was thinking, but I said nothing nor did I
volunteer any information as to its source. After a few minutes Noah said, “What is
that?” “Hildegard” I replied and only then did I proceed to tell him a little about her and
her alleged extra-spiritual qualities and how she had reported having visions.
And it came to pass ... when I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the
heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed
through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like
a flame, not burning but warming... and suddenly I understood of the
meaning of expositions of the books. (Lerman)
I explained that she had lived in a cloistered environment for much of her early life, but
mainly about how she stretched the boundaries of traditional church music of her time
(11th century) or as we refer to it today, Gregorian chant. What he said next really struck
me, it was this, “It’s pure; it has the same purity I hear in Miles.” (Miles Davis, the
famous jazz trumpeter) Davis was a master of using space; his improvised solos and
compositions were masterpieces of simplicity and functionality. Miles could generate
heat and excitement in his solos with just a few well-placed notes whereas other lesser
players might play much more and fail to accomplish the desired effect. Miles was a
master of understatement and his playing possessed a trance-inducing artistry. Noah’s
analogy was correct. About swinging, (the term jazz musicians use to identify that
quality of playing with intensity and drive) and how to do it (not so easy) Miles Davis
said; “all you need to do is play with a nice tone on the beat” (Davis 1989).
This was that purity that my friend was alluding to. Miles’s art did not depend on tricks,
pyrotechnical display, or even the trumpeter’s best friend, the high note. Its very life
came from Miles’s purity of sound; it is this same concept of purity of sound that is basic
to the performance of the early chants. The goal of early plainsong or chant was to
enhance the scriptures to which they were sung much in the same way that Miles uses a
pure, beautiful tone to generate the desired energy in his trumpet playing.
Each time Gregorian chant is sung it is first and foremost an act of
obedience and faith. The music is there to be sung, not interpreted or
embellished. The aim is to praise God through the musical expression of
Holy Scripture. Singers report an experience akin to God singing through
them rather then their singing to or for God. Through music they are
bought to clearer remembrance of their divine source. (Le Mée, 121)
With my curiosity sufficiently piqued, I set out to learn more about the origins of this
earliest of western music and its use by composers throughout the various periods. This
would culminate in my writing a series of chant-based compositions.
Chant and its Origins
In order to fully understand the origins of plainsong or chant one must go back to
the ancient Greeks. In approximately 500 B.C. Pythagoras, perhaps history’s first music
theorist, and other ancient Greek scientists developed a system of scales (modes) and
division of the octave still in use to this day. The early Greeks developed a system of
tonal organization that is the foundation for all Western music. Pythagoras developed the
concept of the mathematical order inherent in Western music and in all its tonal
relationships. The mathematical relationships he discovered between divisions of a
vibrating string and sound intervals define the very musical divisions we still use today.
These were discovered by means of the monochord. The monochord, as
the name implies, is a one-stringed instrument. By stopping the string at
one point, plucking it, then stopping it at another and plucking it again, it
is possible to establish a relationship between the sounds produced and the
lengths of the vibrating strings. That relationship is known today as the
Law of Pythagoras, and it states, “When a string and its tension remain
unaltered, but the length is varied, the period of vibration is proportional to
the length of the string. (Amore 1998)
In early Greek music octaves, fourths, and fifths were considered to be
concordant or consonant intervals while thirds and sixths were considered discordant or
dissonant in nature. Consequently the earliest forms of polyphonic Western music such as
Organum employ mostly these open rather hollow, concordant, sounds. It begins to
become apparent that music as we recognize it today evolved through a slow process over
some 2,500 years and those original concepts formulated in Greece live on. In fact, music
has a cyclical nature, for even in the arts, history repeats itself. Many of the modes and
harmonies developed 2,500 years ago came back in favor with modern jazz and
orchestral composers in the 20th century. For instance, many jazz musicians in the late
1950s following the lead of Miles Davis and Bill Evans (famed jazz pianist) abandoned
the traditional diatonic methods of improvising and voicing chords and began to use
modal scales and harmonic backgrounds with an abundance of open fourths and fifths.
One also finds this approach to composition in use by some post-Beethoven orchestral
composers such as Alexander Scriabin, Debussy, and Leos Janacek. Janacek’s Sinfonietta
comes immediately to mind for in this piece the first movement begins with trombones
playing a simple repetitive motif voiced in open fifths; a very “chant-like” musical
feeling is the result. The Pythagorean system of tonal organization with its resultant tetra
chords, modes, and scales remained relatively unchanged for some 2,200 years until the
time of Johann Sebastian Bach and the implementation of equal temperament, which
refined the scale divisions discovered by Pythagoras.
It was Pythagoras whose mathematical analysis resulted in the
standardization of the ordinary diatonic scale which has remained the
normal scale for Western music ever since (to be improved upon only by
Mersenne’s equally-tempered scale in 1636, and later popularized by J.S.
Bach. (Amore 1998)
Like most other forms of what we now consider art music, chant evolved from
folk music. This is an interesting concept in that in these modern times one tends to think
of chant itself as a form of folk music. Jazz evolved from Delta Blues and Ragtime.
Composers of art music in the European tradition, Haydn, Beethoven, Liszt, etc. used the
dance rhythms and folk melodies of their day as thematic and inspirational material in
their great works. Ancient Jewish tradition was to sing together at meals, especially the
meals of the Sabbath and Passover. This tradition of group singing in praise of the Lord
was passed on to Christians. Just as the Catholic tradition of celebrating communion
involves the ingestion of a wafer and wine to symbolize the body and blood of Jesus, the
early Christian tradition of singing praise at meals was symbolic of Jesus’ meals with his
disciples. It is from this that the Christian Eucharist service evolved. The Eucharist is
actually a mass in celebration of the life of Jesus, his Immaculate Conception,
persecution, and resurrection. The mass is a sort of playing out or re-enactment of these
events and the concept of putting these events to music dates back to the very beginnings
of the Christian faith (Smith 1996, 35). Since the earliest Christians were subject to
persecution for their beliefs, these earliest hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs were not
sung in temples but in select homes and gathering places of the earliest practicing
These chants are still being sung and actually experienced a new wave of
popularity in the 1960s. As the sixties drug culture unfolded, people were turning inward,
becoming more introspective and searching for the inner peace associated with the
period’s mindset. Chant, Indian music, the monotone uttering of Buddhist monks, and
other ethereal sounding types of music became increasingly popular. It made a soothing,
calm-inducing background appropriate for those exploring the concepts of meditation,
yoga, and other similar disciplines that had become increasingly popular. The real
popularity breakthrough came, however, some twenty-five years later in 1993. The EMI
record company re-released some recordings of chant by a group of Benedictine monks
recorded in Spain approximately twenty years earlier. The recordings were packaged
attractively and the single word “Chant” adorned the front cover. The public responded
and this release actually outsold much of the current commercial pop music. One can
speculate that its appeal is the simplistic serene quality inherent in this music that is in
direct contrast to the overly produced, overly synthesized music of today (Foil 1995, 12-
13). Music whose original purpose was to enhance prayer became a significant
commercial entity. The purity of this music ensures its longevity. There is a basic human
quality to it that communicates to a part of us that seeks to be soothed. The following
quote from the 5th century Roman mathematician and philosopher Boethius is most
appropriate and interesting. “Nothing is more characteristic of human nature than to be
soothed by sweet modes and stirred by their opposites. Infants, youths, and old people as
well are so naturally attuned to musical modes by a kind of spontaneous feeling that no
age is without delight in sweet song” (Machlis 1984, 300). This idea of wonderful
melody and purity of tone is something that was stressed at the very beginnings of chant
and is still a vital element in the music of today. So much so that these 1,500 plus yearold melodies can still have enough appeal today to compete favorably with contemporary
fare which was manufactured to have commercial appeal by design. How is it though
that these chants have remained with us, relatively intact through some 1,500 years?
