Friday, 31 July 2009

Musical Disguises and Latent Melodies

A few weeks ago I was at a mass at which was sung the Coventry Gloria- so-called, if I am not mistaken, because it was composed for the mass celebrated on Whitsunday 1982 by Pope John Paul II at Coventry airport. I should know because I was there. It did not make a terrific impression on me at the time but on subsequent hearings/singings in various places it seemed not bad. Or, to put it another way, it seemed a pretty fair and, indeed, lively setting. Then, on this recent occasion I was powerfully struck with by what I think was an insight.

I don't want to knock the composer because I think he made a genuine effort to produce something worthy and, musically speaking, I judge it to be far superior to much ghastly stuff we have been given over the last three decades or so. The idea, however, that struck me was that the composer appeared to have worked hard to provide a lively and interesting musical setting of the text. In doing so he had reserved most of the text to the choir or cantor while the congregation had responses drawn from it, some of which were repeated and others which were not. This complexity, while it contributed to the musical interest of the piece turned the congregation into a section of the choir. We had to watch out for our entries and make sure we were coming in with the right "response". In short, we were contributing to a performance. Our focus was, necessarily, upon getting it right, rather than articulating the prayer embodied in the text.

The implication that arose for me from this " lively and interesting setting of the text" was that the text itself was viewed as lacking something and, therefore needing somehow to be made interesting. In short it had appeared to have needed a disguise!

My thoughts immediately ran on from this particular piece to many others I had encountered in the last four decades. In most cases the composers appeared to have set out with the aim of engaging the interest of the congregation by clothing the text in melody while being at the same time constrained by an awareness of the congregation's basic dimness in all things musical. As if they said,
"Now, children, we are going to sing a very exciting piece and, if you are good, you can join in here, here and here."

Patronising? Perhaps. The average organist is a musically highly educated practitioner of his or her craft- at least in comparison with the vast majority of a congregation. But might not this knowledge be, in some ways, somewhat superfluous or distracting? Distracting from the real business which is -the raising of the heart and mind to God- prayer?

The context of this insight, if such it is, was of recalling a passage I read four years ago in "Gregorian Chant- a guide" by Dom Daniel Saulnier. He says,

The languages of the Mediterranean basin generally have a singing quality, and they are endowed with accents that are somewhat melodic. Such was also the case with the old Latin, according even to Cicero's testimony, which recognized in words a cantus obscurior, that is, a latent or hidden song.

In short it is suggested that the melodies of Gregorian chant grow naturally, as it were, out of the music implicit in the text. In other words, the liturgical text is just musically amplified. This seems to me to articulate a radically different approach to "setting a text to music" or "clothing the text in melody".

Dom Daniel Saulnier refers specifically to the languages of the Mediterranean basin and Latin in particular as having this "singing quality" or "latent music" but English also has singing qualities.
A powerful memory from my boyhood in the early 1960s is of the class recitation of the multiplication tables with which for some time our maths lessons began. As the class spoke together first a common rhythm emerged and then a melody of sorts arose. There was no attempt to sing. It simply happened and was musical. Throughout the recitation the focus was on what was being said. Nevertheless I believe that the "tune" that emerged played a significant part in enabling us to commit the words to memory and recall them when needed.

With such thoughts it will come as no surprise that I have been eager to learn all that Puella Paschalis and Leutgeb of Bara Brith have to say regarding their couse at Solesmes. Dom Daniel's emphasis upon the primacy of the text seems to me to be timely.

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