Finding the right pitch/"key" for singing and accompanying chant
  • MatthewRoth
    Posts: 1,773
    Please forgive the length; it's a bit of stream-of-consciousness. Tl;dr I'm trying to work out how to think of the keys, in part to explain to the organist, in part to explain to myself, since while the office will primarily be sung on A, which is comfortable, Tenebrae (and if ever called to do it, the Office of the Dead) are sung on G (meaning that I will return to this for different keys sometime between now and March)

    When I was in charge of Tenebrae last year, I didn't even think of chant as modal (for which critiques are welcome, honestly); I simply counted, with Do as 1, to the scale degree of the modern scale which corresponds with G in order to find the key and therefore starting pitches, e.g in mode 1, the psalms started on Eb, in mode 8, on D, in mode 7 on F, etc.

    Recently, I reread the comment left a few months ago by Fr. @awilliams (Link here.)

    We sing Vespers monthly. (This will be weekly at an undetermined point in the future, for what it's worth.)

    At the moment, we are using written accompaniment for Vespers (this isn't ideal, in my opinion, but playing from square notes à la Fontgombault isn't possible). Fr Williams is right; it's disorienting to switch from one pitch to another depending on the mode, and it's even worse if different keys are used for the same mode when we're talking about the same kind of chant, like office antiphons, where the range isn't ever going to be an issue (hymns or the Mass chants are slightly different, but you can try to make the dominant one pitch, like A or even B-flat). It just so happens that I had only found the vesperale music from Giulio Bas, which, besides harmonic considerations (which one may take or leave), he situates the music all over the place, going from a reciting tone on A to B-flat and back again, even for music in the same mode; in fact, the Magnificats that are fully written out with each verse are often in another key (he gives the same key for the first two verses appended to many, but certainly not all, Magnificat antiphons).

    Thanks to some more intrepid googling, we're now able to use the music from Henri Potiron (I'd have to do more work to make the NOH feasible, and for now, the heavier accompaniment works better in my opinion, which is worth almost nothing but hey, we're singing Vespers), which is almost complete except for the offices added or changed by Pius XII, like that of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

    I've copied the final and dominant from the handout in volume I of Laus in ecclesia along with a corresponding note to where this falls if you follow the method of assigning the tonic to Do and not to the final of the mode.

    Fr. Williams's comments are in italics.