Through what process was this enchanting ancient music saved and passed on over such a
wide span of time?
Pope Gregory the First
Pope Gregory the First is usually credited with cataloging, preserving, and transcribing
the early chants, but this is not really accurate. It was a process that took place over many
hundreds of years and, while Pope Gregory I certainly had a part in initiating the
transcribing and saving of the ancient modes, it was certainly not something
accomplished solely by him. A 13th century sketch shows a dove singing into his ear
while he transfers the information to two transcribers. Pope Gregory I lived from 540-604
AD and, while certainly a strong leader in the church, his musical gifts and interests are
certainly a matter for doubt. “In fact, it is said at one point he actually reprimanded his
deacons for singing the liturgy, saying that they would be better off preaching and
praying for souls than winning praise for their voices” (Le Mée 1994, 48). Pope
Gregory’s role in the church was more that of theologian and administrator and it has
been established that probably none of the hundreds upon hundreds of melodies bearing
the label “Gregorian chant” were actually composed by him. In fact the process by which
these chants were assembled and standardized most likely was a long one, many centuries
long in fact. By the seventh century the Christian church had spread from the Middle East
throughout the regions once controlled by the Roman Empire. Differences in how the
mass was performed, including the music sung, occurred from region to region. For the
next several hundred years there was a strong movement underway to standardize and
record the music of the mass. The initial impetus to collect this chant music was most
likely begun by Pope Gregory. Because there were differences in how the mass was
presented from region to region it is no surprise that regional transcriptions emerged
throughout the Christian lands. The earliest chant books contain scripture and are
arranged by the time of year they were to be sung. These early examples of catalogued
chant emanate from Jerusalem dating from the seventh century. They survive today
translated from the original Greek and are called ladgari. In the West, where Latin was
the spoken language, these types of books were called antiphonale. The earliest surviving
copies are from Milan and Rome (Smith 1996, 41). Originally these texts indicated only a
direction in which the melodies would be sung. This was notated by the use of symbols
called nuemes. In the 11th-13th centuries, antiphonals were notated in a more specific
manner so that the singers could interpret exact pitches, but there was not one
standardized notation system for both Eastern and Western chant. The staff system of
notation was first conceived of in the west by Guido d’Arezzo in the early 11th century
(Westrup 1960, 293) . It is that system which we essentially still use today. In some
Eastern regions no system of notation was ever developed. In areas such as Syria and
Lebanon the chants are still passed down orally. Essentially what developed were two
separate traditions of chant, the Eastern or Byzantine tradition and the Western Gregorian
tradition. It should be noted that the Western tradition grew out of the Eastern one and
not vice-versa. The main contribution of Pope Gregory was the setting in motion of
standardizing and transcribing chants in the western tradition. The legend that Pope
Gregory single-handedly composed all of the melodies being used by the church that had
been relayed to him personally by some sort of divine intervention is just that, a legend.
What Pope Gregory did accomplish, however, is noteworthy. He helped unify all
of Western Church music and standardized the contexts in which it would be performed.
Drawing from the many chants already in use, he revised and edited them and assigned
specific chants to specific church services. His contribution was one of clarification,
organization, and standardization. Because of this contribution these ancient melodies
came to be called Gregorian chant in honor of him. Interestingly enough this name was
being used as early as the ninth century AD. This music can also be referred to as cantus
planus or plainsong. It is the tradition on which western music is based.
In any event, the Gregorian chants are one of the great treasures of
Western civilization. Like Romanesque architecture, they stand as a
monument to medieval man’s religious faith; they were the source and
inspiration of a large proportion of all Western music up to the sixteenth
century. They constitute one of the most ancient bodies of song still in
everyday use, and include some of the noblest artistic works ever created
in pure melody. (Grout 1960, 29-30)
Of extreme interest here are the last two words, pure melody. Purity-this is music of
clarity, simplicity and depth that is rare, especially in today’s noisy world. Gregory’s
main contribution to chant was to make it more orderly. As originally sung in the earlyChristian East, chant tended to be more ornate and eastern singers were even likely to
embellish or improvise in their chanting. These practices were totally obliterated as the
Western Christian Church under the guidance of the Rome-based hierarchy constantly
strove to standardize and relegate it to its perceived role of enhancing the religious text.
The main purpose of chant in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries was to accompany and
strengthen the liturgical message of the text. Therefore the emphasis was on order and
discipline, not in the showcasing of musical attributes. This era of chant was the first
“classical period” in Western music (Grout 1960, 30). In the time of Pope Gregory music
was looked on as a science, an essential discipline in cultivating a well rounded, highly
educated individual. In the West it shared equal importance with mathematics, and
astronomy as an intellectual pursuit. In the East music was thought to possess
metaphysical powers as well.
Some Other Aspects of Chant
As previously established, Pope Gregory was an important figure in Western
music because he initiated the vast undertaking of the transcribing, and cataloging of
chant. These chants and the Greek tonal system of modes from which they evolved are
the very foundation of music written in the western tradition for the past 1,500 years. By
approximately 800 AD polyphony was starting to be developed by Pérotin, Léonin and
others at the cathedral of Notre Dame. These early polyphonic pieces, or organum, were
all chant-based and the beginning of a great tradition of music that would yield its
masters and masterpieces in the centuries to follow.
Why have these ancient chants endured? One concept is that chant has the ability
to heal and soothe. We are drawn to it because it offers relief from the everyday pressure
of modern life. While much but certainly not all-modern music agitates chant soothes.
As a child in southern Ohio growing up in the sixties, I would peruse the
tiny classical music section of the local library, where I came upon my
first album of Gregorian chant. I would sit for hours, usually late at night,
I continue to listen to these wonderful sounds when I need a break from
modern day noise. They assist me in turning inward for meditation and
contemplation. Their simplicity helps me turn off this age of anxiety in
which we now live. It is a musical form that continues to enrich our lives.
Patricia Wheelhouse composer, choral and vocal teacher. (Smith
The effect on the listener can be profound, somewhat trance-inducing.
We fall still, and then quietly the chant rises. We are carried along
together on the crest of its wave ---- men and women celebrating our
humanity and our divinity. As the wave touches back to shore we remain
awake and more at rest. We have experienced what Jacques Maritain
speaks of as ‘the intercommunion of all things, among themselves and
with us, in the creative flow from which all existence comes.’ (Mée 1994,
The strength of chant is in its simplicity. The communication of this music is so direct
and profound that it is purported to actually possess healing properties. Mée, in
discussing the healing power of chant attributes this to the wide range of overtones
created when monks chant in unison.
The way the monks receive energy through the sounds (while chanting) is
that it acts partly as a signal, which, through the complex organization of
the body and its energy fields, serves to reorganize the energy distribution
within the body. The result is a sense of gaining energy or losing energy,
depending on how these energies are redistributed within the centers.
