Microtones in Gregorian Chant
  • Simon
    Posts: 116
    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.

    https://dspace.library.uu.nl/handle/1874/369247

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  • 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.
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  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,130
    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: 166
    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: 1,686
    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: 3,687
    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.
  • Simon
    Posts: 116
    The comments seem to stick to singing out of tune rather than the actual subject of microtones. To make it easier for Forum readers, here is a word document of the 6 page summary of the dissertation for easier access to the subject matter.

    image
  • I should think any evidence of microtonal singing in the West would be negative, that is, a medieval theorist telling singers NOT to use them, especially in conjunction with fixed-pitched instruments used with the chant. I've never seen such evidence. Nor is it clear that instruments were not always used somewhere with chant, so that whatever microtonal singing existed in ancient times would pre-date western chant practice by a good bit. I'd be curious to know what research in the tuning of ancient instruments might suggest along these lines. Studies in ethnomusicology make a good case for microtonal singing, but as far as I know, the direct link between Gregorian melodies and ancient Semitic sources remains speculative.
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  • JesJes
    Posts: 508
    @Hugh this would fascinate you. I know this is what I've been looking into of late.
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  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,130
    Typically when we hear Microtones it is performed by a single cantor in melismatic style. I don’t think it is desirable (or possible) with two or more voices.
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  • Simon
    Posts: 116
    How about this Francis? Music from the Coptic Church (both solo and more - some 20 - voices).

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-b4FGk9SQsg

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  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,130
    Nice stuff Simon. Are you intimating there are microtones in this?
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  • JesJes
    Posts: 508
    I have achieved micro tone singing between two notes in unison with one other person. He and I worked together for over 4 years to achieve this.
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  • Simon
    Posts: 116
    Francis: Yes, there are microtones in the sample - quarter tones. In Europe, microtones – intervals smaller than a semitone – have been associated with oriental cultures. The idea that these ‘Arabic sounds’, notated in medieval liturgical manuscripts, could be part of Gregorian chant, the ‘foundation of Western (Christian) music’, has been too shocking for many to accept. Read the introduction of the paper.
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,130
    I’m hearing chromatics with portamentos in between, no ‘microtones’ really. Must be my western ear training. Then again, perhaps that’s how you are defining microtones.
  • I was interested in one of the comments in the link to the Coptic choir that Simon provided a few comments above here. The person said that when St Mark took the nascent Christian religion to Aegypt he, to make conversion and memory easier, took some of the songs of the Aegyptian religion and put Christian words to them - which, if true, would lead one to the conjecture that today's Coptic music is a relic (or a preservation) of pagan religious music from Romano-Aegyptian times. Can anyone here verify this interesting and not unlikely historical development?

    While I listened to the choir and the leading singer with interest, I was really offended by the clueless use of a microphone. It seems that they just sing everything by rote with very little of the musical refinement that we would expect in western choirs of any confession. For sure, they represent a fundamentally different musical aesthetic from our western one.
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    And, while this is not about microtones (it's actually about whole tones), I read somewhere long ago that in mediaeval Sicily (and presumably up into modern times) parallel organum at the second was sung there during Lent. Has anyone else encountered this?
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