Vespers - pitch relationships
  • Bri
    Posts: 99
    I feel like I saw a discussion related to this topic previously on this forum, but I am having difficulty locating it.

    Should there be a consistent pitch chosen for all parts of Vespers?

    For example, if "do" is sung on an "A" for the first psalm, should "do" always be sing on "A" for the second psalm and throughout all parts of Vespers?

    Or might "do" be reassigned to, say, "C" if this makes it more comfortable for the singers?

    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 5,137
    There is no requirement that "do" be assigned to the same absolute pitch for all parts of Vespers (or any other liturgy).
  • Bri,

    I think you've seen me hint at this question before, so thank you for raising it explicitly.

    Is there a moral obligation to use a constant "do"? I don't think there is.

    On the other hand, keeping a constant "do" has musical, theological and catechetical consequences. When I sing the Office, I keep the same "do" across the antiphons at Lauds and Vespers, for example. I haven't sung Matins often enough to know if the same impact appears there.
    Thanked by 1Bri
  • Bri
    Posts: 99

    Can you share more about the "theological and catechetical consequences"?

    I'd love to hear more!!

    Thanked by 1StimsonInRehab
  • Bri,

    Thank you for your interest.

    I'll use a very specific example to illustrate the point.

    Monday's (ferial) Vespers has the first antiphon begin on f, to the text "Inclinavit Dominus aurem suam mihi" -- God bent down his ear to me. The second psalm's antiphon has a higher ambitus (but only if you start on a consistant "do"), and the text "Vota mea Domino reddam coram omni populo ejus", which Diviniumofficium translates as "I will pay my vows in the sight of all his people" [ Where "Domino" went is anyone's guess). The third antiphon for this same day has the highest ambitus of all, and begins with the word "Clamavi" -- I cried out!. It finishes on the lowest note of its ambitus (and the starting point of the 2nd antiphon) on the word "me".

    Does that help?
  • Bri
    Posts: 99
    Thank you, Chris! This example is very helpful!!

  • GambaGamba
    Posts: 538
    It’s fantastic when it works to keep a consistent “do”, but not worth it if the music becomes too low or high for the choir (and congregation, if they are singing portions). It is nigh impossible if there is a really wide range of notated pitches to be sung, for example, if you have to sing in mode 1 and mode 5 and then later mode 7 and mode 2. If there’s a good organist, though, they can improvise fluently and get you from one pitch to the other without it sounding at all disjointed….
    Thanked by 1Bri
  • Bri,

    I can provide other examples, if you wish.


    Take the feast of Corpus Christi.

    Keeping a constant "do" makes the Introit very low, if the Gradual and the Alleluia and Sequence are to be within the range of most averagely good singers.

    On the other hand, keeping a constant "do" between the Gradual, the Alleluia and the Sequence allows the following to occur:

    1) The last three notes of the Gradual are exactly the same as the first three notes of the Alleluia but in reverse order.
    2) A consistent tonality is established across three pieces in the same mode, sung consecutively. A seamless transition can take place, and the organ can accompany the congregational (or antiphonal) singing of the Lauda Sion because (assuming the choir keeps on pitch for the first two pieces) the pitch has been announced in advance.

    So, yes, there are times when it might be impractical, but this is the worship of God we're accomplishing, not seating in a bingo hall.
    Thanked by 2Bri tomjaw
  • Bri
    Posts: 99
    Thanks again, Chris!

    I would be interested in hearing about other examples. I'd be particularly interested if any are for Sundays (Mass; First or Second Vespers) or Solsmnities (Mass; First or Second Vespers) -- but interested in any other examples you may be able to share as well!

  • mahrt
    Posts: 517
    I begin by placing the reciting tone of the mode on a; if this it slightly too high or low, I adjust it somewhat. Otherwise, the plagal modes will be too low or the authentics too high.
  • I would follow volumes 7 and 8 here:

    Having everything in the same key would be awful boring.
    Thanked by 2Bri francis
  • Dixit_Dominus_44,

    Maybe I'm misunderstanding you, but keeping a constant "do" is exactly the opposite of keeping the pieces in the same key, and of boring.
    Thanked by 2tomjaw Bri
  • Bri
    Posts: 99
    Thank you for the accompaniment resources, Dixit!
  • Keeping "do" on the same pitch throughout the Vespers (or any other service) can be impractical in view of the vocal range. Especially for psalmody, it seems better to keep the reciting tone the same or close. In the latter case, keeping the semitones in the same place, if possible. For example, if a psalm in mode VIII is followed by one in mode II, then it is practical to have for the first psalm "do" on pitch la, and for the second psalm "fa" on the same pitch la. In another example, if psalms in modes VI and VII follow each other (or vice versa), then VI mode recite "la" on la, and for VII mode recite "re" on sol (the semitones again remain in place).
  • Andris,