(Mée 1994, 128)
Is it then possible that through our centuries-long quest to develop and further the art of
music and musical composition that we may have somehow missed the very point of
what power there is in a simple melody? The great 20th century composer Paul Hindemith
states that, “balanced and well-rounded melodies give the listener a sense of joyful wellbeing” (Hindemith 1937, 197). Once again we see a reference to the ability of music to
alter the human state and to promote well-being. Beauty and perfection are timeless
qualities and what was perfect 1,500 years ago remains just as pristine today. Styles may
change, but the purity of art remains a constant through the ages.
Chant, Our Link to Tradition
The 20th century was unique in that technological advancement and catastrophic
events were occurring at an unprecedented rate. For example, the evolution of the
automobile, air travel, space travel, widespread use of electricity, air conditioning, TV,
radio, two world wars, the Depression, Korea, Viet Nam, psychoanalysis, relativity,
organ transplants all took place in the 20th century. This changed the way humans see and
react to the world in which they reside. Music changed immensely between the years
1880 and 1930. This change was most apparent in the tonal organization of music such as
new forms of harmony and the subsequent melodies derived from it. No longer satisfied
with the major/minor system, composers began looking for new ways to extract unusual
timbres when combining the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. Debussy found new tonal
relationships in the 4 and 5 note scales of Balinese and Javanese music and whole tone
scales. These harmonic/melodic elements, combined with his own unique methods of
using the instruments in the orchestra, resulted in a mode of expression that was a radical
departure from the classical and romantic methods employed by the composers that
preceded him. Perhaps the first of the modern composers, Debussy’s works were
revolutionary and his influence on other 20th century composers profound, but his
approach was not shared by all the subsequent composers of the time. Darius Milhaud
(1892-1974) explored the possibilities inherent in a polytonal approach to composition.
Meanwhile Alexander Scriabin (1874-1915) experimented with voicing chords in fourths
and with other non-triad based harmony, a practice that tends to make any tonality
nebulous at best. Perhaps the most radical approach to harmony/melody was the musical
system developed and practiced by Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) developed a method
of 12-tone composition that conceived all notes of the chromatic scale as being equal.
Not all composers agreed with this approach, however, and one of the most adamant
detractors was Paul Hindemith who said:
Anyone to whom a tone is more than a note on paper or a key
pressed down, anyone who has ever experienced the intervals in singing,
especially with others, as manifestations of bodily tension, anyone who
has ever tasted the delights of pure intonation by the continual
displacement of the comma in string-quartet playing; must come to the
conclusion that there can be no such thing as atonal music, in which the
existence of tone-relationships is denied. (Hindemith 1937, 155)
20th century composers explored every possible avenue and “ism” in their search
for a new mode of musical expression. One constant has endured which has been the very
cornerstone of all Western music, Gregorian chant. The earliest forms of polyphonic
music were chant-based and to this day composers look to chant as a viable musical
source. Perhaps all the new sounds we might desire could be extracted from these ancient
melodies with the vast array of harmonic implication that lie within the modes on which
they are based. There are some substantial reasons why the chants are a viable resource
that can be applied to modern music. A primary reason for offering this possibility is
because it is based on tradition. Often, it is from an understanding of the past that new art
forms emerge. Bach, for example, drew inspiration from familiarizing himself with music
at Lüneburg where he was an organist as a very young man. There were vast libraries of
older works there, especially at the St. Michaels School and it is speculated that Bach was
exposed to and studied these earlier works.
The breadth of the Lüneburg-St.Michaels repertory is amazing. It extends
from pieces in three and four parts with basso-continuo to pieces in
twenty-two and twenty-four parts with full orchestra, from pure choral
music to vocal concertos with solo voices, choruses and instrumental
ensembles. (Blume 1968, 9)
Secondly, the chordal relationships that exist within the modes offer a wide variety of
non-diatonic possibilities; progressions emerge that are somewhat alien to our ears that
are so used to our major minor system. A case in point is the locrian mode in which the
tonic diminished. In this mode the cadential II7-V7-I progression would sound quite
unusual to our ears. This sort of cadence is both alien and interesting. Therefore the
modes provide us with unusual yet interesting harmonic movement and significant
melodic implications.
Additionally, the ancient Greeks believed that each mode could affect the listener
in very direct ways. It was thought that there was an innate power in music that would
directly react with the listener, a sort of manifestation of some higher order that interacts
in a human sense. Melos is what the Greeks called music when perceived as a performing
art. In a discussion of it we find the following thoughts.
In addition the three broad classes of melic composition may contain
various sub-classes, such as erotic, comic, and panegyric. (festive) By
these classifications, Aristedes Quintilianus would seem to be referring to
music written in the honor of Dyanisus or Apollo or for the tragedy. Any
piece of music might be elevating, depressing, or relaxing as appropriate.
(Mathiesen 1999, 26)
To the ancient Greeks music was not merely entertainment, it was viewed rather an
integral aspect of life, a science that effected all other aspects of human existence as
illustrated here by Harap.
Pythagoras reasoned analogously from his example of numerical regularity to everything else and he thought harmony was the clue to the
explanation of the world. Human life, to be properly healthy and ordered,
should be harmonious. The relations of elements in life, both internal and
external to the individual, must make a “healthful music” as Hamlet says.
For the soul, if it is healthful, is attuned to the “harmony of the spheres”
which does not, as is popularly supposed, denote the music made by the
motion of all the heavenly bodies in concert. This is a much later
development than Pythagoras. The earlier astronomy permitted only a
crude, limited conception of the heavens (for example, the sun and moon
were not thought to be “spheres”, but circles) and the harmony of the
spheres is rather a condition of the soul, so that it vibrates sympathetically
with the forth, fifth and octave given out by the heavenly circles in
motion. (Harap 1983, 154)
The tendency today is to use music as a background tapestry to our daily routine.
We drive to work, dance, socialize, shop, ride the elevator and complete countless
other tasks with musical accompaniment. However we tend to hear it without
really listening. The importance placed on music by the Greeks is interesting in
that it begs the question how does what we listen to impact us on other levels? As
we will see composers have understood the importance of chant for the better part
of the last 1,500 years and serious musicians have studied it for as long composers
have been putting notes to manuscript.
Early Polyphonic Music
One of the earliest forms of orchestrated or arranged music in the West was
organum. Organum was the harmonization of Gregorian chant or plainsong as it is also
called. These earliest attempts or Parallel Organum was a very simple technique that
called for doubling of the chant at the fifth or fourth as well as often-in octaves. By the
tenth century this type of harmonization of chant began to evolve to a point where there
were more varied note intervals being employed in these works. Typically the plainsong
or chant would begin in unison, slowly expand to a fifth and then as the chant was ending
the intervals decreased in size until the final notes were again at the unison. The
important thing here is that these compositions were chant-based, modal works.
Fig. 1
Source: Forney 1968. Page 3
Fig. 2
Source: Forney 1968. Page 3
In the included example (Fig. 2) notice how the chant Haec dies occurs in the lowest
(tenor) voice of the polyphonic arrangement. This is the beginning of the tradition of
arranged, orchestrated music in the West. In the ninth to thirteenth centuries new
melodies in the style of Gregorian chant had been written to amplify the existing works;
these were called tropes. In arranging these new tropes and the already existing chants a
newer, more relaxed form of polyphony emerged, Free Organum. The tropes were still
modal in nature but the methods of producing the desired polyphony became more
complex. We now find contrary motion in the voices, and a freer use of thirds, which
were then considered dissonant. Another early polyphonic form is Melismatic Organum.
