The Beauty of Monophony

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Trappist monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in New Haven, KY, prepare to chant the Divine Office.

To our modern ears, melody, rhythm, and harmony are considered the cornerstones upon which all music, especially jazz, is built. While it is certainly true that jazz was born as a child of traditional European harmony and African rhythms, it is worth considering that the European conception of harmony was derived – over many hundreds of years – from monophonic music: a single-note line delivered without a specified rhythm. This enormous treasury of monophonic music far outnumbers the amount of polyphonic pieces ever written, provides insight into the evolution of Western music, and strikes at the core identity of music: melody. While the evolution of polyphony allowed music to be expanded to heights never previously thought possible, there is something striking, mysterious, and beautiful about one melody standing alone, without accompaniment.

History of Monophony

An example of Gregorian Chant notation.

Tracing the history of monophonic music is somewhat difficult, because monophonic music predates musical notation, but we know that chant (also known as plainchant or plainsong) underwent significant development in the Egyptian and Syrian monasteries during the fourth century. During the rule of Pope Damascus, under the influence of St. Jerome, a chanted “Alleluia” that Jerome heard in Bethlehem was adopted in Rome. The chant would be given the name “Gregorian” in honor of St. Gregory, who was a supporter of chant in the ninth century.

While chant was originally sung between the clergy and the congregation, as musical training became possible the schola (an all-male choir) developed for performing chant. This tradition continued with the development of Organum and Renaissance music, and is still used in some parishes and religious congregations today.

Beauty of Chant

The question, however, is why should one listen to monophony?  When we have hundreds of years of beautiful polyphony, ranging from organum to counterpoint, chorales to orchestral works, jazz to folk and pop, where is the beauty of monophonic music?

For me, the first part of monophonic music that is appealing is the sound of mystery associated with it. To our modern ears, the music sounds “mysterious” mainly because it is written in one of the six Ecclesial modes, thus defying implications of tonality or “common-practice music.” However, during the original performance of the music, would this same sense of mystery have enthralled the listener?

While it is impossible to know for sure what the listening experience was like for somebody who had only been exposed to music of the time, I surmise that a

The Basilica of the Assumption in downtown Krakow, Poland, is an example of Gothic Architecture, which helps to create a mystical asthetic along with plainchant.

similar sense of mystery and intrigue would have been present in the affectivity of the listener, but for a different reason: Gothic architecture. Because most churches (where one would have heard this chant) were designed as very large buildings made primarily of stone (which reverberates sound), the congregation would have been surrounded by the sound of just a single line bouncing back and forth throughout the massive space. Further, the light from large stained glass windows and the rising of incense would have contributed to the mystical aspect of the musical experience.

Additionally, there is a very special power of unity in these chants, as entire choirs sing the same line with no rhythmic or harmonic support. Similarly, because of that lack of support, the melodies must be extremely strong; in many ways, these melodies are stronger than those of more modern compositions.  Below are a couple of my favorite plainchant melodies.

NOTE: The “Salve Regina,” while still plainchant, cannot truly be called Gregorian, as it is estimated to have been composed after the Gregorian period, perhaps as late as the twelfth century. The beginning theme of the “Dies Irae” is the most famous line of chant in history, and has been used as a motive in countless compositions and film scores.

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          February 10, 2018