S WITH MOST church musicians, circumstances earlier this year put an end to all of my season’s plans. As I write, five months after my schola last sang together, regulations in my diocese permit only two musicians at public celebrations of the Mass, and this situation is more permissive than in many places. Fortunately, the Church has given us her wonderful gift of plainchant, which bestows its noble dignity even on a live-streamed Mass with one or two singers. But what of occasional variety? Those who have toiled over the past two millennia in the garden of the Church’s liturgical music have often faced reduced resources brought about by any number of historical events. For the enterprising singer, this could be an opportunity to explore seldom-considered repertoire; this website and others have suggested many possibilities.
Today, I present two beautiful Mass movements from a manuscript of late thirteenth- or early fourteenth-century polyphony:
* PDF Download • Sanctus and Agnus Dei XVII
—Anonymous, thirteenth or fourteenth century I-Bc Q.11f. 5v. transcribed by Charles Weaver.
They show one way that singing in parts can adorn the simplicity of plainchant while taking nothing away from the pure liturgical character of its rhythm. The simplest such polyphonic practices—drones and singing in parallel consonances—are of great antiquity, and many singers can attest to their continued success in modern contexts when used sparingly. More complicated styles of organum developed over time into the elaborate melismas and characteristic rhythmic organization of the Notre-Dame school. The chants I present today, even though they were probably composed much later than the Notre-Dame polyphony, fall somewhere in between these extremes, in what is called discantus or cantus planus binatim style. The voices are set mostly in note-against-note fashion with no notated meter or mensuration, and they freely cross and even imitate each other.
These pieces are from a manuscript housed in the Museo Internazionale e Biblioteca della Musica di Bologna, in a collection that formerly belonged to Padre Martini. Scholars have traced this particular manuscript to a convent of nuns in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Images of the manuscript can be viewed here:
The notation is quite readable, and it is even possible (and instructive) to sing from the original. The two parts are notated in a score on a single staff, with the plainchant voice using black notes, while the discanting voice uses red notes. This notation allows the voices to be kept distinct even with frequent voice crossings while using a minimum of space. The other polyphonic pieces in the manuscript are also interesting, including a two-part setting of the Apostles’ Creed.
In the settings included here, the music of the upper voice is recognizable as coming from Mass XVII. In the modern books, this Mass is associated with the Sundays of Advent and Lent, but in former times, this Sanctus-Agnus pair is frequently designated for Masses of Our Lady. In a clever bit of double counterpoint, the second voice sings the music of the second Sanctus invocation against the first invocation in the principal voice, creating an antiphonal effect. There are other recurring schemata, as well, involving a mix of contrary and parallel motion. In my transcription, I have put the music onto two staves and updated the neumes to look familiar to anyone who uses the modern chant books. I have left the rhythm more or less unannotated; I use the familiar Solesmes rhythm signs in a particular and unusual way, described below. Most singers will find natural places for the mora vocis and other niceties of phrasing. The Agnus setting can be sung thrice, or it could be alternated with the familiar chant version of Mass XVII.
Here are some specific suggestions for performance. While the music is mostly note-against-note, occasionally one of the voices is required to stop and wait for the other singer, as on the syllable Sa of Sabaoth. I have marked all of these spots with a horizontal episema, indicating an indefinite amount of lengthening. Sensitive accompaniment skills are valuable in these places. It is interesting that every instance of this has the accompanying singer waiting on the final of the mode, which is suggestive of an older drone practice. In three places, the second voice should lengthen a note to exactly double length to maintain the pace of the principal voice. I have marked all of these with the rhythm dot. There is a baffling dissonant spot in the second system of the Sanctus at the words “caeli et,” where the voices move in seconds for a while. My transcription is faithful, and I believe this reading is plausible according to the usual rules of discant, but the singer should feel free to consider other options.
This type of two-part approach to chant was widespread and largely unwritten in the late Middle Ages. Improvised discant seems to have been a specialty of the English. While these pieces document the practice of Italian nuns at a specific time and place, we might also think of this as a model for how we might harmonize chant for special occasions, either at sight or with prior planning. The rules are well known and go back centuries before this: the organizing voice should often use contrary motion, and phrases must begin and end on perfect consonances. In this example, when the voices are not moving in contrary motion, they move either obliquely (with one voice stationary) or in parallel fifths (and more briefly and occasionally in parallel seconds and sevenths). It would be interesting to consider the similarities and differences between this approach and the various styles of organ accompaniment currently in use, especially as they relate to Gregorian tonality.