A FEW MONTHS AGO, I wrote a post about a traditional and brief way of formulating the ethos or character associated with each of the eight modes. If you apply this way of thinking to your chanting, it can often bear a great deal of fruit for contemplation. It provides another dimension for us to think about as we approach a chant: liturgical context and meaning, melody, text setting, mode. In particular, I would like to suggest that you might get something out of adopting a dynamic rather than a static way of thinking about the modes.
Here is what I mean by a static way. What we teach our students is that we classify a melody into one of the modes by looking at its final and its range. The final is the last note of the melody, and it works like this: D is for modes 1 and 2; E is for modes 3 and 4; F is for modes 5 and 6; G is for modes 7 and 8. If a chant ends on another note, we consider it as being in a transposed version of one of the other modes. Typically C endings are mode 5, A endings are mode 2, and B endings are mode 4. The range refers to whether the final note is near the bottom of the range of pitches in the melody or somewhere in the middle. Near the bottom means an odd-numbered mode, while in the middle means an even-numbered mode. This is not really an exact science, but after spending a while with the melodies you get pretty confortable categorizing them.
In a dynamic way of thinking about the modes, we add on to what I wrote above by thinking of the modes as also having certain typical melodic patterns and certain notes that seem to anchor the mode. Often these are the same as the tenor or reciting tone of the psalm. Sometimes these are other notes, like the pitch F in the Easter introit. Sometimes a melody can visit other modes by adopting the melodic mannerisms of that mode. If you combine that with the modal ethos, you can sometimes get some real analytical insight. I know that sounds like dry theory, but I think it can be rewarding for any choir director to think this way!
A very clear example of this happened today at the communion in the ordinary form. The communion sets an excerpt from today’s gospel about the wise and foolish virgins. As usual, the Gregorian author did a great job of paraphrasing the gospel text to make a coherent and beautiful antiphon focused on one important aspect from the gospel lesson. That could be the basis for a whole other post. Anyway, the melody also moves between modes in an interesting way. First off, we have this phrase:
The antiphon is in mode 5, but if we single out this phrase, we are most certainly in mode 6, which is the mode of devotion. How fitting for the prudent virgins, who keep their vessels full of oil against the bridegroom’s coming—a praiseworthy act of devotion! When the cry comes announcing the coming of the bridegroom, it bursts forth into the fifth mode, the mode of joy:
This sudden rise up to the high E makes a really startling effect in context. As a depiction of the Lord’s coming, it it reminiscent of the image of the lightning coming from the east to the west.
Finally, we get a rather unusual (for a communion chant) melodic repetition, but with a new continuation:
On the command “go out,” the melody also goes outside of its previous limits, finding a new peak on the high F. Of course we don’t really think about chants in tonal terms, but the Schenkerian in me can’t help hearing this F as a long-term resolution to the high E in the previous phrase. If you’d rather think about this in a more historical way, we can think of the pointed character of the La on which we would sing the E in the solmization system, which finds some resolution in finally attaining the softness of the fa (F) above. Toward the cadence, the melody on the ending of “Christo” is also reminiscent of one of the formulaic phrases from fifth-mode graduals.
These are some tentative, sketchy beginnings of an analysis that occurred to me today while singing. Do you find the move from the mode of devotion to the mode of joy suggestive? For me, this kind of thinking helps me to shape the melody in my own singing.