Microtones in Gregorian Chant
  • Simon
    Posts: 111
    Just recently read a PhD thesis on microtones in Gregorian chant (presented in September (cum laude!) - Univ. of Utrecht). Chronicles and treatises mention microtone performance from 400 up to 1400. Something for specialists though. Don't even think of introducing microtones into your parish choir!

    Here is the link to the thesis (in English!) - interesting reading. There is an abstract as introduction in link to download the thesis. Some of the material in the thesis may be inhibiting for most of us (as for me!) - read then the Concluding Remarks (only six pages) for a good summary of the thesis.


    Thanked by 2CHGiffen Vilyanor
  • Jeffrey Quick
    Posts: 1,400
    I can attest that microtones are a part of chant performance practice to the present day.

    The thesis sounds interesting from the POV of musicological recreation. From the POV of a parish musicians, it's very 1962.
    Thanked by 3francis MarkS Liam
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 7,921
    Microtones have been present in almost all choirs and scholas I have conducted. They are almost always on the low side of intended pitch.
  • mrcoppermrcopper
    Posts: 640
    Almost all correct intonation is on the low side of the organ's pitch. The only exceptions are a few notes, flatter than the key signature.
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  • ...almost always...
    Um, when is a microtone a microtone and not just plain old flat (or sharp)?
    Could it be the presence or absence of artful intent?
    Thanked by 3tomjaw Carol francis
  • On the artful side of this question, there’s much one can learn about the tuning of chant from groups such as Marcel Pérès’ Ensemble Organum and Portland’s Cappella Romana.

    On dealing with the non-artful side, aka flatting and pervasively poor intonation in ensemble singing, Peter Phillips (Tallis Scholars) published an extremely apt article “Singing polyphony” in the Winter 2014 Musical Times. It addresses a wide range of vocal and stylistic issues, especially the crucial role of chant in shaping Renaissance polyphony. He strongly suggests that only immersion in the Gregorian repertory can adequately prepare singers for the music of Victoria, Palestrina, and Byrd. He also holds that most professional voice training renders singers unable to shape and tune music before 1650.
  • davido
    Posts: 90
    I just read the Phillips article. His premise as Daniel outlined above makes sense, but I doubt his assumptions about how chant was sung. Particularly, there is really no way to know that chant was sung softly (and just because Fongombault does it today is not proof).
    He is very particular about tuning, but sing for 10 seconds in a Renaissance cathedral, and then try to argue that the reverb doesn’t cover up most tuning specifics anyway.
    Also, he argues that prebaroque Church music should be basically un-expressive. Again that’s a modern philosophy that can’t be proved. We pretty much all agree now that chant was sung more expressively than solesmes, with figures approaching ornamentation and markedly rhythmical patterns.
    I know this is early music heresy, but I would venture to guess that the smooth, neuter performances of Tallis scholars has more in common with the modern art aesthetic of their own era, than with anything from the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries.
  • Amen, and amen.
  • dad29
    Posts: 1,564
    MJO.......you have made life difficult.

    Going forward, the flat-singer alto/tenor will be testifying that "...it was artistic intent..." at their trials.
  • Liam
    Posts: 3,458
    There are things worse than singers who tend to go flat: singers with a pronounced bias towards sharp. They are rarer, but worse, because they don't raise the rest, just more uncertain and therefore more flat.

    I once had the distinct experience of listening to a quartet of singers at a church west of Rochester NY: two leads (one male, one female), each with a microphone, and two backups. The lead female had a noticeable sharp bias, the lead male trended flat. The backup singers (behind, and without mics) tried to weave a pitch between Scylla and Charybdis. It was ... memorable.