    Mode 1: Final Re, dominant at the 5th, La (6th of the modern scale)
    D minor (with a B-flat or natural)
    — Tempting to think of it as C major with a B-flat, but the 5th of D minor is A, corresponding to La.
    Mode 2: Final Re, dominant at the 3rd, Fa (4th of the modern scale)
    A major (with a final on F# minor)
    — The psalm appears more like like E maj (incipit of E-F#-A). However, there is a D natural in the alto accompaniment of Potiron (sparingly, at dactyls of the mediant and at the flex). Using A for Re does not work, since that’s the reciting tone, plus you need a G natural and a C natural.
    Also, the D natural is Si flat, like in the Roman version of the O antiphons so you need a D sharp, then, to complete the scale; the monastic versions of the O antiphon do not have Si flat, meaning that this is not a purely academic concern.
    Mode 3: Final Mi, dominant at the 4th, La (6th of the modern scale) or 5th, Si (7th of the modern scale)
    F major (with an E-flat) or if using the older version of this tone, E major with a D natural
    — This one doesn’t make sense. For example, A-major is given in Potiron for Sunday Vespers; starting on C# for Mi gets you to Do, the reciting tone of A, with no issues), so it is almost a C# minor scale with a D natural.
    — For the ancient version, then it’s almost B minor but with accidentals needed…
    Mode 4: Final Mi, dominant at the 4th, La (6th of the modern scale) or 7th, Re (2nd of the modern scale)
    A minor
    — More like C major for 4E and 4G since the reciting tone is on La (the 6th), with a Gregorian final on E.
    — How is it that 4A/A*/d/c (according to the Liber antiphonarius/Liber Usualis; the monastic and modern books of Solesmes seem to have completely redone the numbering system if the Laus in ecclesia chart from vol. 2 is correct) is sung on A (Re, the 7th/2nd) and in the same key: it’s A minor with an F sharp for the 7th, essentially G major, which reverts to the natural for flattened Si (cf. Propheta magna, XV Sunday after Pentecost). This breaks down if the alternate tone is sung on Si (cf. Laus in ecclesia)
    In Vespers of the BVM, Potiron uses A-major, but then uses accidentals to get the right results, including in the accompaniment; the only remaining sharp would be the F# needed to sing the final of the A* ending (not provided, since the Solesmes books note 4A* bur routinely omit the podatus, which I never omit personally, as I find this ending easier in the end, and in any case, it is possible to sing the second note without an accidental that, e.g. Giulio Bas provides in his accompaniment for the Magnificat).
    Mode 5: Final on Fa, dominant at the 5th, Re (2nd of the modern scale)
    D major (with a G-sharp)
    — But isn’t the music behaving more like A-major? (Fa, not Do, on D — well, then again, the final of this mode is Fa) Yet the key signature of mode V antiphons/psalms in Potiron is indeed D maj, with G-sharp accidentals as needed, but the psalms begin on D as expected. Either way, the music works.
    Mode 6: Final on Fa, dominant at the 3rd, La (6th of the modern scale)
    F major
    — The final being Fa, it makes sense to base the scale around F, but you then only have a half-step between La and Si (A and B-flat), leaving us with C major, unless that you consider Si flat a necessary part of mode 6 chants, in which case there is no problem. Transposed chants (6C) are in F major without any accidentals, as the reciting tone is on Mi (A), and the half-steps line up accordingly for Mi-Fa and Si-Do.
    Mode 7: Final on Sol, dominant at the 5th, Re (2nd of the modern scale)
    D major (with a C-natural)
    — This behaves more like G major, since the A is of course the 2nd degree of that scale, and D is Sol, the final, and Potiron has only F# in the key signature . But D major with a C natural is not incorrect either…
    Mode 8: Final on Sol, dominant at the 4th, Do (tonic of the modern scale)
    A major (with a final on E major)
    — The psalms behave as expected: E-F#-A fits the Sol-La-Do pattern correctly, and Sol is the final on E without any accidentals.
  • Matthew,

    Wow. That's a lot to accomplish.

    I'll digest what you've written as I re-read it a few times, but let me put my tuppence in (from a different thread). I think there is something to be said for keeping a constant doh throughout any given part of the Office. When I originally wrote that, I wasn't thinking of organists, but they make it even more obviously helpful: if they don't have to shift keys (i.e., move doh around and wrap their heads around how the mode works) this will make what my son calls "on-boarding" slightly more hassle-free.

    Thanked by 1Bri
  • MatthewRoth
    Posts: 1,773
    I know, but it makes it difficult for singers, as well as the organist, who have to search for a new reciting tone, instead of working from that pitch back to the incipit of the psalm, which I find to be much easier and doable even in the dark at Tenebrae.
  • Matthew,

    Explain, please, how finding a reciting tone is hard, if we start with the incipit? I'm evidently being thicker than a dense fog in London.
  • MatthewRoth
    Posts: 1,773
    I find it harder to find a reciting tone that has now changed. For example, if it was A in the last psalm, but is now G or B-flat, you have to search for that new pitch and that of the incipit (yes, of course, you always will be given one or the other, whether with the organ or a tuning fork or pitch pipe). If the reciting tone is consistently G, A, or B-flat, that pitch becomes more firmly engraved in the mind and is therefore a good reference for finding the incipit. (This is how I do things, which is idiosyncratic, but it does help when fumbling around in the dark at Tenebrae if the pitch pipe fails and you need to think the pitches instead of hearing them.)
  • tomjaw
    Posts: 2,389
    Explain, please, how finding a reciting tone is hard,

    1. Finding a reciting tone for yourself is easy... you can even use your phone to find it.
    2. Finding reciting tone for a choir is more difficult.
    3. Finding a reciting tone for a mixed choir can be hard.
    4. Finding a reciting tone that suits the organist and the choir could be very hard.

    The biggest variable is the organist... some have a talent in accompanying chant and it all works very easily for the cantors. I am privileged to have sung chant with Colin Mawby playing the organ, and I have met many other organists with similar talents. They can all prop a L.U. on the music stand of the organ.

