What I Like About...
Sacred Music Drama: Ordo virtutum
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 1 Tracks 18 & 19
When I was taking music history in college, about ten years ago now, it was with effort that women composers were included. I cannot recall if Hildegard of Bingen came up in those classes but she deserves more attention.
In this piece, the text is in three parts which are an introduction, quote, and prayer. The music, however, is a single idea. It is an upward leap of a fifth, 'E' to 'B,' followed by steps and thirds and a very occasional fourth. The music is beautiful because the listener follows the curves of the line always in reference to that fifth. When the piece extends up to its highest note, which it does twice, it leaps to that note from a high 'E.' The distance this note has from the opening 'E,' and its isolation in the upper register make the moments when it is used exceptional. This climax, and I think the piece on a whole, is also helped by the instrumental pedal tone.
What I like about this work is the awareness Hildegard has of her listener's attention. The piece is about four minutes total. The climax occurs about two-thirds of the way through. The work is generally restrained until the end where the word porrigat
is extended over more notes than any word previous. I suspect any lister, ancient or otherwise, is able to think about one thing for four minutes maximum. About two-thirds of the way through this duration any lister is going to be looking for some sort of revelation. And the listener, having given attention, deserves some clue indicating the home stretch.
Sequence for the Solemn Mass of Easter Day, Victimae paschali laudes
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 1 Track 17
It is easy to overlook the use of form in plainchant if only because the pieces never drastically change character. Plainchant never does anything drastically. Here, the first sequence of our survey, we encounter the importance of form in plainchant by an omission. As indicated by the good people of Norton & Company, this sixth strophe is omitted here, as it is traditionally, so that the piece conforms to standard practice. Musical form, much like people, seems to have evolved over time through mutation. It appears this is an example of the early development of the sequence.
Or, perhaps, the omission has less to do with musical narrative than it does with avoiding the anti-Semitism that appears in strophe six. If one takes the view of plainchant being the foundation of our music, than the repugnant ideas we encounter in this literature cannot be excused for their age. These are not primitive ideas by underdeveloped people. They are the ideas we are now contemplating.
What I like about this sequence is its frequent use of a minor third followed by a major second. To my ears, when this pattern is expressed in an upward direction, as it is here, it creates a feeling of strength. This melodic pattern is effective in this piece because it is used in the beginning of the strophes. This helps mark strophes which allows the form to be clearly heard. It also lends an appropriate militaristic edge to the piece.
Office of Second Vespers, Short Responsory
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 1 Track 16
The chants I have been listening to these last few days have made it hard for me to wear ancient ears. Too often I have heard a sequence of notes that easily resembles a major triad, a fifth scale degree that wants to resolve to the first scale degree, an ABA form, even a melodic pattern that could be called a sequence. Today's example is the closest, so far, of the Gregorian Chant in this collection that resembles the songs one might have sung in elementary music classes. It has a fifth scale degree that acts like a fifth scale degree and, seen for the first time in this survey, a leading tone. Yes, that handy seventh. In fact, I listened to this recording early this morning and was humming it for most of the day.
There are five phrases which share the same contour and pitch content. Text notwithstanding, three of the phrases are exact repetitions. There is a similar idea in the Credo on track 9 on this CD. However, in that example the music undergoes subtle yet very significant transformations as it encounters new words. The words in this piece seem almost less important than the tune. In fact, possibly because of the appearance of the leading tone, this plainchant is a catchy tune.
What I like about this chant is the appearance of the leading tone. The tune simply passes through it on its way to the low 'C' that will go back up to 'F.' It is a strong enough scale degree that with even such a light treatment it lingers in our ears and mixes with the 'C' making the return to 'F' inevitable.
Office of Second Vespers, Antiphon and Psalm 109
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 1 Tracks 14 and 15
It very easy to say, as it is often said, that all Western Music has its roots in chant. This may be understating the case. As a piece, this Antiphon and Psalm is a strong example of the timelessness of chants. Once one gets past the monody, these tunes are not much unlike the tunes on the radio.
