Psalm Tones and Modes: organising chant

The basic way of organising chant melodies in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is through the modal system.[1]Although it is occasionally outdated, the seminal work on this issue is still Bernhard Meier, The Modes of Classical Vocal Polyphony: Described according to the Sources, with Revisions by the Author, … Continue reading

Each melody has its modal final (finalis’) on D, E, F, or G. This is the fundamental organising tone of each mode, and is usually, but not always, the final note of the melody.[2]While the eight traditional church modes remained in use throughout the sixteenth century, indeed even into the present day, there was a significant motion to expand the modal system in the … Continue reading

In turn, each melody is defined by its range (‘ambitus,’) which can be either authentic or plagal,[3]One influential nuancing of this system was introduced by the fourteenth-century Italian theorist Marchetto da Padova, whose further classifications of the modal system were widely disseminated in … Continue reading and its reciting tone which is taken from the Psalm Tones (see below.)

The system is often presented in a chart such as can be seen below. The finals are notated in white notes, and the reciting tones as slashes.

Notice how each octave is organised into fourths and fifths, depending on whether the mode is authentic or plagal. This, along with a mode’s final and reciting tone helps to give each mode a distinctive ‘flavour’ or a characteristic set of melodic cliches which we call its phrasis.[4]The term ‘phrasis’ is taken from Heinrich Glarean’s Dodecachordon published in 1547, and is derived from classical rhetorical thought, in which it can be used as a synonym for elocutio, or … Continue reading)

While the best way to get a sense of each mode is to immerse oneself in plainchant repertoire, a good place to start is with our worksheet and workout video (coming soon,) which present a series of modal melodies compiled for the purpose of memorisation in order to teach the typical characteristics of each mode.[5]The formulae are taken from Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Ms. lit. 5; Bailey, Commemoratio brevis, 81-90 and transcribed from Anna Maria Busse Berger, Medieval Music and the Art of Memory (Berkeley: … Continue reading

Printable worksheet 4 – The modes

[WORKOUT VIDEO 4 – The modes]

A related but independent set of conventions used for melodic categorisation are the Psalm Tones. These are melodic formulae which are used for the reciting of the psalms and canticles, which are followed by an Antiphon, a chant melody with a non-liturgical text. 

As with the traditional modes of plainchant, there are eight Psalm Tones, which correspond closely to an equivalent mode. Of particular structural importance is the reciting tone (‘tenor’) of each psalm tone. 

Each Psalm Tone is made up of two parts:

  1. The first part consists of an intonation (‘initium,’) a reciting tone (‘tenor’) and a middle cadence (‘mediatio.’) If the verse is particularly long, then a downward inflection is included (‘flexa.’)
  2. The second part is made up of a reciting tone (‘tenor’) and a final cadential formula (‘terminatio.’) Several psalm tones have multiple final cadential formulae in order to facilitate the return to their accompanying antiphon.

The Psalm Tones are often presented accompanied by texts for the purpose of classification and to aid in the process of memorisation.

Take a look at the accompanying worksheet and workout video (coming soon,) below and see if you can memorise them.

Printable Worksheet 5 – The Psalm Tones

[WORKOUT VIDEO 4 – The Psalm Tones]

References

References
1 Although it is occasionally outdated, the seminal work on this issue is still Bernhard Meier, The Modes of Classical Vocal Polyphony: Described according to the Sources, with Revisions by the Author, trans. Ellen S. Beebe (New York: Broude Brothers Limited, 1988). For more recent nuance on the subject see Harold Powers, “Is Mode Real?,” in Musical Theory in the Renaissance, ed. Cristle Collins Judd (Routledge: London, 2013), 9–52; and Cristle Collins Judd, “Modal Types and Ut, Re, Mi Tonalities: Tonal Coherence in Sacred Vocal Polyphony from about 1500,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 45, no. 3 (1992): 428–67.
2 While the eight traditional church modes remained in use throughout the sixteenth century, indeed even into the present day, there was a significant motion to expand the modal system in the Renaissance, sparked by Heinrich Glarean’s Dodecachordon published in 1547. Glarean’s theory essentially introduced two new modal finals on A and C, both with their associated authentic and plagal modes, expanding the system from eight modes to twelve. The theory was widely, although not universally, adopted, dispersed perhaps most notably through the writings of the famous Venetian theorist and composer Gioseffo Zarlino. For an excellent overview, see Sarah Fuller, “Defending the ‘Dodecachordon’: Ideological Currents in Glarean’s Modal Theory,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 49, no. 2 (July 1996): 191–224.
3 One influential nuancing of this system was introduced by the fourteenth-century Italian theorist Marchetto da Padova, whose further classifications of the modal system were widely disseminated in the sixteenth century, in particular through the printed theoretical works of Franchinus Gaffurius. A mode can be: 

  • Perfect (‘perfectus’): when a modal melody fills its expected range
  • Imperfect (‘imperfectus’): when a modal melody does not fulfil its expected range
  • Pluperfect (‘plusquamperfectus’): when a plagal melody exceeds its lower limit, or an authentic melody exceeds its upper limit.
  • Mixed (‘mixtus’): when a plagal melody exceeds its upper limit, or an authentic melody exceeds its lower limit
  • Intermixed (‘commixtus’): when a modal melody is combined with any mode other than their authentic or plagal counterpart. 

For further information, see Reinhard Strohm and Bonnie J Blackburn, Music as Concept and Practice in the Late Middle Ages (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 261-262.

4 The term ‘phrasis’ is taken from Heinrich Glarean’s Dodecachordon published in 1547, and is derived from classical rhetorical thought, in which it can be used as a synonym for elocutio, or style. For a thorough overview see Frans Wiering, The Language of the Modes (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 149-151.
5 The formulae are taken from Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Ms. lit. 5; Bailey, Commemoratio brevis, 81-90 and transcribed from Anna Maria Busse Berger, Medieval Music and the Art of Memory (Berkeley: University Of California Press, 2019), 69. The text of each can be translated as follows:

  1. Primum quaerite regnum Dei: First seek ye the kingdom of God; Matt. 6:36.
  2. Secundum autem simile est huic: And the second is like unto it; Matt. 22:39.
  3. Tertia dies est quo(d) haec facta sunt: Today is the third day since these things were done; Luke 24:21.
  4. Quarta vigilia venit ad eos: And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them; Matt. 14:25.
  5. Quinque prudentes intraverunt ad nuptias: And the five wise [virgins] went to the wedding; Matt. 25:10.
  6. Sexta hora sedit super puteum: It was the sixth hour he sat on the well; John 4:6.
  7. Septem sunt spiritus ante thronum Dei: There were seven spirits before the throne of God; Rev. 4:5.
  8. Octo sunt beatitudines: There are eight blessings; Matt. 5:3–11.

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