Having evolved in the early to mid-twelfth century it was a type of polyphony that
employed the use of an elongated chant in the bass. (Fig. 2) The first attempts at
polyphonic composition occurred in the late twelfth to mid-thirteenth centuries at Notre
Dame by Léonin (1163-1190) and Pérotin (1180-1225). Later, we now find voices in four
parts, wider use of disonance, more varied rhythms, independently moving lines; all
earmarks of music now. However the music from Notre Dame was still essentially a
chant derived form.
The fourteenth century ushers in what is known as the Ars nova (new art) school
probably best exemplified by the French composer Guillaume de Machaut. All of the
innovations of Léonin and Pérotin were further expanded and contained increased
dissonance, irregular rhythm, and more complex melodies, no longer stricly chant-like in
nature. Machaut represented a real break from a 1,300 year old tradition of chant-based
music. The chant that occured in Machaut’s compositions usually appears in motets the
bass line as plainsong tenor. This music has some similarities to modern music.
Modal rhythm disappears, the counterpoint employed is much freer and
the melodic lines more flowing. The harmonies make more frequent use of
the third as a consonance, resulting in an effect more pleasing to modern
ears,though there is sometimes a rather fair amount of rather violent, and
according to later standards, arbitrary dissonance. (Parrish 1951, 36)
Machaut’s music is still linked to all that came before and while it is somewhat radical,
there is still a distincly chant-like quality to it. For a period of approximately 1,300 years
chant or modal based melody was the norm, showing we can clearly see how chant is the
tradition from which Western music emerged.
Johann Sebastian Bach
When thinking of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach one generally tends to
envision ornate polyphonic works: the fugues, two part inventions, and Brandenburg
concerti. This is Baroque art in all its ornate beauty and no composer more skillfully
captured the complexity inherent to the idiom better than J.S. Bach. Drawing any
parallels or connections to chant would seem difficult. The simplicity of chant seems to
be nowhere in evidence yet Bach was very much involved with, and influenced by it.
Bach’s harmonic approach to music is defined in the chorales, and often chant was the
melodic source for these harmonically rich works. The book written by Sister M. John
Bosco Connor is an excellent source. “He did not consider beneath his dignity the
adoption of chorale tunes which lesser musicians had composed or adapted. From them
he drew the inspiration for many of his greater works” (Connor 1957, 8). But from where
did these borrowed melodies have their musical roots? According to Connor these
borrowed musical phrases and melodies drawn from Hebrew chant, Gregorian chant,
medieval hymns, troupes and other chant or chant-based forms like organum.
A large number of vocal and instrumental forms are represented among
the works of Bach. Through copying the works of that master who
preceded him, Bach attained mastery of the forms which evolved in their
compositions. (Bach was known to transcribe the works of other
composers) He created no new forms, but bought the existing ones to a
point of perfection which could not be surpassed. (Connor 1957, 25)
Many of the compositions that Bach wrote for church use were based on the traditional
chorales of the Lutheran church, (fig. 3) many of which were derived from chant or
ancient hymns. In harmonizing approximately 400 chorales, Bach bought accepted 18th
century harmonic practice to the chants of antiquity, which were originally sung without
harmonization. This infusion of the ancient with the contemporary was not limited to
harmonization of chorales but it can be found in many of Bach’s works. Chorale
melodies are to be found in his cantatas, masses, and other of his works. “At least thirtyone plainchant melodies are discernable in the compositions of J. S. Bach” (Connor 1957,
37). Bach used these wonderful melodies of antiquity as a compositional element, much
in the same way that modern composers find inspiration in exotic scales, tone rows, and
folk music. Perhaps chant can still be a viable source of musical materials for the 21st
century composer as well. Just as Bach felt free to harmonize these wonderful old
melodies and use them or materials inspired by them in his bigger works, so can the
composer of today. There is a charm and grace about these chants. Often they encompass
a range of less than an octave yet they have an innate sense of perfection. They can be
harmonized in as many different ways as there are composers to harmonize them.
Chant can be seen as the alphabet of all Western music. Bach was certainly not
the last composer to utilize this vast resource of musical inspiration. His borrowing from
chant was not always literal; he took liberties rhythmically, melodically and cadentially.
However, whatever liberties he took, the essence of the original chant tune was always
intact and identifiable. These chants are taken from the Ordinary of the Mass, the Proper
of the Mass, and the rest from the Divine part. Figure 3 illustrates how Bach borrowed
from chant. The top line (a.) is the melody as it was sung in chant. The second line (b) is
that same chant but in trope form. The third line (c) is how the same chant in the
Lutheran chorale Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit by Bach. Notice that the main differences
are rhythmic ones.
Fig. 3
Source: Connor, 1957
Fig. 3 continued
Source: Connor, 1957
Also discernable are twenty-two pre-Reformation hymns and at least a half dozen chantlike melodies that have not been identified as to source. Almost half of his organ preludes
are derived from chant and early hymns as are a fifth of his 400 chorales. “Of the larger
works in which these types of melodies appear are: 33 cantatas, two Passions, two
masses, a violin sonata, an oratorio, a Magnifcat, and a passacaglia” (Connor 1957, 95).
Since Bach influenced all composers of the subsequent 250 years, perhaps “modern”
music is not as divorced from the music of antiquity as we somehow like to perceive.
The vast treasury of Gregorian chant, which furnished both religious and
musical inspiration to the writers of popular medieval hymns and sacred
polyphony, was also a fecund source of melodies for Protestant composers, whether they borrowed directly (as did Luther and Walther) or
indirectly (as did the later ones, like Bach); and their adoptions and
compositions based on the chants from the beginning of the Christian era,
and in fact, reaching back into the Jewish tradition, and persisting even
unto the present time. (Connor 1957, 97)
We have seen then that Bach did borrow directly from chant using them as the
melodies for chorales. The chants lend themselves well to harmonization perhaps
because of the richness of the melodic content of them. Regardless, they lend
themselves well to many varied rhythmic and harmonic treatments.
Dies Irae
One of the most widely used, most recognizable plainsong melodies from
antiquity is the one employed in the Dies Irae, or the Mass of the Dead. Thomas of
Celano is thought to have been composed it in approximately 1250 AD. It is a hymn
about the final days and Last Judgment on earth. The plainsong melody is in a mixed
dorian and Hypo-dorian (pure minor) mode.
Source: Benoit. 2007.
So popular is this melody that composers from the early days of polyphony to notables of
the 20th century such as Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Ralph Vaughn Williams (18721958) have used it as a compositional element in their work.
One of the oldest and most frequently borrowed of all melodies is the
ecclesiastical plainsong to the sequence “Dies Irae.” The theme, one of
great somber beauty, has exercised its attraction partly, at least, by virtue
of its intrinsic merit, but its use must often have (sic) been suggested by its
liturgical associations. (Robin 1953, 133)
It is a testament to the strength of the melody itself that it is able to endure so many
different applications employing so many different stylistic treatments.