For instance, the form is ABA. The A section, the Antiphon, gravitates to 'D' with attention given to 'F.' The B section centers around the fifth scale degree, 'A,' with a 'G' at the end bringing us back to the first scale degree. More than the I-V-I, the ABA form creates an opportunity for contrast. The A section is melodic while the B section is a recitation.
What I like about this Antiphon and Psalm is the leap of a fifth in the opening of the Antiphon. Because chant tends to have such a modest profile, these moments are always dramatic, especially when the leap is as far as a fifth. Having this leap at the start is particularly dramatic. This motion also prepares the listener for the B section which is going to center around the top note of this leap. After its dramatic opening, the Antiphon calms down significantly which prepares the listener for the almost monotone recitation of being a priest at Melchisedech and a world without end. After the Psalm we hear the leap a second time but this time it is as a climax to the piece and a signal that we are approaching the coda.
Gregorian Chant Mass for Christmas Day: Communion
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 1 Track 13
Returning to words that appeared in the Gradual
we have new but familiar sounding music. Like the Gradual
, this Communion
is built from the same materials as many modern tunes.
There are four phrases. The middle phrases are more elaborate and arch higher than the outer two. Together the phrases outline the pattern 'D-E-F-E.' As in the Gradual
, one of the phrases uses an 'F' Major triad as a melodic pattern.
What I like about this Communion is the sturdiness of its construction. The text requires music that is evocative of breathtaking landscapes. Four fairly short phrases is a good amount of music for this task. In that amount of time music can take us from someplace, look around, and return. The second and third phrases are the landscapes, so to speak. These phrases, which speak about the ends of the earth and salvation, are appropriately ornate. Also, they are beautiful arches. As we noticed in the Credo
the arch is an important melodic concept. This piece is also helped by using arches in the overall structure. As mentioned, the phrases ultimately outline an arch that travels up and down a minor third. With apologies to Miklos Rozsa, the modern listener might be reminded of Jack Webb in the role of Sgt. Joe Friday. But whether or not this progression reminds the listener of any tune specifically, its simplicity makes it easy to follow. And thus the listener has strong landmarks in the piece to serve as guides who point out the ends of the earth and evidence of salvation.
After this piece we return to elegant cascades of the Kyrie
now set to Ite, missa est
Gregorian Chant Mass for Christmas Day: Agnus Dei
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, Volume 1 CD 1 Track 12
Looking back, it is clear that the seventh part, the Offertory
, is the blossoming of the mass. The Sanctus
and Angus Dei
, which follow the Offertory
, use a more musical language than the earlier parts of the mass. This is not to deride the beauty of the first six parts of the mass. The beauty there is the remarkable closeness of word and music. This is accomplished by giving priority to the word. And it is as if the musical language, that is the use of repetition, is second to the text until the Offertory
The form of this Agnus Dei
is simple: we hear the same musical line three times, the third time with a variation of text. A dimension lost in this recording is the relationship between cantor and choir. Hearing different parts of this piece sung by different groups would, I imagine, increase the inspirational depth of this music. In a world of monody, the cantor/choir relationship is a kind of counterpoint. Nevertheless, the use of repetition in the Agnus Dei
is effective in any presentation.
What I like about this Agnus Dei
is the conclusion. The phrase that we hear three times is just long enough and complex enough that the listener is following along but not predicting the next note too easily. The third time, at dona nobis pacem
, the listener experiences an infinitely gentle dissonance as new words are fitted to the now familiar music.
Gregorian Chant Mass for Christmas Day: Sanctus
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, Volume 1 CD 1 Track 11
Form, as I hear it, is the way a piece of music lets the lister know how far they have progressed in a musical narrative. Without knowing how much of the piece has passed and how much more there is to hear, the lister is simply surrounded by sounds, possibly without enough information to be sensitive to many nuances and developments. However, form becomes less necessary when the text is able to guide the lister through. In even the most repetitive Gregorian Chant, such as the Credo
of this mass, there is endless variation because the music is so closely married to a text memorized by the intended listener.
