From Embellishment and Augmentation of Chant to Polyphony

“He who sings twice prays.” The Latin phrase for this, “Qui bene cantat bis orat,” has been attributed to St. Augustine.  See  As Christianity developed and its places of worship developed architecturally, invoking a sense of ascendancy to the divine, the chants contributed to that purpose.  It is human nature, I suppose, to personalize our public material, to make a personal mark.  In music, that was expressed in ornamentation of the basic musical materials of worship and liturgy.  One way to do that is to embellish the melodies, not unlike modern, personalized renditions of the Star-Spangled Banner.  Another way to embellish the basic chant melody is to add another voice at the octave, such as men’s and boys’ voices (remember that in early church history leadership of worship was a male activity).  If an octave doubling of the melody sounded good, what if we doubled it at the fifth interval?  Or at the fourth?  Or, if we are going to add an additional line, why should it have to follow the plain chant melody?  Why not make the additional line as interesting as the main melody? Over time, these additions and embellishments developed into what we call polyphonic music, in which interesting melodies in their own right are juxtaposed in ways that have individuality, do not distract from the plain chant melody, but  are mutually supportive among the parts to a larger purpose, as in a dialogue between two individuals.  Why not make it a dialogue between three individuals? Four or five?  So, now we have a choir. Wouldn’t it be cool to sneak into the mix that drinking song so popular among the peasantry, set to the same sacred Latin text? Now wouldn’t that be ironic: sacred texts set to a common drinking song, hidden within choral tapestry on a background of plainchant? I wonder if anyone will recognize that? If the priests, monks, or bishops do recognize it as such, would they admit their familiarity with it by criticizing its inclusion in this choral rendition of the plain chant?  You get the idea.

One of the problems of getting a number of people singing different parts is teaching them the parts and then putting them together.  I previously addressed the need for some writing or notation for these purposes in my post, From Monody to Polyphony with contribution by Guido d’Arezzo, of November 24, 2011.

The music of that time would sound strange to us because use of major and minor scales was not yet known.  At that time music was modal, which was akin to taking our C major scale and, without adding sharps or flats, making a scale by starting and ending on D, E, F, or any other scale degree . If you try that on the piano keyboard, you’ll see that such scales  consist of an arrangement of whole steps and half steps, with  half steps occurring where there is no intervening black key, i.e., between E and F , and B and C.  The modal scale beginning and ending on A has become the basis for the modern natural minor key, from which we have developed the modern natural minor, melodic minor and harmonic minor scales.  The arrangement of whole steps and half steps in a natural minor key is such that the half steps are between the second and third, and fifth and sixth scale degrees.  The rest are whole steps.  That is what makes it sound like a minor key.   Our most familiar major scale has half steps between three and four, and seven and eight.  To complicate ancient chant even further,  notes could have less than a half step between them, called microtonal.  One can hear that in, for example, Buddhist or Hindu chant, or in recordings of Ravi Shankar.

See, entitled Chant of the Early Christians, for an excellent and lengthy video demonstrating modal and microtonal features of chant.  It also demonstrates some of the beginnings of polyphonic music such as the use of a pedal point, or sustained low notes over which the chant soars.

See the following resources for other examples of the development from Plain Chant through Organum, both instrumental and vocal, to polyphony:

See for a video of unison Gregorian Chant performed in an Abby arched ceiling, stained glass and much more.  See for a documentary video of the Cistercian Monks Of Stift Heiligenkreuz.

See for an excellent and extensive resource of medieval sacred music at a very reasonable price.  It also offers a free fourteen day trial period.   See, also, for videos of sacred music, organized according to the biblical order that the texts appear; it also has tools available to search according to musical stylistic period and by the names of composers.

See for an excellent and  quite readable article concerning instruments, genres, music theory, notation , and early polyphony of the Medieval period.

I have previously addressed the development of music as, in my mind, it became an integral part of the cathedral worship experience.  See my prior posts:

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