IN The Republic, Plato goes into some detail about what types of music are allowed in his idealized, just society. In particular, only certain musical modes are permitted:
Next as to the music. A song or ode has three parts,—the subject, the harmony, and the rhythm; of which the two last are dependent upon the first. As we banished strains of lamentation, so we may now banish the mixed Lydian harmonies, which are the harmonies of lamentation; and as our citizens are to be temperate, we may also banish convivial harmonies, such as the Ionian and pure Lydian. Two remain—the Dorian and Phrygian, the first for war, the second for peace; the one expressive of courage, the other of obedience or instruction or religious feeling.
Each of these different modes is associated with a particular character of emotion, affect, or sentiment. With these associations, Plato is inaugurating a musical tradition that has continued throughout the subsequent history of Western music. I think this is something that church musicians should care about, and I will try to convince you of this in what follows. The question came up in my classes at the recent Sacred Music Symposium, and I hope what I had to offer on the subject was of some use for the participants.
What is a mode? Used as a musical term, mode is quite difficult to define. Some people like to think of them as “scales,” where a particular collection of pitches provide the color palette, so to speak, that a composer can use to create a melody. But that doesn’t really begin to describe the complexity of any real music. Most classical music is written in either the major or the minor mode, but of course almost no classical music is limited to those particular scales. Modality embodies more than a scale, then. It is better to say that the scale is part of a more complex way of thinking about a piece that also encompasses harmonic progression, tonal conventions, and melodic patterns. Different modal traditions exist in music from all around the world, but this definition gets us started.
When we apply this to Gregorian chant, we see a wider variety of modes than in classical music. In spite of some theoretical conventions, a real survey of the phenomenon of modality as it arises in Gregorian melodies would be quite difficult, since the repertoire is quite old and developed over a long period. I’m not going to discuss any of that here, but if you are interested in such things as archaic modality and the development of the melodies along those lines, you might want to look at the theories laid out by Dom Jean Claire. The best place to start is probably this book by Dom Saulnier.
Instead, I’m going to take the more conventional view. In contrast to the rather impoverished set of two modes, as in classical music, we traditionally think of Gregorian chant as coming in eight modes. To lay out this theory in the simplest terms, the modes are determined by the last note (the “final”) of the melody. Melodies that end on D (re) are in modes 1 or 2; melodies that end on E (mi) are in modes 3 or 4; melodies that end of F (fa) are in modes 5 or 6; and melodies that end on G (sol) are in modes 7 or 8. Whether a particular melody is in an odd-numbered (authentic) mode or an even-numbered (plagal) one is determined by the range of the melody (i.e., how high or low it goes). In general, authentic modes have a range mostly above the final note, while plagal modes have a range that does not go as high above the final note but also goes below. Each mode is associated with a psalm tone, so that an antiphon in mode 1 will be placed with a psalm chanted to the first tone, and so on. These modes and tones were hugely influential on the subsequent history of music, and they have deep connections not only to sixteenth-century polyphony but to much later music as well. Here we will only stick to Gregorian chant.
You don’t need to know all this theory to figure out what mode a particular Gregorian melody is in. Most modern editions of chant will just tell you, near the beginning of the piece. And in the post-Gregorio world we live in, it’s quite easy to have software generate the right psalm tone, fully pointed. So why bother with modal theory?
For me, the answer relates to Plato’s discussion above. Each Gregorian mode has its own particular character, in a way that goes much deeper than the major-happy/minor-sad dichotomy. What kind of character? The same as what Plato describes? Sadly, no. The modes Plato was discussing were not really the same as the Gregorian modes, despite the similarity in some of the nomenclature. But by immemorial custom, each of the Gregorian modes has a particular ethos or character associated with it. One problem with trying to ascertain these characters is that different authors have written quite different (sometimes contradictory) things about modal ethos. One writer’s warlike mode might be another writer’s mode of peace, etc.
In light of these contradictions, we might just throw up our hands and say, “Nobody agrees about this stuff anyway so it doesn’t matter; let’s just list what the theorists say and not put much faith in it.” This is a fine scholarly point of view to adopt. But as a practical church musician, I’m going to suggest a different path. There is one very simple list that dates from at least the eighteenth century (published, at any rate, by Pierre-Nicolas Poisson then) and that exists in the oral tradition. If you want a place to start with a practical approach to particular characters of each mode, this is it:
- gravis (serious)
- tristis (sad, mournful)
- mysticus (mystical)
- harmonicus (harmonic or harmonious)
- laetus (happy, joyful)
- devotus (devotional or devout)
- angelicus (angelic)
- perfectus (perfect)
I find this list quite good, provided that we take it in the right spirit. Let’s think of these characters as a starting place for contemplation rather than as definitive analytical statements, or even definitive embodiments of medieval teaching. If you want to go deeper into the older writers, feel free. It is also possible to go quite deep into this particular list as well. The Saulnier book mentioned above contains absolutely beautiful reflections on each of these eight sentiments by Canon Jean Jeanneteau. Jeanneteau’s commentary is given in the spirit of deep reflection and piety that is so characteristic of much of the oral tradition surrounding the liturgical performance of Gregorian chant. I hope this list brings you and your schola more deeply into the spirit of the music!