Friday, October 21, 2016

Lessons on plainchant from "Hamilton"


Later today, I'll be assisting at a sung Vespers for the feast of Blessed Karl of Austria on this 105th anniversary of his wedding to Princess Zita; an event which I'm pleased to say has been listed on the official Blessed Karl League of Prayer website's calendar. The program will rely mostly on the singing of the psalms and canticles to basic Gregorian tones, unaccompanied. I sincerely hope it catches on with the attendees!

On a less important and entirely unrelated note, this evening PBS will be premiering Hamilton's America, a documentary about the making of the hit Broadway musical. Our first Secretary of the Treasury admittedly has nothing to do with the theme of medievalism (other than perhaps that his plan for the Constitution, if adopted, would have been more parliamentary than what we now have), but since I always admire plucky young men who rise from obscurity to accomplish great deeds, Alexander Hamilton ranks among my favorite historical figures. He began life with what seemed like a losing hand: a bastard from an obscure island in the Caribbean, orphaned at age 12, who raised money to send himself to the mainland for an education. By 20, Hamilton was a lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army and aide-de-camp to George Washington. After the war, he passed the bar exam merely by reading law books on his own, soon winning landmark cases that continue to influence the interpretation of the law to this day. Of course, his role in shaping the Constitution and the Federal Reserve (regardless of how one feels about those things) needs no commentary. His life was cut short by the infamous duel with Aaron Burr, but the man had done more in 47 years than most of us could hope to achieve even if we were miraculously blessed with two centuries of good health.

Hamilton's incredible story has sadly been neglected in most classrooms to the point that the average American probably assumes he was just another in a long line of early Presidents by virtue of appearing on the 10-dollar bill! Thankfully, with the smashing success of Lin-Manuel Miranda's production, Hamilton stands a chance of finally entering our cultural mythos alongside Franklin's kite and Washington's cherry tree. Considering that tickets are still going for $500 and up, I haven't seen it yet, but I've listened to the soundtrack on YouTube several times now and can say with confidence that even the most fervent rap-haters can't deny the brilliance of each song's lyrics. There's no need for me to add to all the platitudes already floating out there on the Internet (here's a solid review if you need one), but I want to draw attention to one small detail...

Many of the raps are interspersed with short sung phrases. This is hardly unique to Hamilton, but in any case, it's not something that anti-rap folks (by this, I mean people who dislike rap as a form; not the culture of violence and misogyny that's often packaged with it) take into much account. These phrases oddly remind me of, believe it not, the Gregorian chants to which I spend a lot of my free time practicing. You see, the tradition of plainchant includes not only those melodious Mass propers and hymns that took the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos to the top of the charts, and which can take my schola many hours to rehearse. The bulk of chant in a fully sung Mass, though, is really made up of the ministers singing Scriptures and prayers to a simple tone with a particular cadence and inflections: the Epistle tone, Gospel tone, Preface tone, Collect tone, and so on. At certain times of the year, we get to roll out special tones like those for the Passion or the Exsultet. The ability to sing any number of lines on a page to a simple melody was once a core part of a Catholic priest's training, but is now nearly extinct save in traditionally-minded communities and the Eastern rites.

I suspect the average Latin Rite priest finds the idea of singing the Mass parts eccentric and fussy, or at best, a respectable idea in theory but too difficult for them to personally bother trying. They can learn a thing or two from the only people in pop culture who've retained the skill of recitative singing in the modern age: rappers. The art is mostly spoken, of course, but it's often given a flourish by singing some lines in a straightforward way--purposefully simple, as otherwise I suppose they would be R&B singers. In chant terms, this might be called syllabic chant; the kind where every syllable gets only one note and is sung in a recitative manner. The main difference between "sung rap" and liturgical chant, as far as this goes, is that the former is set to a beat while the latter is freeflowing.


Example of an accentus or syllabic/recitative chant in the Gregorian tradition, from the Gospel of Easter Sunday ("At that time: Mary Magdalen, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought sweet spices, that coming they might anoint Jesus...") The deacon sings the note mostly on la, but has a little variation at the incipit (beginning) and ends every sentence on sol.
An early experiment of mine using Gregorio, a score editor for square chant notation. Lyrics from the opening title song of Hamilton. I only started learning to use it for this blog post, so I'm sure it doesn't look quite right yet. The lesson here is how the verse is sustained on a single note until the end, which chanters might call an inflection.

So you see? The basic principles of recitative chant are so easy, even those "no-talent rap hacks" can get it!

From there, you can take what you've learned and apply it to more musically complex lyrics:

Another adventure in Gregorio, this time with a more lyrical phrase from "Guns and Ships". In this part of the song, Washington writes a letter to Hamilton, enticing him to return to the fight prior to the Battle of Yorktown with an offer of a command. It's not quite recitative like the other two examples, perhaps more resembling a sequence like the Dies Irae from the Requiem Mass. The final word is embellished with five notes. In chant, when a single syllable of a word is sung with three or more different notes in succession, it's called a melisma.

I hope you dear readers enjoyed today's whimsical excursion. Here's a trailer for the documentary, Hamilton's America, which premieres tonight (Oct. 21, 2016) on PBS at 9pm eastern time.