[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations [15/15] The chant performer as ‘bricoleur’

In this series of posts, an attempt was made at portraying aspects of a chant performer’s creative explorations, against a backlight of developments in the world of artistic research. Focusing on the creative potential of recitation (of texts) and reconsideration (of histories, theories, contexts), an image has emerged, inevitably incomplete, of the chant performer as something of an engineer and of a bricoleur. Lévi-Strauss (1962) describes how both the engineer and the bricoleur cross-examine their resources, and how both make a catalogue “of a previously determined set consisting of theoretical and practical knowledge, of technical means, which restrict the possible solutions.” (19) In the context of what has been outlined in the previous pages, Lévi-Strauss’s description of the bricoleur’s practice is particularly relevant:

Consider him at work and excited by his project. His first practical step is retrospective. He has to turn back to an aleady existent set made up of tools and materials, to consider or reconsider what it contains and, finally and above all, to engage in a sort of dialogue with it and, before choosing between them, to index the possible answers which the whole set can offer to his problem. He interrogates all the heterogeneous objects of which his treasury is composed to discover what each of them could “signify” and so contribute to the definition of a set which has yet to materialize but which will ultimately differ from the instrumental set only in the internal disposition of its parts. (18)

It could be argued that musician’s creativity, and even creativity in general, exists in a limited and limitless dialogue with oneself, with theoretical concepts and the artistic material. As a scientist and an artist, as an engineer and a bricoleur, as a creator and a destroyer, the performer-researcher chooses (not) between a vast array of (im)possibilities – and that in itself is a constraint, often to the point of extending the limits of existing forms of expression.

Hendrik Vanden Abeele

[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations [14/15] Saintly

Music for saints holds a special place in the repertoire of chant. In the first centuries of Christianity a cult of saints developed, and long before the invention of musical notation a considerable repertoire of music for saints had already been established. However, the bulk of that kind of music had yet to come, since in quite a lot of cases the composition of a mass or an office-cycle dedicated to the memory of a certain saint was delayed by some hundreds of years.

Throughout the liturgical year many saints are honoured in different ways. Some of them are simply commemorated, others have full cycles of chants dedicated to certain facts in (or after) their saintly life – this of course changing according to traditions at specific dioceses. Chants composed for these occasions usually have a close textual connection to one or more of the vitas describing the saint’s life, virtues, death etc. Zimmern (2007) has shown how these vitas give an insight into their political, social and cultural context, how they highlight the importance of  the cult of saints at all levels of society and how they demonstrate the value and versatility of hagiography as a means of storytelling.

As an example of this we can turn to the seventh-century ‘Belgian’ saint Lambertus (c.630-c.700). It was only two hundred years after the death of Lambertus (a bishop of Maastricht, murdered in dubious circumstances) that Etienne, bishop of Liège, composed an office for Lambertus. The texts for this cycle were based on a Vita that Etienne probably wrote himself (Auda 1923), in its turn based on an older, anonymous Vita. In a project called ‘Gesta Sancti Lamberti’, I have been revisiting the hagiologyst chant repertoire in general via the story of Lambertus – as a kind of case study. This was a logical step to take, for four reasons.

Continue reading “[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations [14/15] Saintly”

[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations [13/15] Recitation becomes chant

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). Continue reading “[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations [13/15] Recitation becomes chant”

[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations [11/15] Recitations

The Christian practice of liturgical recitation of sacred texts (also known in other religions, and notably in the context of the Jewish synagogue, from which the Christian tradition most probably originated) has a long and interesting history, that has been described elsewhere.

A text was chanted to simple formulae based on a reciting tone with musical inflections reflecting grammatical structure, and punctuation signs becoming indicators for the performance. According to the function of the text or the solemnity of the occasion, recited texts were troped (most frequently the Epistle, see Figure 1) or more elaborate recitation styles were used, for example in Lamentations, genealogies, or Passion recitations. Singers’ creativity flourished, up to the point that the Council of Grado (1296) felt the need to restrict the use of ornate melodies.

Now that is a point in history to which a performer can relate: recitational practice was rich, and testimony of many different forms of this practice in manuscripts provides the creative potential for splendid recitations, amounting to anything between a sober and a complex plainchant performance.

Hendrik Vanden Abeele

Barcelona, Biblioteca Catalunya M. 911 f38v, Psallentes.com
Cantorale from Gerona (Barcelona, Biblioteca Catalunya M. 911 f38v-39) with a fragment of a troped Epistle (letter from St Paul to Timothy). The tropes are distinguishable as more ornate than the more or less recto tono passages from St Paul’s letter.

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