In the Symphony Fantastique Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) uses the Dies Irae to depict the
“dream of the witches Sabbath,” an almost surreal tapestry of sound to portray the world
of ghosts and goblins that inhabit this dream. We find it again being used to illustrate a
similar scenario in Liszt’s Dante Symphony. Dies Irae is heard in the first movement.
When this piece was heard by the great Russian composer Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky
(1839-1881) he wrote, “That mystical music picture, the ‘Danse Macabre,’ in the form of
variations on the theme Dies Irae could only have come from the brain of a daring
European like Liszt—in it he has shown the true artistic relations between the orchestra
and the piano” (Robin 1953, 136). Perhaps it is the nature of the dorian mode in which it
is sung to impart such distinct melancholy in such a short melody? Interestingly the
dorian mode became a favorite of jazz musicians as a vehicle for improvisation. Perhaps
even more interestingly Greensleeves, Scarborough Fair and the 1960s popular song
Along Came Mary were all in the dorian mode.
Erik Satie
W could the work of Erik Satie (1866-1925) one of the most progressive
composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this champion of the French AvantGarde possibly have to do with chant? Well according to Hungarian musicologist András
Wilheim perhaps more than may at first seem apparent.
Surprising as the parallel may seem, there has been wide discussion in
print of a supposed relationship between Satie’s music and Gregorian
chant or plainsong. In one study a Gregorian influence is seem primarily
in the prosody of the vocal works, since it traces his modal harmonies to
Gregorian. (Wiheim 1983, 231)
While perhaps not thought of as being as important as those of Debussy, Satie’s music
has endured. Wilheim cites three relatively early Satie compositions- Trois Sarabandes,
Gnossiennes and the Trois Gymnopédies-as exhibiting neoclassical tendencies in the
tradition of music from ancient Greece as illustrated by the titles of the last two would
indicate. According to Wilheim the Gregorian influence in Satie’s music is clear, but
from what source did Satie receive the inspiration to the point that it becomes
incorporated into his own music? Wilheim presents the following thoughts on the
We know that Satie, like Debussy, visited the Abbey of Solesmes, where
he heard Gregorian chant that accorded with the local reforms. But
considering the period in question, this answer is unsatisfactory; certainly
an earlier influence must be presumed, and we think we have found this is
the singular Gregorian practice current in mid 19th-century France, since a
direct connection between Erik Satie and this practice cannot be proved
satisfactorily. (Wilheim 1983, 231)
What he discovered is that Satie had as his first piano teacher one Vinot. Mr. Vinot had
studied in turn with Louis Niedermeyer. Niedermeyer had devised a chant-based
pedagogy, a system that was entirely based on ancient plain-song. Niedermeyer’s
methods include re-harmonizing note for note the chants of the entire mass. “Although
Niedermeyer knew that Gregorian chant was essentially a melodic system, he professed,
like Abbot Petit, that to provide it with a chordal accompaniment was ‘one of the finest
discoveries of modern times’” (András 1983, 231). He authored a theory book that dealt
with this in 1857 and set out to harmonize all the chants he could find but all he actually
finished were the graduals. In the preface to this book he writes, “harmonization of
Gregorian that follows the natural development of its melodic laws” seeming to indicate a
suggestion of some deeper underlying melodic power of chant. Wilheim, upon comparing
Satie’s harmonization with those of Niedermeyer, asserts that there is certainly evidence
that Satie was indeed thinking in terms of chant when, for instance, he wrote the Kyrie
movement in his Messe des pauvres.
One encounters in it’s full abundance a forming principle that could
scarcely had come about had the composer not had a knowledge of
Gregorian: short melodic sections are repeated in a somewhat irregular
series (one hears altogether ten different lines in various trans-positions),
and with a single exception there is no symmetrical division into periods
within these lines. Indeed the composer almost seems to parade his
flexibility. (Wilheim 1983, 235)
The benefit to Satie in borrowing from chant according to Wilheim is that it increased his
palette. This ancient style, homophonic and modal allows total freedom in harmonization.
These chants are strong melodically but they are of irregular shape and lend themselves
well to innovative harmonic processing. They are not symmetrical in the way that we
have become accustomed to hearing music and therefore there are endless possibilities in
the treatment of them. Satie was well versed in Niedermeyer’s methods and concepts and
he probably applied some of these concepts in his own works. Through this application of
chant to his compositions he was able to effect a sound and style that is recognizable as
“Satie.” When considering plainsong as a model for modern application Benjamin
Rajeczky states in his treatise on chant, “it delivered fresh energies to a new music realm
based on historical tradition” (Rajeczky 1981, 156). Finding “fresh energies” from a
musical tradition at least 2000 years old and adherence to tradition, these two recurring
themes are a link that join composers over decades and centuries.
Charles Ives
Charles Ives (1874-1954) usually is associated with dissonance, polytonality, and
early 20th century American modernism, not ancient chant. However there is a strong link
to the traditions of the past even in the works of this great 20th century American
composer. Ives borrowed from the wealth of American folksong but there is also
evidence to suggest that his musical interests and influences even extend further back
than that. Musical influences can be implied as well as overt. For instance, we may not
find an exact quotation of Gregorian chant in Ives’s music but that does not mean that
this influence did not exist. The influences of many of the great European romantic and
classical composers is a given in Ives’s music. Associations have been made to Antonin
Leopold Dvořák (1841-1904), Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) and Pyotr Ilyid
Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). Ives also used direct quotes from Ludwig van Beethoven
(1770-1827), J.S. Bach, and Richard Wagner (1813-1883) in his various works. In her
article, Medieval and Renaissance Techniques in the Music of Charles Ives: Horatio at
the Bridge,? Ann Besser Scott suggests that the early Medieval and Renaissance
composers heavily influenced Ives. These influences were, she says, inspired in Ives
when as a student at Yale he attended lectures on early polyphonic music given by
Horatio Parker.
…various sorts of stratified or layered textures often found in Ives’s
music. The effect of layering results from a variety of means, including
polytonality (as in the “Variations on America”); the superposition of
markedly contrasting harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic styles (as in “The
Unanswered Question”); and hierarchal orderings of multiple diverse
elements, ranging from ostinato backgrounds to sharply profiled
foreground themes (as in “Central Park In The Dark”). But we associate
one technique in particular with Ives; the contrapuntal combination of
different melodies (as in “Putnam’s Camp”). This kind of layered texture,
created by the stacking of equal but heterogeneous elements into an
aggregate, is closely related to that found in the thirteenth century motet, a
genre featuring the successive addition of one or more melodies to a
preexistent tenor. (Scott 1999, 448-489)
According to Scott the first of the two ways in which Ives pays tribute to ancient music in
his handling of various voices using a kind of layering approach. One sees this approach
in all of the earliest polyphonic music in the works of Léonin and Pérotin, Tallis etc.
There are striking similarities in the way music was arranged and composed in the 1114th centuries and the way music is now composed using sequencing programs and
computers, specifically the layering of independent voices. Of course, in these earliest
days of polyphonic music, chant was still very much the “stuff” of which these
compositions are comprised. She goes on to illustrate how Ives’s orchestrating techniques
parallel earlier polyphonic efforts giving numerous musical examples she then makes this
rather interesting observation:
Again, medieval and Renaissance music provides a precedent: the use of
secular tunes as the structural foundation for sacred motets and masses. Is
Ives’s use of, say, “Camptown Races” to generate much of the Second
Symphony’s final movement any more stylistically irreverent than
Dufay’s use of Se la face ay pale or L’homme armé as the structural basis
of a mass setting?” (Scott 1999, 454)
Ives was fond of voicing chords in fourths and open fifths; again this is a sonority we
associate with the early polyphonic chant arrangements or organum. It seems reasonable
to suspect Ives’s interest in early music may very well have been piqued by the lectures
of Parker that he attended. Luckily the notes from these lectures exist intact today and
from them we can make some substantial deductions.
