There is hardly any better training imaginable for a plainchant performer than a detailed experience of different forms of recitation. The art of recitation is at the heart of instruction and creative development. As described earlier, various rhetorical elements (as basic as the beginning and end of a sentence) and their translation into musical formulae, provide basic guidelines for rendering texts. With effective inflections, recitation becomes chant.
However, the core of recitational technique lies not in a performance faithful to prescribed formulae, but in its close relationship with speech and speech-rhythm, albeit (or precisely because of) the heightened speech of ritual and liturgy. As witnessed in ample examples of treatises on rhetorics from antiquity to the Renaissance, a pleasing (in the sense of accurate, clear and elegant) deliverance of text was considered to be of the utmost importance. Thus, syntactic matters of structure, overall form, phrases and verbal accentuation of a given text were related to the semantic matters, i.e. the meaning of the text. In this context, the humanist’s vision on the position of music in relation to text, with music being expected to subordinate itself to grammatical quantity, was nothing but a logical continuation of the already existent, well-known and universally taught tenets of antiquity (Cf. Harrán 1989).
Returning to performance, chant becomes recitation when chant pieces of the three classical categories (certainly syllabic and neumatic, to a lesser extent also melismatic chants) are approached as the slow and solemn speech they basically represent. Awareness of a slow-motion text pacing, and all its practical implications, is the key to a strong plainchant performance practice.
This awareness, together with an exhaustive historical and functional knowledge of recitational formulae and formats, opens up a vast array of creative (im)possibilities. The pure recto tono, black and white, is colourized. Elements of play enter, when the recto tono is ornamented with inflections and melismas, or when melodic memes (e.g. fragments of surrounding chants) appear in and above the text. The steady and gentle pace of psalm recitation, simple and intense or elaborate, even multi-voiced pleases the ear and warms the heart,. A Vita is sung to homophonic chords that somewhat anachronistically recall impressionistic colouring, in which slowly rising harmonic frictions evoke the archetypal and stereotypical hazards of a saint’s life.
Hendrik Vanden Abeele
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