restricted access 2. Words and Music
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2 Words and Music 24 Introduction T his chapter will focus on certain aspects of the relationship between words and music. In addition to reflection from within the Irish song tradition itself, the study needs to draw from the experience of other monophonic traditions. A primary context is, of course, the chant of the Christian liturgy, which will form a consistent backdrop to our reflections. The surviving corpus of medieval monophonic song, including both sacred and secular sung forms, provides (both in terms of the size and variety of its repertoire, and the richness of scholarly reflection on the manner of its expression) a natural and potentially illuminating framework against which to judge the traditional, essentially monophonic material under investigation. A key resource on the question of medieval text/music aesthetics is John Stevens’ study, Words and Music in the Middle Ages.1 Stevens’ book deals with the full gamut of textual forms from the prosebased recitational texts of Gregorian chant through to the more consciously poetic art of the troubadours and trouvères. While the plainchant lens is a natural one to employ in considering the Ó Riada corpus, a body of material comprised principally of official, largely asymmetrical liturgical texts, his reflections on later medieval chant and on the more secular art of songmaking have much to offer that is relevant.2 Traditional Irish and Medieval Song S tudies of the orally derived repertoires of medieval song and ‘folk’ or traditional song attest to the close structural relationship which exists between music and text.3 In her classic study on the medieval tradition, Elisabeth Aubrey observes that music ‘relied on the poetry for its structure and was wedded to the text in its delivery’,4 while an introduction to the subject of ‘sean-nós’ (‘old-style’) singing in the closely allied traditions of Ireland and Scotland, notes that ‘the style is deeply rooted in the rhythms of the Gaelic language and in the metres and rhythms of Gaelic poetry’.5 In both monodic traditions, a phrase-based compositional approach predominates, with the music marking off the textual senseunits by means of discrete, musically self-contained gestures, set within 25 WORDS AND MUSIC the broader architectural unfolding of the melody, as may be seen from the following examples: 2.1.1 ‘In Rama sonat gemitus’ (twelfth-century cantio)6 THE MASSES OF SEÁN AND PEADAR Ó RIADA 26 2.1.2 ‘Bean dubh a’ ghleanna’ (from the Munster tradition)7 Despite such structurally close connections, however, Aubrey is at pains to point out that ‘the music of the troubadours was not dependent on poetry for all of its coherence or meaning’.8 Her noting within specific compositions of a ‘discrepancy between poetic and musical graphs’ is confirmed, for instance, by an observation that ‘poetic rhyme is rarely mirrored by musical repetition’.9 Hugh Shields, observing a similar process at work 27 WORDS AND MUSIC in a representative example from the Irish narrative song tradition, sees this mutual independence within the music/text union as a positive thing for the overall composition, noting that the musical structure ‘contrasts agreeably’ with that of the text: ‘The melody is organized symmetrically in its phrases (ABBA) so that musical repetition contrasts agreeably with the repetition of couplet rhymes (aabb).’10 Broader markers identified by Aubrey, underscoring the relative independence of both music and text in the troubadour repertoire, might just as easily apply to the Irish song tradition: Given the common practice of sharing melodies among poems, as well as the presence of phrase repetition within a song and the reuse of the melody for several stanzas, it is obvious that the words of a particular text and the notes of a particular melody were not exclusively and inextricably linked.11 An Irish-based practice of ‘sharing melodies among poems’ is referred to in Seán Ó Riada’s observation that ‘Gaelic poets usually wrote their poems to fit an existing tune’,12 a statement attested to by the numerous tunereferences contained in various collections of Irish poetry, both sacred and secular, published from the fourteenth through to the nineteenth century.13 That these tunes were not always exclusively Irish in origin, however, is evidenced by the following quote from Aubrey Gwynn concerning the content and purpose of the fourteenth-century Red Book of Ossory, which interestingly refers to the influence of English and French models on one local populace: That the streets of Kilkenny were often enlivened by songs that were too worldly...


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