Types of melody and their uses

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During the current dryness of performances, your editor asked me to dust off the manuscript of my book, “Melody and Musical Texture”. Four years after I wrote it, it is still unpublished, mainly because it is aimed at a small but widely distributed audience of students and interested amateurs, rather than conservatories or universities, because the departments do not offer melody lessons. Plus, publishing textbooks everywhere today has turned into a racket.) Let’s start with the opening paragraph of Chapter 1 (which I could still revise):

Melody is the source of human musical spirit and feeling. All musicality comes from melody, from the most elementary and shapeless to the most cultured and sophisticated. Melody organizes musical sound and the musical idea behind sound, just as speech organizes thought and utterance. The melody is the wholeness of the song; beyond that, it is the breadcrumb trail that traces musical time and makes it real, from the smallest musical thought to the largest, from the one-second motif or the five-second phrase to the symphony of 70 minutes. The melody is the spontaneous and primordial manifestation of the composer’s imagination, and it remains the essence of musical substance when all technique and artifice are cleared away. The melody is the first thing we think of when we think of any piece of music; we can identify almost any familiar piece of music from a single fragment of its melody; by mentally following the melodic line in real time, we can recreate the entire musical superstructure in our own mind, even without making a sound. Each composer begins the composition process with the melody, renewing it every day.

We should imagine that all melody comes from singing – from what we can sing. “The melody” is what we remember, what we usually associate with the “lyrics” in a song, that is, a particular melody. But here we will consider the melody more generally, and it is useful to have a few terms.

The first melody written is the song, which is written on a staff, one note at a time. A typical song from the 11th century could be Pange lingua gloriosi (Liber Usualis, p. 957), a hymn sung on Good Friday, with a rhymed Latin text, mostly one note per syllable, sung by a priest or by a choir in unison. It’s a pure melody, made of successive notes, a melody line (monophony).

A 19eAnglican hymn of the last century such as “Come, thankful people, come”, in what is sometimes called “colloquial style”, is polyphonic (several voices), to be sung by a choir of SATB voices, four parts with accompaniment of organ if necessary, again mostly one note per syllable, with “the melody” at the top. We call this a “homophonic” texture, which is also phonic, because the four parts move together, and you can hear the text one syllable at a time. “The melody” is what everyone knows and remembers – but in this hymn there is also a bass line supporting the harmony, and this line, what the bass voices sing, is also a melody; there is also a viola part and a tenor part which complete the harmony, and these parts are also melodies, even when the highest part, sung by the sopranos, is “the” melody. This kind of polyphony is quite simple. The alto and tenor parts are not very interesting, nor melodically identifiable like the soprano part is, but they are still melodies, one note at a time, as the singers sing them – but yes, after the rehearsal, you would ask an alto or tenor what the “melody” of the hymn was, they would sing you the soprano part.

There is also counterpoint in this texture: melodies in combination. A four-part chorale, as JS Bach harmonized it, is noticeably contrapuntal, because while the upper part is always “the” melody, the ATB parts, individually, are melodically more interesting than the ATB parts in a 19.ehymn of the century in “colloquial style” like the one above; and yet in this hymn too, all the parts move together, one syllable at a time, and you can still hear the lyrics.

When “the” melody becomes an identified melody and contrapuntally combined with something else, we call it a. cantus firmus. The idea of ​​the cantus firmus dates back at least to the 12th century; last week I brought up the huge Sederunt principles organum. The Missa Pange lingua by Josquin des Prez is a cantus firmus mass; each movement begins with a few notes of successive sentences from the hymn of Good Friday. Bach’s Cantata no. 140 is a more easily recognizable cantus firmus work, a choral cantata. The first verse of the text, “Wachet auf! ruft uns die Stimme ”, is sung by the sopranos (dubbed horn), one note per measure; the slow notes of this cantus firmus do not even begin to sing until the orchestra has played a lot of other music for 16 bars. With lots of musical space between successive phrases of the text, the entire movement takes up 215 3/4 bars to accommodate an iteration of the CF – lots of musical space, lots of melodic development in the ATB parts, and lots of counterpoint. in the choir and in the orchestra, raising the notes of “the melody” (or perhaps it would be more correct to say by suspending – depending on – the notes of the “melody”) for a single verse. The second verse of the hymn text (“Zion hört die Wächter singen”) gives the CF sung only by the tenors, contrapuntally combined with a long expansive melody of a completely different genre, in unison of the strings. For many, this movement is the best-known part of the whole cantata. It’s shorter than the first movement – 74 bars of 4/4 – but at this point in the service, the congregation has already heard “the melody” once and have therefore learned it to some extent.

The four-part chorale appears at the end of the cantata; the melody of the soprano part is now familiar, and everyone, choir and congregation together, aided by numerous dubbing instruments, can sing the third verse of the poetic text, “Gloria sei dir gesungen”. The contrapuntal character of SATB’s interdependent melodic lines is balanced by the homophony of the entire texture, one syllable of text at a time, forming vertical harmonies that change, more or less, with each syllable.

Bach’s choral cantatas represent the pinnacle of cantus firmus technique in music – especially to illustrate that there is more to a piece of music than just cantus firmus, especially that there are other types of melodies. to be heard simultaneously with “the melody” – which everyone already knows. (Thinking back to Pérotin Sederunt, we recognize that the notes of the cantus firmus are probably symbolic, or abstract; in modern notation, 56 bars of counterpoint are required before the second note of the CF appears, and one wonders if anyone will actually listen to the appearance of the next – has the CF even been sung, or was it played on a long organ pedal?) In the second verse of the chorale of Bach’s cantata, the melodically complex upper line, for unison strings, is as different as possible from the clear notes of a cantus firmus; we would call it a obligatory, a melody which, even if it could be sung (like the Swingle Singers), has notably an instrumental character. But what gives the whole verse its musical unity is the elegant contrapuntal combination of three different types of melodies: the obbligato in the upper part, the cantus firmus in the middle and the walking bass.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on Alban Berg, as well as Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and on many musical subjects, including harmony.


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