Plainchant activities

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1 Summary Through these, pupils will: Learn to sing a plainchant hymn. Learn to read plainchant notation. Experiment with ways to make plainchant more complex, first by adding additional parts, then by adding rhythm. Learn about parallel organum and sing plainchant in organum. Learn about medieval rhythmic modes and use them in composition. Depending on the age and experience of the pupils, these could comprise a single 1-hour 1 lesson, or be extended to form two one-hour lessons. Before embarking on these, it is advisable to read sheet J1, summarising the styles of Medieval and Renaissance music they Portuguese missionaries might have brought to Goa. Activity 1: Learn to sing plainchant We know that the Jesuit missionaries brought Plainchant to Goa in the mid 16 th century. (Sheet J1 contains more detailed information about plainchant). It is likely that the missionaries would have sung this ancient plainchant hymn at Pentecost, possibly during one of the elaborate processions which took place at the College of São Paulo. Below is the first verse of the hymn in the type of notation that would have appeared in the chant books of the Jesuit missionaries. A non-annotated version is available to download (Handout a). 1. Give pupils a copy of Handout a. 2. Ask them what similarities and differences they can see between this notation and the modern staff notation with which they are more familiar. 3. Make a list of the relevant similarities and differences mentioned. Point out any that the pupils have not noticed. 4. If they have not mentioned it already, ask the pupils whether they can spot any indication of rhythm in the notation. The only rhythmic indication is the dot following the last note of each section. This indicates that the note should be held for longer than the other notes. 5. Explain to the pupils that rhythmic notation was not developed at the same time as pitch notation. In fact, it wasn t really necessary, because singers were expected to perform the chant with the same inflexion as if they were speaking it. Page 1

2 Activity 1 cont Read the words out loud a few times to get a feel for their rhythmic flow. Latin words Veni, Creator Spiritus, Mentes tuorum visita, Imple superna gratia Quae tu creasti pectora. Translation Come Creator Spirit, Visit the minds of your people. Fill with grace from above The hearts which you have created. 7. Invite the pupils to say what they have noticed about the words. They will probably comment that the words rhyme. This is not the case with all pieces of plainchant, Psalms and antiphons do not usually rhyme. This example, however, is a hymn; a plainchant setting of rhyming Latin verse. Ask the pupils to count how many syllables there are in each line. They will find that each line has eight syllables. Make a note of this. 8. Look back at the plainchant notation, or, if you wish, give out Handout b, which contains the chant in modern notation (you may wish to print Handout b on the reverse side of Handout a). 9. Teach the pupils to sing the chant. Choose a comfortable starting pitch (F or E above middle C should be appropriate). Remember to make the last note of each line longer than the others. The other notes should all be of roughly equal length, but you may like to try giving the stressed syllables a little more weight. Before singing the hymn, it is a good idea to make sure voices are warmed up. Ideas for entertaining warm-up exercises, together with helpful advice on teaching a song, can be found here: Ask the pupils to think about the effect created when more than one note is given to each syllable (this practice is called melisma ). How does this affect the flow of the words? Discuss with the pupils why the composer of the chant might have added melisma to these words? Page 2

