Music in an oral tradition
  • CatherineS
    Posts: 478
    Yesterday I had the joy of assisting at Mass at two different churches, for the sake of meeting up with friends at those two places. At the first, a mix of Gregorian chant and simple Latin hymns were sung. At the second, pop music vernacular hymns.

    One thing I've always noticed here (Brazil) is that the music is largely an oral tradition. A smattering of people learn to read music, but most church choirs and congregations have learned the music by ear. Hymnals are very rare, and in the few cases I've seen them they only have words, not notes.

    One effect of this is that the idea that one has to sing a song according to the specifics of the written notes does not exist. One sings it the way one has learned it in ones community: words, rhythm, melody. If a written text is not available, most people only know the refrain and first verse. Sometimes a given community will have their own minor variations in rhythm and text, because the music was introduced by someone who learned it that way.

    There is a body of older hymns, with simple melodies and rhythms, that most older people know well (at least the refrain and first verse). In cases where I have found sheet music for these hymns that I've learned by ear, the way I learned it is rarely the way it is written. But the idea that the written version (from the composer!!) has any authority doesn't exist.

    Then what happens is that if/when a choir is introduced to new music (say, Panis Angelicus or O Sacrum Convivium), the same approach applies. The notes on the printed page serve as a help to learning the basic melody, and a reminder of the melody when singing until it is memorized. But they are not considered a fixed and restrictive guide to exactly how to sing (nor how to accompany, if musicians are playing). Whoever is in charge of the rehearsals (be it a music director, organist, enthusiastic volunteer(s)), they determine the interpretation of new music, choosing tempo, lengthenings, pauses, etc as they feel so moved. I've run into this in person a few times where I had to relearn the rhythm of a hymn or chant to accommodate a different congregations way of singing. This was usually discovered mid-song, when everyone else inserted a pause or held a note more/less than I would expect... doh.

    The conversations about the rhythm and interpretation of Gregorian chant remind me of this.
  • The conversations about the rhythm and interpretation of Gregorian chant remind me of this.


    I had the exact same thought as I read your post. It seems not only probable, but most likely true, that there were wild variations in "standard" chants across the European continent until more modern notation was developed. You look at something like the St. Gall manuscripts and they seem to be just that: a memory jog, but almost as much a suggestion as a "restriction". I'd also expect that, like every modern ensemble that spends a lot of time together, each monastery would likely develop its own habits and quirks. As a result, I'm not surprised in the slightest that there are deviations in manuscripts of chant.

    It sounds to me like your region is still living proof of this type of tradition. I think this is precisely the type of "diverse unity" that Lázló Dobzay is referring to in his article on the development of Hungarian church music as quoted in his book, The Bugnini Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform. He speaks of legitimate variations that still constitute a cohesive repertoire that is common to all the church. (And that this provides a certain richness to the Church; it is not a detriment to it.)
  • madorganist
    Posts: 661
    It seems not only probable, but most likely true, that there were wild variations in "standard" chants across the European continent until more modern notation was developed.
    Indubitably...and even then! That's why performers interested in returning to the sources have to make informed decisions about things like the value of different editions and manuscripts, which indications in the manuscripts appear to be more deliberate, etc., especially where a true oral tradition is lacking—which is everywhere when it comes to Gregorian chant, to be quite honest. I know that at many churches in my diocese, for example, they're going to hold different notes in the simple Salve Regina or the Sanctus from Mass XVIII. We should be clear that those variations in performance practice don't constitute an oral tradition any more so than whether the Presbyterians down the road sing Old Hundredth with equal notes or a mixture of long and short notes, regardless of what's printed in their hymnal. The tune was written a particular way in the Genevan Psalter, and anyone who desires to do so can see how it was printed there. It's similar for chant, except that we don't have an original edition at our disposal, but it would be a tremendous mistake to assign the same value to, say, a mediocre edition from the 18th century as to the adiastematic neumes that are still being copied by hand 1,100 years later in the name of legitimate variety enriching the repertory.
  • KARU27
    Posts: 113
    "Infi-inite thy vast do-main"...

    I think there's a thread about this somewhere...
    https://forum.musicasacra.com/forum/discussion/17282/how-do-you-singplay-holy-god-we-praise-thy-name/p1
  • madorganist
    Posts: 661
    Großer Gott, wir loben dich is normally not sung in its original form, but these are variants of a tune printed in the 18th century, not oral tradition. The original melody is extant - and quite different from the way I learned it.
    https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maria_Theresianisches_Gesangbuch_1776_Melodie_No._XLII.jpg
  • madorganist that is fascinating. Very different indeed.
  • Yes, I have found that “local usage” is prominent in my parish.

    One of the churches that made up my current parishes was largely Italian. They celebrate a novena to St. Anthony of Padua every spring. There is a hymn to St. Anthony they use as the professional hymn every week. I was stunned to find out that the way we sing it in the pews is vastly different from the way it’s actually written. If I were to sing it as written, it would’ve thrown the PIPs completely through a loop.

    I also noticed it’s common with some of the St. Louis Jesuits’ pieces like Be Not Afraid and One Bread, One Body. My parish never sings it as written.
  • Carol
    Posts: 577
    Regarding "Be Not Afraid," it is silly to print hymns for a congregation to sing that include double dotted quarter notes which lead to a jerky rhythm. That may be how the composer chose to phrase the lyric, but it is ridiculous for the average congregation. Often the accents fall on the wrong syllable or obscure the meaning of the words.
    Thanked by 1PolskaPiano
  • In the contemporary church I grew up at, Be Not Afraid was never sang according to the actual rhythm. The double dotted quarter and sixteenth note patterns were always turned into a dotted quarter and eighth note. A lot of the sixteenth note pick up notes became eighth notes. One time when I was sitting in the congregation and Be Not Afraid was sung, I tried to sing the written rhythms while everyone else did the altered ones. It sounds way different when you actually sing what is on the page.

    Edit: fixed a typo.
  • m_r_taylor
    Posts: 142
    Oh, would that we could unearth the original Dufford manuscript for a semiological study!
    Thanked by 1madorganist
  • PolskaPiano
    Posts: 179
    Haha. Be Not Afraid. I have been asked to sub for funerals at various churches. When this is used, I ask the choir first, "Show me how you sing it."

    I swear that song could have a spoken 3rd verse, much like Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You," because he wrote the rhythm in the first verses so literally.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,082
    Re BNO: For word painting, I think the final word of the refrain should be a quaver in duration. And silence through the rest of the bar.
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 8,331
    Oh, would that we could unearth the original Dufford manuscript for a semiological study!

    And then bury it again under great boulders. :-)
    Thanked by 2tomjaw CHGiffen
  • @PolskaPiano,

    That’s exactly how many music directors with whom I’ve worked approach it—“Show me how you sing it.”

    A lot of good accompanists have resorted to light accompaniment or just playing the chords of the piece because the liberties the vocalist can take with the song are so vast.

    And in regards to Dolly Patton’s “I Will Always Love You,” I cannot get that out of my head, now. I could totally see it with BNA.
    Thanked by 1Carol