måndag 14 november 2016

Square notes versus round

Every so often I have had a scrap with organists and choir leaders who insist on making us sing Gregorian chant from scores in modern notation. Our choir was once invited to sing in a broadcast concert from the Brighton Festival. The scores, of familiar music, were handed out, but we found them confusing, and asked for them in Gregorian notation that we were used to, with the groups of notes shown by signs called neumes (upper line). These were gladly provided, but the concert director expressed surprise that anyone was still using them.

Sometimes the dispute gets acrimonious. One choir director poked fun at the idea that anyone should even raise the matter, and said it was a fuss about nothing. To her credit, she later became convinced, started to go on courses at Solemnes and is now an Associate of the Schola Gregoriana of Cambrige.

The situation is particularly entrenched here in Sweden, paradoxically, because church musicians are well-qualified; there is an abundance of talented singers, but their background is mostly Lutheran. They have no roots in the Catholic musical tradition. Naturally enough, they find the Gregorian neume system unfamiliar and off-putting. Since there is almost nobody still around who was brought up in the Catholic tradition and could pass it on to them, there is resistance against changing to the authentic notation. As a result, although there is a reasonable selection of the Latin Gregorian chants included in the national hymn book, Cecilia, they have been printed in a five-line notation with stemless filled oblique oval notes (lower illustration).

It was not until Guido d̈́'Arezzo invented the Gregorian staff notation at the start of the eleventh century that it was even possible to indicate pitch in written form. But even today, it is said that the chant of the church is not part of the soul until it has been learned by heart. Jewish boys still learn to chant scripture readings from the Torah by heart, there being no musical notations, or even vowels, on the texts hand-written on the parchment scroll.

For non-musicians, or for children or beginners, the Gregorian notation is easier to grasp. Compare the two selections of the same score - the Kyrie of Mass I (Lux et Origo) at the top of this blog. The Gregorian neumes are an analog representation of the musical phrases, as well as being a diagram of the movement that the choir director's hand should make. That is not all. To anyone who has gained even a little experience, the distinctive pattern of the neume groupings make it immediately recognisable as belonging to the Mass Lux et Origo. Thus, even if you cannot sight-read off the page, the pattern of notes acts an aide memoire to anyone who as already learnt it, which is something that the amorphous line of floating dots in the Cecilia rendering cannot do.

There is more. The neumes are a guide to the phrasing. Small details in the notation - liquescent notes, for instance, make for subtlety in the sound. A further advantage is that the Gregorian system keeps the words together so that they can still be read, instead of breaking the text up into spread-out syllables which become meaningless in any language (see illustration).

Given that the text has the priority in chant, this combination of neumes and text layout leads to a markedly higher standard of singing, noticeably so even to the listener. I would go so far as to say that the modern notation destroys the very concept of the music as chanted sacred text used as prayer.

There are also practical advantages for the singers. The four-line Gregorian notation does not indicate an absolute pitch. The choice of pitch can be left to the singers; this is of course a nuisance for the accompanist, who has to transpose, which may be one reason for the preference for modern notation.

The Gregorian system also has the benefit of being more compact. The same amount of text and music takes up less space, so it can either be printed in larger type eg 12 point instead of 10 point, or in a smaller (and less expensive) book. For most people over the age of forty, bigger is better. There is a cognitive advantage as well: it is easier to see what is happening when there are only four lines instead of five: 25% easier. There is solid scientific evidence on this subject, which has been done, amongst other things, in connection with aircraft instrument dials, since these can be safety-critical. Worse still, the tonal range of the music does not fit the tonal range of the stave: the two upper lines are almost never used but a ledger line is usually required.

All of these factors make the chant more accessible to non-musicians. We should remember that Gregorian chant is not music for performance; it is prayer. Even a choir rehearsal session is a period of prayer. The music is not the preserve of musicians but belongs to the people. I have been singing in church for over forty years I would not describe myself as a singer, let alone a musician. But then Gregorian chant was not, in the first place, written for singers. Like most people, I cannot read music straight off the page in any format. I have to memorise the tunes, which I can do reasonably well. That is what people have been doing since the dawn of human history. Indeed, the ability to learn a tune is not even a specifically human attribute, since birds and many other mammals are proficient at the task.

For non-musicians the barrier is reading music in any shape or form. For beginners, the Gregorian system is easier, for the reasons mentioned above. Since this music is for everyone, the way to get people singing is to start them off with that which is within their ability and connects them not only to the ancient tradition of the Catholic Church but to the Jewish tradition from which it comes. For more proficient musicians, familiarity with the authentic neume notation will not only transform the quality of the sound, but also provide access to the vast stock of ancient music written in that notation, which otherwise would need to be transcribed, with the inevitable loss in subtleties which that leads to.

It is important therefore, that scores in neume notation should be made available for congregations and choirs, both for Gregorian settings in the vernacular and for the original Latin. As far as the latter is concerned, most of the music required for congregational singing in a Catholic parish is included in the inexpensive (€12 with discounts for bulk purchase) Solemnes publication Liber Cantualis; a book of organ accompaniments is available go with it.

If the Gregorian system of notation is a barrier for musicians here in Sweden, this needs to change. Anyone with aspirations to becoming a serious church musician ought to be familiar with it.

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