Song of the Day #759: Messe de Notre Dame
- Song of the Day: Messe de Notre Dame.
- Venkat led a detailed look at Jazz and the various jazz based songs in
Tamil FilmMusic, in SOTD. Now, we start to look at popular Western
Classical pieces. Shankar Ramanathan will be writing about this, being a
trained Western Classical musician himself. This series is not meant to
be a primer on WCM, but a look at WCM from a listener's point of view.
- Shankar writes:
Every genre of music has its own identity and charm. While it's the
beautiful rhythm of the African tribal beats and the improvisations and
spontaneity in Jazz, that fascinates us, the charm of Western Classical
Music lies in its structured and layered nature of the compositions.
In my case, it was film songs that got me attracted to music. The radio
played a major role in introducing me to various genres of music. The
early morning carnatic recitals by the radio artists, the film songs
played in the vividh barathi or the odd English pop numbers played in
BBC radio, all got me into listening music. As I grew up, questions such
as what instrument is being played in a song, what mood this song
conveys started arising, and I got the answers from people around me. In
any song what attracted me the most were the interludes, and I was
keener on listening to them than the vocal portion of it. At some point,
I realized it was the heavy orchestral score played 'in a particular
way' was what I could identify with, and used to wonder how such music
Certain ad-film scores played some interesting pieces which I later got
to know were Mozart's Symphony #5, and The four seasons by vivaldi, and
another filler between programs in SUN TV ( it was a piece from the
opera called "The Barber of Seville" by Rossini) and many more such
pieces increased my curiosity to know more about this particular genre.
It was then that someone told me about the genre called the western
classical music, and about composers like Mozart, Bach and Beethoven.
Thankfully, I got a chance to listen to a live orchestra play good WCM
around that time.
The Orchestra with its 40 or so immaculately turned out musicians, was a
striking image even before a note was played. When they began, their
simultaneous playing of more than a dozen different parts extracted from
the composer's full score and held together by the conductor seemed
The string section, brass section and the percussion, all playing in
unison at times, and conversing with each other at other times, and at
times playing totally different melodies, and the conductor directing
the show with his baton attracted me no end. So, I enrolled myself in a
music school to try my hand at playing the violin, the western classical
way. The notation, for one, was the first thing that made me wonder
about the evolution of WCM.
It seemed an interesting exercise to trace the evolution of the Western
Classical Genre - a complex form, with a notation, which when understood
explains the music exactly the way the composer had conceived it. I
cannot think of any form other than WCM which does not require anyone to
explain how the music needs to be played. Another, greatness of this
form compared to any other form of music is the way the growth of this
form has been documented. I felt it would be a good beginning to the
uninitiated if we can trace the history of WCM by playing some pieces
from various times, explaining the evolution as we listen to them. It
would also be easy to comprehend and appreciate how much the form has
evolved as the time progressed.
While going through some study material and books on this vast topic, I
realized it would be quite a difficult (impossible?) task to trace it in
its entirety. Thankfully, analysts have divided them into different
eras, which make it easier for one to identify landmark events in its
history, and identify the composers who took it from one era to another.
This again, has been very well documented.
Pretty much like the Indian classical music, the WCM too started with
experienced musicians passing on their knowledge to their students by
example. The church played a major role in the development of WCM. The
WC tradition of Music had a humble beginning in the Eastern European and
Roman Church in the form known as plainchant, which is just a simple
melody. The Church felt the need to preach its faith through song and
music. "Those who sing, pray twofold", said St. Paul, emphasizing its
importance. There are different varieties of chants namely, Mozarabic
(this term refers the Christians living under Arabic rule, in Spain),
Gallican (originated from the Gauls), Ambrosian (popularized by St.
Ambrose) and the most popular of them all, the Gregorian Chant. This
form became the norm for the Roman Church. It was the demand of the
church which led to the development of musical notation.
The following table gives a rough idea about the eras, and the important
composers of that era. Please note this table is no way a complete list.
Era Years (AD) Important composers
Medieval 600 - 1200 Perotin, Hildegard Von Bingen, Guillaume de machaut
Renaissance 1400 - 1550 Guillaume Dufay, Josquin des prez, Johannes
Baroque 1600 -1750 Giovanni gabrieli, Heinrich Schutz,
Baroque (Opera) 1600 - 1750 Claudio Monteverdi, Henry Purcell, George
Frederic Handel, J S Bach
Classical (Symphony) 1750 - 1830 Joseph Haydn, W A Mozart
Classical (Early romantic) 1750 - 1830 L V Beethoven, Vincenzo bellini,
Rossini, Hector Berlioz
Romantic 1830 - 1900 Frederic Chopin, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner,
Guiseppe Verdi, Johannes Brahms, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, Anton Dvorak
Romantic (later era) 1830 - 1900 Igor Stravinsky, Alban Berg
In this series, I intend to pick the compositions of some of these
greats for our listening. I had initially thought I would begin with a
Bang a la Beethoven in the first Bar of his 5'th Symphony, by playing
the most lively compositions of composers like Beethoven or Strauss, but
decided to go chronologically, playing select pieces from each era,
which would make it easy for us to appreciate the evolution better.
We begin with a famous piece by Guillaume de Machaut of the medieval
1. Messe de Notre Dame:
Gregorian Chant (also called Plainchant) was the oft used form of music
during the medieval Era. It's monophonic, unaccompanied singing ( a
capella) developed by the Church for its Mass, and other religious
"Messe de Notre Dame", arguably the most famous musical piece of that
Era, is an important milestone in the evolution of WCM. In the age where
plainchant was the only known form, Machaut came up with a piece
Polyphony, by definition involves two or more independent melodies, as
against plainchant. Around 12'th century, at the cathedral of Notre
dame, the in-house composers got fed-up with plainchant and wanted a
change, and that they did by a simple improvisation of adding the same
note an Octave higher or lower to the existing notes (of the
Though this doesn't change the harmony, it added a richer texture to it.
They experimented further by adding this additional voice at a regular
intervals (say the perfect fifth*) instead of just at the octave. Thus,
the concept of Polyphony was born. This particular technique of singing
is called Organum. One should not confuse polyphony with homophony
(which also, involves multiple voices /instruments). The main difference
between these two is, in homophony, there will just be one melodic
voice/instrument accompanied by chords, whereas polyphony involves more
than one melody.
I have chosen the given piece as a tribute to the composers of Notre
Dame, who gave birth to polyphony. There's a theory saying organum was
an 'accidentally' found technique (The church folks added the extra
voices as reinforcement to the main singer, and the extra voices were
meant to be in unison ). Though this is not strictly a polyphonic piece,
I chose it for the reasons given above (We anyway, have a lot of "real"
polyphonic compositions in the following parts, when we discuss Bach)
The catholic mass has different parts namely Kyrie, Gloria, Credo,
Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. The chosen piece is the Kyrie from the Mass.
Machaut's innovation was that he alternated between polyphonic setting
and plain chant giving an ethereal feel to the piece.
Another reason for choosing this piece is - this presumably is the first
Mass ever to be written by a single composer. Till then works from many
church composers were mixed to form a Mass.
Onto the song..
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