    If the psalter proceeded from reciting tone to reciting tone, I could see some (limited) logic to your approach. Since each psalm ends with an antiphon and the next one begins with an antiphon, some connection would be intriguing if it were between the final of one antiphon and the incipit of the next.
  • Bri,

    First Vespers for the Epiphany illustrates the value which can be gained by keeping a constant "do". The first antiphon is Mode II, and has a very low reciting tone, in keeping with the text, "Ante luciferum genitus", and the pitches of the antiphons gradually rise, leading to Mode VII's "Stella ista sicut flamma coruscat" (Before the light, there was darkness and chaos. When the light shone in the darkness, this latter comprehended not the former, and the star shone brightly. Compare the introit for Midnight Mass with the introit for Mass during the Day for Christmas for a very similar pattern.)
    Thanked by 1Bri
  • awilliamsawilliams
    Posts: 100
    In my experience, keeping the reciting pitch of the psalm tones at the same note better enables meditation on the text. Solesmes recites at B-flat. Clear Creek recites at A. I know some monasteries that will even go as low as a G reciting pitch for Matins/Lauds (when it is more difficult to chant), then move to A or B-flat for the other offices.


    I'd add that this certainly doesn't result in the same keys for each chant. Using A as reciting pitch, you end up with:

    Mode 1 - D minor (with a B-flat or natural)
    Mode 2 - A major (with a final on F# minor)
    Mode 3 - F major (with an E-flat)
    [or if using the older version of this tone, E major with a D natural)
    Mode 4 - A minor
    Mode 5 - D major (with a G-sharp)
    Mode 6 - F major
    Mode 7 - D major (with a C-natural)
    Mode 8 - A major (with a final on E major)
    Thanked by 1Bri
  • francis
    Posts: 10,635

    Is there a good recorded example by which we can enjoy the movement of pitches as you explain to gather the ethos? This question has been lurking in the back of my mind for a a couple of years and I simply dismissed it on account of various chanters (not necessarily 'musician's) and not necessarily aware of such intricacies.
    Thanked by 1Bri
  • Bri,

    Look through this morning's (Feast of the Holy Family) antiphons at Matins. The low and high pitches are striking.
    Thanked by 1Bri
  • Tenebrae is another good example. If you sing the whole thing at a consistent pitch the differences are very noticeable.
  • Matins for Ash Wednesday:

    The lowest pitch in the 7th respond and the highest pitch in the 8th respond are exactly 2 octaves apart, but only if you keep the same do. The lowest pitches occur in phrases such as "I prayed to the Lord, saying", while the highest pitches include the text "Do not be afraid, Abram".
    Thanked by 1Bri
  • Palestrina
    Posts: 362
    This discussion seems to lay the foundations for another discussion - this time, about the role of organ ‘intonatios’ (whether composed or improvised) in giving out pitches and removing the aural discrepancies between starting pitches.

    Surely, the pitch of each psalm should be such that it fits in the best and most comfortable part of the range?
  • Palestrina,

    I'm not sure I accept your premise,
    the pitch of each psalm should be such that it fits in the best and most comfortable part of the range

    If everything is 'comfortable', then the hills and valleys are smoothed out. No urgent hummingbird flits from flower to flower, desperately trying to keep up with its appetite. No sinner comes to fervent repentance, pledging never to commit the same sins of which he has been absolved. Sunset and sunrise take place on a black and white screen.

  • Andrew_Malton
    Posts: 1,145
    Hypothesis: the "notated pitch" of the chants of particular office is significant for their performance and liturgical purpose.

    Question: Is there any early evidence about the role of relative pitch in liturgical singing?

    I can't find anything in McKinnon, but perhaps I missed something. Sachs (1943) quotes Ptolemy, and asserts that pitch is essential to “ethos”: but did the first-millenium Christian cantors think so? And did the scribes respect this in their notation?
  • This morning's Propers (i.e., at Mass) have a "comfortable" ambitus among all except the Communio, which strikingly has the highest pitch of all the Propers of this Mass, on the word "sonus", illustrating a loud rushing wind. Keeping a constant do makes this even more striking than it would be otherwise.

    Thanked by 2francis Bri
  • renwick
    Posts: 26
    I like to use the following for psalmody (including introits)
    reciting tone A - Modes I, IV, V, VI, VII
    reciting tone B-flat - Modes II, III, VIII
    I frequently--but not always--use these same transpositions for chants that are not attached to psalms, such as hymns, graduals, etc.
    It will be noted that there is a long tradition of such transposition: think of Allelgri Miserere where the chanted verses, Mode II, use B-flat recitation, and think of the organ versets of Pachelbel and the like, which have similar transpositions - - - but not always identical!!
    William Renwick
    Thanked by 2Bri LauraKaz