…he (Parker) actually devoted fully half of the year to music up to the
time of Palestrina. Beginning with a discussion of ancient and non-western
musics, Parker moved on to Greek and church modes; the work of such
medieval theorists as Hucbald, Guido d’Arezzo, Marchetto and Franco of
Cologne; music of the troubadors and Minnesingers; the so-called
Netherlands school, including Dufay, Ockegham, Josquin, and Willaert;
and late sixteenth composers, such as Palestrina, Lasso, and Byrd. (Scott
1999, 459)
The Parker notes also illustrate that he in fact used chants, organum, and the music of
Josquin and others as actual musical examples in the teaching of this course. The most
interesting excerpt from these notes from Parker’s lectures, at least in-so-far as this paper
is concerned, has to be this one:
Parker acknowledges that “Gregorian chant is the central point from which
all the older compositions of the Catholic Church pro-ceeded and upon
which they were founded. The classic forms of the old masses, motets, etc.
including the works of Palestrina and his school, sprang from the
Gregorian chant and owed their very existence to it.” (Scott 1999, 465)
Parker extends this train of influence to Palestrina; from Palestrina comes Baroque,
Classical, Romantic and 20th century music. The continuum is all part of one central
thread extending back to ancient chant. In a sense, all western music, from ancient
Greece where the basic musical system was invented, to Ives and later is one continuous
tradition. Scott shows quite clearly how some of Ives’s unconventional techniques can be
traced to early music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and how he probably
discovered these techniques as a result of the lectures he attended in Parker’s classroom.
Reminiscent of the way Bach used chant as the basis for his harmonized chorales,
Scott raises the point that since Ives was indeed employed as a church organist at various
times in his life, (actually the only time he actually made a living in music was as a
young man playing the organ in various churches), this experience as a church organist
was indeed an influence on his music writing. Peter J. Burkholder wrote an entire article
on this very topic that he titled The Organist in Ives. From that article we find this
interesting paragraph:
The effects on Ives’s music of his long experience with the organ were
profound and wide-ranging. An examination of music he played, music he
composed for or with the organ, and pieces he adapted from his own organ
works demonstrates that he was deeply influenced both by his practical
knowledge as an organist and by the repertory he performed. This
influence worked through habits and ways of thinking native to church
organists of his time and through individual traits of particular pieces he
played. It is revealed in turn through a surprising variety of features
characteristic of his music, including its relation to improvisation,
difficulty of execution, employment of novel sounds to represent extra
musical events, approach to orchestration, prominent textural and dynamic
contrasts, spatial effects, innovative harmonies, mixture of classical and
vernacular traditions, polytonality, use of fugue and pedal point, frequent
borrowing of hymn tunes, and use of cumulative form. Although these
features may see to have little in common, in each Ives extends elements
from the tradition of organ music. Even what seems most radically new
has roots.” (Burkholder 2002, 254)
Ives’s familiarity and time spent with the organ as a working organist influenced his
writing, but is this really supportive of the premise that chant was a major influence as
well? We know he was playing Bach:
Ives was a skillful organist even in his teens, as shown by his practice
regimen, repertory, and youthful success. A childhood acquaintance later
recalled that he was “a kind of boy prodigy” as an organist. By age
thirteen, he was studying Bach’s Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C Major,
BWV 564, renowned for its long and difficult passages for pedals.”
(Burkholder 2002, 264)
The passing down of tradition is something we see throughout the history of Western art
music and, even though time may tend to blur the associations, they nevertheless do exist.
There still is no concrete evidence that at any time Ives was a student of Bach’s chorales
for these indeed are the pieces we know to have a direct connection to chant.
He (Ives) was influenced by characteristics in the music he played that go
beyond the organ as an instrument and relate to it’s literature: fugue, pedal
point, and elaboration of hymns (often chant derived.) These standard
elements of the organ repertory led Ives in new directions, including the
mixture of classical and vernacular traditions, polytonality, harmonic
experimentation, and formal innovation.” (Burkholder. 2002. 289.)
It is unlikely that Ives played Bach chorale settings in his work as a church
organist; they were not standard fare in the churches for which he played,
and none was included in the two volumes of Bach organ music he owned.
But he may have encountered some in his studies at Yale, in Parker’s
lectures on music history or in the counterpoint class he took as a junior,
which included “accompanying chorales and canti firmi.” Whatever Ives’s
experience with Bach chorale settings, he knew organ music by
nineteenth-century composers who used methods similar to Bach and to
his later cumulative-form movements. (Burkholder 2002, 289)
One can surmise that on some level Ives’s music was certainly influenced by early
chant, both through his study in his student years with Horatio Parker and through his
professional experiences as a church organist.
The Future of Chant
Chant evolved over many hundreds of years from its earliest Greek-mode
beginnings into a kind of liturgical folk music throughout the Middle East. With the
spread of Christianity, it became the standard means of accompanying the mass. We have
seen how composers of both liturgical and secular music have borrowed from chant as a
compositional element. Through every period we have seen composers using chant
melodies, borrowing concepts of the layered arranging techniques of the early polyphonic
composers, and employing modal harmonization. Even in the jazz world modal melodies
and subsequent modal harmony all but replaced standard diatonic approaches in the late
1950s with the collaborative efforts of pianist Bill Evans and trumpeter Miles Davis. The
“old” being conceived as “new.”
His greatest contribution (Evans’s) to the development of jazz lies beneath
the surface of his style, in his creative use of traditional techniques. …by
melding the appropriate device to the situation at hand, drawing from a
wide range of musical background and history and putting old ideas to
work in new ways. (Israels 1985, 109)
Just as the works of Debussy, Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), Schoenberg, Stravinsky and
other 20th century composers can be seen as a reaction to traditional harmony, so did this
kind of tonal revolution occur in jazz. Going back to modal harmony was an important
part of the evolution of jazz harmony. It forever changed the way jazz musicians
improvise and compose. A new sense of harmonic freedom was established and once
again we seem to forge ahead by going back, by borrowing from the old to create
something new.
Norwegian jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek has a strong interest in early forms of
Western music and he has recorded numerous CDs in which he mixes jazz and other,
older forms of music with interesting results. In 1993 he recorded albums with the
Hilliard Ensemble (a vocal group that specializes in early Western music) producing
works that blended Renaissance music with jazz. (Garbarek 1993) The first was called
Officium with a sequel called Mnemosyne in 1999.