    Others have less of a talent and using the books of accompaniments does not really help, in that case it is better not to have the organ!
    Thanked by 1mmeladirectress
  • JonLaird
    Posts: 230
    I think your discussion may illustrate the problem of thinking in modern key signatures and keys. The suggestions Fr. Williams gives do, in my view, more adequately capture the "feel" of the medieval modes. For example, Mode V. For the organist to think in D major, adding a G#, captures the lydian feel of this mode. Using A major would miss the "lift" that comes from this feel.

    [But -- to qualify this view, and as a partial aside -- another danger is forgetting that modal assignments, from the beginning, were an anachronism, and any rigid application of them (especially when constructing accompaniments) risks putting the repertoire in a neat little box it was never meant to fit in. However, given we are talking primarily about psalmody, it seems that a reasonable "system" could be applied.]
  • For example, Mode V. For the organist to think in D major, adding a G#, captures the lydian feel of this mode. Using A major would miss the "lift" that comes from this feel.

    Except that in Mode V the B becomes a B-flat more often than not, and therefore has almost nothing to do with our modern conception of the "Lydian" mode.
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen francis
  • MatthewRoth
    Posts: 1,773
    Well, that’s exactly why I posted. I didn’t want to overthink it, despite appearances. It’s just that things like why D major with an accidental is better than A major weren’t obvious.

    Plus, as it turns out, the keys line up neatly (with the exception of mode III; I’m not sure how you derive the right relationships of intervals with that as the key signature.

    Indeed, the modal assignments of the propers are more fluid to my mind, but the psalmody and the antiphons not so much.
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 3,133
    Remember that the psalm tones are NOT modes, but simply melodic formulae for the recitation of a psalm text: the modality of a piece is found by the final and dominant of an Antiphon or Responsory, not by the psalm tone used with it. The psalm tones developed to make the recitation of the text clear; the intonation developed to make the connection of the final of the antiphon to the dominant (aka reciting tone) easier, the mediant cadence to rhetorically mark the half-verse, and the various endings developed to make the return to the Antiphon easier; in reality there is nothing stoping one from reciting the psalm simply on the dominant without an intonation or mediant and final cadences: in fact some chant traditions don't have a mediant cadence in psalm tones, but only a pause at the half-verse.
  • MatthewRoth
    Posts: 1,773
    Of course, though I don't think I've indicated otherwise, and in any case, it would be boring to sing the psalm tone without even the simple incipit, mediant, and final devised by Solesmes
  • Matthew,

    I must be weird. I look at the antiphon, choose A as doh, and begin singing. Neither rock science nor brain surgery.
    Thanked by 1monasteryliturgist
  • In our Monastery we base everything off of G# as the dominant. It seems to work fine. After a while your fingers memorize where everything is anyway. Even our beginner organists have been able to accomplish this without too much problem. It's not so difficult once you understand how each incipit starts.
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • We usually pick the highest note in the antiphon and then start on whatever note makes the highest note D, unless there are overriding musical reasons to do otherwise, such as singing an entire office where antiphons are in the same mode and you want them to have musical continuity with each other. In this case we would set the antiphons with as high of a Do as possible where all the antiphons can still be sung comfortably.

    Then you just play in that key.

    This discussion is a little confusing to me, because in a movable Do system all the modes would start on Do, and any key could theoretically accompany any mode.
    Thanked by 3CHGiffen francis MarkB
  • JonLaird
    Posts: 230
    Except that in Mode V the B becomes a B-flat more often than not, and therefore has almost nothing to do with our modern conception of the "Lydian" mode.

    A perusal of the Antiphonal Monasticum (old or new) would show that the vast majority of Mode V antiphons retain the B and, at least to my ear, do sound like the modern lydian mode.

    The Missal propers in the Solesmes editions do have B-flat more often in chants classified as Mode V, but even those chants are more likely to have a mix (e.g. Laetare, where there are more B-flats, but the psalm tone retains B).

    Getting back to the original question -- what was it, exactly?
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • MatthewRoth
    Posts: 1,773
    Chris, not to go around in circles, but that is more unusual than picking a common pitch for the dominant when chanting the psalms and antiphons.

    Monasteryliturgist, I don't think it's terribly difficult, but I recently ran into an accompaniment where in the end, it made sense to describe it as "F-minor" and not "A-flat," and as someone who learned music on trombone, I'm still more comfortable with flats and major keys to sharps and to the relative minor with the same number of flats, so I started thinking aboutwhy one is a better description than the other.