The text for the Sanctus
of this mass is short and beautiful in form. The music, consequently, develops logically and expressively. It opens with the most free and ornate material to then moves toward the more predictable. Notice how the phrases Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua
and Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini
are musically similar. The second of these phrases is bracket by identical expressions of Hosanna in excelsis
What I like about this Sanctus
is how it starts with its most ornate material. The spirit of this opening carries through to the more organized section of the piece. And in this latter part there is a happiness brought into the form. If the piece were reversed, if the improvisational sound came after a clear form, the meaning would be different. The listener would be departing from the text rather than delving into the Sanctus
Gregorian Chant Mass for Christmas Day: Offertory
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, Volume 1 CD 1 Track 10
After singing the creed the church then asks for donations. It is appropriate that the music is a sort of solicitation. That is, particularly contrasting the Credo
, the Offertory
is high art. This reminds me of a conversation I once had with a singer after his performance in La Traviata
. He was the Baritone that sung the part of Alfredo's father. When I told him that he stole the show he said it was Verdi who wrote the best music for his part. He said the reason for this is because this character is asking for something and attempting to change a persons mind. Music appropriate for this situation must be exceptional in order to win the other character over. Although the Offertory
may not be a time to win converts, it is a moment when the congregation needs to be sure of their investment in the church.
In the modern sense of the word, there is a sequence that appears with the words est terra
. The sequence is hinted at shortly before this moment and twice after. This provides a sense of form to the music and also, one might argue, a tinge of text painting. For example, the arch of these notes over the words est terra
creates a sense of expansion.
What I like about this Offertory
is the music on the words tu fundasti
. The music immediately preceding centers on 'F' but gravitates down a minor third. On tu
we ascend higher than any other note in this piece, our climb outlining an 'F' Major triad. Then, in ornate style, we return to a modest register. It is an elated reach toward the sky.
Gregorian Chant Mass for Christmas Day: Credo
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, Volume 1 CD 1 Track 9
A chant can achieve narrative through its melodic contour. This chant, after a short introduction, avoids narrative by repeating the same phrase until its conclusion. The attraction to this repetitive chant is that in each repetition the music has new words and, consequently, new rhythms. And that this simple repetition provides us with a means of meditation.
Each of these phrases is a beautiful melodic arch. This, I think, is want some of the best tunes do; they go up and then they come back down. The arch used here has a snappy half-step at the top which creates a sense of gravity or, perhaps, vertigo. The up and down of the melodic line is not unlike the back and forth sometimes seen in prayer.
What I like most about this Credo
is the single leap of a fifth that appears in the word saeculi
right before the concluding Amen
. This leap is stunning in its contrast with what we have so far heard but does not break the spell of the piece. It beautifully breaks the repetition in a way to gently reinforce the end of the Creed.
Gregorian Chant Mass for Christmas Day: Alleluia
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, Volume 1 CD 1 Track 8
Gregorian chant, as beautiful as it is, makes me feel guilty when I listen carefully. I relate it to more recent music and, in so doing I fear that I am turning away from the meaning of the piece and deliberately misunderstanding the music. For instance, this Alleluia
, which is in the second mode, starts a pitch bellow the final. Does this have any significance? To me, this Alleluia
, which is in Dorian, starts on the flat seventh. The word Alleluia
rises from this unstable beginning to fluctuate between the third and first scale degrees and finally settle on tonic. You see, I am hesitant to interpret the melodic symbolism until I hear it with modern ears. Perhaps this fear is unnecessary: these pieces are what they are because they far transcend any theory, medieval or otherwise.
