Part 10: How to play “divers ways upon the Plainsong Miserere”

This is the tenth of a multi-part post. (Please see previous posts below for earlier installments.)

Example 11 is Blitheman’s Eterne rerum I, the first of four versets of this hymn in the Mulliner Book, is in two parts. The lower part (based on the plainsong) is in broken semibreves, down an octave from the plainsong as it was notated in chant books, given here on the third staff. (See Parts 5 and 6 on plainsong figuration.) The figuration gives the impression of an elaborate piece with imitation between the parts (for example between the simple plainsong notes 3-9, and between 25-29) but the simple (i.e. unornamented) plainsong played down an octave fits contrapuntally with the descant with only five places that are problematic.

For learning how to descant on plainsong figuration, a small amount breaking can be used to solve these five problematic places, so that the descant may be played in its original octave with a much simplified plainsong, and more breaking added gradually over time (using Blitheman’s verset as a guide):

  1. At plainsong note no. 13 there is a leap in the descant from a crotchet c which is a 4th against the plainsong, and although escape tones were allowed in Tudor style in short note-values, the progression leading to the 4th is in similar motion, which gives it too much emphasis. One solution is to play minims C-G in the plainsong instead of the semibreve G (i.e. similar to the breaking in the verset, a C held over from the previous note followed by minim G).
  2. Between plainsong notes 15-16 there are parallel 7ths—again, ‘two discords together’ were allowed in short note-values, but the second note is a minim. One solution is to play minims Bflat-A in the plainsong instead of the semibreve A (cf. the verset, which has four crotchets, Bflat-C-A-D).
  3. At note no. 19 there is another crotchet escape tone, but the leap is unusually large–an 11th. One solution is to play minims Bflat-A in the plainsong instead of a semibreve A (cf. the verset, which has two crotchets C-Bflat followed by a minim A).
  4. Between notes 20 and 21 there are parallel octaves, which are forbidden. One solution is to play minims G-Bflat intead of semibreve G at note 20 (cf. the verset which also breaks note 21 into minims).
  5. Between notes 26 and 27 the descant has two minims, bflat’-a’, the second of which is dissonant above the G in the plainsong, too long a note-value to be acceptable as a passing-note. One solution is to play minims G-A in the plainsong instead of a semibreve G (cf. the verset, which has four crotchets, G-D-C-A).

In the middle of the verset the descant includes a few repetitions of an offbeat rhythmic motif that was a favourite with Tudor organists (dotted crotchet—quaver—crotchet); see Redford’s Dignare (Ex. 9), Preston’s Stirpe (Ex. 14), and Heath’s Christe qui lux (Ex. 15). Towards the end of Eterne rerum, the plainsong figuration includes syncopated patterns while the descant has a run of 8:1.

Note: In the recording, the left hand part is played up an octave towards the end, when the music goes below F, the lowest note on the Wingfield organ.

Example 11 Blitheman’s Eterne rerum I (30513, fols 55v-56r):

Example11

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