“Cantus Firmus” – RPC Music Notes, Sun 6 October 2019

Cantata BWV 180 “Schmücke dich” – Gabrieli Ensemble/Paul McCreesh

“Once upon a time there were only melodies.” This axiom of introductory Western music studies is at best over-simple, and at worst, misleading. Despite thousands of years of human song joined by improvised harmonies and instrumental accompaniment (and it should be pointed out, to a far more sophisticated degree in Asian and African cultures than in European “cradle of civilisation”), generation upon generation of music student starts their historical journey in the 9th century, with the beautiful simplicity of Gregorian chant, followed by the gradual emergence of the tonal, notational, orchestration and cultural systems that came to define Western music.

Simplistic though this account of history is it hints at a truth that seems consistent across music: melody matters. Composers will often emphasise a familiar foundational melody to encourage connection with the listener. Even in music not designed to have a melody our ears yearn to perceive one, often latching on to either the highest, or the loudest part – it is what we walk away humming, singing, whistling, or even just remembering.

Soon enough after Pope Gregory I compiled together a patchwork of mostly-existing chants into the system that now bears his name, early polyphonists begin to notice the value of adding parts, played by instruments and/or voices. A description of this technological and stylistic development over the following centuries into the full Renaissance polyphony of Palestrina and Lasso is FAR beyond the scope of this note, but it is worth knowing the term that was needed to distinguish the original melody from all added parts… “Cantus Firmus,” the firm or unchanging song.

Soon enough, with the emergence of Protestantism’s interest in congregational singing, an explosion of new melodies were needed to set texts in the vernacular (the language of the people, rather than the traditional Latin). These differed in many ways from the chants that had so defined sacred music for centuries, but a notable similarity was their treatment: as before the “Cantus Firmus” was important, but very often not the end of the story: with ever increasing complexity and creativity these new melodies would have parts, instruments and structures added, flowering of course in the early 18th century in the works of Bach.

This morning’s service features one of these melodies, Johanns Frank and Crügers’ beautiful communion hymn “Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele”, which we know as “Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness”, #533 in the Book of Praise. Framed by Bach’s beautiful Choral Prelude BWV 654, and a set of variations by his lesser-known contemporary Johann Godfried Walther, the service contains three further settings – the hymnbook version, a simple choral setting by Englishman Arthur Shepherd, and a closing ‘Amen’ quoting the tune, composed just this week.

The Cantatas of J.S. Bach, which took this form to its apex in the 1730s and 40s, set each verse (there are nine in Frank’s original German text) differently, all for use during one service! Is this, or even five versions of the same tune at morning worship “too much of a good thing?”

I will always remember playing for Communion in a Reformed Protestant church and playing a setting of Schmücke dich during the distribution of the elements and noticing that the congregation was quietly humming the melody. Besides refuting forever the pervasive idea that a non-singing congregation is by definition somehow ‘excluded’ during worship, it confirmed for me the value of repetition, and the internalisation of both word and music that accompanies it. It is a form of ‘buried treasure’ after Wes’ sermon on the parable by the same name. A melody, like the Gospel, belongs not just in sight, on our voices – it also belongs invisible in our minds and our hearts.


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