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Monodic and Polyphonic Chants - the Same Roots (Marcin Bornus-Szczycinski)

Monodic and Polyphonic Chants - the Same Roots

When Marcel Peres - well known French singer and musicologist had begun his research on the 13th century Dominican tradition some 10 years ago, he was surprised by the initial outcome. The result which appeared was an unknown, strange, even shocking form of music which did not fit into any modern aesthetic concepts or musical habits, particularly those associated with the Gregorian chant.

What one could hear was a chant which was rhythmical, ornamental, strong, with many - also rhythmical - breaks. Such an extravagant music seemed to be a pure fantasy, completely contradictory to our contemporary aesthetic vision of music in general, and liturgical music in particular. Nevertheless we decided to follow this risky path. Personally, since 10 years ago, I have been collaborating closely with the Krakow Dominican friars on improving the musical quality of religious celebrations. The departure point of this work was a normal, generally accepted view on Gregorian chant, which was common within the whole Roman Catholic Church. Yet, from the inception of this work we had felt uneasy about certain specific features of the tradition which was still present and living among the Dominicans. These features and details did not fit the general idea and picture of the chant's form. "It's this Dominican taste," replied to me the interrogated Benedictines. The time was passing and new discoveries on the subject were coming forth. We developed contacts and collaboration with traditional singers, studied the 13th-century Dominican notation, their unusually precise treatises, and came to the conclusion that our fixed ideas and habits need a complete overhaul.

Nobody else in the Middle Ages had their own musical tradition described as carefully and precisely as the Dominicans. We have to remember that it was the time when oral tradition was predominant and notation yet its rare supplement. But the Dominicans decided, through the medium of writing, to unify the way of singing the liturgy throughout the whole, dynamically spreading Order. Around the year 1254 two, most probably identical, copies were made of a 1000-page book compiled on the subject. These books included the whole music of the Order. We find there all chants including the most basic pieces which normally nobody would note down (they were widely known and the parchment was expensive). Thus, the best-educated people of Europe were writing up, for their own equally educated colleagues,the simplest things concerning liturgy. The copy of Antiphoner Prototype which is kept at Santa Sabina in Rome has retained remnants of suspenders which allowed the heavy book to be carried on one's back. In this way, the book was taken from monastery to monastery so that it could be copied - without changing any notes or pauses - as we can read in the admonition given by the blessed Humbertus in his 20-page introduction.

It is the numerous pauses, introduced in the Dominican notation sometimes after every 2 or 3 notes, that serve as a key to understanding their way of singing. The theory of this singing was described in a very difficult, but very precise treatise De Musica, written by Hieronimus de Moravia in 1270. This treatise was so complicated that only a 100 years ago the reformers of the Gregorian chant still considered it to be a scholastic joke. Today we are trying to understand it anew, with the help of contemporary research on the subject as well as by making use of the experience of the cultures which have preserved their traditional ways of singing the sacred monody. Without the help of Greeks, Copts and Syrians we would not have been able to solve most of the rhythmic, notation and articulation puzzles. The modern European apparatus of musicology is insufficient here, because its similar practices are almost extinguished. Today, knowing the Dominican conservatism and their particular devotion to tradition, we can see more and more clearly that nothing new was created in the 13th century - the Dominicans, thanks to their intellectual rigour, simply described the existing chant in a more detailed and careful manner than the others. With every next month of living with their tradition of singing, we can sense that we are working on the fundamental elements of the whole tradition of liturgical chant - not only of the 13th century but of the entire first millennium, and not only of the European culture but its much older origins and patterns.

When one hears these Oriental scales, the ornaments of which survived only on the fringes of Europe (in Andalusia, Catalonia, Corsica and Greece), the rhythms so clearly Mediterranean, one realises why the liturgical chant of the epoch of St Dominic Guzman appears to be much more close to the vocal art of Andalusian flamenco than to the modern, theoretically constructed picture of the sacred chants' tradition.

Such a way of using the monody leads us directly to polyphony. For tonight's concert we have chosen a piece of one of our composers from the 1st half of XIV century - Nicolaus de Radom. He applied the construction of 3 parts fauxbourdon style, close to, for example, the works of Guillaume Dufay. It was the style "ā la mode" of those years. We will try to conserve all attractions of the monodic way of singing, retaining the modal scales of each voice and the ornaments.

Marcin Bornus-Szczycinski
Artistic and Musical Director of Bornus Consort


XXIV International Festival ORIENT et OCCIDENT 10 - 13 October in Tartu & Tallinn


 The monument of G. Hackenschmidt


Taiji Yang style trainings 


FA Schola presents:
CD "Music from the Time of Marco Polo"


FA Schola presents:
CD "The Sound of
Medieval Flute"