    Liam, as I said above, you can pick the tonic to be Do, but your choice of keys is still limited if you keep the same reciting tone. Also, I think there's value in using the tonic as the Gregorian final, and of course this is never Do (or La and Si for that matter).

    Jon, there wasn't a question so much as I welcomed thoughts about how to explain this properly to someone who is trying to figure out the key, although I also don't understand how Fr Williams derived the key for mode III chants; that doesn't seem right to me, as it's not what's done in Potiron for example.

    Re: flats in the monastic editions, it's true, but the monks (and apparently academics) came to believe that a) most chants with flats didn't have them originally and b) that this was worth correcting, although the real answer and solution are probably more complicated; ultimately, however, Solesmes has for now decided that certain readings (mostly Beneventan if I'm not mistaken) are less corrupted and changes to the modern antiphonals from the old reflect that tradition.
  • Generally I pick the key to put it in a comfortable range for the singers. Most of the time, the reciting tone ends up on G or A, it just depends on how high the antiphon goes. Most of my singers are altos and basses, so we almost never go above a C (for the highest note of the antiphon) on Sunday mornings.
  • Right, I agree with Nathan. It depends on who is doing the chanting. A few years back we were doing things on an A range but now, lo and behold changes in the community and we had to take it down a notch when our community became a majority of altos... I myself am not an alto in any sense of the word but you have to adjust for the overall quality.

    I had one priest who was adamant that chant had to be sung exactly as it was written ( a former chaplain)... and lets just say everybody said "DEO GRATIAS" at the end of the Easter Vigil that year.

    We did have an old book from Solesmes that gave different keys for the tones... I cannot locate it right now, but perhaps it exists somewhere on the internet and could be helpful?
  • Matthew,

    I'll take your word for it.

    I've argued elsewhere that there are catechetical lessons to be learned by keeping a constant doh through any one portion of the Office. I would think that the modes come out more clearly by keeping a constant doh, too.

    Sometimes there are practical considerations which make choosing a constant doh reasonable.
  • Chant is not based on a fixed do. Many chants can be sung up or down a few steps from where you’d otherwise expect them to be. Just pick whatever range is comfortable for the voices you have. It really does not have to be complicated.
  • It’s fun if you can both pick something that works for the singers, and that bears a key relationship to the previous psalm / antiphon / thing sung.
    Thanked by 1ServiamScores
  • Serviam,

    I don't take the (as I understand it) French position that do = C.

    I do think, however, that within an Office (and, perhaps, within a Mass) do should be constant, so that those parts which are higher are, actually higher.

    I've recently been trying to figure out if this can be carried from Propers to Ordinary and back.

    The notable exception to the idea I have is that priests can't often sing the incipit for Cum Jubilo if the choir is to have a nearly or mostly doable range for the Gloria. Our present solution (which I'm not sure is the best one, but the only one that will cause little confusion) is to pitch the incipit up a fifth, so that the priest's end and the choir's start are the same pitch.
  • Oh, I’m not denying that there should be some sort of relationship between adjacent chants. If you can pick a pitch that is sympatico between two chants that’s great. I frequently try and have our introits bear a relationship to our entrance hymn for this very reason.
  • MatthewRoth
    Posts: 1,773
    One hymn and chant relationship that works really well is “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” the ending pitch of which can be chosen such that it begins on the same note as In Paradisum. (Even in the traditional form, singing this at Navy and Marine Corps funerals is something to be honored.)

    Re: the comfort of voices, one reason I like for the reciting tone in the office to be on A is that it is almost never too low for anyone (like women’s voices in the congregation) and the chant is rarely too high during the day. We’ve sometimes started the Kyrie too low, on the other hand, which kills it.
  • I don't like to put all modes "in the same reciting note (or near)", It's strange sing the sobrious and lacrimoso protus plagalis in the same melodic height that a angelic and ecstatic tetrardus authenticus. I think the tessitura can highlight the affect specific and I would sing the protus plagal at least on a third lower even if the antiphon goes to a "sol" or "la" bellow the finalis on "re". On the other hand often women and basses has difficult to sing the higher parts of the melody when the reciting note is on A, B or C in some modes.