We deny to claim "any Superiority to ourself
to defyne, decyde, or determyn any Article or Poynt
of the Christian Fayth and Relligion,
or to chang any Ancient Ceremony of the Church
from the Forme before received and observed
by the Catholick and Apostolick Church."

Norman Simplicity

Norman Simplicity
Click image for original | © Vitrearum (Allan Barton)

Sunday, May 17, 2015


Those of you who aren’t up on Eastern liturgical music need an abbreviated history run through, so we’ll take care of that first.

Just like in the West, chant began as monophonic — just one voice, or melody. Possibly (and I say “possibly” because although this is the explanation I have always seen and it seems reasonable, I really haven’t seen anything supporting it) anyway, possibly because no instruments other than the human voice were allowed in the East, Byzantine chant developed the ison, which began as a continuous, sustained note, the base note of the tone, or mode, of the chant, ostensibly so the chanter would have a reference pitch and not drift out of tune. At some point, the original ison morphed into moving ison, where the ison or pedal tone “harmonized” with the chant melody. At this point, Eastern chant, which had been monophonic, developed into the most primitive form of homophony (a melody accompanied by chords).

Moving ison did not replace traditional ison. You still hear both.

Saints Cyril and Methodius and their missionaries took Byzantine chant to Slavic Eastern Europe, where it was nativized. Znammeny chant is held up as the original Russian liturgical music. Znammeny is traditional two-voice, chant with ison, though moving ison is more frequently heard than traditional ison.

Before we go on, all Eastern liturgical music is, like Gregorian chant, built around as system of eight tones (the octoechos), roughly corresponding to the eight modes of Gregorian chant. Eastern liturgical music has many different systems of those eight tones, however.

So Westerners out of luck? Stuck with the same old same old? Consider 'Il Canto Ambrosiano':

What we do know for certain is that a sizeable number of the oldest extant Ambrosian chants exhibit characteristics which were later expunged from or modified by the Gregorian repertory. These include: the most extensive melismatic (i.e. originally improvised ornamental passages) in all of Western chant; chant forms which were radically shortened and codified by the Franconians; the most extensive Alleluia formulae; chant formulae which predate the Franconian octoechos (8-mode) system and defy classification; ranges which far exceed the normal Gregorian chant range; melodic patterns which are much more diatonic rather than pentatonic and which can easily be sung to an ison or pedal tone; the distinctively Italianate preference for the iambic (long-short) rhythmic organization.

1 comment:

  1. No, Westerners are not 'out of luck' as regards an ison or a supporting tone to Western Chant. From the tenth to the fifteenth century, there was a considerable effort to add either the equivalent of an ison, or of parallel intervals, such as fifths or octaves.

    This was called "organum".

    While modern harmony or counterpoint has eschewed such as being 'mediaeval', there is a considerable body of music that makes use of two and three part organum. It is there for the having, if you will stir yourself to do so.