Not That You Should Insult Their Intelligence

“We mean by ‘congregational sense’ the capacity for composing what people who are unmusical without being tone-deaf can sing readily. This means making one’s point in language which does not itself give trouble to the singer—language he is more or less used to. The piece may be composed by a person who has a very large vocabulary at his command, but in writing what people ‘catch on to’ he is obliged to use that part of the vocabulary which is common to him and them: just as a preacher whose sermons tend to contain words like communicatio idomatum and hypostasis, no matter how excellent his arguments, is unlikely to hold the attention of a parish congregation.” (Erik Routley, Music of Christian Hymns)


Three People and a Question

Meet Louis Bourgeois, c. 1510-1560. He was John Calvin’s music man, compiling the Genevan Psalter in its original form and providing us with many of the “old” tunes like Old Hundredth, Old Hundred and Twenty-Fourth, etc. His harmonizations are typical, his bass lines are fairly smooth, and he’s unabashed about using what we’d call “inverted” chords. Who wouldn’t be? But he lived before Rameau, so he didn’t exactly know he was writing with inverted chords. He was, ostensibly, only following the rules of counterpoint and making his bass line singable.

Meet Claude Goudimel, c. 1520-1572, who produces harmonies of the Psalter for private use in homes of Calvinists. These were supposed to be easy ways of singing harmony around the table, since one couldn’t do it in Church. People usually comment on his rhythmic spiciness, but if you notice his harmonies, they’re similar to Bourgeois except that they never (well, hardly ever) use inverted chords. Goudimel’s bass lines are ridiculously hoppy, because no matter what chord you’re going to, the bass will always have the fundamental. There are a handful of exceptions that I’ve seen—not many at all. Its his preference for root position chords that elicits the complaints from congregants that he’s so “jerky”.

Meet Jean-Philippe Rameau, 1683-1764. Norton’s A History of Western Music states that his great contribution to music theory was “asserting that a chord keeps its identity through all its inversions and that the harmony of a passage is defined by the root progression rather than by the actual lowest note sounding. These concepts, now staples of music theory, were revolutionary at the time.” Rameau does this by introducing the concept of a “fundamental bass” or “root” that is, in its essence, the defining tonal note of the chord.

The question: if these ideas are so revolutionary, then why does Cladue Goudimel, 150 years before Rameau, assiduously seek out the fundamental bass in all his harmonies? How did he make all his chords in root position at the expense of a singable bass line, without even knowing what root position was? How can you be not aware of going against the common practice of your own time in such a noticeable way? And, if he was aware, what was he aware of? Surely not that he was going out of his way to give the bass the fundamental, because the “fundamental” as a concept shouldn’t exist yet. Could he have done this without even knowing what he was doing? Why did he?