3 If you have time 1. Look back at the original plainchant notation. Remind the pupils that the clef shows which note is C. Ask them to work out the notated starting note (G). 2. Try singing the chant beginning on G. Some pupils will find it sits quite high in the range of their voices and is not comfortable to sing. 3. Explain that the C clef does not mean that the chant must begin on G. It simply indicates where the semitone steps fall in the chant (i.e. between E and F and between B and C). The chant can be sung at any pitch comfortable for the voices. Further listening Listen to further examples of Gregorian chant. Many examples of different types of chant can be found here: with information about the individual pieces being available here: Activity 2: Plainchant plus Most of the music sung in cathedrals and monasteries during the Middle Ages would have been plainchant, a single melodic line sung unaccompanied. Sometimes musicians tried to make plainchant more interesting by singing additional parts. The simplest way to add an additional part is to play or sing a drone to the plainchant melody. 1. If the pupils have not yet learned Veni Creator Spiritus, teach it to the class, line by line (starting on an F). Use sheet b if you wish to give the pupils notated music. 2. Explain that one way to accompany the melody is by playing or singing a drone. Make sure pupils understand what a drone is. 3. Ask the pupils what kind of instrument would be appropriate for the drone. An instrument which can make a sustained sound is a good choice (such as a bowed stringed instrument or a wind instrument), or a pitched percussion instrument with a long decay, such as hand bells or tonechimes. 4. Invite one or two pupils to play the drone while the others sing. Experiment with playing a drone on different pitches. Try F, C, B-flat and other pitches. Discuss which pitch makes the most effective drone? It is likely that many pupils will agree that F is a good pitch. This is because it is the final, or home note of the chant. 5. Work out where the drone should be sounded (for example: continually all the way through the piece, or re-struck at the beginning of each line. Should the drone be sounded before the singers begin, or should it exactly coincide with the start of the piece, or the start of each line of the music?) 6. Experiment with two drone pitches playing simultaneously. Try F and C and F and B-flat. Are these combinations always successful? Pupils might feel that, while passing dissonance in the middle of the phrase is acceptable, the dissonance created, for example, between the C drone and a B-flat at the end of a phrase is less pleasing. Discuss whether it would be possible to alternate between an F-C drone and an F-B-flat drone. Work out where it would be appropriate to change the C to a B-flat, and vice versa. Overleaf is one suggestion. Page 3

4 Another way to vary the sound of plainchant is by singing it in organum. 1. Sing and/or play Veni Creator Spiritus, beginning the piece on an F. Practise it until the group can sing it confidently. 2. Now sing or play the same melody, but, this time, begin on C, a perfect 4 th below F. (If you have recorder players in your group, treble recorders and tenor recorders could play at the same time; if the tenor players play the piece with treble fingering, their notes will sound a perfect 4 th below the treble recorder.) 3. Sing the F version and the C version together. The two voices together make a distinctive kind of harmony. This practice is known as parallel organum. Page 4

5 Further listening Medieval musicians also experimented with other kinds of organum. For example, in a more complex kind of parallel organum, the second part nearly always follows the same direction as the first, but the intervals between each note vary. A recording of a 10 th -century example of this can be found here: and information about how the organum was notated can be found here: There are many other ways in which medieval musicians tried to make plainchant more interesting. For more information, and further teaching ideas, see Let s Make Medieval Music by Angus Smith and John D Williams, Stainer and Bell, Activity 3: Rhythmic modes So far, apart from lengthening the last note of each line, the plainchant melody has been sung with no specific rhythm. As far as we know, plainchant and organum were sung like this until the middle of the 12 th century. Around this time, composers at Notre Dame in Paris began to experiment with adding rhythm to their music, especially to melismatic organum (rather than moving from note to note together, one part sings the chant slowly, while the other sings a faster-flowing melody against it). Stipulating the rhythm to be sung ensured that the harmony created between the two or more parts could be controlled by the composer, as the singers Mode number Name 1 Trochee 2 Iamb 3 Dactyl 4 Anapaest 5 Spondee 6 Tribrach Further listening Rhythm knew exactly when to move from note to note, rather than simply feeling it, or guessing, which could result in unexpected and undesirable sounds! The Notre Dame composers used a combination of six different rhythmic patterns, or modes. These are shown in the table below. They were derived from the different metrical patterns or feet found in classical poetry. At first, composers used only one rhythmic mode per line of music; later they used combinations of the rhythmic modes within each line. 1. Give pupils a copy of Sheet c. 2. Explain the background to the concept of rhythmic modes. 3. Practise clapping each of the rhythmic modes until pupils can clap them securely. 4. Exercise 1 contains the melody of Veni Creator Spiritus without the words or the slur markings. Ask pupils to choose one rhythmic mode for each line, and draw in the necessary stems, tails and dots. Sing or play some of the pupils creations. 5. Ask pupils to do the same thing in exercise 2, but this time using combinations of rhythmic modes on each line. Ask pupils to combine rhythmic modes that make up interesting phrases. Which rhythmic modes work well at the end of phrases? Invite pupils to play their compositions. This link leads to reasonably priced, downloadable mp3 files of Notre Dame polyphony: ie=utf8&s=dmusic&qid= &sr=8-1 Page 5

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