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Gregorian And Ambrosian Chant

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Speaking in a general sense, to chant is to sing. In a more limited sense it is to sing certain words according to the style required by musical laws or ecclesiastical rule and custom; and what is thus performed is styled a chant and chanting. Practically, the wordchant is now used for short melodies sung to psalms and canticles in Church services, whether Roman Catholic, Anglican, Protestant Episcopal, or others.

The chant is more or less a combination of measured and unmeasured music; that is to say, while one portion of it must be performed in a certain rhythmical order, another portion is sung without any fixed succession or relation of accent, and is altogether rhythm-less.

The earliest form of chant, the Ambrosian, was modified and superseded in what is called the Gregorian. This chant is almost entirely without rhythm. At all events, if it does possess any rhythmic feeling, it is so vague and so variable, that the Gregorian chant might, without much injustice, be said to be altogether lacking in fixed form. Still it has parts or pieces. each having its own purpose, and all occupying distinct relative positions in the chant. The Gregorian chants, called tones (tunes, not intervals), are eight in number; and each tone has several endings, making in all twenty-six chants, all differing from each other, not only in regard to the character of their melody, but also in respect of their length. The only thing of a formal kind, by which similarity may be recognized in the different chants, is the relative positions of their several pieces already alluded to.

At the time when this kind of music was in its glory, previous to the Reformation, musical notation was quite different from what it is now. It was written on a staff of four lines. The notes were: a square black note with a stem at one side; a square black note without a stem; and a diamond-shaped black note. These were the long, the medium, and the short notes in use. There were no bar lines employed. In some churches of certain denominations, where ancient Church tunes are held in high esteem and reverence, the Gregorian tones noted in the old manner are in constant use at the present clay.

The Gregorian chant consists of three principal pieces—the intonation, the mediation, and the ending. Both of the two latter pieces contain a reciting note and inflected notes, and end with a cadence. We see, however, that as the three characteristic pieces vary considerably in different chants, there cannot possibly be any fixed rhythmical proportion in music of this description. The absence of bar lines may cause some doubt as to where the accent should fall, or as to whether there be any accent at all. There is accent in Gregorian chants, but of a very irregular character, and depending very much upon the words to which the music is sung. In passing from one part of the chant to another there is always an accent. For ex-ample, in passing from the intonation there is an ac-cent on the first syllable of the reciting note: any number of syllables may be sung to this note, according to the length of the verse; and in passing to the first inflected note there is another accent. The inflected notes themselves are accented according to their number, and as the words may demand.

We now come to the more commonly known Anglican chant. For a considerable time before the Anglican chant, in its present fixed form, came to be established, there had been a gradual molding and modifying of some of the Gregorian tones into a more mod-ern and fixed form. It might be safe to say that the Anglican chant came into use with the Reformation. It did not, however, supersede the Gregorian chant for some time afterward, if indeed it can be said to have done so entirely yet. At all events, Anglican chants, or, to be more precise, Anglican chant forms, have long been much more extensively employed than the Gregorian. The Anglican chant is most melodious andpleasing, while its fixed and unchanging form makes it readily appreciated, and renders it especially suitable for congregational purposes.

The Anglican chant is of two ordinary kinds—the single chant and the double chant; the only difference between them is that a double chant is just like two single chants joined in succession. A single chant is sung to one verse of the Psalms; a double chant takes in two verses. Quadruple chants have even occasionally been tried (these, of course, will include four successive verses); but their length is apt to lead to some confusion: at all events, they are not popular.

It has been supposed that the Anglican chant took its form from the old common-measure psalm-tune, which, unlike our common meter of to-day, consisted of two short lines of fours, one of six, two of fours, and one of six, with a long note at the beginning and the end of each line. This, then, gives us a tune of six sections, of which, if we take the first and the last, we have a single chant; or, taking any two short sections, and the two long sections, we have a double chant.

Each section of the chant corresponds to half a verse of the psalm. Each section begins with a reciting note and ends with a cadence. To the reciting note so many syllables are monotoned from one up to any number, according to the length of the half-verse. Speaking roughly, the last three syllables in the first half of the verse, and the last five in the second half, are left for the inflected notes. There is frequently, however, an alteration of this arrangement required, according to the sense and the expression of the words.

It will be easily understood that the sections of the chant are not equal—one contains three measures and the next four. There is thus apparently a want of balance which, it might be thought, would displease the ear. But, in listening to a chant, there is no effect of lopsidedness experienced—the balance of the sections seems to be quite perfect. This is, doubtless, owing to the influence of the reciting notes which, by their being lengthened indefinitely and irregularly, throw the ear out of calculation: or it may be that the one reciting note running into the other deceives the listener, and he mentally ekes out the short section with a note from the long one; and that equal balancing of the pieces in a composition for which the mind always craves is attained.

The chief points of similarity between the Gregorian and the Anglican chant are: first and most distinctly, the reciting note; second, the inflections, which. how-ever, have not fixed succession in the former, while in the latter they have.

There are other modern chant forms to be met with; namely, what are sometimes called metrical chants. The most familiar of these is, perhaps, Troyte's chant, frequently sung to the hymn "Abide with me." But metrical chanting is something of a misnomer, or a paradox: chanting must contain some element of unmeasured recitation—this is its characteristic feature. In singing a chant to metrical words in which all the verses are alike, there must be pretty much the same recurring measurement in every verse; so that the varied recitation, for which a chant is specially in-tended, cannot take place. A metrical chant then is simply a peculiar form of psalm-tune.



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