What is a...Descant?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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What is a...Descant?
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The more of these columns I write, the more I’m coming to treasure Michael and Joyce Kennedy’s Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. It was there that I found these sanity-restoring words: ‘Descant. Like “Faburden” a puzzling term because at different times used with different significances.’

After struggling through several dictionary articles on Descant/Discant, most of which seemed unable to agree on the etymology of the word, let alone what it meant, I felt like kissing my battered Companion. Confusion is in fact the only honest response.

Does the ‘cantus’ in the Latin ‘discantus’ signify a voice, or is it an adjective meaning ‘sounding apart’, or does it come from the Anglo-French ‘descaunt’, meaning – well, what?

Strikingly, several major dictionaries deal only with the medieval ‘discant’, ignoring the modern ‘descant’, as though unworthy of attention. The earliest use of discant, or terms like it, stems from the medieval age, when traditional single-line chant was increasingly embellished by improvised countermelodies.

From this grew the more disciplined notion of counterpoint, made easier by the invention of precise notation in the 11th century: first surviving examples in the church works of Pérotin and (possibly) his contemporary Léonin.

Now musical voices could interweave with or bounce off each other in a dynamic but orderly way – the musical equivalent of the balancing of opposed lateral forces in the ‘flying buttresses’ of Gothic architecture. By the Renaissance, the term ‘discant’ was virtually interchangeable with counterpoint, and the latter eventually replaced it.

So, a clear line of development? By no means, for the evolution of musical terms follows its own quixotic rules. The idea of a voice ‘descanting’ against a chant line – usually above it – led, through habit probably, to the higher voices being labelled descants, the term still interchangeable with ‘soprano’ in choral or recorder music.

For others it was the original improvisatory aspect that stuck, which is what James Boswell had in mind when he described how Dr Johnson ‘used to descant critically on the dishes which had been at table’. It was only in the 20th century that the word ‘descant’ became associated with high soprano (or ‘treble’) lines soaring above hymns – especially at carol concerts.

Thus an effect which for many sounds reassuringly ancient is, in fact, a neo-gothic, modern invention: more Pugin than Pérotin, more Lutyens than Léonin.

This article was first published in the Christmas 2013 issue of BBC Music Magazine

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