Discantus super librum ̧ or “singing above the book,” was a term used in the Middle Ages to label freely improvising a second voice above an existing Gregorian plainsong.
To be sure, adding voices above a given Gregorian cantus firmus, be they improvised, composed, vocal, or instrumental, one could argue, led to the genuine design of Western Art Music to follow, so powerful and germinal was the concept.
Today’s custom of hymn descants, that of singing countermelodies above hymn tunes, is only a century old and stems from the customs of relatively recent English church music. The resemblance between the ancient practice and the modern routine, though, of freely added countermelody to sacred songs stands as a remarkable testament to the original conception. A millennium would intervene; the thought would remain.
The English Hymnal, compiled by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1906, first afforded a trove of robust hymn tunes with typically sturdy harmonies, tunes still admired and sung today even as spread across the ritual of many Christian denominations. The English Hymnal also presented the first generation of melodies to which various composers added and published descants. These uplifting countermelodies were generally designated for use in concluding or penultimate verses.
No doubt, the prevalence of choirs of men and boys just unfolding into maturity in the British cathedrals and collegiate chapels in the early Twentieth Century, added to the ethereal quality and thrill of the decanted verses. In the past decades, with the principal denominational hymnals including choral descants to popular tunes, the habit has grown both beloved and expected.
Hand in glove, organists have long “chafed at the bit” of book-provided hymn harmonies. Between the bookends of upright and fluent chorale harmonizations like those drawn from Bach’s church cantatas or the flowering of twentieth-century modalism, much hymnody had been routinely marked by functional, sweet, and sentimental harmony.
The remedy lay in the re-imagination of these harmonizations. Those players who were both trained in keyboard improvisation and could reveal the courage to summon up the skill to enhance the richness of harmonic progression and to portray the mood and meaning of text and tune more fully than would otherwise be the case, had their opportunity. A single chord, a single progression digressing from the norm, promised to awaken insights in the mind and spirit.
The larger question before any organist, choirmaster, or liturgical planner is that of sensitivity toward and understanding of the now-vast array of resources available for the performance of congregational hymnody – from instrumental music or choral preludes on the hymn tunes, to the “standard harmonizations,” to reharmonizations, to descants, to the knack of improvisation for interludes and extensions so vital in custom matching congregational song to liturgical ritual, to textural variation such as canon or rounds exploiting the trained singers of the choir, to verses set aside for the schola or choir, and more.
The triangulation of these elements puts any organist, choirmaster, or liturgy- cal planner in the role of curator as well as performer. Just what to select, and when, and how much remains an art akin to the visual artist squeezing paint onto a palette, or the master chef contemplating the cupboard, or the novelist cherry-picking the thesaurus.
Accept this anthology, then, a book of musical hyponyms, a set of substitutes in sound offered as expressive alternatives toward the goal of unearthing inherent meaning, inspiration, and even gladness.