Friday, March 09, 2007

Repeat 10 times: The Ictus does not receive Stress

My copy of the GIA published book of sung Passion chants arrived yesterday, and I'm just thrilled at the quality. The binding is great, the look is just right, and the editors did a wonderful job in rendering the old Latin into English with modern notes. They even preserved the red staff lines to give it the "look." I strongly urge everyone to buy this now for their parish priest, because it provides the proper enticement to sing the Passions this year, or maybe next. This will make a huge difference in Holy Week liturgies across the land.

Now, let me upbraid the editor of the volume for a cruel little remark he makes in the second paragraph of his introduction. He probably has no idea that it is out of line. Most assuredly, he figures that he is on solid ground and is only trying to help. Still, he ends up perpetuating a myth that has been around for 50 years, and it apparently now accepted as conventional wisdom, as obviously and completely wrong at it is.

The mistake appears in his performance notes. He says that the biggest mistake that a singer can make is to give stress to notes that do not conform to the Latin text. Sure, that's right but who would make such a mistake? Well, he adds a parenthetical: call the stress "an ictus, if you will."

The injustice! What he is ever-so-subtly saying is that the old Solesmes marking of the ictus on the chant only introduces performance errors because it asks singers to ignore the text and follow some kind of artificial stressing system as indicted by the ictus, which looks like a small apostrophe under the note. And I guess the writer in question drummed up his theory of the ictus by listening to urban myths or by intuition or by crystal ball or some other such means, because this has nothing to do with reality.

So please, let us be clear on this. Dom Mocquereau introduced the ictus as a marking to help singers understand where the rhythmic divisions occur in the music. In chant, in which all notes can be grouped in sets of 2s and 3s, the ictus indicates where the 1 is, and if you follow Solesmes style, the 1 is not even a downbeat. It is an upward motion. It receives no accent, no stress, no attack, no umph, frmph, ymmph or any or crazy sound. It is a mental tool only. It can coincide with the Latin emphasis or perhaps it does not. The first note is not always ictic. Sometimes it is and sometimes it is not. The ictus is highly useful for giving a group of singers a unified understanding of chant rhythm. It was an ingenious contribution of the old Solesmes school, and more useful now than ever.

I have no idea when this confusion got started or why or who had an interest in spreading it but for those of you are are thinking that I'm getting hysterical on this point, consider that the existence of the ictus has been used by many as a way of discrediting the old chant books that still remain the official chant books in use today. Those who have done so have contributed to the atmosphere that encourages people to turn to contemporary music. And no, I'm not making that up. That precise claim was made in Today's Liturgy last year: because of the ictus, we must abandon chant pending newer editions and instead sing the St. Louis Jesuits!

There is a dissertation in this topic somewhere. Someone needs to set out to discover who it was who first began to spread this confusion, which is widely held (even by people who should know better), and unearth the methods by which this confusion was perpetuated. Such a dissertation will go a long way to revealing how it is that chant came to be discarded and replaced with junk music. As for those who continue to make this mistake: get ye to an instructional seminar on chant, and fast. Even if you are a professor of music who believes that he knows everything there is to know, or even if you have already been entrusted to edit books instructing people how to sing chant.

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