Speaking of the exposition, the melodic fragment which ends that melisma reappears as an effective final cadence of the Alleluia
. With these strong bookends the piece is short enough to be quite free in form. There is one melodic fragment that is used three times in the piece. This provides the listener with a sense of progress. It first appears in the word nobis, then in the word magna
, and finally right before the last three notes. This motive, a downward motion to the flat seventh turning up a step to end on tonic, to me (and you will have to forgive me for saying this) is evocative of symphonic band music.
What I like about this chant is the music for the word venite
. The music here obstinately fixes on 'D' and 'C' to then break away and ascend to 'F.'
Gregorian Chant Mass for Christmas Day: Gradual
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, Volume 1 CD 1 Tracks 6 & 7
When we listen to enough chant we can find that it is not so different than a great deal of modern music. The opening sound of this piece, which we would identify as an ascending F Major triad, is a place for the modern listener to find familiarity it Medieval thinking. Even though, for the authors of this piece, the sound of upward thirds did not carry the resonance it has for us, it would nevertheless be a grand sound, worthy of the words Viderunt omnes
. Music listeners from any epoch since the debut of this Gradual
might also find kinship in the use of an accidental. Of course, the accidental here is used to avoid the spicy tritone but, asking Euripides' patience, let us remember this Gradual
to contain the first chromaticism in our survey.
While the text speaks about salvation bringing joy to the ends of the earth the music majestically climbs thirds and revels in undulating seconds. The appearance of polyphony in this work must have been quite striking.
What I like most about this work are the three big melismas that occur right in the middle of the piece. The third melisma, on the word Dominus
is the breathtaking moment of the piece. However, the melisma on the word terra
is particularly fun because of the almost jazzy rhythm. How often can you say that about a chant?
Gregorian Chant Mass for Christmas Day: Gloria
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, Volume 1 CD 1 Track 5
To an ear that has been dominated by the Major scale, this chant is not difficult to deal with. A modern lister, unaccustomed to Medieval terminology, might identify the Hypomixolydian mode used here as Mixolydian, which is very close to the Major scale. And, as this tune goes, even without a leading tone it accomplishes a strong V-I cadence several times. The use of repetition and, most significantly, the lack of a reciting tone are features this tune shares with melodies you might find in our children's songs.
The text repeats the same sentiment several times but never in the same words. And, beautifully, the melodies are repeated but transformed as they are set to new words. There are two melodies that seem to play off of each other. One, first heard with the words Et in terra pax hominibus
, skips up from 'G' and steps back down. The other, first heard with the words Gratias agminus tibi
, travels from the high 'C' all the way down to the low 'D.' And, as almost a reconciliation for these two melodies, there is the frequent motion from low 'D' up to 'G.' If you had the bad taste to force these melodies into a spunky common time rhythm, you might have something sounding like an Appalachian folk song.
What I like about this Gloria is the music first heard with the words Et in terra pax hominibus
. The rise and easy descent of this moment is very appealing. The rise is expressed with leaps of thirds, which is simply an attractive motion. Then to be followed by descending steps allows our ear to remember and appreciate the distance easily accomplished by those early leaps.
Gregorian Chant Mass for Christmas Day: Kyrie
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, Volume 1 CD 1 Track 4
Before hearing the first note of this piece my ear is prepared by two notions I have long held about Gregorian Chant. The first is that, unfairly, I think of Gregorian chant to be monotone. The second is that plainchant notation simply looks good on paper. This piece, which presents gentle cascades of notes that carry a petition for mercy, is a fine example of the aesthetic appeal this notation can have. However, it is also a rich piece to hear. Contradicting my monotone notion, the melody here is in constant motion.
Remarkably, in spite of lasting a mere one minute and forty-nine seconds, this Kyrie
expresses an emotional AABBAA form. In a piece so short, it is also surprising to have this much repetition. We hear the "Lord Have Mercy" twice, "Christ Have Mercy" twice, and then return to the repeated "Lord Have Mercy."
What I like about this Kyrie is that within such an elegant and economical range it accomplishes a climax at the most appropriate moment which is the repeat of "Christ Have Mercy." It is important that this phrase is repeated because with the second hearing the listener may understand the delicate petition this chant carries.