What is this music? Fundamentally, it's an exploration of what happens
when an improvisatory instrumental voice (saxophone) is placed into the
world of early vocal music, which has elements of both improvisation and
formal structure. In reality, it's an ad-venture in which the four male
voices of the Hilliard Ensemble travel the 14th- and 15th-century territory
of Morales and Dufay, visit the 12th century of Perotin, and roam even
earlier ages of plainchant, accompanied by the always sensitive and
tasteful, often astonishing, saxophone improvisations of jazz master Jan
Garbarek. Sometimes, these new melodies simply accompany; sometimes
they transform the common--a routine minor chord, for instance--into a
sublime, indescribable moment. The answer to the above question is easy,
but it's different for each listener. (Vernier)
In the spirit and tradition of the established composers whose works were studied, I have
composed a suite based upon Gregorian chant. The following section is a descriptive
analysis of these pieces. They were arranged for 4 voices, 4 brasses, and jazz quintet
consisting of trumpet/flugelhorn, saxophone/flute, piano, bass viol, and drum set. One of
the pieces is for voice choir alone while another is performed by solo piano.
Composing from Chant
My first step in composing from Gregorian chant was to become familiar with
some specific chants. To accomplish this these chants were transcribed from recordings
or taken directly from print. A great source is “Examples of Gregorian Chant and Works
by Lassus, Palestrina and Ingegneri” compiled by Soderlund and published in 1937. This
book, originating from the Eastman School of Music, proved an invaluable aid. It is
somewhat difficult to transcribe the chants using modern notation primarily because of
the loose rhythmic framework in which they were sung. Once the chant was transcribed,
or discovered in print, it was studied as one would study any other musical work. It was
played, re-played, sung and re-sung until it became totally familiar. It was during this
familiarization process that conceptualization would begin. The melodies themselves
would impart a direction or a general idea for the yet un-written piece. Musical
experimentation and repetition would reveal a direction. No particular musical system
was employed nor was any specific plan or style being adhered to in the composition of
these chant-inspired pieces. Each composition was merely the result of spending time
with the chant on which it is based and letting the creative process work. Although the
original ensemble in mind was mixed chorus, brass quartet and jazz quintet integrated
into a whole, some pieces suggested other instrumentations, including solo piano, and
were scored accordingly. Simply put, it is the melodic strength of the chants that dictated
all subsequent musical decisions. The only rule that was adhered to was that the melodies
would remain true to the originals. There could be changes to tonality, rhythmic values of
notes and, of course, rhythmic feel; however, the notes would always appear in the same
order as they do in the original chant and almost always in the same octave. The melodies
would not change in terms of the relationship of the individual notes. In a sense the
melody becomes a row, but it does not dictate harmony in any specific way. This was the
main guideline. Since the chants were originally performed at approximately 72 beats per
minute, (the human heartbeat rate) tempos would be either 72 or multiples or proportional
divisions of 72 beats per minute. (36, 54, 72, 108, 144, 180, 216, etc.) The CD
accompanying this paper includes MP3 audio files of both the original compositions and
of the chants on which the compositions were based. There are sections in these MP3
files where all that is heard is a supporting rhythm section to an unheard improvise solo,
or as in the case of In splendoribus, where there are totally empty measures where the
drummer would be soloing. The following analysis of the compositions is taken in the
order in which they appear on the CD. The concept is that the pieces be performed in this
order and be presented as a suite of Gregorian chant-based compositions.
Dominus dixit
Chant use varied greatly and the same melody can be found in different parts of
the mass and for different seasons. This is especially true of the Alleluias, which contain
numerous adaptations. The largest group of these is the one that includes the Alleluia
Dominus dixit from the Midnight Mass of the Nativity. (Apel 1958, 381) The chant is
rather long being close to four minutes. It is in the dorian mode. I was struck with the
hypnotic character of this chant and I decided to emphasize that in my arrangement. The
melody is shared by unison voices and flugelhorn, sometimes in unison and sometimes
not. Two trumpets in harmon mutes along with tenor saxophone play the background
drone while trombones play either with their bells deep into their music stands or into felt
or bucket mutes. The flute is included sporadically for added drama and effect. These
four brasses with added flute play the sustained chordal foundation. To emphasize the
hypnotic effect of the chant the harmonies are designed to begin consonantly, but as the
pitches change one instrument at a time, it becomes increasingly more dissonant towards
the middle of the chant. The process is reversed at this point and the drone being played
by these five instruments gradually becomes more consonant. The harmonic shape is best
represented as this; <>, a pyramid. Dynamics, accordingly, are arranged so that the piece
begins softly then slowly builds to fortissimo before gradually tapering back down to
pianissimo at the end. While the four brasses execute the drone, the percussionist will
improvise, softly rolling on various drums, tambourine, and soft mallets on a gong
cymbal. In addition employing soft chimes would add to the desired ethereal effect. The
percussionist is free to use his imagination in improvising this supportive role. The
melody slowly unfurls over this textured background and is played in its entirety. This is
an introductory piece to the ones that follow. I wrote it in what I consider to be an
extension of the Notre dame school of polyphonic writing, a kind of musical tribute to the
early polyphonic composers but with a more modern harmonic language.
Confirma hoc
Confirma hoc is the only composition of this set not based on a chant melody per
se; rather it is based on the locrian mode. While working with the chant Confirma hoc the
peculiar nature of this mode became increasingly apparent. I was not immediately finding
a concrete musical direction from the melody alone. Confirma hoc is the chant found in
the offertory part of the Mass in Pentecost, the great Christian holiday that marks the
creation of the church by the power of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost, meaning fiftieth day, is
the festival celebrated the fiftieth day after Easter. This is a segment of the complete
Fig. 5
Source: Ayick transcription
The locrian melody was challenging not only because of its unusual arrangement
of half and whole steps (a ½ step between tones 1 and 2 and a whole step between tones 7
and 8), but primarily because of the chord types of each scale degree. We are accustomed
to hearing the V-I cadence as a dominant 7th chord to either a major or minor tonic. In the
locrian mode the V7 chord is a lowered major 7th and the I chord is a diminished triad or
a half diminished 7th chord. My idea was to write a piece that utilized only the chord
types available from the unaltered locrian mode, and to connect them in the traditional
diatonic way. So, if in major the common progression is; ii-7 – vi-7 – V7 – I, in locrian
that common progression becomes; iii-7 – VI7 – IIMA7 – VMA7 – I-7b5. These kinds of
progressions are unusual to our ear. Locrian Schmocrian is written in a Latin–jazz style.
The form of the song is A-A-B-A. The respective sections are 16 measures long. The
meter is 4/4 and the key is e locrian (1 flat.) The piece is scored for a standard jazz
quintet; additional Latin percussion instruments would be desirable (clave, conga,
cowbell, etc.) It begins with the rhythm section repeating the bass line. The melody
begins when the trumpet and tenor saxophone enter. The melody is strictly in the locrian
mode as are the chords. The entire A section is based on just 2 chords; an a-minor 7th and
a b-half diminished 7th, in e locrian that would be iv min7 and v min7-5. The B section or
bridge begins on the vii min7 or d min7(9) for two measures. The VI MAJ7 or C MAJ7
follows this also for 2 measures. Next are two measures each; BbMAJ7 (V MAJ7,) a
min7 (iv min7,) iii min7 (gmin7;) then FMAJ7 (II MAJ7,) e min7b5 (I min7b5,) FMAJ7
(II MAJ7) for 1 measure and 1 measure of the VMAJ7 (Bb MAJ7) to bring us back to the
last A section. At the conclusion of the final A section the piece returns to the original
vamp which also serves as an introduction. This is followed by improvised solos and, at
the conclusion of the improvised sections, a return to the song as stated. The result is a
melodically and harmonically interesting treatment of a familiar jazz form and style. It
also contrasts nicely with the opening piece.
