We started today with some free writing (we did some of this earlier in the semester–you just write whatever comes into your mind; single words, sentence fragments, non sequiters, etc., all welcome) to get the mental jusices going. Then, to prepare for class discussion of the readings, we used a technique in which one draws a vertical line down the middle of a sheet of paper. On the left side of the line, you write a quote which caught your eye or otherwise stands out. On the right side of the line, you write your own reaction: what thoughts, etc., does this trigger in you? We did this with two quotes from the Ferand and two from the Goehr.

As with free writing, part of the game with this approach is to be spontaneous (improvisatory) and write whatever comes to you, without self-censorship.

After our writing time, various class members read the quotes they found interesting. The Goehr reading focuses on the ways in which music was regarded in both ancient Greece and then in medieval official Christianity, and the Ferand on improvisatory practices among the early Christians and in the evolution of chant until a notation system developed to standardize it .

The conversation took and interesting and, to me, unexpected (though welcome) direction. Ferand discusses the highly emotional spontaneous musical expressions of early Christians, which we likened to the music in the African-American gospel tradition and the larger Pentecostal tradition. Goehr quotes, among others, John Calivin, who insisted that music in church (and he was speaking of singing) “must have ‘weight and majesty’ and not be ‘light and frivolous’, for there is ‘a great difference between the music one makes to entertain men at table and in their homes, and the psalms which are sung in Church in the presence of God.” It seemed that most of us have or have had an active church life at some point in our lives. Class members’ own stories of the uses of music in their different churches, and the tensions they’ve seen arise over changes (proposed or actual) in a congregation’s musical experience, illustrated that ancient distinction between “significant” or “serious” music and what can be regarded as lesser forms is very much alive today.

I pointed out that in my lifetime there’s been a big change in the perspective classical musicians have. When I was growing up, with parents who were classical musicians, there was a strong sense that classical was vastly superior to all other forms, especially jazz and pop/rock. And this was prevalent throughout classical music culture. I didn’t mention this in this class session, although I may have before, but when I was growing up, the most popular (and only) music-appreciation program on the radio was Karl Hass’s “Adventures in Good Music.” And “good” music was most definitely classical music. In the last ten years or so, the extremely popular music-appreciation program has been “Shickele Mix,” which has as its mottoes “all musics are created equal” and the Duke Ellington quote, “if it sounds good, it is good.”

So we humans in the West have been arguing for millenia over what is “good” music, and the role of music in society and worship. The worship-music issue is a very present and ongoing one for many in the class. And this brings up an important observation which Goehr stresses over and over. Until the development of the Romantic ideaology of art, the dominat understandings of music all had in common ideas about music’s extra-musical (in contemporary terms) function.

While today we readily experience music as music, in earlier eras music was a means to an end. The primary one, among those with power, anyway, was as a means of worship, and a host of attendant issues (i.e., standardizing music to standardize worship services and reinforce the church/government’s control and authority). The current differences of opinion and tradition over the type of music done in the places of worship many of you attend come down to these extra-musical considerations. Some believe sacred music should be special and done by experts as an offering; others that music should be the ecstatic, spontaneous expression of members of the congregation. Is the music meant as a beautifully crafted presentation to a diety (and also inspires and edifies/uplifts the worshippers), or personal expression of praise for the diety? But the argument isn’t really over the music itself, as music. It’s about what type of music is appropriate to the non-musical function of the music.

What I find interesting about this discussion is that it reinforces to me something very important. Our study of historical practices is not a purely academic, intellectual matter. We are all musicians. We have all made a decision to commit at least some portion of our lives to music. And I’m sure that is because each of us experiences music as central to our experience as human beings, to how we make sense of the world, to how we experience and process emotions, to how we interract with others, and certainly to what most of us would call our spiritual, and many of us would also call our religious lives.

When we improvise, when we create, it’s an expression of the totality of who we are, including our spirituality, however understood (which can be totally nontheistic). We we improvise together, there’s that collective energy, that synergy that makes for something very different than a solo improvisation done with no one else present. So as we go through the course, I have a very strong sense of us as not only a teacher and a group of students, but more importantly as a community of musicians for whom much of the relevance of our historical work is how it helps us deepen our experience of who we are as musicians and human beings.

That was quite a tangent, wasn’t it?

Back to our discussion, we hit on a number of key points:

  • music was almost universally understood, at least among intellectuals, in terms of its non-musical function, until 1800 or so;
  • as far back as Plato and Aristotle, there was thought and debate about the appropriate role of music in society and how it should be controlled;
  • in the early, underground Christian church, there was evidently much spontaneous, individual expression;
  • after Constantine converted to Christianity, and made Christianity the official religion of the empire, the church and the government merged and worship practices including began to be increasingly regulated by a central authority;
  • the history of medieval music, and particularly the development of plainchant practices and repertoire, illustrates the tension between improvisation and a desire for standardization; improvisation quite obviously played a role in the development and evolution of chants;
  • the debate over the significance of music, and what kind of music is appropriate in religious services, has never been (and certainly never will be) resolved, and is one that is currently affecting many in our class.

We then turned to the set of four related chants which make up the Ferand example 1. Ferand explains that these four Graduals have at their core the same basic outline; they are clearly derived from the same original basic chant, and then were modified with (initially) improvised melismas. The written melismas represent the standardized form of a long process of evolution. They also illustrate the sorts of melismas that would be improvised in an early period.

So what is the original, underlying melodic skeleton? What is the original chant which the neumes and melismas embellish? We circled the first note of each syllable of each chant, and wrote them on the board to begin a deductive process (Ferand does not supply us with the original chant). And then we ran out of time.

Two important concepts here. In a melody, there are:

  • principal, or main, notes
  • embellishing notes

We are trying to figure out what those main, underlying notes are. The first notes of each syllable don’t exactly line up. In come cases, the first note of a syllable, or the note use for a syllable, is an embellishing note, often functioning in a manner we would now describe as a suspension or an appogiatura. By comparing the four melodies, in a fashion reminiscent of Soduko, we will construct a possible version of the underlying original chant.

So, for Friday, make sure you have your own photocopy of example 1. Circle the first note of the syllable. Compare them, and see if you can work out an underlying chant melody. And take into account the fact that the lower two lines are of a chant that is longer than that of the upper two lines: material has been added to the beginning.

In Firday’s class, we’ll compare and work together to come up with an underlying melody. Then we’ll sing/play the core melody and the embellished versions, and also improvise on it/them. And we’ll play/sing the organum and counterpoint examples which go with Ferand section II, as much as we can, and then continue that on Monday.

The Grove reading on ensemble improvisation before 1600 is fairly short, so read through it as well by Friday. It complements the Ferand Section II, which is more of our main text for this subject.