Gregorian Chant Mass for Christmas Day: Introit
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, Volume 1 CD 1 Track 3
Gregorian Chant is generally a very distant musical language from mine. For example, it is only with effort that I do not hear the ending of this piece as a half cadence. However, there are two features of this Introit
that, unintentionally, bring familiarity. The first is the opening. The opening leap of a fifth that starts this Introit is strikingly reminiscent of the Epitaph of Seikilos
. And both tunes continue on to present very diatonic motions. But where the Epitaph reminds us that life is short with its elegant arches, this Gregorian Introit proclaims eternity with its, albeit ornamental, fixation on the pitches 'C' and 'D'. The second familiar feature is the form. The Introit
suggests ABA form in that we hear the antiphon, the psalm verse, and then return to the antiphon. And before we return to the antiphon there is a gentle flourish.
Everything about the chant is gentle. In Euripides' chorus we heard monody expressed with instruments and then voices in various registers. In Gregorian Chant the simplicity goes farther and presents the tune without instruments and in only one register.
What I like about this piece is the notation. Plainchant notation is very effective in presenting unmeasured melodies. The music looks like it sounds and is artful in its own right. It is a meditation. I am drawn to this flowing, uncountable music because the manuscript is beautiful.
Orestes: Stasimon Chorus
Euripides (ca. 485- ca. 406 B.C.E)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, Volume 1 CD 1 Track 2
Any survey of the history of music must be cautious to think of our history as a collection and not an evolution. And this piece, a stasimon, offers a temptation. This music is heard in a moment when the Greek chorus, unmoving, describes the tragic hero and pleads his case to the gods. Much in the same way, though without text, the overture to a romantic opera sets the mood. It is tempting to think of the overture as a form evolved from a stasimon. But the loss in that path is to overlook the pertinent effectiveness of the stasimon, and this one in particular. Our historical perspective and scholarly resources provide us with the possibility that music can be absolutely anything. How could we turn away from that?
We hear a sinuous melody with long pauses between phrases played on instruments of varying registers. Percussive clangs sit in spaces between phrases. After an antique-sounding cymbal clash and small tremolo, the melody starts again but with voices instead of instruments.
What I like about this stasimon is its ability to convey the staggering Orestes post murderous revenge. However insensitive we might be to dochmiac foot, we cannot miss the mood. Euripides (or whomever the composer was) takes us through the tune once before we hear it with the text. The unique antique-sounding cymbal clash and tremolo are different enough from what we have so far heard that our ears are ready to return to the beginning and to set the text to this serpentine melody. Because the melody takes its time and does not try to become the emotions, there is plenty of room to imagine and feel Orestes' plight.
Epitaph of Seikilos
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, Volume 1 CD 1 Track 1
This melancholy performance has stayed with me for some time. There is no way to know how the author of this piece sang this tune. From the text we might infer that it should be contemplative and somber, as it is in this recording. But this interpretation is effective not because it is convincing as historical representation. It is effective because we view things this old in a contemplative, somber way. And it is eerie that this particular relic, our oldest example of written music, would speak so elegantly about time passing.
The opening presents an ascending fifth that asks the listener to "Shine...." This leap is followed by three elegant arches that are set approximately within the distance of that opening interval. In this way, the first two notes are the command that the rest of the piece follows and explains. The first arch is hesitant, the second is quick, and the third moves forward but hesitates before resolving the piece on a pitch lower than the bottom of our opening leap. These characteristics are wonderfully apparent in this recording but my guess is that any sensitive rendition would embrace this symbolism.
It is easy to say that the arch is a metaphor for the path a life takes. And that the arches in this piece hesitate and quicken as a way to reinforce the meaning of the text. But what I like most about this piece is that when I first heard it I was unaware of the meaning in the text and nevertheless felt the emotions that the text is capable of evoking.