Upon completing Locrian Schmocrian I revisited the original chant Confirma hoc.
I arranged it a number of times and in a number of ways, but the one that seemed to work
best was what I call Confirma hoc Pyramid. It is scored for 4 or more voices and the
approach was simple. After the chant is partially sung by the tenors the melody is started
again but in augmentation in the bass and baritone voices, a device as old as polyphony
itself. The other voices are then introduced in canon until a full 4-voice polyphonic
structure is achieved. The entire process is then reversed and the piece ends with a single
tenor singing the chant unaccompanied. This particular chant was perhaps the most
challenging because of the harmonic relationship problems of working in the locrian
mode and I spent considerably more time with it than with any of the others before
finding an acceptable result.
Dies Irae
Already discussed earlier in this paper Dies Irae (day of wrath) is probably the
most popular and recognizable of all the chants. It is in dorian mode and is the epitome of
melody construction by virtue of its concise brevity. It has a haunting quality. My
composition based on Dies Irae begins simply, with a lone soprano voice singing the
chant in a slow, free fashion. Next, the chant is repeated by the soprano, flugelhorn and
flute as the low brass and voices maintain a drone on the root and fifth. After a complete
repeat of the chant the rhythm section begins to vamp employing a contemporary jazz
feel in 3/4 time. The melody was carefully harmonized (Fig.6) to enhance the exotic
nature of the chant:
Source: Ayick CD
The free use of chord extensions, tritones, seconds and a somewhat unorthodox root
movement helps to establish the desired exotic effect. The melody is stated by the jazz
quintet with backgrounds by the chorus and brass quartet. The rhythm section plays a
repeated bass line or vamp. After one complete statement of the theme there is a
modulation to e dorian, one step higher, and the melody is now in the brass quartet. The
overall feeling is one of release. The chorus sings little background motives to the brass.
At the conclusion of this second statement of the chant there is a downward modulation
to the original d dorian and a short interlude that leads to a section of improvised solos
from the members of the quintet while the quartet and chorus perform background parts.
Upon completion of the improvised solos the piece suddenly shifts to 4/4 at a slower
tempo. The piano, bass and drums playing a tremolo on the open 5th D-A while the snare
drum rolls quietly. The flugelhorn, flute and soprano voice play the melody while the
others in the ensemble execute long tone drones on the tonic and 5th. The final statement
of Dies Irae is from a lone tenor voice while the baritone and bass trombone execute the
drone. The piece ends with a single sound of a chime.
Alme pater
Alme pater (figure 7) is also sung in the dorian mode. It usually appears in the Kyrie, a
part of the mass that occurs early in the worship service in which the Priest and
congregation ask the lord for his forgiveness. Alme pater is a kind of variation on a theme
in that the initial phrase repeats throughout this rather lengthy chant.
Source: Ayick transcription
I scored this for jazz quintet only, creating a nice contrast to the fully orchestrated
arrangement of Dies Irae that precedes it in the suite. The overall feel is a straight 8th note
contemporary “funk” or dance rhythm. The form is a simple A A B A. Both A sections
are based on a repeated bass line and chordal accompaniment is as illustrated herein
figure 8.
Fig. 8
Source: Ayick CD
. The B section is a more traditional diatonic jazz harmonic progression and the rhythm
changes to swing style. The final A section is a repeat of the beginning of the piece. The
overall effect is reminiscent of the kinds of arrangements used by the “hard-bop” jazz
groups of the 50s, 60s and 70s; bands like those led by Horace Silver, Art Blakey and
Cannonball Adderley. In performance the piece would begin with the rhythm section
playing the figure shown above as an introduction, followed by a statement of the theme
(chant), an improvised section, a restatement of the theme and the vamp played as a fade
out ending. The overall sound is quite Eastern in nature and that tendency remains even
when the piece is harmonized using traditional diatonic progressions.
Vox dilecti mei
Vox dilecti mei (figure 9) is on the Phrygian mode and the overall sonority is very
calm and ballad-like as opposed to Dies Irae which has a underlying feeling of
foreboding and tension. An antiphon, usually sung in call and response fashion, it is
usually the found in prayers to St. Rita where help for the affirmed and afflicted is asked.
The melody, although strictly modal, moves in such a way as to suggest conventional
diatonic harmonization.
Source: Ayick transcription
The first part of the full ensemble score is in a modern orchestral style. Polytonality
exists between the melody and repeated bass; the former suggesting a tonal center on E
while the underlying part suggests F as a tonal center. This semi-tone relationship creates
a dissonant tonality that has a somewhat ominous sound. The percussionist is free to
improvise freely in this section. A less dissonant section follows in a double time ballad
style that features the jazz trumpeter. He solos in the final improvised section before the
melody is restated for the final time. The initial statement of the theme is in the key of F
and the final modulation is to G, which enhances the feeling of elevation, of constantly
striving upward. In performance the solo piano version would be played first, then the
full ensemble version. As with all of these orchestrations and arrangements, the melody
remains intact with only rhythmic and harmonic changes.
In Splendoribus
The final selection of the suite is composed from the chant In Splendoribus. This
chant is performed during the communion section of the Midnight Mass on Christmas.
Source: Ayick transcription
This transcription was taken from a recording of the Christmas Mass performed by the
Monks of St. Benedictine. Repeated listening led to my decision to notate it with varying
time signatures to best capture the vocal phrasing. (Figure 9) Built on the myxolydian
mode, there is a strong dominant tonality feel to the chant that I thought lent itself
perfectly to a jazz-gospel variation. It also makes a perfect finale for the suite due to its
upbeat spiritual nature, the “big finish.” This full ensemble arrangement begins with the
flugelhorn stating the first phrase of the chant solo. This is a practice still in use by choirs
today and it is called an intonation, the idea being that the other members of the chorus
get the pitch from the solo voice. Once the intonation is stated, all of the winds and
voices play the remainder of the chant in unison in a loose, almost rubato style while the
bass and left hand of the piano execute a tremolo on the open 5th A-E. The percussionist
supports the tremolo effect by rolling on the cymbals with soft mallets. The chant is
stated one time and then a faster tempo is set. While the chant is originally stated on the
A myxolydian mode, it changes to g minor when the new, brisker tempo is established. A
rhythmic figure in the form of an introductory vamp connects the two sections and
establishes the tempo change. The chant is played in the faster tempo by the jazz quintet
employing trumpet and tenor saxophone as the main melody voices. The other winds and
the choir play supporting roles. The second time the chant melody is stated in the g minor
section, the choir joins the jazz quintet. After this restatement there is a layered pyramid
figure that acts as a springboard to improvised solos by members of the jazz quintet. The
improvised section has backgrounds and fills executed by the brasses and chorus that act
as accompaniments to the improvised solos. After the trumpet, saxophone, piano and bass
have played their solos, a new section of “fours” begins; this is established with a change
of key to B minor, (up a third.) “Fours” is a jazz musicians term that means the
members of the jazz quintet take turns exchanging four-bar improvised segments with the
drummer. This interaction between the improvisers combined with the key change raises
the intensity level for a grand finale to the suite. The last time the theme is stated the key
returns to g minor and the chorus and jazz quintet play the melody while the brasses
accent it with background figures. The final four measures is repeated three times before
the piece ends on a final g minor chord, with the jazz trumpeter and saxophonist
improvising freely on the last sustained chord.