Thursday, September 06, 2007

Finding the Ictus

In my rehearsals with the newly-formed Schola Gregoriana Philadelphia, we have been spending much time with the chant by counting the rhythms as we sing. (Simply replace the words with 1,2, and 3.) This is a very practical way of teaching the choir how to find the ictus, which are the points of repose in the chant that, among other things, help to hold it together. This is very important. Only a cursory listening of a group of chanters is needed to determine if they are finding the ictus or not. Finding the ictus is a bit like finding the Lord. Those who do get to chant heaven; those who don't end up in some other musical place.

I am posting here the rules for finding the ictus in the chant. A word of practical advice: It will do little good to copy this and post it on a wall somewhere, unless the practical experience of finding the ictus is had by the schola. The schola I'm conducting presently was counting properly before I even told them of the theory behind the ictus. I demonstrated one line for them, and off they went--not mistake-free, mind you, but with a pretty good sense of how this thing works.

Some foundational comments: Gregorian chant is based upon two different kinds of beats, the primary beat and the compound beat. The primary beat is constant, and it occurs at each and every note. The compound beat comes to us as two-or-three note groupings of the primary beat. So, if arabic numerals were to represent the compound beat, and an asterisk the primary beat, it might look something like this:

1 2 1 2 3 1 2 1 2
* * * * * * * * *

In each place where a 1 appears, that is an ictus. It is absolutely necessary to be aware of both the primary and the compound beats when singing the chant. Unawareness of the primary beat leads to sluggishness; unawareness of the compound beat leads to monotony.

Here now are the rules for finding an ictus (paraphrased from A Gregorian Chant Masterclass by Marier/Turkington).

1. Never change an ictus that is published in the chant books. (Although it is often quite tempting.)

2. Long notes are ictic. The dotted punctum, dotted neums, the bistropha, tristropha, and pressus.

3. The first note of a neume consisting of two or more notes gets the ictus, unless this ictus as been displaced by one of the rules above.

4. When there are two or more consecutive single punctums, the ictus is found via retrograde counting. Look ahead to locate the nearest known ictus. Then count back by two and place the ictus in that spot.

A shorthand way to remember all this might be: Long notes; neumes; count by twos.

Happy counting!

This post is dedicated to Scott Turkington, who, in his own words, has spent his life finding the ictus.

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