Part 4: How to play “divers ways upon the Plainsong Miserere”

This is the fourth of a multi-part post. (Please see previous post below for earlier instalments.)

The main way that Tudor organists allowed more dissonances in their descants than were available in ‘text-book’ sixteenth-century counterpoint was through maintaining or repeating a short point throughout a descant. As Morley points out, the old descanters used this repetition to “excuse” certain dissonances of short rhythmic duration (including “two discords together”) that might occur against the melodic intervals in the plainsong when they “wrested” in the point (Introduction, pp. 76, 118). Example 5a is a version of an organ verset by Burton on Tibi omnes, in which the plainsong is presented in equal semibreves (except in bar 3), rather than in the plainsong figuration in his verset (Ex. 5b). The fact that the descant works contrapuntally against a simple plainsong, as well as with the notated plainsong figuration, suggests that a high degree of flexibility is inherent in it. This aspect of points will be discussed further below.

The descant of Burton’s Tibi omnes comprises the repetition of a point that lasts two semibreves; over the first note of the plainsong it consists of a crotchet rest and three consonant crotchets that include a leap (of a 3rd or 4th, whichever is consonant at the time); and over the second note of the plainsong, two descending stepwise crotchets and either a repeated note if this is consonant, or if it is dissonant, another descending step (to a consonance). Because this point includes a rest that occurs at the same time as a note of the plainsong, the number of progressions is reduced, making voice-leading easier to manage for beginners. Note, however, that there is a close connection between this descant and 4:1, since it comprises mainly crotchets. The minims at the end of each point could easily be replaced by two crotchets consisting of a lower neighbour (the notes g and a in the first point).

Example 5a  A version of Burton’s Tibi omnes on a simple plainsong:

Example 5a

In Ex. 5b, Burton’s Tibi omnes, the plainsong begins as simple, undecorated semibreves, but in bar 3 the rhythm is changed from two semibreves into a dotted semibreve—minim. This is to avoid the voice-leading error of a ‘hidden 5th’ (created by similar motion to a perfect consonance) that would occur with two semibreves. This solution is incorporated into Ex. 5a, but otherwise the point works well contrapuntally against a simple plainsong, if rather dull! Burton’s other alterations to the plainsong add rhythmic and melodic variety: for example, in bar 4 the second semibreve (B-flat) is broken into two minims (B-flat—A); in bar 8 there is a popular rhythmic device in Tudor organ versets, in which two semibreves are replaced by the syncopated rhythm, minim—semibreve—minim; in the last bar the plainsong is broken like the descant, having two occurrences of the point itself. Of particular interest is bar 10, in which the simple plainsong note (B-flat) is broken into two minims, A—B-flat, creating a dissonant 7th in the descant that is neither prepared nor resolved ‘correctly’, but is excused because the point is being maintained. Likewise, the last bar includes three discords together: an accented passing-tone, an escape tone (es, a leap from a dissonance), followed by another accented passing-tone. Maintaining points and making plainsong figuration are ways in which descanters could create good voice-leading and manipulate dissonance, either by adding dissonance or reducing it.

Example 5b Burton, Tibi omnes (Te Deum, 29996, fols 22v-23r):

Example 5b

Because points tend to be very flexible, they can often be applied to any given plainsong: as mentioned above, the interval of any leap in a point may be altered; they can be applied at any pitch (not only at 4th, 5th, or 8ve); although they tend to be short, they often occur in shortened form or are broken up or “dissolved” (Morley, Introduction, p. 95), especially towards the end of a verset. In Ex. 5c I apply Burton’s point to the Miserere and play repeated notes in the plainsong (except in bar 1) in the rhythm minim—semibreve—minim (as in bar 8 of Ex. 5b).

Example 5c Jane Flynn, Miserere 3: One way of using Burton’s point:

Example 5c

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